(18) Choson Officials Led Exemplary Frugal Lives

By Yang Sung-jin

With election smear tactics rampant and voters more indifferent than ever, the June 4 local elections will be, as usual, a muddy playground for the political hopefuls. It is hardly surprising that most of the candidates lack the statesmanship required for the post. Remarkable, though, is the fact that they have no qualms about jumping into electioneering with their less than lily white pasts tainted by all manner of dishonest doings.

Finding politicians both highly-motivated and clean-handed has always been difficult. Yet, if even one worthy statesmen is found in the especially cloudy contemporary Korean political environment, it will be regarded as a miracle of inspirational proportions.

Such inspiration can be alternately drawn from the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty. There are a number of officials classified as “chongbaekri” (clean-handed government officials) in the Annals and their family backgrounds and much personal information is detailed therein.

Even in the Choson era, the government selected and rewarded officials who led a life of frugality and integrity in a bid to set an example for other government officials.

The first chongbaekris are said to have lived during the reign of King Taejong, the second monarch of the Choson Dynasty. Yet, there is no official record of them in the Annals, which has led to speculation that the historians did not see much need to record their existence at that time.

It was around the early 16th century that the chongbaekri system first gained the attention of historiographers. King Chungjong (1506-1544) ascended to the throne by expelling his notorious predecessor, King Yonsangun, by force.

Law and order in the nation had been deplorably shattered under the tyrant King Yonsangun, with corrupt politicians bullying the powerless citizenry.

King Chungjong considered recruiting the descendants of the chongbaekri, in order to tighten discipline and curb corruptive bribes-for-favor practices.

In 1515, Minister of Rites Kim Chon and six others were chosen as chongbaekri, and the king awarded them silk and cotton, marking the first historical record of the existence of the system.

Incorruptible Officials

Included in a 1515 list of the members of the chongbaekri is Song Hum, who was reputed to have led a life of frugality during his lifelong career as a civil servant.

Song Hum passed the state examination in 1492, thereby facilitating his entrance into the administration. Wherever he worked, Song showed great ability in dealing with a variety of pressing issues in the community, which resulted in promotion after promotion.

With reference to Song’s integrity, a Cholla-do governor once commented, “When Song was assigned to rule the city of Naju, he cut the taxes, spared the guilty from punishment and led an exemplary life of frugality, all of which are still remembered by the villagers.”

Even at a young age, Song enjoyed a reputation as a prominent statesman, leading Yu Ja-kwang, one of the most powerful politicians of the day, to attempt to make Song his subordinate by offering him a government post, but to no avail. Song persistently avoided Yu, and declined any association with him.

Song is also one of the few politicians who served the nation as a minister and then managed to live in the countryside peacefully after retiring from office, without ever getting involved with any messy power struggles.

Though not formally titled a chongbaekri, Kwon Jin, a high-ranking official during the reign of King Sejong, set an example to others as the quintessential civil servant. A brief biography of Kwon, dated in 1435 says, “When Kwon was assigned to work temporarily in Cheju Island, all the people he met offered local produce as gifts. Kwon took the gifts first and then left all of them in the public office when he finished his mission, which earned him great admiration among the people.”

Another biography in the Annals reveals how frugal these chongbaekris were. Kim Chong-sun, an official during the reign of King Songjong, served in a number of different government posts, many of which were high and influential. When Kim was the governor of Kyonggi-do, the king visited the area. Suddenly, King Songjong had his aids check what was stored in the governor’s office. What the aids found was a tiny quantity of rice and beans.

“Because Kim Chong-sun is so clean-handed, he may die of starvation,” said the king, praising the frugal lifestyle Kim maintained in spite of his high stature.

Deadly Frugality

Official Kim Yon-su, another chongbaekri, apparently also caught the attention of the historiographers of the Annals. When Kim was heading toward Changhung one night, a local administrator offered him food and drink, both of which were returned the next day. The Annals laments that Kim died without gaining the public recognition he deserved.

According to an article dated 1674, officials Cho Sok and Yu Kyong-chang were very frugal as well _ too frugal, perhaps. High-ranking official Song Si-yol once appealed to the king, “Cho Sok was a chongbaekri and he did not care about his own household. Now, after his death, his family is said to live in severe poverty. Also, Yu Kyong-chang’s descendents are now wandering around, enduring cold and starvation after his death.”

Being designated as chongbaekri was the highest honor available to the individual and to his family. Yet, some officials thought the principles for which the award was given were beyond them and flatly rejected it.

For instance, when official Cho Sa-su was nominated as chongbaekri, he immediately asked for his name to be removed from the honorable list.

“I’ve never asked anything from anybody but when they gave me gifts, I accepted them, which clearly proves that I am not a chongbaekri. I am just satisfied with the fact that my past wrongdoings have been forgiven. But if I receive this award, which is reserved for respectable figures, it will be a great sin to deceive the heavens. Please remove my name from the list,” Cho implored.

The king said, “You are nominated because everybody in the court knows what you have done so far. So, don’t refuse the award.” Though the chongbaekri system was perceived as a key to maintaining the order of the Choson bureaucracy, the specifics of the nomination process were inconsistent and debatable. As time went on, the function of chongbaekri system became increasingly distorted and it turned into a mere tool to recruit the descendants of respectable figures.

In contrast, the rules and regulations which governed corrupt officials at the time are clearly delineated in major legal texts of the Choson.

Those who were found guilty of taking bribes or committing other unlawful acts while in office were harshly punished. Furthermore, their descendants were subject to disqualification from holding any public office.

Moreover, the compilers of the Annals of the Choson Dynasty never hesitated to criticize officials who amassed their wealth through illegal means while in office. Minister Yu Sun is a case in point. When he was appointed to a high-ranking ministerial post, the historians of the Annals stated, “Yu Sun is good at writing and his strong prudence ensures his success, yet, because of his vulgar and greedy character, he has stashed away a lot of wealth and openly demanded bribes.”

Cho Mal-saeng, a high-flying official who managed to land every important post in the government at one time or another, on the other hand, lost his chance to become a minister because of his involvement with a petty bribes-for-favors scandal. The Annals record one official’s response that, “Although Cho was favored by King Taejong because of his high spirit and virtuous personality, he failed to become a minister because he made a minor mistake in his career.”

Small wonder that today’s voters are largely indifferent to local election campaigns launched by candidates whose mistakes are neither small nor rare, and whose standards of behavior are far removed from those to which the chongbaekri were held.