Heaven in the Voices

Jeong Do-jeon (Kim Myung-min) in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

“War should not be waged by the rich, because it is the poor who make up the casualties,” bellows Jeong Do-jeon, the man who will become the founding prime minister and master architect of the new nation Joseon. Pointing at the Goryeo prime minister and his cronies seated comfortably under the tent, he continues, “War should not be decided on by the old, because it is the young who perish.”

One by one, the massive sea of common folks, scholars and ministers in the square joins him in the rally against diplomatic ties with the weakened Yuan regime, which the elites are pursuing for personal benefits despite the risk of antagonizing the mighty Ming empire that has replaced it in China. Fights break out between the two sides, as the prime minister lets his armed guards beat up even the weak and the old to shield the Yuan envoys secretly present. Watching on with tears in his eyes, Jeong leads a Goryeo-equivalent of the crowd anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in the film Les Miserables:

Sword dances, blossom viewing, how chillingly breezy is the melody at Dohwajeon (the prime minister’s residence)
500 years (the approximate length of the Goryeo dynasty) of great achievements going to waste

Fathers are slain, children are ripped apart by taxes
Mournful wails fill the air in the Manwoldae Palace, where ashes are blowing about

Mu-yi-yi-ya Mu-yi-yi-ya (There is no difference! There is no difference!)

We ask the world if using politics to decide between life and death and using the sword are not the same?

Oh, you nameless bird in the sky, why do you cry so tragically?
How can you possibly find the resting places of fallen wild flowers anyway?

How can you?

칼춤에 꽃놀이 도화전에 노랫가락 시리게 흥겨운데
오백년 공들여 애써온 대업 모두 허사로다

아비는 칼 맞아 스러지고 자식들은 세금에 찢겨죽고
잿가루 날리는 만월대에 통곡소리 구슬퍼라

무이이야(無以異也) 무이이야(無以異也)

세상에 묻노니 생사를 가름에 정치와 칼이 다를 게 무어냐

천중의 이름 없는 새야 왜 그리도 구슬프게 우느냐
어차피 들꽃의 진자리는 찾을 수 없지 않느냐

을 수 없지않느냐

(A note of gratitude: Some of the styling choices were strongly influenced by Bodashiri. Any inadequacy, however, is the sole responsibility of the current writer.)

“Mu-yi-yi-ya” is also the title of the song. While the song and the public square events are fictional components of Six Flying Dragons, Jeong Do-jeon and his Confucianism-driven ideology have played actual pivotal roles in Goryeo-Joseon politics during the 14th century. The historical figure was particularly attracted to Mencius’ teachings, where the phrase “mu-yi-yi-ya” (in modern Korean pronunciation) can be found:

King Hui of Liang: I’m willing to listen to your advice.

Mencius: Is there any difference between killing a man with a club and killing him with a sword?

King Hui of Liang: There is no difference. (“Mu-yi-yi-ya.”)

Mencius: How about between a sword and a set of policies?

King Hui of Liang: There is no difference. (“Mu-yi-yi-ya.”)

Mencius: You have fat meat in your kitchen and fat horses in your stable, yet your people are pale with hunger and corpses of those who died of starvation lie in the wild. This is the same as leading beasts to devour the people. Yet the notion of beasts devouring one another is already enough to repel humans. Can leaders who are supposed to be the people’s parents yet practice such governance still be considered their parents? Confucius said that those who first created figurines to be buried with the dead would be cursed with no descendants. This was because objects made in the images of humans were put to such uses. What does that imply for those who starve their citizens?

(References: 1 | 2 | 3 )

Mencius believed that people are the most precious constituents of a nation, followed by the spirits of the land and grain and, at the position of lowest importance, the ruler. To rule, one must have the support of the people and work competently. Inserting a citizenry element into the Mandate of Heaven, i.e. the traditional legitimization of dynastic change through the argument that celestial powers have favored a more effective sovereign, Mencius claimed that the will of the people expresses the mandate and supported dethroning of unworthy rulers.

Affirming these thoughts of Mencius, the historical Jeong Do-jeon emphasized virtuous governance in the “Administrative Code of Joseon,” where he also urged unbiased scrutiny and guidance of the king. This basic statute is thought to have promulgated some checks and balances against monarchic power. Unfortunately for Jeong Do-jeon, his more radical vision of a prime minister-centered monarchy similar to today’s constitutional monarchies made him the enemy of throne contender and fellow Joseon founder Yi Bang-won. A believer in absolute monarchy, Yi Bang-won had him assassinated only six years into the birth of the country and later became its third king. All the same, Jeong Do-jeon’s ideology has gained renewed attention among Koreans in recent years, as the society looks forward to leadership capable of bettering the welfare of ordinary citizens.

Jeong Do-jeon (Kim Myung-min) singing "Mu Yi Yi Ya" 무이이야(無以異也) in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

One point modern thinkers would especially notice is that Mencius’ and Jeong Do-jeon’s belief system actually resembles a form of proto-democracy, with Mencius’ principles corresponding to government “for the people” and “by the people” and Jeong Do-jeon’s idea of monarchy complemented by a competently selected prime minister, who is intellectually accomplished but supposedly need not be of a particular bloodline, theoretically opening up greater possibility of government “of the people.” This model is, nonetheless, inadequate for true democracy. For one, it offers no efficient and systematic mechanism by which the populace’s will can be swiftly translated into action. An oppressive prime minister may be easier to switch out than a tyrant but that is not a decision the public can readily influence. To achieve that, one might have better luck from modern electoral processes. Further, it still places public accountability squarely on the monarch, who may then demand accountability from his ministers and so forth, making for a cumbersome hierarchy which can be slow at targeting lapses.

More relevant today are flaws it shares with modern democracies. In particular, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots may suppress political participation from the underprivileged, who presently may be able to vote in one way or another for the elites but have difficulties educating and sending members of their own into government. Incidentally, even as many of the later Joseon kings followed Neo-Confucian styles of governance envisioned by Jeong Do-jeon, social mobility was so low that the poor had little chance of joining the intellectual elites from whom his ideal non-royal co-leader was supposed to come from. It is also such gulfs that potentially limits the capacity to detect transparency issues, whereby administrators may cover up or rationalize acts favoring the wealthier classes, all the while paying lip service to democratic ideals. Misappraisals of political competence can work in an opposite way as well, by giving policymakers less credit than they deserve such that promising reforms are blocked or reversed. But bleaker than gulfs of any kind are droughts of political talent—situations where an electorate rotates through a succession of leaders in vain for someone with the right fixes.

Scenery in 2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

However, Mencius does possess two remedies for the numerous ills of democracy. The first is that he believed everyone has the potential to be a great leader. The second is his concept of self-cultivation as an ethical imperative. Although he was more concerned about moral growth with respect to the latter and did not explicitly link either idea to democratic governance, they offer the inspiration that each able citizen should see within himself the solution and responsibility for political standstills. When social problems proliferate, it is probably not only the fault of governments which have failed to perform their jobs, but also that of ordinary people who stay ordinary, not having sufficient interest or dedication to overcome hurdles and learn the workings of public administration while innovating upon them so that they themselves can take charge of the collective destiny.

Overcoming deeply entrenched inequalities in any form is perhaps too complex an endeavor to accomplish on a grand scale with mere words of optimism. Yet the more individuals who commit themselves to such tasks, the higher the likelihood that at least some would succeed. Those who manage to cross socioeconomic gaps may not be able to lift everyone else with them, but those who triumph over political gaps may help the rest bridge both gaps and more. It is with such fervor that men and women should cry on, sing on and flip on.

2015 Korean historical drama / sageuk Six Flying Dragons

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4 thoughts on “Heaven in the Voices

  1. Important message to the new visitors flocking to this page:

    Welcome to The A-Philosopher’s Chair, a website analyzing art, literature and ideas connected to East Asian dramas. Please note, however, that reproduction of the translations above is strictly prohibited.

    Special thanks to the following bloggers:
    muchadoaboutlove muchadoaboutlove for her warm encouragement,
    colorpencil2014 colorpencil2014 and Cindy Knoke Cindy Knoke for their expression of support in the prelude to this post and
    girlgenius014 girlgenius014 for her numerous messages.

    Another post on Six Flying Dragons, suggested by muchadoaboutlove muchadoaboutlove, is on the way.

    Check out the following awesome blogs for rich troves of historical information related to the drama.
    – Bodashiri’s site: http://bodashiri.tumblr.com/
    – The Talking Cupboard: http://thetalkingcupboard.com/2015/09/29/six-flying-dragons-special/

  2. These are some of the messages left by girlgenius014 girlgenius014 in the preview for this post:

    “Thanks for following my blog. By the way, you have a pretty blog…”

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    Btw, you are a Seung Ho fan too? I like the title of your blog, it seems very thoughtful….

    I’ve been wanting to befriend like minded folks on here. People that blog and like similar things.

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    “I do agree about Yoo Seung Ho proving his acting chops as Kim Chun Chu in QSD. That’s where I became his fangirl. Honestly, I have seen him through other things previously, like Warrior Baek Dong Soo and Arang and the Magistrate but at the time I was fangirling over other men so I didn’t recognize his full potetnential.

    However, with QSD as him playing Kim Chun Chu. His acting was soo good and on top of that he had this charm that I couldn’t shake off. Kim Chun Chu came off to me as ditsy at first, especially when Jukbang had to repeat things over again and over again but he was a genius political mastermind. He was even able to outdo some of the more experienced politicians. He was quite observant and used that to his advantage. Yoo Seung Ho was able to play KCC very well…

    Since QSD I became a fangirl and I am still cheering him on. So which actor do you fangirl over? Do you even have a particular actor you are a fan of?”

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    However, I fangirl over Yoo Seung Ho…he is the only person I fangirl over on a regular basis…..

    Chun Chu and Jukbang was so funny together, I loved their banter…Have u read my QSD review? It was one of my earlier reviews so the way I wrote it wasn’t very good…..

    You are right QSD was able to balance out politics and Romance very well…And the Hwarang men were gorgeous…Daenambo and Imjong were my favorite Hwarang dudes…

    Mishil was a cunning woman…Brilliant political mastermind, however nobody knew that Chun Chu had some stuff up his sleeves…

    Certain things reminded me of modern economics. The part where the nobles buy up everything and thats why i everything is so pricey at the market…and the royal court is trying to come up with reforms and they get middle to small nobles involved….This kinda reminds me of current economic system….You know, INFLATION!”

    “Well, QSD holds a special place for me to because if it wasnt for that show I would be a huge YOO SEUNG HO FANGIRL right now….Him as Chun Chu really made me a fangirl with his ditsy but brilliant personality…

    I love the yearning between Bidam and Deokman. I don’t know if you read it but I had a post about K-drama couples and Bidam& Deokman were one of them…”

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    The press(?)-shy admin has omitted many personal responses. 😉

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