(2) Choson Society Opened to Foreign Exiles Out of Diplomatic Concern

By Yang Sung-jin

The presidential inauguration ceremony on Feb. 25 will be conducted with less fanfare, largely due to the current economic crisis. The organizers of the event announced last month that it will not invite any foreign guests, at least officially. Only personal visits and individual attendance are allowed. Yet even the scaled-down ceremony will still be a great photo-op, in which numerous guests of different nationality pose together with the President-elect.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty gives an intriguing clue as to when foreign guests started to attend such a weighty public ceremony.

An article describing the enthronement ceremony of King Sejong (1418-1450) states public officials bowed to the king while “Songgyungwan” (National Confucian Academy) students and a “hoe-hoe” man and “hoe-hoe’ monks attending. “Hoe-hoe” man is today’s Arabian. Thus the passage clearly shows there were a certain number of Arabians even in the earlier Choson period.

The article entries related to foreigners do not stop there. In 1419, Arabians came out to greet and welcome the king on the occasion of the hunting. In 1426, Arabians, Japanese and other foreigners are reported to attend a ceremony celebrating the New Year’s Day.

A document dated in 1427 reveals that the officials made a petition to the king that “hoe-hoe” man should wear Korean clothes while stopping the Islam prayer, a move designed to encourage Arabians to marry Koreans.

“Especially in the earlier period, the Choson Dynasty maintained a generous policy on foreigners. By helping foreigners to settle down here, the Dynasty was able to maintain a better relation with neighboring nations in the East-Asia. As a result, lots of foreigners including Chinese, Japanese and even Arabians used to live here,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Seoul Systems Co. (SSC), the developer of CD-ROM version of the Annals.

One of the assimilation polices was “sa-sung,” a practice in which king endows a new surname to the person as a reward. Even before the Choson Dynasty, getting a surname means the person in question acquires a social status and public recognition. Therefore, the name-giving to foreigners played a positive role in helping the foreigners to settle in Korea.

For instance, today’s surname “Chang,” whose place of origin is Toksu, originated from Chang Sun-ryong, a former Islam, who naturalized as Koryo man by receiving a new surname from King Chungyol (1274-1308).

Despite the generous and positive policies on the assimilation of foreigners into the Choson Dynasty, some people still perceive the Choson period as deeply isolated and hostile toward foreigners.

The perception is not totally untrue, especially for Hendrik Hamel and his company of Dutch sailors, whose ship “Sparrow Hawk” wreck ashore on Cheju Island in 1653 and had lived in the Choson Kingdom for the next 13 years until eight of them escaped to Nagasaki. When Hamel returned to his country, the Netherlands, he wrote a book recounting the Choson Dynasty — the first introduction of the Choson society by a foreigner to the West.

Above facts, however, is relatively well-known history. What’s still unknown is recorded in the Annals in which articles concerning Hamel and his company are sprawling here and there between 1653 and 1667.

The CD-ROM version, however, instantly shows all the related articles. And their life was indeed tough. In April, 1655, Ching China delegate visited Seoul, where the 30 something Dutchmen who survived the shipwreck, were serving in the army. One of them, named “Nambuksan,” pleaded the Chinese diplomat to send him back home, on the street. He was imprisoned and later died because he rejected eating in the prison, which worried the Choson government a lot.

One article related to Hamel mentions another, rather successful Dutchman — Jan Janse Weltevree. He was shipwrecked on Korean shores in 1628, and took the name “Pak Yon.” Unlike Hamel and his company, with his skills of casting cannons, naturalized Pak contributed to the development of cannons in the Military Training Command and lived out his life in Korea, which marks the first successful case of naturalized western foreigner.

Back to the specific article concerning Pak Yon, it must be noted that Pak identified Hamel other Dutchmen as “Nam-man-in” (Southern barbarian man). Pak was also called as such. “Though still uncertain, it is safe to assume that ‘nam-man-in’ here means foreigners. In the Annals, unidentifiable Westerners are believed to be often called as ‘nam-man-in’ because the word frequently appear in the later Choson period when foreigners began to visit Korea by chance or on purpose,” the SSC researcher Lee explained.

And, by chance, five black men arrived at Cheju Island in 1801. Interestingly, the first black people were deserted, on purpose, by a large ship, which disappeared after quickly discharging them on the Korean soil, according to the Annals.

The original Annals, written in Chinese characters, describe the black men as “myon-chae-ku-huk”, meaning that “their entire face and body are black.” Unable to understand their “barbarous” language, the Choson officials asked them to write down anything, which they did. But it was “entangled pieces of thread” for the Annals historiographers, reflecting the time’s widespread notion that only the Chinese are valid characters.

Later, more and more Western explorers visited the Choson Dynasty, which deepened the notion of the Choson people that “man-man-in” is strange, and thereby uncivilized, sort of people, after all. But Lee warned not to generalize the Choson Dynasty as isolationist toward foreigners.

“If you look at especially the earlier period of the Choson Dynasty, you will understand how realistic they were when it comes to dealing with foreigners. They did whatever necessary to defuse the tension along the northern border, one of which was to attract more foreigners to become Choson people. By offering new surname, government jobs, and even servants, the Choson attracted a lot of foreigners in return for military peace around the borders,” Lee said.

In other words, the Annals demonstrate that foreigners were encouraged to join the Choson society. The measure of highly diplomatic calculation resulted in a more racially diverse and generous society.

The most striking evidence of the Choson Dynasty as a racially generous society is Dongchungrae, who was a descendant of the northern tribe outside the Choson territory. According to the Annals’ records of the general of “barbarian” origin, Dongchungrae naturalized and then applied for a state exam to get the post in the military, which he did. Achievement after achievement, Dongchungrae gained confidence from the king.

During the Yonsangun reign (1494-1506), Dongchungrae was promoted to a chief of the royal guard, the highest post ever for a naturalized foreigner in history.

Unfortunately, that was the limit of the Choson Dynasty’s generosity about foreigners. Dongchungrae joined the coup d’etat overthrowing the tyrant Yongsangun, yet was given a lesser reward. Deeply angered, he complained somewhat excessively, which resulted in the treason charges. As a result, he was put to death in 1508.

Even though Dongchungrae case does not have a happy ending, it still does have a point. Even now, it is hard to imagine that a foreigner (naturalized or not) will be appointed as chief of Chong Wa Dae (presidential office) security guards.