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<A Preliminary Survey> Ritual and Governance: The Zhouli model and Chŏng Yak-yong's 丁若鏞 (1762-1836) Political Agenda in the Last Memorials on Ordering the World (Gyeong-se yupyo 經世遺表)”

Song Jaeyoon
Name in Latin Alphabet:
Nationality: Korean
Affiliation: McMaster University

Jaeyoon Song (McMaster University)

In East Asian history, “traditional” political thinkers expressed their political visions with reference to the Confucian Classics. By invoking the canonical authority of those documents, they could represent their plans for government as legitimate. By traditional political thinkers I mean a majority of scholars and statesmen who spelled out their political visions with what Benjamin Elman calls “classical literacy.” Using the common language of classical learning, these thinkers participated in the transnational forum of debate over major issues of good government based in their own local surroundings. The ancient models of good government in the Confucian Classics enabled them to criticize the status quo, elaborate their theories of government, and propose plans for reforming the state’s administration. In this sense, I would argue that the Confucian Classics functioned as the “constitution” of East Asian civilizations. That said it still makes us wonder why traditional East Asian political thinkers had to rely so heavily on the ancient classical sources. Is it because they were under the tyranny of tradition or, as Kant says, not courageous enough to “exit their self-imposed immaturity”? These questions have recently occurred to me while reading the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations (1784). In his magnum opus of over one thousand pages, Smith rarely, if ever, invokes any classics or references any other authoritative texts. Solely based on a collection of empirical studies, he analyzed the economic realities of the early Industrial Revolution and constructed ‘classical economics’ in his own terms. His contemporary political thinkers and statecraft writers in East Asia were far from so: in their statecraft and economic writings, we find that they were still under the heavy influence of the Classics. Why? With this rather bold question in mind, I’d like to venture into the political thought of the renowned Chosŏn classicist and Confucian statecraft thinker Chŏng Yak-yong.

Among a long list of Chŏng Yak-yong’s writings, this paper will focus on the Last Memorials on Ordering the World (Kyŏngse Yup’yo 經世遺表; hereafter the Last Memorials), written during the period 1817-22. This work provides us with an extraordinarily rich case in which a traditional political thinker invoked the Classics to propose a comprehensive set of reforms. This paper will use this case for showing the deep-rooted exegetical mode of thinking that was so widely practiced by political philosophers and statecraft thinkers in East Asian history. In this comprehensive work of statecraft, Chŏng draws upon the Rituals of Zhou (the Zhouli 周禮; hereafter Zhouli), one of the Thirteen Confucian Classics, attributed rather controversially to the legendary law-giver the Duke of Zhou (ca. 11th Century BC). By comparing the existing systems of the Chosŏn state with the idealized model of an archaic bureaucratic system in the Zhouli, he could propose a set of policies designed to transform the established structures and institutions of the dynasty. With reference to the Zhouli, obviously, he could gain the constitutionality of his plans for a systematic reform. Our focus is on his use of one particular classic, the Zhouli: what it gave him, how he used it, and what he intended to achieve by using it. My main purpose in this paper is to address the relation between the Classics, the state and the elite in East Asian history. Instead of focusing on Chŏng Yak-yong’s place in Korean history, this paper shall attempt to illuminate his place in the transnational community of Zhouli studies. In this community, a long line of renowned classicists, statesmen, and political thinkers in East Asian history actively participated, collaboratively constructing the growing body of exegetical studies. In Chinese history, we can think of such luminaries as the late Han classicist Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200), the Tang classicist Jia Gongyan 賈公彦 (ca. 7th century), the reform-minded commoner/scholar Li Gou Li Gou李覯 (1009-1059), the reform councilor Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), the early Ming legislators Song Lian 宋濂(1310-1381) and Fang Xiaoru 方孝孺 (1357-1402), the thwarted reformer of the late Ming and early Qing Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610-1695), the late Qing classicist Sun Yirang, to name but a few. In Tokugawa Japan, Ogyū Sorai荻生徂徕 (1666-1728) and Dazai Shundai 太宰春臺 (1680-1747) as well as the scholars of the late Mito school such as Fujita Yūkoku 藤田幽谷 (1774) and Aizawa Seishisai 會澤正志齋 (1782-1863) also participated in this community. In Chosŏn Korea, we can think of Chŏng Tojŏn 鄭道傳 (1342 -1398), Yun Hyu 尹鑴 (1617-1680), and lastly, Chŏng Yak-yong. The main focus of this paper will be on his proposal for land-reform: how Chŏng invoked the Zhouli to criticize the venal practices of landlordism and propose his reform plan as the solution for economic inequalities. Before we address this issue, however, we should begin with his own defense of his approach to the Zhouli.

Chŏng Yak-yong’s Approach to the Zhouli in the Last Memorials

Chŏng Yak-yong devoted his late years to the compilation of the Last Memorials, carrying on the statecraft tradition of Chosŏn Confucianism represented by such luminaries as Yu Hyŏng-won柳馨遠 (1662-1673) and Yi Yik 李瀷 (1681-1763).To articulate his plans for reform in a systematic way, Chŏng Yak-yong used the Zhouli as an overarching framework of reference. JaHyun Haboush’s research has shown that the Chosŏn literati, while showing respect and interest in the Zhouli, produced but a few commentaries on it. Chŏng’s use of the Zhouli in the Last Memorials was arguably the only such project in the nineteenth century Chosŏn. Only in his late years in exile, he decided to take up this classic for articulation of his reform agenda ; throughout his life, Chŏng was more concerned with the Book of Documents and the Book of Changes. Why, then, did he decide to use the Zhouli, a problematic classic often associated with Wang Mang 王莽(45BC-23AD) and Wang Anshi? In the history of classical learning, the Zhouli has remained a controversial text up to the present times. In Chinese history, it was used twice by illegitimate political reformers and once by alien regimes during the Period of Disunity (220-589). Especially in Northern Song (960-1127) China, the reform councilor Wang Anshi’s (1021-1086) commentary on the Zhouli held sway as one of the three imperially sanctioned standard classics of the New Policies government. With the fall of the Northern Song and the subsequent cessation of the New Policies, Wang Anshi’s scholarship was condemned to the degree irrecoverable. Southern Song (1127-1279) literati took the Zhouli back by redefining it as the constitution of a smaller laissez faire government. Chŏng Yak-yong was, of course, well aware of the Zhouli’s place in Chinese history. He had to defend his use of the Zhouli against critics who would readily disparage it as replicating Wang Anshi’s error in the late Chosŏn context. Cho Sŭng-ŭl’s research shows that Chŏng Yak-yong trusted the canonical authority of the Zhouli throughout his career. Following a majority of Chinese classicists since Zheng Xuan, he believed that the Zhouli contained “the traces of grand peace” (Taiping zhi ji 太平之迹) achieved by the Duke of Zhou in the Western Zhou (ca. 1046-771 BC) founding. Chŏng was, however, fundamentally opposed to both Zheng Xuan and Wang Anshi. He thought that more than seventy percent of Zheng’s fastidious comments on the Zhouli were erroneous, and believed that Wang Anshi’s approach was simply wrong-headed. Chŏng was, in fact, ambitious enough to use the Zhouli without relying on the Han and Tang scholia. For an in-depth understanding of why he thought it necessary to invoke the Zhouli, we should heed his sense of history reflected in “the Introduction” to the Last Memorials with care.

In “the Introduction,” Chŏng Yak-yong begins by addressing the tension between ritual and law, a long-standing issue in the history of East Asian political thought. Confucianism, as when it ascended to become state orthodoxy in the early Han, was an alternative to the Legalist doctrine of the Qin Empire. Chŏng advocates the Zhouli by elaborating on the concept of ritual. This classic is called the rituals, rather than laws, of the Zhou, explains Chŏng, because the central idea of good government in antiquity was “to lead the people through the means of rituals (以禮而道民).” The sage kings of antiquity ruled the state and edified the population by means of ritual. Whereas the rule of ritual is in accordance with the natural order of things and harmonizes with human feelings, Chŏng contends, law is the means of controlling the people by coercion and pressure. “When these rituals of antiquity fell into disuse,” he argues, “the name of law began to arise.” He defines the meaning of ritual as: “that which is coherent when viewed in light of Heavenly Principle and that which is harmonious with human sentiment when applied to realities.” He concludes: “The Former Kings made rituals the basis of law whereas the Later Kings regards laws as laws.” In the history of Confucian classical learning, the transformation of the Zhouguan (Offices of Zhou) into the Zhouli (Rituals of Zhou) was a hermeneutical turn. Based on cumulative commentaries, Zheng Xuan declared that the old-script document we now call the Zhouli is the rituals the Duke of Zhou created in the seventh year of his regency for his nephew King Cheng. Why would one call an administrative blueprint of an archaic bureaucratic state a set of rituals? We might wonder. Following Zheng Xuan’s identification of the Offices of Zhou with the Rituals of Zhou recorded in the Book of Documents, Han and Tang classicists viewed the Zhouli as one of the Three Rituals in the corpus of the Thirteen Confucian Classics. Chŏng acquiesces to this view, but with a stronger and more explicit argument as to the superiority of ritual to law for good government. As shown above, he understands ritual as a broad concept, the underlying principle of order in things, natural, political, social, anthropological. As he does so, he puts forward a rather simplistic dichotomy between ritual and law: government that rules by “ritual” prizes the harmony between nature and man whereas government by legal coercion disrupts the harmonious order of things. Chŏng apologetically defends the canonical authority of the Zhouli itself. To rescue the Zhouli from its critics who disparaged it as a Legalist text was indeed the first step he chose to take in writing of the Last Memorials. In his view, the Zhouli is a legitimate set of “rituals” as designed by the Duke of Zhou, not a system of laws. He stresses this point at the outset in order to redefine good government within the legitimate boundary of the Confucian Classics. In his view, good government consists in ‘state activism.’ He makes this point by debunking the myth of non-activist kingship commonly attributed to Kings Yao and Shun. In his own words:

Those in the world who discuss the government of the Tang and You (=Yao and Shun) period say that “they all sat back with their arms folded and kept silent; although they just sat under the roof, their moral suasion permeated [the people] as the fragrant wind enwraps the people.”….. When there is a new policy or a movement, they suppress it by referring to the Tang and You period, and say: “the harsh and detailed methods of Hanfeizi韓非子(280-233 bc) and Shang Yang商鞅 (395-338), which were appropriate for governing the decadent customs of a chaotic era; however, as Yao and Shun were benevolent and the Yings of the Qin state were cruel, they regarded what is loose and lax as correct and what is tight and urgent as wrong.

世俗言唐虞之治者曰堯與舜, 皆拱手恭己. 玄然默然, 以端坐於茅茨之屋, 而其德化之所漸被, 若薰風之襲人, 於是以熙熙爲淳淳, 以皥皥爲蘧蘧. 凡有施爲動作, 輙引唐虞以折之, 謂韓非商鞅之術, 刻覈精深, 實可以平治末俗, 特以堯舜賢而嬴秦惡, 故不得不以疎而緩者爲是, 密而急者爲非云爾.”

In my view, Yao and Shun stoop up and did their best to have the people of all-under-heaven work to the utmost without pursuing convenience even when they took rest; moreover, Yao and Shun had the people of all-under-heaven respectfully crouch themselves in fear so that they would not harbor untruthful thoughts. Although Yao and Shun were the most diligent in the world, they misrepresent them as practising non-action; although nobody was more precise than Yao and Shun, they misrepresent them as being lax and far-fetched. They have the ruler not desire activism and give up on such idea by thinking about Yao and Shun. This is why all-under-heaven has become corrupt without renewal. When Confucius said that Shun did nothing, he meant that “since Shun had twenty-two bright and sagely ministers what else should he do?” His words had far-reaching implications and conflicting effects so as to gain exquisiteness beyond words, people today only stick to that particular phrase and say that Shun sat back with his arms folded without moving a finger, yet all-under-heaven was transformed [by his ruling] spontaneously, and they thoughtlessly forget “the Canon of Yao” chapter and “the Counsels of Kaoyao” chapter in the Book of Documents. How lamentable!

以余觀之, 奮發興作, 使天下之人, 騷騷擾擾, 勞勞役役, 曾不能謀一息之安者, 堯舜是已. 以余觀之, 綜密嚴酷, 使天下之人, 夔夔遬遬, 瞿瞿悚悚, 曾不敢飾一毫之詐者, 堯舜是已. 天下莫勤於堯舜, 誣之以無爲, 天下莫密於堯舜, 誣之以疎迂, 使人主每欲有爲, 必憶堯舜以自沮, 此天下之所以日腐而不能新也. 孔子謂舜無爲者, 謂舜得賢聖至二十二人, 將又何爲, 其言洋溢抑揚, 有足以得風神於言外者, 今人專執此一言, 謂舜拱默端坐, 一指不動, 而天下油油然化之, 乃堯典臯陶謨, 皆浩然忘之, 豈不鬱哉.

In Chŏng’s view, the classic Confucian critique of state activism is based upon a particular non-activist misreading of the Confucian Classics. In critique of Legalism and the Qin Empire, critical thinkers disparaged even the slightest attempt of government action as the technique of Hanfei zi and Shang Yang. He believes that good government consists in “tightness (密)” and “urgency(急)” as opposed to “looseness (疎)” and “slowness (緩).” By “tightness” he means the making of specific institutions for addressing the existing problems of the state and society at large, and by urgency, the government’s responsiveness to the needs of the people. In other words, the state should address the existing problems of society by installing specific institutions for the improvement of the status quo. In denial of a classic laissez faire view of the state, he calls on the state to act on the world. This view contradicts the long-standing belief that Kings Yao and Shun opted for “non-action (wuwei).” Simply put, he argues that given the way in which their activities are recorded in the Book of Documents, Yao and Shun should be viewed as activist rulers. By representing the government of Yao and Shun as activist, he redefines good government for his time: the state should assume the role of transforming the corrupt structures of the Chosŏn administration. By invoking the Zhouli model of institution-building and bureaucratic structuring, he intended to represent his reform policies as being in harmony with the fundamental spirits of the ancient sage rulers. In opposition to the traditional conservative visions of laissez faire government, Chŏng Yak-yong argues that the state ought to take responsibility for resolving problems in society. His purpose seems to have been straightforward: to present a systematic method of reforming the corrupt structures and failing institutions of the existing Chosŏn administration. Four hundreds since the founding, he diagnosed, the Chosŏn dynasty at the time was nearing a systemic breakdown. The bureaucratic structure of the Chosŏn dynasty was in disarray, and the discipline of the bureaucracy, lax and loose. The ruling elite of the dynasty had misused “the ancestral laws of the founders” to serve their interests; intensifying the exploitative systems of government, they monopolized economic resources at the detriment of the population at large. Calling for a fundamental overhaul of the state’s administration, Chŏng pointed to an ideal world of antiquity, in which the sage rulers governed with a comprehensive set of institutions. These institutions he believed were not invented by a political genius overnight, but evolved through trials and errors, as shown in the Book of Documents. At the outset of the Last Memorials, he emphasizes how ancient kings and ministers created institutions one by one, reflecting cumulative lessons learned from the actual processes of establishing government in reality. In his own words:

The rituals of the Xia dynasty were not invented by the Xia alone, but created by Kings Yao, Shun, Yu, and [their ministers] Ji, Xi, Yi, Gaoyao, et al., who, with all their spirits, earnestness, and intelligence, established the standard systems for ten thousand generations. How could anyone change any of those clauses and examples? However, when the people of the Yin dynasty replace the Xia, there must have been increases and decreases. When the Zhou people replaced the Yin, there must have been increases and decreases. How so? The ways of the world shift as the flowing rivers and streams; if established for eternity without changes, it cannot be naturally so.

夏后氏之禮, 非夏后氏之所獨制也. 卽堯, 舜, 禹, 稷, 契, 益, 臯陶之等所聚精會神. 竭誠殫智, 爲萬世立法程者也. 其一條一例. 豈人之所能易哉! 然殷人代夏, 不能不有所損益, 周人代殷, 不能不有所損益, 何則? 世道如江河之推移, 一定而萬世不動, 非理之所能然也.

In the Last Memorials, Chŏng Yak-yong aims at a grand constitutional vision of reforming the overall administrative structure of the Chosŏn state. At that point he thought it was necessary to refurbish the existing system through a fundamental reorganization of its structure according to an ideal model suggested in the Zhouli. As a blueprint of the Duke of Zhou’s government, the Zhouli provides the administrative model of an archaic bureaucratic state. A long line of political thinkers and statesmen in Chinese history had formulated their own constitutional agenda by explicating the models of good government in the Zhouli.

The Zhouli Structure of the Last Memorials

As one of the Thirteen Confucian Classics, the Zhouli offers the bureaucratic listings of 366 offices, staffed with an army of over 93,000 d officials and functionaries, divided into the Six Ministries (Offices). It defines the specific duties and staff members of each of these 366 offices with the chain of command and lines of communication. On the summit of its bureaucratic structure stands the King, aided by the Six Ministers, namely, the premier (heaven) and the five other ministers of education (Earth), ritual (Spring), war (Summer), justice (Autumn), and works (Winter). These offices in the Zhouli are systematically organized to perform the basic tasks of government including personnel administration, fiscal management (collection of taxes and allocation of resources), education, social organization, local control and surveillance, the maintenance of the defense system including recruitment and training of local troops, police control, court administration, foreign relations, diplomatic protocols, etc. At the same time, it also describes the petty bureaucracy of low-ranking officials and functionaries such as eunuchs, court women, medical doctors, cooks, servicemen, etc., in painstaking detail. In global historical perspective, we might say that among the ancient documents describing the archaic bureaucratic states, the Zhouli is probably the most detailed and systematic one. In Chinese history, the Zhouli provided the ancient reference for the organization of the basic government structure: from the Sui (581-618) dynasty onward the imperial government continued to adopt the Six-Ministry system which was obviously modeled after the Six Ministries of the Zhouli. Moreover, the Zhouli was a primordial form of the normative bureaucracy for the traditional Chinese intellectuals: since Ban Gu 班固 (32-92) wrote “the Treatise on Hundreds of Offices” in the Hanshu, the official dynastic histories all followed the basic format of the Zhouli in terms of describing the bureaucratic structures of their dynasties. In short, the Zhouli functioned as one of the important references for showing the ancient prototype of state administration and bureaucratic organization in Chinese history. As a proposal for state reform, the Last Memorials is perhaps the most ambitious of its kinds in East Asian traditions. Chŏng Yak-yong proposed a fundamental restructuring of the existing bureaucratic structure of the Chosŏn state by explaining the purposes of the 120 offices he re-introduces for the Chosŏn by finding their prototypes in the offices of the Zhouli. The number 120 symbolizes the size of the state administration for “an enfeoffed state that the Chosŏn was in Chŏng’s view: “The Zhouli is the rituals of the Son of Heaven. Our country is an enfeoffed state (fanguo 藩國). Its institutions should be less.” Whereas the Zhouli as “the rituals of the Son of Heaven (tianzi zhi li 天子之禮)” gives the number of three hundred sixty offices, the offices of the Chosŏn dynasty should be around 120. With the Zhouli model in mind, Chŏng also referred to the old statute of the Chosŏn dynasty. He reorganized the 110 existing offices assigned to the central government in the capital into a six-part government, each ministry with twenty offices, overall 120 offices patterned after what he thought was “the institutional number of Heaven and Earth (tiandi dushu 天地度數). Why did Chŏng try rather forcibly to fit the existing bureaucratic system into the prototypical mold of the idealized government of the Duke of Zhou’s regency? The answer, I think, should be found in the fact that he proposed the Last Memorials as a minister in exile seeking the canonical grounds of legitimacy for a comprehensive set of reforms he designed. As Wang Anshi invoked the Zhouli in the defense to legitimate the New Policies, Chŏng seems to have considered it necessary to provide the canonical grounds of his reformist plans. As the blueprint of an archaic bureaucratic state, the Zhouli was indeed the most effective for his purposes. Even as he proposes a set number of offices for the Chosŏn bureaucracy, he was not so inflexible as to consider it absolutely unalterable. Noting that the number of offices in the Zhouli itself is not numerically perfect, he believes that it would be possible to formulate the optimal system of government for eternity by amending a few offices as required by the conditions of time. However, his proposed scheme for restructuring of the Chosŏn administration must have been a ground-breaking provocation for those in power at the time. Based on a harsh evaluation of governance in the dynasty at the time, Chŏng points out how from the very beginning the government system of the Chosŏn dynasty was ill-conceived. He invoked the Zhouli in the first place to trump the ancestral laws of the Chosŏn dynasty itself. For example, he thought that the Border Defense Council (pipyŏnsa 備邊司) since the early 16th century came to monopolize powers at the eclipse of the State Council (ŭichŏngbu 議政府), traditionally the superlative administrative organ of public deliberation comprised of the highest ranking ministers. To address this problem, Chŏng points to the Three Gong (sangong 三公) and the Three Gu (sangu 三孤) given in “the Officers of Zhou” chapter in the Book of Documents. The Three Gong (the Grand-Master, the Grand-Assistant, and the Grand-Guardian) and the Three Gu (the junior Master, the junior Assistant, and the junior Guardian) combined formed the collective leadership of the Zhou government, according to “the Officers of Zhou.” This is in conflict with the Grand Steward (taizai 太宰) of the Zhouli system; however, Chŏng invokes the paragon of collective leadership as the model for the Chosŏn bureaucracy. The State Council of the Chosŏn, he proposes, should be reorganized to fit the Three Gong and Three Gu model. With the State Council as the summit of the Chosŏn bureaucracy, Chŏng matches the ideal model of the Zhou bureaucracy with the overall 120 offices of the Chosŏn bureaucracy. By using the Zhouli model, he could re-examine the objectives of each office and propose a new way of restructuring the existing offices of the Chosŏn bureaucracy. The ultimate aims of his proposed bureaucratic reform were to guard against the concentration of power, to remedy the corruptive structures of bureaucracy, to call for the restoration of the six-ministry system, and to rationalize the bureaucratic system predicated upon occupational specialization.

With this general understanding of the Zhouli model in the Last Memorials, let us now turn to the central issue of our inquiry: Chŏng’s plan for land redistribution.

The Plan for Land Redistribution In “the Office of Earth (diguan 地官),” Chŏng Yak-yong left a set of thirteen theoretical essays calling for the restoration of the well-field system for the time. His plan of land redistribution in the late Chosŏn dynasty creates the impression that he was rather unrealistically immersed in an anachronistic idealism or canonical fundamentalism. When he proposed his plans for land redistribution, however, Chŏng was in his late fifties with well-developed convictions in the feasibility of his plan for the economic realities of the Chosŏn dynasty. What was his logic for reinstating the well-field system? How does he use the idealized model of the well-field system in the Classics to legitimate his call for land redistribution? Our quest in this part concerns the relation between the Classics and his plans for land-reform. In the Chosŏn Dynasty statecraft thinkers spelled out their own visions of land reform in various ways building upon the preceding plans proposed by Chinese thinkers, especially during the two halves of the Song dynasty (960-1279). Based on the degree of aggressiveness, the land-reform plans of Chosŏn statecraft thinkers can be divided into three categories; the conservative; the moderate reformist; and the radical redistributionist. The conservatives thought that to restore the well-field system for the realities of the Chosŏn was simply unrealistic, whereas the moderate reformists aimed at the partial realization of the well-field system in the form of the equitable land-field system. Only the radical redistributionists called for the full-scale implementation of the well-field system: Chŏng Yak-yong represented this group in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Chosŏn dynasty. In 1799, when Chŏng Yak-yong articulated his initial visions of land-reform in “On the Land-field (chŏnje 田制), he emphasized the importance of redistributing the land only to the peasantry as the economic basis for the bottom-up construction of good government. Scholarship to date has emphasized his earlier essays such as “Tracing the magistrate to its root (wŏnmok 原牧)” and “On King Tang (tangron 湯論)” as being central to his political thought. In these essays, Chŏng expressed what might strike us as the inkling of modern republicanism: Chŏng argues that the sage rulers of antiquity were selected from among the people at the local level and rose upward through various levels of political order; the government of the sage rulers in antiquity was consolidated through popular participation at the various levels of human society. In “On the Land-field,” which was written around the same period, Chŏng also articulates his visions of land redistribution. Instead of the well-field system, he envisioned a cooperative commune system, according to which thirty households should be grouped into one Lü 閭, the basic unit of local state administration. Lü had the communal ownership of land, and the Chief of Lü appointed by the state should be in charge of managing man power at this level. Yi Hŏngchang’s argues that Chŏng’s plan for land redistribution was not in perfect harmony with this seemingly republican ideal described in “the Original Magistrate.” Whereas the village chief (lizheng 里正) in “the Original Magistrate” is the democratically selected senior representative of the villagers, the Chief of the Lü 閭 in “On the Land-field” is a salaried official appointed by the state for the purpose of collecting taxes and managing the military system. With the introduction of the Lü system, Chŏng also envisioned economic development; by giving the tillers the freedom of movement, he thought, the tillers would move to reclaim the land and maximize agricultural productivity. “On the Land-field” reflects Chŏng Yak-yong’s early idea of land redistribution. When he proposed this plan at the age of thirty-eight, he was skeptical as to the reinstatement of the well-field system for Chosŏn society. His view of the well-field system would gradually change over time. During the time of exile in Kangchin 康津the southernmost part of the Korean peninsula, he extensively read the Classics and articulated his own views on major issues of statecraft. Based on the evidential survey of the ancient literature, he gradually formed a firm faith in the well-field system as the fundamental solution to the social evils of landlordism in Chosŏn society. Let us now turn to his mature ideas in the Last Memorials. In “On the Well-field (1),” Chŏng makes it clear that by investigation the ancient model of the well-field system it would become possible to restore it to the economic realities of the Chosŏn at the time. The well-field system, he declares, is the universal institution for human society, ancient or modern. With this fundamentalist zeal in mind, he sets out to dispute the two most widely spread skeptical views: that the conditions of land are unsuitable for the well-field system, and that the number population is unstable. In Northern Song China, Su Xun 蘇洵 (1009-1066) famously made these two arguments against the restorability of the well-field system itself. In Su Xun’s view, to reinstate the well-field system, the state had to level the mountains and fill up the waters. Chŏng disputes Su Xun’s idea by emphasizing that the natural terrains of the earth have not changed much since the ancient times. Having declared his convictions in the restorability of the well-field system for the modern times, Chŏng investigates into its origin through an in-depth literary survey of the Classics. Based on his close survey of the Book of Documents and the Zhouli, he attempts at the reinstatement of the well-field system. As he called for reinstatement of the well-field system, Chŏng either blinded himself to the realities of land privatization widespread in the late Chosŏn or called for a social revolution. His idea was modeled after Mencian idealism that the well-field system would form the basis of economic stability in society, which was the sine qua non for moral suasion, the ultimate aim of good government in early Confucian thought. For this reason, Chŏng proposed a systematic set of policies combined with the well-field system: the reformation of landownership, management of mountains and waters, construction of the road network, the reorganization of land-fields, etc. In other words, he proposed the well-field system in combination with other plans as the fundamental solution for a complex set of socio-economic problems such as economic inequality, social disorder, and the decrease of agricultural productivity and taxation. As regards the well-field system, Chŏng Yak-yong was also well aware that the equitable segmentation of land into a unit of nine part; he thought that to attempt to allocate land in this model in the Korean peninsula would not be possible. For this reason, he thought out several methods of realizing the original intent of the well-field system by rearranging different types of land, especially in the mountains or marshland. He offers ten diagrams, each showing a different method of realizing the de facto well-field system designed to fit the geographic terrains of the Korean peninsula, as shown below:

The diagram on the left signifies the basic unit pu (fu夫) of one hundred myo (mu畝; ca. 154.3㎡ in the traditional Korean measure). In the middle is the unit of chŏng (jing 井), comprised of nine pu. On the right is the unit of sŏng (cheng 成) comprised of one hundred chŏng. These three units form the basic structure of the well-field system. On a higher level, one hundred chŏng makes one t’ong (tong同). Chŏng reconstructed the well-field system into a nested hierarchy of segmented land units: pu, chŏng, sŏng, t’ong, respectively. Then Chŏng Yak-yong addresses the special areas whose geographic contours do not allow for the standard well-field system. As shown below, each diagram describes how to realize apply the well-field system in the areas with the waters or by the mountains.

The diagram on the left illustrates a specific terrain with a meandering stream in the middle which makes it impossible to constitute a complete unit of t’ong. The diagram on the right shows the method by which Chŏng calculates the area of land at the foot of a mountain.

Conclusion: Classics, Constitution, and Political Philosophy

This paper is a preliminary research into Chŏng Yak-yong’s constitutional agenda as articulated in his magnum opus, the Last Memorials. The main purpose of this paper is not to illuminate the overall structure of his plans but to address the relation between the Classics and his political thought. Why did Chŏng invoke the Zhouli for the purpose of proposing his own constitutional agenda for a fundamental overall of the Chosŏn state? What did the Zhouli give Chŏng? Instead of looking for answers within the context of Chosŏn Korea, in broader perspective, we might raise some larger questions: what roles did the Confucian classics play in East Asian traditions? How did the enduring tradition of Confucian classical learning contribute, if it did, toward shaping the administrative structure of the state in East Asian history? How did a long line of classical commentators (the Confucian exegetes) understand the relationship between their classics and their government? In East Asian history, the Confucian Classics was probably the only legitimate reference of political thought. The standard imperial compendia compiled in the Han and Tang Dynasties might create the impression that the imperial court took initiatives in apotheosizing the Confucian Classics. For this reason, a number of scholars have viewed the Confucian Classics as the ideology of autocracy. The actual contents of the original Han and Tang classical commentaries, however, tell us otherwise. It was a long line of classicists and thinkers who voluntarily wrote commentaries on those classics for various purposes. Scholars of the Confucian Classics had their own constitutional agenda. Traditional as they were, they were not mere exegetes in service of the Classics or doctrinaire ideologues reproducing the standard views of the state. As self-motivated political thinkers, they put the Classics in service of their political visions. Throughout history, we find that the Classics offered the forum of debate for traditional political thinkers to develop, formulate, and propose their constitutional agenda. Chŏng Yak-yong was no exception on this point. He chose to invoke the Zhouli as an overarching frame of reference for his comprehensive plans for government. As he notes in “the Introduction,” the Zhouli serves the purpose of legitimating “state activism.” It was a burdensome claim because he had before him the condemned cases of Wang Mang and Wang Anshi. He even deplores that those conservatives in power who envisioned Kings Yao and Shun as the champions of laissez faire government identified themselves as Han Qi 韓琦 (1008-1075) and Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086), the anti-reformist ministers of Northern Song politics. In factional struggle, Chŏng Yak-yong could effectively use the Classics as the legitimate grounds of his political thought. He derived from the Zhouli a certain set of values such as the public ownership of land, the communal management of economic resources, the roles and responsibilities of the state vis-à-vis the people, the efficiency of bureaucracy, so forth and so on. By emphasizing the legitimate foundation of state activism implied in the very structure of the Zhouli model government, he could propose his plans for a fundamental overall of the Chosŏn state. The Classics provided him the constitutionality of his political thought. In my opinion, we might further argue that Chŏng Yak-yong’s use of the Classics seem to have exemplified a particular mode of thinking that is quite common to diverse traditions of political philosophy and constitutional thought, regardless of East and West or pre-modern and modern. Most political thinkers tend not to be idiosyncratic outliers in isolation but the individuals in context, members of communities. More often than not, they develop their own ideas of good government in dialogue with their peers: they contextualize their individual views in relation to the shared texts of significance. Conscious or not, most political theorists today also play the roles of ‘exegetes’ explicating the important books of our time. The exegetical mode of thinking, that is, the method of developing one’s ideas with reference to a particular text, is still around us in various forms of political or constitutional discourses today. In short, political thinkers tend to build up their arguments upon layers of cumulative traditions. In this regard, the Confucian Classics seems to have secured, rather than limited, a certain realm of political freedom for traditional political thinkers and statesmen to express their political visions. Chŏng Yak-yong’s Last Memorials shows how an “outcast” scholar-official in exile could rely on the Classics, the shared “constitution” between the elite and the state in traditional East Asia, to propose his own constitutional agenda for a fundamental restructuring of the existing Chosŏn state.

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