Ch'oe Chiwon (857-tenth century) was a noted Korean Confucian official, philosopher, and poet of the late Unified Silla period (668-935). He studied for 16 years in Tang China, passed the Tang imperial examination, and rose to high office before returning to Korea, where he made ultimately futile attempts to reform the government of the declining Silla state. In his final years he turned more towards Buddhism and became a hermit scholar residing in and around Korea's Haeinsa temple where one of his brothers was a monk.
Ch'oe Chiwon was also known by the literary names of Hae-un ("Sea Cloud"), or more commonly, Go-un ("Lonely Cloud") which symbolizes the difficult life he led. His lonely but creative mind-heart is expressed in this poem:
Ch'oe had numerous talents in poetry, thought, politics and religion. Because of his broad research and the depth of his mind he has not been appreciated for his real value. For example he loved as much Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism and looked in a unique approach to bring harmonious relations between these spheres. Therefore his audacious and courageous approach still teaches us valuable lessons today.
Ch'oe Chiwon was born in the Saryang district of the Silla capital of Gyeongju in 857. He belonged to the so-called "head rank six" (yukdupum 六頭品) class, a hereditary class in Silla's stringent bone rank system affixed to those of mixed aristocratic and commoner birth. As a member of head rank six, Choe faced restrictions to the level of office he could attain. Towards the end of Silla many in the head rank six ranks began to seek opportunities of advancement beyond the traditional confines of the Silla social-political order. Becoming a Buddhist monk served as one outlet. Taking up the study of Confucianism provided another opportunity. China's Confucian bureaucracy had been adopted to a limited degree after Silla unified the Korean Peninsula in 668.
Already Queen Chindok had started the teaching of Confucianism, but a Royal Confucian Academy was established only in 682 by king Sinmun. Confucianism was well suited to the administration of wide-spread territory and the buttressing of central authority. The adoption of Confucian administrative norms and Silla's closer ties with Tang China demanded a highly educated corps of scholar-officials. To meet this need the Silla monarchy turned to the frustrated talents of the head rank six class. Royal support of the head rank six also gave the monarch more leverage against an increasingly hostile aristocracy.
In the early years following unification, head rank six students matriculated at Silla's own "National Confucian Academy," newly established. By the ninth century, however, ambitious Silla students aspired to seek their education at the very source, in the Tang capital of Chang'an (present day Xi'an 西安). It was in the course of the 9th century that the Ch'oe clan of Gyeongju nurtured close ties with the Silla monarchy, and as a result many of the Ch'oe clan were sent to matriculate in China with the ultimate goal of passing the Chinese civil service examination and returning to serve the Silla court.
According to the twelfth century Korean history the Samguk Sagi, in 869, at 12–years–of–age, Choe's father sent him to study in Tang. His father admonished Chiwon that unless he passed the Chinese imperial examination within ten years he would be worthy to be his son. Within the decade Ch'oe did indeed pass the highest of China's civil service examinations, the coveted jinshi (進士) degree, and received an appointment to a prefecture office in the south. Ch'oe served in China for nearly a decade, even becoming intimate with Emperor Xizong of Tang China (reigned 873-888).
Ch'oe also won merits for his service under the Tang general Gao Ping in his struggle against the Huang Zhao rebellion, which nearly toppled the dynasty and ushered in Tang's final harried years. With the rebellion put down and peace at least temporarily restored, Ch'oe's thoughts turned towards home. One surviving poem, written earlier while Choe travelled to his first official post in China ("ten years of dust" being his ten years spent in preparing for the exam), gave vent to his emotions regarding the native land and family he had not seen in a decade:
Who is there within China to sympathize with him without? I ask for the ferry that will take me across the river, Originally I sought only food and salary, not the material perks of office,Only my parents’ glory, not my own needs.
The traveler's road, rain falling upon the river; My former home, dreaming of return, springtime beneath the sun. Crossing the river I meet with fortune the broad waves. I wash ten years of dust from my humble cap strings.
The Samguk Sagi again tells us that Ch'oe—the consummate Confucian—thought of his aging parents when he requested permission from the Tang emperor to return to Silla. This the emperor duly granted and Ch'oe returned home in 885 at 28–years–of–age.
Back in Silla Ch'oe was soon appointed to as an instructor and reader at Silla's Confucian Hallim Academy. He shuffled through various positions, including Minister of War and chief of a variety of regional prefectures. Appointed in 893, chief envoy of a diplomatic mission to Tang China, famine and subsequent upheavals in Korea prevented his journey. Tang fell soon afterward and Choe never saw China again.
As member of the yukdupum class, Ch'oe had returned to Silla with youthful hopes of reform. Ch'oe was not the first of the yukdupum Confucian literati to attempt to foster reform on the Silla state, however his case is one of the most prominent in recorded Korean history. In 894, Ch'oe submitted to Silla's Queen Jinseong (reigned 887-897) his "Ten Urgent Points of Reform" for the Silla state—or simu sipyeojo (시무십여조 時務十餘條). As with earlier attempts by Choe's predecessors, these ultimately fell upon deaf ears. By the time of Choe's return, Silla was in an advanced state of collapse. The central monarchy had been greatly weakened by internecine struggle, with power devolving first into the hands of the bone rank aristocracy and then—more ominously for Silla's surivial—into the hands of regional warlords who controlled the countryside outside the capital region, and in some cases commanded their own private armies.
To understand the time of chaos and suffering in which Ch'oe lived it is worth to read these lines of the "Record of the Manjusri Stupa" at Haein monastery that are dated of 895.
Ch’oe Ch’i-won could have become a Buddhist monk like his brother, he could have become a famous politician like his friends Ch’oe Sin-ji and Ch’oe Sung-u but he wanted to get at the root of what was causing all this suffering. He could not stand the corruption of the politicians he had been close to and the refusal of making any change due to the greediness for selfish profit.
For Ch'oe it became obvious that national reforms were not possible without true personal change. Man must leave false appearances and chose a real heart as it is expressed in his poem.
Ch'oe therefore set more and more his mind set on absolute truth, showing the necessity of morality and sincere heart to reach the truth. He had often some short powerful sentences like:
Ch'oe Chiwon has been only recently rediscovered for numerous reasons. Ch'oe has been accused of not loving his country and of submitting to China. However he loved deeply Korea that he wanted to save from corruption but his mind was bigger than just Korea as prove this reflection:
Ch'oe has been called "a cunning Buddhist" by important Confucian scholars, but this is a misunderstanding, this is not recognizing that Ch'oe explored with precision and depth the three fields of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. In fact, Ch'oe expanded the harmonious spirit of the Hwarang of the Three Kingdoms. His study was based on a rigorous analysis of texts but furthermore on a love of the three masters Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi. It is easier to be fully devoted to one master but to be able to appreciate several masters in receiving the core of their teaching requires a great mind. Such was Ch'oe Chi-won.
Professor Ch’oe Yong-song, a contemporary scholar, who has published in 1998-1999 Ch’oe Ch’i-won's works into Korean has well explained the cause of misunderstanding of Ch'oe's contributions. He thinks that the reason for the mistreatment of Ch’oe Ch’i-won is the depth and comprehensiveness of his thought. The meaning conveyed by Ch'oe is not easy to receive because it requires a vast knowledge of different fields and a subtle interpretation. Ch'oe Yong-song has this interesting image on Ch'oe's thought that could be applied to Korean Thought in general: "It is like a running stream under the sand. At first it is hidden. One must dig to have access to it."
Among his contributions Ch'oe Chiwon has left three important directions.
First one should never be satisfied by what one has discovered in one's research of truth but have the courage to face even more difficulties in the research. Ch’oe was not concerned by a particular and limited truth but by a universal truth. The way to find a truth is painful as Ch’oe mentioned about the discovery of Buddhist truth:
Therefore Ch'oe strove to reach higher using the expressions of high Tao 至道 or unchanging, essential Tao.
A second important contribution is his sharp distinction between what is true 眞 and what is false 僞 like in the previously mentioned poem. Ch'oe saw under his eyes the collapse of Korean society because all activities were false to the point that he even contemplated the idea to commit suicide in 904. In the spirit of Confucius he dislike the appearances and looked for what is truly substantial. His longing for purity and sincerity is a preparation of Yi I, Yulgok's emphasis on sincerity 誠.
Third, although Ch'oe Chiwon searched for the highest truth he was concerned at the same time by a Korean creativity in thought, He perceived that there was a specifically Korean approach as a subtle an mysterious way at the crossroads of different currents.
Few records remain of Ch'oe's middle and late years. Around the year 900, Choe retired from public life and began a period of wandering throughout Korea. As the Samguk Sagi relates:
The Haeundae region of modern-day Busan takes its name from one of Ch'oe's pennames (Haeun) as he purportedly was enamored of the location and so built a pavilion there overlooking the beach. A piece of Ch'oe's calligraphy engraved on a rock still survives there. Eventually Ch'oe settled at Haeinsa Temple where his elder brother Hyeonjun 賢俊 served as abbot. His later years are most notable for his lengthy stele inscriptions, hagiographies to Silla's most noted Buddhist priests that have proved a primary source of information on Silla Buddhism.
One well known anecdote regarding Ch'oe in these years regards a putative piece of verse he dispatched to Wang Geon (later King Taejo), the founder of the Goryeo dynasty. Apparently convinced by the greatness of Wang Geon, notably by the promulgation of his Ten Injunctions, Ch'oe came to believe that Wang Geon had inherited the mandate of heaven to succeed the declining Silla dynasty as the ruler of the Korean Peninsula. Reflecting this, he secretly sent off a prophetic verse reflecting his support of the new dynasty: “The leaves of the Cock Forest [Silla] are yellow, the pines of Snow Goose Pass [Goryeo] are green.” 鷄林黃葉 鵠嶺靑松. Cock Forest (Korean, Gyerim) being an ancient sobriquet for Silla and Snow Goose Pass (Korean, Gokryeong) being the ancestral home of Wang Geon, and by association the Goryeo dynasty. However, this anecdote first appeared in the twelfth century Samguk sagi, long after Ch'oe had died and most modern scholars concur that Ch'oe, a native and ardent supporter of Silla, never penned it but that it was attributed to him by a young Goryeo dynasty to buttress its legitimacy and win over the support of young Silla scholars to its enterprise.
The date of Choe's death is unknown, though he still lived as late as 924, the date of one of his surviving stele engravings. One fantastic account relates that Ch'oe's straw slippers were discovered at the edge of the forest on Mt. Gaya (Gayasan), the location of Haeinsa, and that Ch'oe had become a Daoist immortal and ascended into the heavens. More grounded historical theories posit that he committed suicide, but this is ultimately conjecture.
Several streams emerged from Ch'oe in the long centuries following his death. On the one hand, as Korea became increasingly Confucianized in the late Goryeo and most especially the Joseon dynasty period, Choe became one of the most lauded members of Korea's pantheon of Confucianists, with pride of place in the nation's Confucian temple. Goryeo's King Hyeongjong (reigned 1009-1031), recognizing Ch'oe's Confucian accomplishments, granted him the posthumous title of Marquis of Bright Culture (Munchanghu 文昌侯). On the other hand, as time passed Ch'oe also came to be revered as a poet, due in great part to the relatively large number of his poems that have survived, all written in Chinese. Around Ch'oe also grew up a rich body of folklore, attributing to him fantastic deeds and supernatural powers.
In the late nineteenth century, as Korean intellectuals began to reexamine their intellectual and historical roots in the face of increasing national weakness and foreign encroachment, there arose a rising critique of Korea's historical deference to China. The most articulate voice of such nationalist sentiment was the journalist, historian, and philosopher Sin Chaeho (1880-1936). Sin condemned Ch'oe Chiwon as one of the most glaring examples of Korean intellectual subservience to China, a pattern of sequacious behavior on the part of Korea's intellectual class (according to Sin) that over the long run weakened Korea's national spirit and made it a slave to "sadae" ("serving the great") thought.
Ch'oe Chiwon is now claimed by the Gyeongju Choe clan as their founder. The location of his home in Gyeongju is now a small temple hall dedicated to his memory.
The relatively extensive extant writings of Ch'oe stand as witness to his importance in late Silla society while also ensuring him a degree of importance among latter generations that has escaped his contemporaries, many of whom, like him, were gifted poets, learned officials, and diligent in their attempts at reform. Ch'oe's surviving writings may be divided roughly into four main categories: official prose (to include memorials, dispatches, etc. during his service both in Tang China and Silla); private prose (on such topics as tea drinking and natural scenery); poetry; and stele inscriptions.
Shortly following Ch'oe's return to Silla in 885 he compiled his various writings, both official and unofficial (to include some poetry) in a work entitled the Gyeweon Pilgyeong 桂苑筆耕 ("Plowing the Cassia Grove with a Writing Brush").
Ch'oe's surviving stele inscriptions, the so-called Sasan pimyeong 四山碑銘 (or “Four mountain steles”) are as follows (all in present day South Korea):
Ch'oe's authorship has been conjectured for the Suijeon 殊傳 (Tales of wonder), the earliest and oldest known collection of Korean Buddhist tales and popular fables. The work is no longer extant but thirteen of its original stories have survived in other works. Almost all scholars agree, however, that Choe was not the author. Likewise, in the early twentieth century Choe was put forward as the author of the Yuseolgyeonghak daejang 類說經學隊仗, a Confucian pedagogical work. Based upon the nature of the language and expressions employed, scholars are also fairly unanimous in denying this to be a work of Ch'oe.
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