By Yang Sung-jin
On Wednesday, the Earth will pass through the Leonid meteor storm, a trail left following the messy passage earlier this year of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The most intense meteor shower in 33 years is now expected to create a rare celestial spectacle as countless shooting stars cross the eastern sky of Korea.
As usual, the local media is demonstrating what hype can do with its conventional hoopla and fanfare. That is understandable. People, for their part, are likely to leave the mysteries of space and its stars as mysteries.
Imagine, then. how the ancients would have reacted to such a once-in-a-blue-moon celestial extravaganza?
In “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” the documents referring to meteors are almost countless. Thousands of articles describe the appearance of meteors or something similar in the night skies with incredible accuracy and meticulous observation. And there was enough reason for that.
The article which first appears in the Annals regarding meteors is one dating to Oct. 24, 1393: “A meteor was spotted flying to the west at a high speed.” Simple as it is, the article shows a typical style employed for recording the spotting of meteors and other heavenly objects by court officials.
In an article dated July 30, 1436, the historiographer of the Annals states, “As the sun sets and dusk spreads, a shining meteor as big as a water jar whose tail was as long as a hemp cloth, formed in the sky and headed northward. Soon afterwards, the sound of lightning was heard and the meteor disappeared as if it were no more than a faint cloud.”
The unusually detailed descriptions, in a way, reflect how much attention these heavenly vagabonds received from the Choson kings and officials, many of whom saw them as uninvited guests.
In May 10, 1456, “Sowunkwan,” a government agency specializing in astrological observation, reported a meteor in the southern sky during the daytime. Its shape was like a fist and its tail was longer than usual. A Sowunkwan official said, “According to the ‘Kaewonjom’ (a 120-volume astrology book of the Tang China period), a meteor showing up during the day signals an impending drought.”
Meteors: Uninvited Guests
The negative response meteors elicited from Choson people is well illustrated in an article from 1533: “In the evening, a meteor came from of the North pole and disappeared further north. It was like a torchlight. Another one turned up in the western sky looking like a red bottle. At the time, the heavenly disorder reached its peak.”
The article also goes on to state, “One day, at a house of Suh Song-jong, one of the relatives of the royal family, a female servant gave birth to triplets. However, all the three male babies had human bodies but dog heads, obviously causing not a little concern. The incident clearly shows that yin and yang ki (cosmic energy) do not harmonize as evidenced in the heavenly disorder.”
Of course, the view that meteors would herald disasters is groundless to us well-versed in scientifically-based astronomy. But Choson people thought that meteors as well as other heavenly phenomena were heaven-sent messages aimed at drawing attention to the wrongdoing of kings and officials.
The close relationship between meteors, kings and politics, resulted in strict regulations regarding the observation of meteors by court officials.
In 1406, a dragon-like blue-colored meteor was spotted at night. The problem was that Wui Sa-ok, who was on duty at the time, missed the appearance of the meteor. For negligence of duty, Wui was slapped 60 times with a cudgel and sacked immediately, though not before the flagellation, of course.
On June 3 of 1431, high-ranking official Kim Chong-soh reported to King Sejong: “Sowunkwan is only observing the weather and neglecting the observation of meteors. They should be punished with 60 cudgels.”
Granting Kim’s appeal, the king said, “Sowunkwan has to monitor the changes in the heavens closely. But they are likely to report only the things the public are familiar with, omitting things unknown.”
The Minister of Rites Shin Sang said, “In China, there is a state-run agency called `Naesachon’ under the direct supervision of the emperor. Therefore, officials in charge take great care in reporting the heavenly interactions. We need such an office, as well.”
King Sejong, however, did not adopt Shin’s proposal, saying that amendments to the law were difficult to implement in practice.
In an article dated 1490, officials Kim Ung-ki and Cho Ji-suh mention meteors with unidentifiable orbits. King Songjong said, “In my view, there is no night sky without meteors. In order to know whether a meteor brings good or bad, close observation of its shape and color is necessary.”
Official Shin Chong-ho said to the king, “Kings should be reflective and rethink their acts when the slightest change in heavenly phenomena occurs.”
What official Shin stated mirrors the widely accepted notion in Choson that kings should pay attention to meteors in order to detect the signs of heaven.
On Aug. 7, 1532, two meteors were spotted. The historiographer of the Annals observed, “Even though ordinary people noticed the meteors, it was not reported due to the negligence of the officials in charge. But they remain unpunished, which will spur another spate of mishaps in the court stemming from a lack of vigilance.”
Meanwhile, court officials often seized on the appearance of meteors as a pretext to point out the king’s misguided policies or wrongdoings.
In 1624, Choe Hyun along with other officials jointly appealed to King Injo, taking advantage of turbulent heavens: “At no other time has there been as much disorder in the heavens as is happening now. The sun and the moon have lost their light and meteors are intruding on scared areas. … The cause of the disorder is not only a reaction to the past but also a warning of future events. Your Majesty now rarely employs the right person for the right post, knows little about politics and spends recklessly.”
The appeal was quite a long document detailing almost every problem plaguing the nation. And King Injo felt ashamed of his failure, saying that “As the heavens show, I have nothing to say because of the shame I feel now. I will fully take into consideration the appeals you have put forward today.”
King Yonsangun knew too well the mechanism. In 1504, he banned the possession of astrological maps by any individual, threatening violators with severe punishment. “Some insurgents own astrological maps privately and use them as a pretext to voice whatever they want to say. Collect all the astrological maps right away.”
UFOs in Choson
On Feb. 21, 1495, a strange meteor crashed near a small village in Chungchong province. As people approached to take a closer look, they saw it looked like a yellowish egg. It was as hard as a stone and made a resonating sound when it was shaken, the article in the Annals recounts.
Local governor Cho Wui recorded the details of the mysterious object and reported them to King Yonsangun. The meteorite-like object was transported to the palace in Seoul for closer observation. Officials argue that it was nothing like an ordinary meteorite. When the curious king ordered officials to dissect the object, inside were discovered multiple layers and a black chestnut-like object issuing a curious odor.
On June 9, 1519, the city of Kyongju in southern Kyongsang province witnessed a heavenly disorder. In the evening, according to the related article, the moon was bright and clouds gathered in the western sky. “All of a sudden, a shaft of light came from the clouds. It resembled passing arrows or meteors. Changing colors many times over, it flickered across the sky. It was so bright that the light penetrated even into dark rooms.”
There are also articles in the Annals suggesting a meteor shower similar to today’s Leonid Meteors. In 1533, official Chong Ok-hyong appealed to the king, citing a number of shooting stars which “fell to the earth like a rain” as a heavenly warning.
According to Chong, such an event in which meteors fall like rain occurred only four times in history. And Chong also argued that such meteor showers have always resulted in a great catastrophe.
Another incident in which meteors pounded the earth took placeon Aug. 4 of 1560. The meteors were so many that officials were unable to count all of them.
As usual, the Annals state that the appearance of the meteors would lead to the wretched state of the nation. The ominous association drawn from meteors, in fact, is not groundless. It is fitting now. The meteors shower on Wednesday is regarded not only a spectacular celestial spectacle but also as a direct threat to the multi-billion dollar satellite fleet, including military spacecraft, currently in orbit. Actual collisions are expected to be rare, but operators of some military, commercial and scientific satellites are crossing their fingers, nonetheless.