Yun Seon-do, Joseon Era Politician, Poet and Man of Refined Taste

2012-04-05

Sitting on the Rock to Behold the Moon

While conducting academic research of scenic places of historic interest, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage has recently discovered a rock that had been buried in the earth on Bogil Island in Wando County, South Jeolla Province.

Measuring 360 centimeters long, 270 centimeters wide and 95 centimeters high, the triangle-shaped rock’s western corner represents the head of a turtle. At the back of the representative head of the turtle, deep lines are cut on each side of the rock’s surface to shape like a turtle shell. It is presumed to be the Turtle Rock that was recorded in two ancient books. It is said that Joseon era poet Yun seon-do enjoyed viewing the moon on this rock. How did Yun Seon-do, a man of refined taste, make the simple discovery of the old rock greatly significant?


Outspoken Retainer of High Integrity

Yun Seon-do was born in 1587 in the noble Yun Clan of Haenam. Yun’s family did not set limits in learning, so he studied a wide range of subjects, including Confucian classics, economics, geography, medical science and music, around the age of ten. Young as he was, he reached a significant level of learning and cultivated profound insight.

Yun seemed to be walking on a smooth path to the government office as he passed the first civil examination at the age of 17. While he was studying at the educational institution Sungkyunkwan in 1616, King Gwanghaegun was in trouble as disloyal subjects and the brother of the queen abused their power. So Yun wrote a petition to the king, indicating that the treacherous subjects should be held accountable for their wrongdoings so the nation in crisis could be saved.

The 30-year-old scholar’s written petition was filled with fierce loyalty, but he was oppressed by those in power and was banished to local provinces. In 1623, he was set free as Gwanghaegun was ousted by King Injo.

The new king highly valued Yun and appointed the man of great learning and integrity as the royal tutor to two princes in 1628. Yun served in the post for five years. In 1632, at the age of 47, Yun had the honor of winning first place in the civil service examination.

Afterwards, he worked as a governor in Seongsan town in Gyeongsang Province. But he left the post before long and led a quiet life in a remote village. When the Qing Dynasty of China invaded Joseon in 1636, Yun led a group of volunteer soldiers and farmers and rushed to Ganghwa Island, where the two princes sheltered themselves.

On his way to Ganghwa, however, Yun heard the tragic news that King Injo, who had taken refuge at Namhan Fortress, suffered a humiliating surrender at Samjeondo on the southern bank of the Han River. Yun changed his course and headed toward Jeju Island in order to shut himself out from the tumultuous world. But his boat was met by a violent storm and he happened to drop by Bogil Island. There, he stayed for a long time.


Finding Hope in Secluded Life

Yun was 51 years old when he first set foot on the beautiful Bogil Island. That was a turning point in his life.

Through the beautiful nature of the island, Yun was able to look back on his life and heal the scars of his stormy past. There, he wrote literary masterpieces that will remain forever in the history of Korean literature, such as ‘Songs of Five Friends,’ referring to water, stone, pine tree, bamboo tree and the moon, and ‘Fishermen in Four Seasons,’ which is a marvelous description of fishermen living in nature. These pieces were, no doubt, the splendid flower of poetic literature that would have been impossible if the erudite scholar had not encountered the dazzling scenery of Bogil Island.

Yun was well-versed in geomancy, and he set up his house, Nakseojae(낙서재), under the island’s main peak to make a friend of nature and lose himself in the joy of reading.

Yet, Yun’s uprightness never waned and he wrote petitions to the king whenever the nation seemed to be going in the wrong direction. He lived in exile in Youngdeok in Gyeongsang Province for one year when he was in his 50s, and he was in exile in different places for six years in his 70s. He was 81 years old when he was finally released after 14 years of banishment.

After his long exile, Yun returned to Bogil Island and devoted himself to writing poems before he died in 1671. He was 85. He lived through the turbulent times riddled with power struggles. But he never lost his lofty spirit, like a huge mountain that stands high alone but embraces the whole nature, as his penname ‘Gosan,’ meaning ‘lonely mountain’ indicates. Yun had the genuine taste for the arts, becoming one with nature.

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