Korea's strategy of 'Harmony in diversity'


Se-jong(世宗, r. 1418-1450), the fourth king of Chosun, is credited not only with the completion of the new state system, but also with elevating Korean culture to a new level. Most of his achievements have two aspects combined; building the basic structure with imported Chinese materials and cultivating indigenous elements to go with the structure. For example, he had many Chinese books on medicine printed and/or translated on the one hand, and on the other, sponsored researches into domestic herbs and therapies. It could be likened to building the house with imported materials and ornamenting the garden with domestic materials. This principle is called "harmony in diversity[和而不同]".


Korea has natural conditions suitable for the kind of agricultural civilization developed in central China and began importing Chinese technology in the early years of her history. Importing was slow and difficult at first, but with time became faster and easier, and the close relation between Koryo and Yuan further prompted the Sinicization of Korea. At the turn from Koryo to Chosun, Korea was more Sinicized than many remote places in China herself. Yet distinct cultural features had been widely preserved. Some time earlier, a political faction of Koryo petitioned to the Yuan court to annex Koryo as a province, but it was dismissed on the ground that Koryo, with her distinct culture, was civilized enough to need no such measure.


King Se-jong's 'harmony in diversity' policy enabled Chosun to enjoy technological advantages of the Chinese civilization and retain her cultural identity at the same time. Rulers of China also welcomed this Korean way, seeing more advantages in keeping a showcase of a desirable host-client relationship than in adding another province to the Empire. When Ming forces were deployed in Korea during the Japanese War(1592-1598), Koreans were afraid of some domestic practices unfit for a vassal state (such as the independent legal code and imperial style posthumous titles for deceased kings, etc.) being detected by the Chinese, but they did not raise any problem when they did find out some of them.


'Harmony in diversity' was a strategy of great value for a country situated at such a close distance to such a big and strong neighbor. It enabled Koreans to keep up with technological developments of China while retaining the nation's political and cultural independence. Compared to other neighbors of China who were more reluctant to 'Sinicize' themselves and were consequently conquered and annexed to the empire, Koreans have much to be grateful to their ancestors for.



Posted by 문천