A Fool Reading Books
Whenever I put my hand on the doorknob of this room, I feel my heart pounding.
Upon entering the room, it feels like the books arranged neatly on the shelf were all turning their eyes to me.
It gives me the thrill to imagine a person’s mind in the book encounters mine.
It feels like the moldy pages of the old books were waiting for my touch.
At times, they console my gloomy feelings with the songs of people in old times,
At times, they get me excited with the sound of waves of an unknown island country.
The above passage, describing the joy of reading books, shows how much the writer loved books. When he found a new book, a smile lingered on his face all day. He would often stay in his room all day to read books alone, grinning, groaning or screaming. He called himself ‘a fool who is mad about books.’ His name is Lee Deok-mu, a scholar of practical learning in the Joseon period. Why did he devote so much effort to reading books?
Chained to the Rigid Caste System
Lee Deok-mu was born in Seoul in 1741 as the tenth-generation descendant of Prince Murim(무림), who was the child of a concubine of King Jeongjong(정종), the second monarch of the Joseon Dynasty. Although he was born in a noble family, he was chained to social restrictions all his life.
That is because he was a concubine’s child who was born to an aristocrat father and a commoner mother. It was inevitable that such children were born in Joseon society where noblemen were allowed to keep concubines. But concubines’ children were prohibited from taking high-ranking government posts during the Joseon era. Unsurprisingly, their social activities were restricted.
Lee was a gifted child, as he was able to master Chinese characters even before he finished reading the first volume of a Chinese history book, which his father told him to read when he was only six years old. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to seek a government post because he was a half-aristocrat by blood. He couldn’t live as a farmer or a merchant, either. As a result, he lived in such a poor environment that starving was considered more natural than eating.
Developing ‘Northern Learning’
In the face of the restrictions, Lee read tens of thousands of books and wrote a collection of poems with other scholars, such as Park Je-ga(박제가), Yu Deuk-gong(유득공) and Lee Seo-gu(이서구), to win literary fame. He was only 20 years old at the time. In 1766, he joined the White Tower Poet Coterie, a literary society of concubines’ children. There, he was deeply influenced by scholars of the so-called Northern Learning, including Park Ji-won(박지원), Hong Dae-yong(홍대용) and Park Je-ga(박제가). The school of Northern Learning advocated a social reform, with an emphasis placed on practical learning.
In 1778, Lee was dispatched to the Qing Dynasty of China as the temporary recording secretary of Joseon’s diplomatic delegation. He brought home the detailed records of China’s royal palace, mountains, streams, towers, plants, trees, birds and animals to contribute to giving better insight into China.
In Beijing, he interacted with renowned Chinese poets and scholars, such as Li Tiao-Yuan and Pan Tingjun, and brought home the books about documental archaeology to help develop the theory of Northern Learning.
Going out into the World in the Era of Practical Learning
It was 1779 when Lee finally entered government service. King Youngjo strived to abolish discrimination against concubines’ children, as his mother was a slave engaging in odd chores in the court. Influenced by the king, his grandson King Jeongjo showed great interest in the issue of concubines’ children. He officially permitted them to assume government posts in 1779. The king selected some scholars whose mothers were concubines as the officials of the royal library known as Gyujanggak(규장각), which served as the cradle of a political reform. The scholars, including Lee, were entrusted with a mission to proofread books and conduct scholarly research.
It was an ideal job for Lee, who was fond of books. He put his heart and soul into arranging books stacked in the library and writing new books. He also participated in the project of compiling various books, including , and .
Lee took the lead in developing practical learning and won first place in the royal library’s poetry competition several times. King Jeongjo deeply trusted him, and Lee served in various public posts before he died of disease in 1793.
Even after his death, the king highly valued Lee’s erudition. The king granted his private money to publish a collection of literary works entitled (아정유고) at the royal library in 1796. Although Lee was born as a child of a concubine, he had never kept away from books, not even for a single day, since the day he learned how to read and write. He built extensive knowledge in various areas, ranging from history and geography to the ecology of plants and trees, and was also held in great respect by the king. Lee truly illustrated how intellectuals should live.