“The truth about our palaces” (JoongAng Daily August 1, 2016)

JoongAng Daily

“The truth about our palaces”

August 1, 2016


Emanuel Pastreich


It was the fifth time I had overheard the same conversation from Chinese tourists visiting Gyeongbok Palace. One of the group remarked in a dismissive tone that Korean palaces are so small and simple compared with the impressive edifices that dominate the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Korean friends have confessed to me that they are a bit ashamed when they hear such remarks from Chinese visitors. But I have never felt there was anything to be ashamed about in the planning of the ancient city of Hanyang (Seoul). One of the greatest strengths of Korean democracy can be traced back to the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty and that was the clear limits on the power of the king that stood in notable contrast to the unlimited power of the emperor in China. The palaces, first Gyeongbok and then Changdeok, were designed to give the impression of dignity, but not to overwhelm the observer, or to suggest that the king had super-human status. In contrast, the massive Forbidden City, which by its very name implies it is off limits, Korean palaces are not much larger than the homes of the scholar officials on the northern side of the city (Bukchon) and the houses of the scholar officials are not much bigger than the homes of commoners.

One need only to think of Versailles in France to know that extremes of political power and its manifestation in the physical environment in the West as well. When I show photographs of Seoul from around 1900 to my students, they express embarrassment, feeling somehow that Korea was not as developed as Paris with its townhouses and broad boulevards during that period. I must disagree. If you know about the insensitivity toward local communities behind Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris in the 1860s, it is hard to see modern Paris as an unqualified improvement. The simplicity of Royal palaces in Seoul represents the best of the Confucian tradition in Korea. The royal family and higher officials in Korea, were more transparent, more accountable to citizens and otherwise more human in formal representation to the public.

The difference between Seoul and Beijing can be traced to the end of the 14th century when both countries had strong rulers who tried to established authority in the chaos after the fall of the Mongol Empire. In China, Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) ruled with a heavy hand and used extreme measures to impose an absolute distance between the ruler and the citizens. The secret police and top-heavy bureaucracy that he put in place would remain a tremendous burden to China through the end of the imperial period and his actions twisted the

Confucian tradition, making the emperor a godlike figure who was used to justify a massive bureaucracy.

By contrast, King Sejong of Korea (1397-1450) made accountability to citizens the center of his vision for governance and he imagined the king to be the humble servant of the realm. He encouraged the promotion of capable intellectuals in government without regard to social status. Most important, he made the welfare of commoners the highest priority for the government and to put into place a complex system with built-in checks and balances that allowed the Joseon Dynasty to survive for more than 500 years with relative transparency.

Chinese tourists who remark that the palaces in Seoul are small are completely unaware of how the more human scale of Joseon architecture represents the most human and democratic aspects of the Korean cultural tradition. None of them know the tremendous contrast between Emperor Yongle and King Sejong, two contemporaries who established the institutional culture for the early modern period.

We cannot blame Chinese for their ignorance. Koreans have done little to introduce the best of traditional Korean philosophy, governance, art and literature to the Chinese. When I read the description of King Sejong in the Baidu encyclopedia, I’ve noticed many of King Sejong’s reforms are left out and his contributions are understated.

It’s even more serious for the Baidu entry for Dasan Jeong Yakyong, the great scholar of the 18th century. Dasan’s intellectual contributions are introduced very briefly. Koreans have made little effort to introduce this intellectual who is a rival of Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi in terms of his contributions.

The battle to establish Korea’s cultural and political position in East Asia in the future will be difficult. The decisive factor, however, will not be how many Korean smartphones are sold or how many Korean boy bands are popular in China. Rather the determining factor for Korea’s influence will be the degree to which Korea’s traditions of transparency and accountability in governance are presented to the world as universal models.

The critical issue for Korea going forward will be the introduction of Korean Confucian tradition of transparency and good governance to the world, and especially to China. To speak to the Chinese about the Korean struggle for democratic government in the 1980s is important, but the most impressive part of Korea is its long tradition of accountability and clear limits on royal authority. We can find in the contributions of Korea’s Confucian to good governance in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries a model for Korea’s future, and perhaps even for China’s future as well. Korea is perhaps the only country in the world that can hope to influence China at that level.

3 responses to ““The truth about our palaces” (JoongAng Daily August 1, 2016)

  1. Craig August 3, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I’m not convinced we don’t have a nasty choice here; arguing that this house is on fire slightly less than that house is not an enviable position.

    Elitist Confucian governance was never something we should, as a species, have celebrated, in any of its forms.

  2. Emanuel Pastreich August 4, 2016 at 1:45 am

    Comment received by email from Fan Xiao: ”
    Dear Prof. Pastreich,

    As a native of Beijing and an ardent lover of the Forbidden Palace, I read your opinion piece titled “The truth about our palaces” published by Joongang Ilbo with great interest. I do agree with what you said about the striking differences between the Korean palaces such as Gyongbuk and Changdeok etc. and the Forbidden City in Beijing in terms of posture and the overall impression they leave on people. One observation of mine is that Korean palaces are more intimate and cozier with trees, gardens and ponds filling up large portions of the palaces, they struck me as more exquisite and refined in details compared to the Forbidden Palace. However, I am not sure whether I can agree with your assertion that Korean kings (of the Joseon dynasty in particular) and their higher officials were more democratic, to quote your words “more transparent, more accountable to citizens and otherwise more human in formal representation to the public”.

    You cited Emperor Yongle and King Sejong as two contrasting examples to prove your case, but honestly, everyone knows King Sejong was arguably the most benevolent king of the Joseon dynasty, but exactly how representative was he? King Taejong before him, King Sejo, King Seonjo etc. after him were not exactly that benevolent, “democratic”, “accountable” kings, were they (not to mention the likes of deposed kings such as Yeonsangun and Gwanghaegun)? Can you really paint Korean history under Joseon dynasty in broad strokes by citing King Sejong as a proof to what you claimed “good governance in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries” in Korea? The Yangban system and the strict class-based system in Joseon Korea which struck me as something almost similar to India’s caste system pointed us to a different Korea, I am afraid, one that was far from being “democratic”, “transparent” and “accountable” to its people, one that was not much better than Ming China.

    With regard to references of Korean historical figures such as King Sejong and Dasan Jeong Yak-yong, they actually get very decent coverage on the Chinese internet. I don’t know which Baidu page you stumbled upon, for example King Sejong’s page in Chinese is quite extensive and covers a lot of his achievements from various areas (
    http://baike.baidu.com/subview/282778/19867117.htm?fromtitle=%E4%B8%96%E5%AE%97%E5%A4%A7%E7%8E%8B&fromid=1682482&type=syn). It is much more impressive than the English page of Wikipedia on Sejong (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejong_the_Great). You might find this helpful, by the way, on Jeong Ya-yong (http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E4%B8%81%E8%8B%A5%E9%95%9B).

    China can sure learn a lot from South Korea and I do agree that South Korea can offer something that might shape China’s future and the world’s future. But I don’t think glorifying Joseon Korea is the way to do it.

    Thanks for your time, professor Pastreich.


    Fan Xiao”

  3. Emanuel Pastreich August 4, 2016 at 2:04 am

    I cannot respond to these comments in depth now, but I would suggest first that there are some limits to any comparisons of such a sweeping nature, but that I feel that it is meaningful to say that Korea in the Joseon was more transparent and that the power of the king was more limited than was the case in the Ming and Qing and that there is an impressive history of transparency and accountability in Korea that in my estimation is worthy of note. Note the function of the Chunchugwan (Hall of History) 春秋馆 But of course there were many corrupt officials and back rulers in Joseon as well and there were noble scholar officials in the late Ming who fought bravely for a more transparent government。 Personally, I was inspired by the members of the Donglin 东林 Academy as a student.

    I think that I could put a paper that agued that Joseon was overall more transparent in its politics and their was more accountability for high officials than was the case in the Ming and Qing, but that would ultimately be a subjective call. Joseon did not have the complex secret police and extra-legal bureaucracy surrounding the emperor that existed in China and that made a difference. I personally think the Yongle Emperor was responsible for that development, but we can argue about this point.

    I think that the debate on Korea and China’s past is healthy and I welcome more discussion about the actual institutions of Korea and China in the pre-modern period. I will learn much from that debate.

    Regarding the use of the word “democracy” I admit that this is an ambiguous term.

    But for the Western nations like the United States who treated native Americans like animals and imported Africans to work as slaves with no rights as part of the most brutal system of labor ever invented, we have nothing to say about the system in Korea in China in which, at least at the start, a wide range of people educated in ethics could enter government and exercise real political power based on the exams. The United States was treating a large number of its citizens as second class citizens through the 1960s and in fact this continues to be the case. So as in ancient Greece, there is no “democracy” for those who do not own land and have social status.

    Compared with the American, or the European system, in which great wealth was created by invading other nations and stealing their resources from the 16th to 20th centuries, China of the Ming and Qing, or Korea of the Joseon was a democratic paradise of accountability and transparency.

    And what about the United States today? Is it a democracy as compared with Korea or China? That is of course another article.

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