“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
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?
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.
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.
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.