Becoming a Target of Censorship
On October 19, 1792 King Jeongjo issued a strict import ban on Chinese fiction and carried out extensive censorship of the writings of Joseon scholars. The king had initiated a movement to rectify the depraved style of writing adopted by some intellects and resurrect the classical literary style. In the process King Jeongjo singled out Park Ji-won’s Yeolha-ilgi, a travelogue written during Park’s visit to Beijing in 1780, as the culprit of Joseon’s literary degradation. Who was Park Ji-won and what made his travel journal so revolutionary for his time?
Triggering a Society-wide Syndrome
Park was born into a noble family in Hanyang (present day Seoul) on February 5, 1737 (13th year of King Yeongjo’s reign). But his father passed away when he was young and he was raised by his grandfather. He started his education in earnest only after his marriage at the age of 16. From that point his academic progress was quite remarkable and at 30 he befriended pragmatic scholar Hong Dae-yong, who introduced him to the studies of the west.
Perhaps it was his belated induction into writing that freed him from the rigid and pretentious writing style of the day. His Yangban-jeon (The Story of Noblemen) introduced an impoverished scholar who neglects his family in his quest for scholarship and a merchant who buys an aristocratic pedigree with his money, but returns to his original social status after growing disillusioned about the aristocrats’ hypocrisy. The story contained sharp criticism and satire aimed at society.
Park’s unfettered and original writing style and scathing denouncement of the ruling class sparked controversy while creating a huge following of admirers. Esteemed scholars of the time – Lee Deok-mu, Park Je-ga, Yu Deuk-gong, and Lee Seo-gu – were Park’s students, who called for change among the intellectuals in the late 18th century. Known as “bukhak-pa (the sect of northern studies),” they urged Joseon to learn about and embrace the culture of the Qing Dynasty founded by the formerly barbaric Manchu clan.
Writing Yeolha-ilgi to Champion Pragmatism
Having experienced two Chinese invasions in 1627 and 1636, most of the Joseon officials and intellectuals at the time wanted to strike back at the Qing Dynasty to avenge the humiliation of King Injo kowtowing to the Chinese general three times. But Park Ji-won, who accompanied his cousin to China in June 1780 to attend the Chinese emperor’s birthday celebration, saw a whole different world during his five-month tour of China. Long despised as barbarians, the Manchurian-built Qing Dynasty was actually the early adopter of new technologies and cultures. Yeolha-ilgi was comprised of detailed records of Park’s travel and impressions of Chinese culture. He urged that Joseon should learn from China’s advanced technology and distribution system to become a stronger and more prosperous nation.
Dashed Hope, but Long Legacy
Espousing “silhak (practical sciences),” Park put his belief into action. While serving as government official from 1786 to 1801, he assisted the needy and manufactured water mills, looms, and other equipment to better people’s lives. But his passionate yearning for a better Joseon was blamed for instigating social discontent that ran counter to “seongni-hak (metaphysical studies)” popular at the time, and his call for change was finally stifled by King Jeongjo’s censorship mandate. Park passed away in 1805 but his legacy lives on, as his insight and vision grow more pertinent and valued with the passage of time. His major works – Hojil, Heosaeng-jeon (The Story of Heo Saeng), and Yeolha-ilgi – always featured thinkers who aspired to see beyond the prejudice and boundaries imposed by society, which appeals even to today’s readers who pursue post-modernism and globalization. The 18th century is called the Renaissance of Joseon, because it had far-seeing thinkers like Park Ji-won, who endeavored passionately to usher in a new future for the country.