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‘A philosopher’s Journey into Rehe’ presents an analysis of the Rehe Diary – Yolha Ilgi that was written by Park Ji Won whose pen name was Yeonam, who live from 1737 to 1805. The work describes the era in which the author lived by using humor and metaphor. The author’s rigorous analysis addresses not only the thoughts and times of the Joseon era’s Silhak (practical learning) school but also the fundamental problems faced by the intellectual class of this period.
Yeoman was a Confucian scholar who narrates his tale through the use of specific human relations, his abhorrence for certain types of people and he has attempted to create bonds of friendship. It must be noted that the author created friendship with people from all ranks of life, irrespective of their status. The paper examines the depth and extent to which Yeonam was ready to go and if he was bound by the norms of the human friendship and association of his era.
Analysis of the Work
Yeoman (1760) was what could be best described as a person of Big Yang. A person with a big Yang is one who sets no boundaries to things or people and is very good at socializing and making friends His very physical nature and mannerisms contributed to making people feel friendlier with him. To begin with, he was a large man, rather fat, who could drink a barrel of wine without being drunk and who could start arguments that would last for more than three days (p. 3).
There is an interesting anecdote that reveals the author’s strong vitality that would even bend evil spirits and cure people who were supposed to be possessed. Yeoman had a way with people and believed in creating a friendship that was not acceptable in the society of those times and he had a willingness to build a special relationship with people of all classes. In the story, when Yeonam was a county governor of the Myeoncheon province, he spent a night watching the moon over the east gates of the town.
There was a woman who was possessed by the evil spirit. Seeing Yeonam, the evil spirit spoke through the woman saying that it originally lived in the governor’s mansion but the loud nature of the new governor had driven it out of the mansion and into the woman’s body. When the woman heard Yeonam’s thunderous voice while he was performing his duty, she ran away crying because the evil spirit could not stand the vitality of the governor. The woman’s husband dragged the woman who was kicking and screaming in madness, just outside the governor’s office. As she ran away crying, the evil spirit left her body and she was declared cured (p. 4).
The anecdote reveals the extent to which Yeonam went to establish relations with people.
But then is it possible that Yeonam was fair to all his friends and was not affected by his own biased thinking? The answer is No and that Yeonam while willing to entertain friend and close acquaintances, he was subjected to philosophical leanings and did develop a bias against one person and entity, that forced him to lean towards one while deliberately putting the other to disadvantage. The following anecdote reveals these feelings:
“Three days of dreary rain scattered all the beautiful apricot blossoms and covered the ground with their pink petals. I sit aimlessly playing the game of Ssangnyuk by myself. My right hand is one person and my left hand is the other. As I shout Five or six, I find myself concentrating on the competition of hands, regarding one hand as an enemy of the other hand. I am puzzled. Should I be accused of being partial even to my own two hands? Since my hands are playing the roles of two different people, once could say that my hands might be regarded as creatures and myself aa a creator. However, I cannot be disinterested in their contest, I deliberately support one hand while suppressing the other” (p. 5).
Yet again, the author has argued that Yeonam has an excellent ability to make friends easily as he claimed friendship to be the purpose of his life. He was open-minded and set no boundaries in a relationship but he never formed a friendship with hypocrites and people who constantly chase after fame and profit/ He would enjoy talking to people of any rank or age for days but if a man he disliked, interrupted a conversation, he would get upset and not speak to the person all day. He knows his own temper and confessed that his temper was a chronic illness and though he treated it for a long time, he could not find a remedy (p. 6).
So we have established that Yeonam liked to make friends with people he liked and with whom he had an affinity, irrespective of their rank and status. But at the same time, he was imperious in his ways, hot-tempered, and prone to treat one friend better than the other. A few other incidents are examined further, from the book.
Yeoman thoroughly rejected politics and all it stood for. He refused to take the state examination that scholars were required to take as he did not want to be a subject to political intrigues. In his life, most of his friends were outsiders or minorities, intellectuals, out-of-power men born of concubines, uncanny men, lunatic scholars, and so on. His alliance with these social groups meant that he deliberately transgressed the hierarchical Confucian morals and tacitly created a new ethical category for the minority in society. There was more to these friendships than merely socializing and studying, whenever they met, they stayed for several days and discussed social politics and history.
In addition, they analyzed the origin of social institutions and scrutinized the balance between agriculture and industry, how to increase property, the management policy for collecting and distributing crops and they studied geology, national defense, astronomy, music, botany, zoology, algebra, etc. They organized a formidable intellectual group for producing broad knowledge of various academic disciplines. These members deeply influenced Yeonam’s book (p. 15-20).
The relation that Yeonam has with his friends was such that each helped the other in difficult times. Some of Yeonam’s friends were persecuted or arrested because of their political ideology, by he stood firm by them, visiting their house. When one of his friends, Hong Daeyong, who was an expert musician, died, Yeonam was inconsolable in his grief and gave up his passion for music and went into mourning to live in a remote village. One of his friends Yan Cheung, sent him two cows, a farming tool, and twenty notebooks saying that as he was in a valley of mountains, Yeonam should buy a farm, grow crops and also write books for future descendants (p. 21).
Another of Yeonam’s friends was Jeong Cheoloji was a very good scientist who built machines such as a crane, a lift, a mill with a rotator, a water pump, and other instruments. Once when he visited Jeong’s house along with Hong, the two started discussing earth sciences and the concept of the equator and the poles. Yeoman fell into sleep in this discussion but he still managed to remember some important details that he relayed to Chinese scholars in his later visit to China (p. 38).
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Finally, let us examine Yeonam’s theory for friendship. According to the author, friendship was everything. The fact that the category of a friend has been included in the last rule of the Five Human Relations of Confucius does not mean that friendship is the least important. According to tp him, a friend is like soil which is normally regarded as the last substance of Five Elements in Confucian physics. However, everything in the theory is based on the category of soil. Therefore friendship might be a basic moral for the relation between a father and a son, a king and a servant, a husband and wife, the old and the young. The only thing that could correct a wrong behavior is the criticism from a friend. Yeomans theory of friendship was further developed and he would say that:
“A friend is another self, If I did not have friends with whom would I look or listen? Without a friend how could I taste anything even though I have a mouth? With whom would I enjoy the scent of things? To whom would I possibly share wisdom and enlightenment? I can get married again if I lost a wife but I cannot replace a friend if I lost a friend, it is an utter tragedy that destroys the reason of existence”. (p. 25).
The paper has researched and analyzed the concept of friendship as defined and practiced by Yeoman. The paper has provided his theory of friendship and examined the deep bonds of friendship that he formed with people from all walks of life. Though Yeonam was a Confucian scholar, he rejected the materialistic condition laid down by Confucius that gave importance to the rank and social status of a person.
Yeonam Bak Jiwon. 1760 AD. A Philosopher’s Journey into Rehe. (Trans. Lee Taek-Gwang. 2005). Seoul, Korea: National Library of Korea..