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.