(24) Sungkyunkwan Students Strike

By Yang Sung-jin

Korea’s two leading labor groups said last Friday they would jointly stage a nationwide strike this week to protest mass layoffs under the government’s plans to restructure the bruised economy.
Demonstrating on the streets in the face of opposition from riot police is not a pleasant experience. Nevertheless, it is a tempting option because, if well executed, demonstrations can grab the public attention fairly quickly.

The students of Sungkyunkwan (National Confucian Academy), the highest educational institution in the Choson Dynasty, were also well aware of the enormous power of protests.

These elite students, preparing for the state examination to become government officials, had their own governing body called “chae-hoe,” which provided the venue for discussions of internal and external affairs.

The chae-hoe wielded strong authority. All the students enrolled at the school were required to attend their meetings and violators were subject to harsh punishments.

When an external issue concerning Sungkyunkwan arose, they generally held an emergency meeting to come up with a countermeasure. Generally, there were two options. The first was “yuso,” formal appeal by students calling for the king to address the issue. The second was “kwondang,” a strike by all students.

When the first option was selected, Sungkyunkwan students chose a leader to appear before the king and file the yuso, which was typically aimed at the irregularities and mismanagement of the government. The document contained the students’ arguments and an expression of their refusal to cave in to the threat of authorities.

In the event that the yuso did not work, students opted for a kwondang, filing out of their dormitory en masse after bowing four times in front of the shrine of Confucius in the compound of the school.
Fearing that the highly sacred symbol of the ruling Confucian ideology would be left unprotected, officials working for Sungkyunkwan entered the school compound to guard the shrine until the turmoil was over.

But persuading the disgruntled students to stop their embarrassing demonstration was nowhere near as easy. First, school officials called the students to come back to the school compound. Then, the students who answered the call were welcomed by the school officials who delivered the king’s message — usually a conciliatory, gentle persuasion.

If that measure failed, government officials were dispatched to break the deadlock, carrying the revised version of the king’s message.

King vs. Students

The king was supposed to make some concessions to the student’s demands in an effort to normalize the school system and preserve the shrine of Confucius.

However, a question remains: Why did the almighty Choson kings give in to protesting, yet powerless students?

In 1611, King Kwanghaegun disqualified a Sungkyunkwan student named Lee Suk-yong from applying for future state examinations as he had become embroiled in a scandal. This highly-publicized incident immediately sparked a controversy among students and government officials, resulting in numerous appeals and counter-appeals, not to mention the dreaded kwondang.

Most of the appeals directed to the king called for the restoration of Lee’s right to take the state exam. Yet the king stood firm in his convictions, showing no sign of a willingness to forgive the offending student.

According to the Annals of the Choson Dynasty, the Office of the Censor-General issued an appeal urging the king to sympathize with the striking students: “The king should embrace the students with a generous heart. Only then will the morale of the students and scholars be restored along with the free flow of public opinion. Concessions by the king are in order because the future fate of the nation hinges on the morale of the students.”

In 1649, another kwondang incident took place. This time, an official named Yu Chik made remarks downplaying the importance of the shrine of Confucius, prompting Sungkyunkwan students to organize a rally to publicly criticize the official.

Worse, King Hyojong delivered a message aimed at admonishing the students’ reckless act, pushing them to resort to the kwondang.

Hearing that Sungkyunkwan had been abandoned, the king regretted his mistake and changed his tone, sending a messenger in hopes of winning back the favor of the prickly students.

The king’s efforts paid off and the students returned. The peace, however, did not last long. A student named Park Sae-chae filed an appeal with the king explaining the students’ stance and urging the monarch to make a clear statement of his position on the incident.

Unfortunately, Park inserted in his appeal an misguided passage that read: “Punishing and forgiving the person who slandered the wise is up to the scholars without office, not the government officials or the royal court.”

The phrase, “not the government officials or the royal court,” hurt the pride of the king badly, worsening the overall situation beyond Park’s ability to repair it. The king took the highly unusual step of returning the appeal without replying, a strategy designed to criticize Park’s imprudent remarks.

Chicken Game

In response to the king’s anger, the students staged another strike, storming out of the school compound. As expected, the strike deeply infuriated the king.

“Due to my error in judgment, the students have left Sungkyunkwan again. In the beginning, I realized my own mistake, and conceded to the demands of the students, asking them to return. But this time, they have tried to test me, which is absurd by any standard,” King Hyojong said sternly.

A high-ranking official named Cho Ik countered, “The students are neither to be ordered nor to be threatened. If Your Majesty showsgenerosity, the students will eventually give up their strike.”’

Lee Hu-won, a Sungkyunkwan teacher, supported Cho’s argument by adding “It has long been felt that the king should recognize the importance of student morale. The wrongdoing of the students is like the behavior of unruly children and, as a generous parent, the king should teach them not to repeat this misbehavior.”

The king replied, “The use of the kwondang by Sungkyunkwan students has a long history. But no kwondang was as ungrateful and inconsistent as this one. Although I appreciate the old customs, I cannot but stand my ground firmly in the face of such disorder.”

As there was no sign of improvement, Sungkyunkwan student Lee Paek-rin filed another appeal with the king, explaining Park Sae-chae’s mistake.

“Park is young and therefore inexperienced at writing in accordance with proper style and due courtesy. That is why his writing lacks reasonable logic, even though he had no intention of making such a grave mistake,” Lee said.

Lee further stated that the students had proceeded with their walkout only because they realized they had done an irreversible affront to the king.

“But Your Majesty did not forgive our wrongdoing at all, even calling us sinners outright, which utterly disheartened us. What we hope now is that Your Majesty will relent and show generosity toward us,” Lee said.

King Hyojong finally accepted the request from Lee, wrapping up this tedious series of battles with students.