JUNE 1, 2014
“Promoting the Seonbi Spirit”
INTERVIEW WITH EMANUEL PASTREICH OF THE ASIA INSTITUTE
There is a tremendous tradition in Korea of the intellectual as an organic and responsible part of society, a tradition that produced many great scholars who were willing to sacrifice themselves in the interest ofcountry and to make their learning into something for everyone,” explains Emanuel Pastreich.
This is the seonbi spirit, he says. Pastreich is well versed in the subject, given that he is an expert on comparative Asian studies, is a professor at Kyung Hee University’s College of International Studies and serves as a director at the pan- Asian think tank, the Asia Institute. As he explains, “Whether Yi Sun-sin and the armies of righteousness that rose up when the king had fled after the Hideyoshi invasions, or Dasan Jeong Yak-yong and his attempts at agrarian reform under King Jeongjo, Korea has a remarkable tradition of intellectuals dedicated to political causes.” It is for this reason, he says, that Korea is so democratic.
According to Pastreich, the spirit of the seonbi is multifaceted. It is primarily embodied by a commitment to learning, but specifically to learning as an ethical pursuit. It is also a commitment to society, acting with a strong sense of the important role the intellectual needs to play in society. This comes in addition to the sense of moral commitment to family, region and nation, as well as a devotion to trying to inspire and transform people through literature, through painting, through teaching and, above all, through behavior.
Transformation through Education
The seonbi spirit has played both a general and a more specific role in the development of Korean education, says Pastreich. Broadly, the emphasis on education as a pillar of society came out of the seonbi educational tradition. More specifically, Korea’s post-war governments made a conscious decision to, “educate everyone and assume that education would be the best way to raise Korea.” This, he says, can be traced back to the time of King Jeongjo. “I think part of the idea came from the reforms attempted by Jeong Yak-yong under King Jeongjo,” he explains. “There was already a concept that education could be generally applied and could transform society.”
Seonbi as a National Symbol
According to Pastreich, the seonbi has the potential to also serve as a symbol of Korea beyond its borders. In the 19th century, Japan did something similar. It set out to create a samurai image for Japan, which proceeded to spread internationally into the realm of cultural mythology. “Japan was ruled by these loyal, brave samurai who upheld the samurai code and would commit seppuku in a moment if they lost face,” he says. “The Samurai were mysterious and awe inspiring. I think it was 70 percent myth, but it worked.” While Korea lacks a similar international image, the seonbi could do quite nicely. “If we could create a seonbi image,” he says, “the awesome image of the intellectual with a deep sense of moral responsibility who is fighting for justice, that could be big all around the world, especially in an age in which such intellectuals are hard to find.”
So far, there’s been little agreement about turning the seonbi into Korea’s international symbol, but there are still things that can be done to generate a wider consensus. “The first step is to make what is great about the seonbi spirit accessible to youth, to women, to foreigners,” he says. “Or you can translate the works of the great scholars like Yi Hwang or Jeong Yak-yong in such a manner that high school students can understand what they say and relate it to their daily lives.”
By Robert Koehler | Korea Magazine