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Pak Chiwon’s Jehol Diary: An amiable bore abroad

The Jehol DiaryPak Chiwon: The Jehol Diary
Translated with notes by Yang Hi Choe-Wall
Global Oriental 2010, 208pp

The Jehol Diary is a contemporary account of one of the regular journeys from Joseon Korea to Qing China bearing tribute to the emperor. The journey described in this diary took place in 1780, and was ordered by King Jeongjo to greet the Qianlong emperor on his 70th birthday at his summer residence in Jehol, north-east of Beijing. The complete journal, known as the Yeolha Ilgi (열하일기), extends to 26 chapters and 10 volumes in its original classical Chinese version. Yang Hi Choe-Wall has translated the first three of those chapters.

Pak Chiwon (1737-1805) was a scholar of the Practical Learning school, and was always on the lookout for things that would enhance the wellbeing of the Korean people. And although the Koreans thought of the Qing as unworthy successors to Ming, Pak found plenty to admire on his journey. Frankly, he become a bit of a bore both to the reader and (he is honest enough to tell us) to his fellow travellers, as he expounds on the merits of Chinese brick construction methods compared with the Korean use of stone. He also thinks Koreans had a lot to learn in respect of the kiln technology for firing ceramics and bricks; in fact he is an early advocate of sustainability as he laments the fact that Korean potters strip the landscape bare of pine forests in their insatiable use of fuel. “My thoughts are that the way we build the kilns should be changed to make the fired products more profitable for the potter, and as a way of keeping the pine forest more sustainable.”

Along the way Pak conducts learned discussions about the historic boundaries of Koguryo, in which he suggests that the capital city of Pyongyang was once located in the Liaoyang Prefecture; and Pak gets a long lesson in the various ways that unscrupulous Chinese merchants make their fake antiques indistinguishable from the real thing.

Pak also gets a lesson in humility. Most of the time, it seems, he is able to communicate with the locals by writing in the necessary Chinese characters. But he is not always familiar with the local idiom. He sees four Chinese characters (qishuang saixue – 欺霜赛雪- respectively the characters for deceive, frost, surpass and snow) written outside a few stores, and assumes they refer to the incomparable honesty of the shop owners (“a mind as pure and white as snow”). Wanting to show off his calligraphic skills, he proudly presents his own version of those four characters to the owner of a pawnshop who has shown generous hospitality. “That has nothing to do with us” comes the slightly hurt response from the shopkeeper. Pak later finds out that the motto is used exclusively by noodle stalls, and refers to the purity of the ingredients (“the wheatflour is light as the touch of frost, and as white as snow”).

Among the most interesting few pages in the diary, at the start of the final chapter, have Pak fulminating against ignorant people. “It is not worth discussing scholarship with anyone who is excessively critical of what other people say, and it is much worse if the conversation is about the subject that the fault-finder has never pursued.” The target in part seems to be the Western Jesuit missionaries who dismiss Confucianism and Buddhism as “earthbound”: “These foreigners come to our lands, try to master the language until their hair turns white … What is this for? … Those who react against the history of several centuries of uninterrupted Confucian progress can offer nothing to substantiate their disbelief.” In his anger, Pak’s argument becomes a little confusing. The passage must have been a nightmare to translate, and is pretty difficult to understand even in the English version.

The attack on the Jesuits is followed by an equally difficult general discussion about Korean attitudes to Qing China. The passage combines a listing of generic views about the best tourist sites to see on these tribute visits with a conversation between the literati on this specific visit. The question they wrestle with is whether, given that China is now ruled by the barbarous Qing, there is anything at all that is worth looking at. “Even if one has the scholarship equal to that of Lu Longqi,” complains one of the people on the journey, “once his head is shaved, he turns into a barbarian who is no batter than an animal. Then how do you expect us to see anything worthwhile to describe?” Pak is typically less obsessed by barbarian hairstyles and more interested by the practicalities of life in China and particularly where Korea can learn lessons. “The magnificent scenery doesn’t have to be palaces, high buildings … or ever-changing forest mist. It could simply be … a neatly piled dung heap,” says Pak, commending the orderliness in Chinese society, where people collect horse dung to use as fertiliser rather than leave it lying in the street. Both this passage and the preceding one attacking the Jesuits would benefit from an explanatory essay to help the modern reader better understand Pak’s arguments and concerns.

To expect a diary to have things of interest on every page is unrealistic. Some of the conversations that Pak records, and some of the routine events and chance encounters on the journey may not hold your attention for long. But nevertheless the reader should not be tempted to skim-read. My own heart sank somewhat when I came to a section headed “The Wheel And Its Uses” which started listing out the different types of carts and wheelbarrows that Pak saw on his journey. “A wheel is heaven-sent. It moves about on land, yet it is as versatile as a boat and can even be likened to a mobile room. In the whole country there is nothing more useful than a wheel.” I confess to skipping a couple of pages, but fortunately started reading again at the point where Pak reveals why he’s banging on so much about the uses of this prehistoric invention. The startling fact is that in Korea there was not much use of carts and carriages at the time. Why? “It is because of the literati officials,” accuses Pak, who idolise the world of the ancient sages. “That world did not have a place for wheels or carriages.” Pak realises that the use of carts would greatly enhance Korea’s prosperity, enabling merchants from one part of the country to sell their wares elsewhere. “‘Devoid of the wheel’ is the reason why the people of this small country of Korea are so poverty-stricken.”

Pak’s attacks on the literati establishment and his espousal of practical improvements went counter to the received wisdom of the day. As a result, his diary went unpublished for many years – even his grandson who died in 1876 was not able to publish the text, according to the translator’s introduction. Global Oriental are to be commended for bringing this interesting read to a modern English-speaking audience.

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