Kim Changsuk (金昌淑, 김창숙, 1879-1962) was a Confucian scholar, Korean independence activist, a politician, and the founder of the Sungkyunkwan University (成均館大學, 성균관대학). He was of the Euiseong Kim Clan (義城金氏, 의성김씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Munjwa (文佐, 문좌); and his pen names (號, 호) were Shimsan (心山, 심산) and Byeok’ong (躄翁, 벽옹) (“crippled old man”).

He was born in Seongju (星州, 성주) in North Gyeongsang Province (慶尙北道, 경상북도), and started learning Confucian classics from a young age. In 1905, when the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty was signed, Kim Changsuk protested and petitioned the the government to punish the signers of the treaty. He also took part in various patriotic organizations (including one dedicated to curbing smoking) and established a modern style school. But in 1910, with the Japan-Korea Treaty annexing Korea, Kim Changsuk went into despair and alcoholism, spending his days on drinking and debauchery. A few years after, however, at the advice of his mother, he sobered up and devoted himself to further studying Confucianism. In reaction to the March 1 Movement of 1919, Kim Changsuk assembled over hundred Confucian scholars across the peninsula and drafted a letter in support of Korean independence. He fled Korea and emigrated to Shanghai, where he had the letter delivered to the delegates of Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Kim Changsuk’s letter, written in Classical Chinese and known simply as the Paris Letter (巴里長書, 파리장서), was an diplomatic embarrassment to Japan, whose delegates had been trying to convince other major world powers that they came to Korea with the support of Koreans. He also published many other works in support of the Korean independence movement and participated in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in China. But in 1924, his work for Korean independence was interrupted, when Kim Changsuk was apprehended while at the British Concession of Shanghai by the Japanese. He was soon sent back to Korea to Daegu (大邱, 대구) Prison, and there prison guards tortured him until he became crippled from the waist down. (Hence, the one of his pen names, “crippled old man.”) Kim Changsuk was released in 1934, and continued participating in independence activities albeit more passively. 

With the liberation of Korea on August 15, 1945, Kim Changsuk, having been again arrested earlier that year for independence activities, welcomed the news of from his prison cell. He was elected to a position in the Democratic Assembly (民主議院, 민주의원) formed by the US Army Military Government in Korea, but did not participate much in its activities. Instead, Kim Changsuk focused on regrouping the remaining Confucian scholars and seeing that Korea be united. In 1946, he became the head of committee for the Korean National Confucians’ Association and re-established Sungkyunkwan, the former national Confucian academy, as a modern University. He also heavily criticized the South Korean government for keeping the Korean peninsula divided. In particular, Kim Changsuk sharply denounced President Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) for his dictatorial policies. For his criticism of President Rhee, Kim Changsuk was not only imprisoned for 40 days in Busan (釜山, 부산) but also later attacked by a mob of President Rhee’s supporters. After the Korean War ended in 1953, he reorganized Confucian village schools (鄕校, 향교) under one umbrella organization and attempted to modernize Confucianism as the head of Sungkyunkwan University. Kim Changsuk passed away in 1962, and received a civil funeral ceremony (社會葬, 사회장). He was posthumously awarded with the Order of Merit for National Foundation (建國勳章, 건국훈장) later that year.

Like most educated Koreans of the early modern era, Kim Changsuk was well versed in Classical Chinese. Below is just one of his poems expressing desire for Korean independence, which he composed while imprisoned in Daegu. This past August 15 marked the 70th anniversary of liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule.

大邱警部獄中 대구경부옥중

From the Daegu Police Station Prison

籌謀光復十年間 수모광복십년간 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
性命身家摠不關 성명신가총불관 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
磊落平生如白日 뢰락평생여백일 仄仄平平平仄仄
何須刑訊故多端 하수형신고다단 平平平仄仄平平(韻)

I have set out and planned for independence for tens of years.
My vitality, body, and family all are not of concern.
Sincerely and earnestly, all my life has been pure like the white sun:
What need is there for interrogation under torture, willfully for numerous dead ends?


To set out • to plan • glory • return • ten • years • space
Nature • fate • body • house • generally • not • to concern
Open • sincere • all • life • like • white • sun
How • must • punishment • interrogation • intent •  many • ends


  • Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). Riming character (韻, 운) is 刪(산). The poem complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • 磊落(뇌락) – Alliterating bionome (雙聲連綿詞, 쌍성 연면사), meaning “to be open-hearted and sincere.”
  • Korean translation available here (한국어 번역).

Last week, on August 4, United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon (潘基文, 반기문, 1944-) presented calligraphy that he wrote himself for US President Obama’s birthday. The calligraphy reads “High virtue is like water” (上善若水, 상선약수). The message is a quote from the famous Chinese Daoist classic, the Dao De Jing (道德經, 도덕경), attributed to the Chinese philosopher Laozi (老子, 노자). While the President seemed thankful for the gift, the reaction on Korean social media was mixed: some had verbal fits complaining that foreigners would confuse Koreans with the Chinese; others praised UN Chief Ban Ki-moon for his erudition and showcasing of Eastern philosophy. Below is the excerpt from the Dao De Jing that the calligraphy alluded to, with the original text in bold and commentary to the side by Han Dynasty era (漢, 한, 206BC-220AD) scholar the “Riverside Sage” (河上公, 하상공, ?-?):

上善若水   上善之人, 如水之性.
상선약수   상선지인, 여수지성.

High virtue is like water. A man of the highest virtue is like the nature of water.

水善利萬物而不爭  水在天爲霧露, 在地爲源泉也.
수만리만물이불쟁  수재천위무로, 재지위원천야.

Water benefits all things well without quibble. When water is in the sky, it becomes fog and dew. When water is on the ground, it becomes a source of a stream.

處衆人之所惡   衆人惡卑濕垢濁, 水獨靜流居之也.
처중인지소오   중인오비습후탁, 수독정류거지야.

And resides in a place that the multitude of men disdain. The multitudes of men disdain the low, damp, dusty, and muddy [places]. Water alone quietly flows and lives there.

故幾於道   水性幾於道同.
고기어도   수성기어도동.

Therefore, [water] is almost like the Way. The nature of water is almost like the Way.

居善地   水性善喜於地, 草木之上則流而下, 有似於牝動而下人也.
거선지   수성선희어지, 초목지상즉류이하, 유사어빈동이하인야.

The virtue of a residence is in the land. The nature of water esteems happily the land. Above the grass and trees, [water] flows downward. Some are like through the valleys, moving below men.

心善淵   水深空虛, 淵深淸明.
심선연   수심공허, 연심청명.

The virtue of the mind is like that of the pond.  The waters that are deep are empty and hollow. A pond that is deep is clear and bright.

與善仁   萬物得水以生. 與虛不與盈也.
여선인   만물득수이생. 여허불여영야.

The virtue of associations is like that of benevolence. All things acquire water to live. They associate with the empty; but not with the full.

言善信   水內影照形, 不失其情也.
언선신   수내영조형, 불실기정야.

The virtue of speech is in trust. Within water, a shadow illuminates form and does not lose its state.

正善治   無有不洗, 淸且平也.
정선치   무유불세, 청차평야.

The virtue of rectification is in governance. There is nothing that is not washed: everything is clear and even.

事善能   能方能圓, 曲直隨形.
사선능   능방능원, 곡직수형.

The virtue of affairs is in ability. To be able to be square and to be able to be round, and to be crooked and to be curved is to follow form.

動善時   夏散冬凝, 應期而動, 不失天時.
동선시   하산동응, 응기이동, 불실천시.

The virtue of movement is in timeliness. To scatter during summer and to coalesce in winter is in response to time periods and movement, and does not lose track of celestial time.

夫唯不爭   壅之則止, 決之則流, 聽從人也.
부유불쟁   옹지직지, 결지즉류, 청종인야.

Generally, [virtue] does not quibble. If [the water] is blocked, then it will stop; if it is lifted, then it will flow. Listening, it will follow another.

故無尤   水性如是, 故天下無有怨尤水者也.
고무우   수성여시, 고천하무유원우수자야.

Therefore, [virtue] does not have any faults. The nature of water is like this. Therefore, underneath the heavens, there is nothing that has grievances and claims faults against water.

  • Korean translation of Dao De Jing and commentary available here.
  • The Riverside Sage was a scholar that lived sometime during the reign of Han Emperor Wen (漢文帝, 한 문제, 202-157BC). Not much is known about him personally: not even his original name. He is said to have lived in a thatched house near a brook where he enjoyed reading Dao De Jing. One day, the Emperor heard about the Sage’s abilities to interpret the workand requested him to write a commentary.
  • Other historic, influential commentaries of the Dao De Jing include those by Wang Bi (王弼, 왕필, 226-249), Lu Deming (陸德明, 육덕명, 550?-630?), and Jiao Hong (焦竑, 초횡, 1541-1620). Chosun dynasty scholars such as Yi I (李珥, 이이, 1536-1584) and Pak Sedang (朴世堂, 박세당, 1629-1703) also wrote commentaries.

Cho Ryeo (趙旅, 조려, 1420-1489) was a Chosun dynasty civil bureaucrat, who spent most of his life outside government. He was of the Ham’an Cho Clan (咸安趙氏, 함안조씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Ju’ong (翁, 주옹); his pen name (號, 호) was Eogye (漁溪, 어계); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Jeongjeol (貞節, 정절). In 1453, Cho Ryeo passed the civil service examination to enter Sungkyunkwan (成均館, 성균관), the national academy, where his intellect was widely recognized. But he soon left politics. Just two years later in 1455, Prince Suyang (首陽大君, 수양대군, 1417-1468) usurped the throne from his nephew King Danjong (端宗, 단종, 1441-1457, r. 1452-1455), taking the title King Sejo (世祖, 세조, r. 1455-1468). Cho Ryeo in protest retired from government to rusticate in his hometown of Ham’an (咸安, 함안) in South Gyeongsang Province (慶尙南道, 경상남도), west of Busan (釜山, 부산). There, he lived at the base of a nearby mountain and spent his time fishing, earning the pen name of Eogye (漁溪, 어계) (“fisherman’s brook”). In honor of Cho Ryeo, the mountain where he stayed was later renamed “Mount Baekyi” (伯夷山, 백이산) after the famous Zhou dynasty era Chinese nobleman Bo Yi (伯夷, 백이, ?-?), who also spent the remainder of his life as a hermit on a mountain after protesting the Zhou state’s (周, 주) invasion of his home state of Shang (商, 상). As he was not executed for protesting King Sejo’s usurpation of the throne by retiring from government, Cho Ryeo is known as one of the Six Surviving Ministers (生六臣, 생육신). This is contrast to the other six bureaucrats who suffered death for their protest known as the Six Martyred Ministers (死六臣, 사육신). For his merit, Cho Ryeo was posthumously raised to the high ranking position of Junior Minister of the Ministry of Personnel (吏曹參判, 이조참판) in 1698 and then to Senior Minister of the same ministry later on. 

During his seclusion from public life, Cho Ryeo spent his days not only fishing but also reading and composing poetry. In the poem below, Cho Ryeo describes the custom of Hair Bathe Festival (流頭節, 유두절 or 유둣날) while remarking on his own life. The name is an abbreviation of the phrase “Bathing the hair in the waters flowing east” (東流水頭沐浴, 동류수두목욕). The festival falls on the 15th day of the sixth month on the lunar calendar, which is July 30 this year. On this day, the traditional custom was to go to a stream or a waterfall to wash one’s hair to ward off the heat during the hottest period of year. Other customs included consuming food made out of wheat, millet, and beans and holding ancestral memorials (流頭薦新, 유두천신) using such food as offerings. The Hair Bathe Festival traces its origins back to the Shilla dynasty period (新羅, 신라, 57BC-935AD), and according to one source is the only traditional holiday unique to Korea — with the rest tracing back their origins to China. Today, however, outside of rural agricultural areas, the Hair Bathe Festival has been largely forgotten.

流頭 유두

Hair Bathe Festival

一帶長川抱隴頭 일대장천포롱두 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
好將塵髮俯淸流 호장진발부청류 仄平平仄仄平平(韻)
常懷事業偏多誤 상회사업편다오 平平仄仄平平仄
却恨光陰不少留 각한광음불소류 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
沐後彈冠心更淨 목후탄관심갱쟁 仄仄仄平平仄仄
醉餘揮筆興難收 취여휘필흥난수 仄平平仄仄平平(韻)
回看蕩蕩乾坤裏 회간탕탕건곤리 平平仄仄平平仄
物我俱新淡若秋 물아구신담약추 仄仄仄平仄仄平(韻)

Like a single belt, the long stream loops around the head of the hill.
Good it is to have dirty hair be bent into the clear flowing waters.
Always I have thought of my career and undertakings as mostly mistakes;
Yet I lament that my days and nights did not see even a few moments of respite.
After bathing, taking off my hat, my heart is once again cleansed;
Being intoxicated, waving around my brush, my desire can hardly be contained.
Turning, I observe within the fluttering and flittering heavens and earth:
Everything and myself, all renewed and cleansed of all emotion like autumn.


One • belt • long • stream • to surround • hill • head
Good • will • dirt • hair • to bend over • clear • flow
Always • to ponder • affair • work • to incline • many • mistakes
But • to resent • light • darkness • not • few • stop
To bathe • after • to pluck • hat • heart • again • to cleanse
Inebriated • to remain • to wave • brush • interests • difficult • to receive
To turn • to see • to flutter • to flutter • heaven • earth • inside
Material • I/me • all • new • fresh • to be like • autumn


  • Heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩, 칠언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 尤(우). The poem complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • Korean translation available here (한국어 번역).
Sunghyeon Seoweon

Sunghyeon Confucian Academy (崇賢書院, 숭현서원), located in Daejeon (大田, 대전). It was destroyed during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598 and reconstructed in 1609 at the direction of Song Namsu. The academy fell into ruin shortly after a decree by Prince Heungseon (興宣大院君, 흥선대원군, 1820-1898, r. 1863-1873) ordering the shutdown of all private academies. It was rebuilt for the second time in 1994. (Source)

Song Namsu (宋柟壽, 송남수, 1537-1626) was a Chosun dynasty scholar, poet, and civil bureaucrat. He was of the Eunjin Song Clan (恩津宋氏, 은진송씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Yeongro (靈老, 영로); and his pen names (號, 호) were Songdam (松潭, 송담), Sangshimheon (賞心軒, 상심헌), and Odosan’in (吾道山人, 오도산인). In 1578, Song Namsu was appointed to a bureaucratic position based upon the attainment of office by successive generations of his ancestors (蔭仕, 음사). Afterwards, he was posted in various offices, including Chief Clerk at the Royal Clothing Office (尙衣院判官, 상의원판관), Section Chief of the Board of Taxation (郞, 호조정랑), and County Magistrate of  Imcheon (林川郡守, 임천군수). After the 1597 Japanese invasion of Korea (丁酉再亂, 정유재란), Song Namsu was accused of abandoning his post in Imcheon and fleeing from the Japanese. However, he was absolved upon appeal of his initial judgment. Regardless, for sometime after, he decided to stay out of politics and rusticate. In 1607, Song Namsu returned to government, obtaining the title of Auxiliary Military Protector in Resisting Assaults (折衝副護軍, 절충부호군), an office in charge of transporting rations for troops. In 1609, he directed the reconstruction of Sunghyeon Confucian Academy (崇賢書院, 숭현서원), which was destroyed during the invasions. Upon attaining the age of 80, Song Namsu received the title of Grand Master of Excellent Justice (?) (嘉義大夫, 가의대부). During the latter years of his life, he retired to his home village, where he composed histories and poetry.

In the poem below, Song Namsu writes about trying to ward off the summer heat. In Korea, the end of July and start of August typically see the hottest days of the year. These are marked on the calendar by the Great Heat day (大暑, 대서), which falls on July 23, and the latter two of the Three Hottest Periods (三伏, 삼복). Through the poem, he describes the vivid summer scenery around a pavilion named Geum’un Pavilion (錦雲亭, 금운정) and reflects upon his own life while drinking.

錦雲亭避暑, 示主人 금운정피서, 시주인

Avoiding the Heat at Geum’un Pavilion, Seen by the Owner

月臨山檻外 월림산함외 仄平平仄仄
花落藕塘中 화락우당중 平仄仄平平(韻)
勝境逢知己 승경봉지기 仄仄平平仄
淸樽幸不空 청준행불공 平平仄仄平(韻)

The moonlight comes down upon the mountain beyond the balustrade;
Flower petals drop into the lotus pond.
In this wondrous scenery, I meet and discover myself:
Luckily, my clear wine bottle is not yet empty.

Moon • to come down • mountain • balustrade • outside
Flower • to drop • lotus • pond • amid
Wondrous • place • to meet • to know • oneself
Clear • wine bottle • fortuitously • not • to be empty

林月向人明 림월향인명 平仄仄平平(韻)
荷香透檻淸 하향투함청 平平仄仄平(韻)
肝腸托樽酒 간장탁준주 平平平平仄
一笑話平生 일소화평생 仄仄仄平平(韻)

The forest’s moon turns towards mankind, shimmering.
The lotus’ fragrance surpasses the balustrade’s distinctiveness.
Entrusting my liver and innards to my bottle of wine,
With one burst of laughter, I have conversed all my life.

Forest • moon • to face • man • bright
Lotus • fragrance • to pass through • balustrade • distinct
Liver • innards • to entrust • wine bottle • wine
One • laughter • to converse • all • life


  • Two pentasyllabic truncated verses (五言絶句, 오언절구). The riming character (韻, 운) of first verse is 東(동) and of the second verse is 庚(경). The first verse complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시). Furthermore, the second verse does not comply: the fourth line, the second and fourth character are of the same tone. In addition, ending in a riming character in the first line of a pentasyllabic poem is generally rare. (This sudden and perhaps intentional break in form in the second verse may be an indication of the poet’s inebriated state.)
  • 錦雲亭(금운정) – It seems that there have been a number of pavilions with the same name, including two that are still existent. It is uncertain which one Song Namsu is referring to.
  • Korean translation of the poem available here (한국어번역).
Donga Ilbo March 20 1930

March 20, 1930 edition of Dong-A Ilbo (東亞日報, 동아일보) (Source).

One of my other interests besides Classical Chinese is astronomy. Today, with New Horizons, the first probe ever to explore Pluto, having flown by the dwarf planet, I checked somewhat frequently on various websites for news about the spacecraft. As I read for the umpteenth time about the history of Pluto’s discovery, I started to wonder: when did Koreans first hear of the discovery? In America, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh had found the celestial object on February 18, 1930. Its discovery was announced later on March 13. The name “Pluto” was officially adopted on March 24. To find out more about Koreans’ first reception of the discovery, I checked on Naver’s archive of old newspapers. The earliest reference I could find was from an article in the March 20 edition of Dong-A Ilbo, not too long after its first announcement. Here are a few sentences from the article:

Discovery of a New Planet Belonging to the Solar System:
From Lowell Observatory in America

(Telegraphed from Cambridge) According to the Harvard University Astronomical Research Center’s announcement, Percival’s Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona State is said to have discovered what they believe is a new, fifteenth celestial object that belongs to the solar system as the ninth planet near Neptune. This new planet cannot be seen without the use of the most advanced telescope in the world …

Lowell Observatory is named after Percival Lowell, who passed away in 1916. He predicted the position and existence of a new planet. This was the result of research long speculated regarding the gravitational tugs on Neptune by the new planet.* The discovery of Neptune also was based on similar observations.

This discovery of the ninth planet in the solar system is the actualization of predictions made 30 years ago by the deceased Professor Percival Lowell, who designated it as “Planet X” or “Transneptunian.” This discovery, as it is the culmination of several decades of scientific research, is the most important, greatest discovery since the discovery of Neptune in 1864 …

So there you have it. No later than March 20, 1930. (There are other Korean newspapers from that time period, but they are not available on Naver.)

As for the Korean name for Pluto, it is Myeongwangseong (冥王星, 명왕성), literally meaning the “planet of the king of darkness.” This is a liberal translation of “Pluto,” who in Greek mythology is the god of the underworld. This Chinese character translation was first coined by Japanese astronomer Nijiri Hoei (野尻 抱影, 1885-1977) later that year. His nomenclature was adopted by the Kyoto Astronomical Observatory and soon spread to China and later to Korea.

* The “Planet X” hypothesis has been proven false since then. With Voyager 2’s new measurements of the masses of Uranus and Neptune in 1989, the necessity of a large hypothetical planet beyond the two ice giants was eliminated. With the discovery of thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belt, which encompasses the region just outside Neptune, Pluto was demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” in 2006.

Zong Le (宗泐, 종륵, 1317-1391) was a Ming dynasty Buddhist monk of the Linji School (宗, 임제종). He was born in Taizhou (臺州, 대주) in Zhejiang Province (浙江省, 절강성); his original surname (俗姓, 속성) was Zhou (周, 주); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Jitan (季潭, 계담); and his pen name (號, 호) was Quanshi (全室, 전실). From childhood, Zong Le disliked the mundane world. At the age of 8, he entered Jingci Temple (淨寺, 정자사) to study under the tutelage of the head monk, Xiaoyin Daxin (笑訢, 소은대흔). He progressed, and attained tonsure (剃度, 체도) at the age of 14 and was ordained a monk (具戒, 구족계) at the age of 20. After being ordained, Zong Le continued his studies and resided at various temples, including Shuixi (水西寺, 수서사) and Zhongtianzhu (中寺, 중천축사) Temples. At the command of the Ming Emperor, he was posted at Tianjie Temple (天寺, 천계사), where he was tasked with compiling and editing the Chinese Buddhist Canon (大經, 대장경). To further his work, Zong Le traveled to the countries west of China to retrieve more texts. Upon his return, Zong Le was appointed as the head monk of all of China (僧祿世, 승록사우선세). Because of his run-ins with jealous court officials, however, Zong Le did not stay long and retired from the post to live in solitude. At the age of 74, he passed away (入寂, 입적) at Shifo Temple (石佛寺, 석불사) in Jiangpu (江浦, 강포). 

In the poem below, Zong Le frets about the heat of a summer night. Under the solar terms of the traditional Chinese calendar, the hottest days of the season were supposed to fall between the Minor Heat (小暑, 소서) and the Major Heat (大暑, 대서). These days fall around July 7 and July 22 respectively every year on the Western Gregorian Calendar, and mark when the Sun is between the celestial longitudes of 105 and 130 degrees.

暑夜 서야

Blistering Night

此夜炎蒸不可當 차야염증불가당 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
開門高樹月蒼蒼 개문고수월창창 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
天河只在南樓上 천하지재남루상 平平仄仄平平仄
不借人間一滴凉 불차인간일적량 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)

This night’s sweltering dampness — I cannot bear.
With the door opened, upon the tall tree, the moon is blue and azure.
The heavenly stream only lies above the southern pavilion,
But does not even lend mankind one droplet of its coolness.


This • night • heat • steam • not • can • to suffer
To open • door • high • tree • moon • blue • blue
Heaven • stream • only • to exist • south • pavilion • above
Not • to borrow • man • among • one • droplet • cool


  • Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). Riming character (韻, 운) is 陽(양). The poem generally complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • 天河(천하) – Literally “heavenly stream.” Refers to the Milky Way.
  • Korean translation available here.
Rhee Syngman on Time Cover

President Rhee Syngman on the cover of October 16, 1950 edition of Time Magazine (Source)

Rhee Syngman (李承晩, 이승만, 1875-1965) was a Korean independence activist, the first President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, and the first, second, and third President of the Republic of Korea — and a controversial one at that. He was of the Jeonju Yi Clan (全州李氏, 전주이씨); his childhood name (兒名, 아명) was Seungryong (承龍, 승룡); and his pen name (號, 호) was Unam (雩南, 우남).

Like so many did before him, Rhee Syngman started his studies at a Confucian school on the path to taking the civil service examination. However, when the Gabo Reforms of 1894 (甲午改革, 갑오개혁) abolished the examinations, he enrolled at the American Methodist founded Paichai Academy (培材學堂, 배재학당), where he learned English and adopted Protestantism. He also began taking an active role in the independence movement. With the outset of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, he went with a delegation to the United States to request aid from President Theodore Roosevelt. Although the delegation failed its objective, Rhee Syngman stayed behind and received education, eventually obtaining a doctorate from Princeton. Shortly after graduating, he returned to Korea, which had now become a Japanese colony, but fled for America just two years after. In 1919, Rhee Syngman was elected in absentia as the first president of the Provisional Government of Korea then based in Shanghai. He spent most of his presidency, however, back in the United States, repeatedly asking for aid but to little avail. In 1925, the Provisional Government impeached Rhee Syngman for abuse of powers and removed him from office.

With Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, Rhee Syngman returned to Korea along with American forces. In 1948, he was elected in landslide victory in the National Assembly and inaugurated as the first President of the Republic of Korea. Upon taking office, Rhee Syngman took a very harsh stance against Communists, and actively attempted to root out Communism wherever it was perceived to exist. His government oversaw several massacres of civilians, the most infamous of which occurred on Jeju Island from 1948 to 1949. (The threat of Communism was arguably quite real, but his methods against civilians are still of much controversy.) When North Korea invaded on June 25, 1950, he fled Seoul only two days after and moved the capital temporarily to Busan (釜山, 부산). Rhee Syngman requested for American intervention, and this time was successful in securing assistance under the banner of the United Nations. He directed the government and war efforts from Busan for most of the war.

After the war in 1954, knowing that he was unpopular in the National Assembly, Rhee Syngman amended the constitution to allow for direct election of the presidency, and in 1956 won the presidential election after his opponent passed away shortly before the vote. With the vice presidential elections in 1960, Rhee Syngman was accused of rigging the elections, when both opponents coincidentally died before the vote. This sequence of events triggered the widespread protests of the April 19 Movement. Just eight days later on April 27, 1960, surrounded by protesters, Rhee Syngman resigned and fled Korea to America. He spent the remainder of his life in Hawaii where he passed away in 1965. Rhee Syngman is survived by no direct descendants, as he did not have children of his own. He did, however, adopt a distant family member who is still currently alive as of this post.

However controversial his legacy, little known even in Korea is the fact that Rhee Syngman was well-versed in Classical Chinese. While Rhee Syngman is not the last Korean president to have received traditional Confucian education (the much more favorably remembered President Kim Daejung was), he is the perhaps the last Korean head of state to have an extensive collection of Classical Chinese poetry. The following poem is from the Korean War, the 65th anniversary of which is this week. Rhee Syngman composed this poem during the spring of 1951 while in Busan.

戰時春 전시춘

Wartime Spring

半島山河漲陣烟 반도산하창진연 仄仄平平仄仄平(韻)
胡旗洋帆翳春天 호기양범예춘천 平平仄仄仄平平(韻)
彷徨盡是無家客 방황진시무가객 平平仄仄平平仄
漂泊誰非辟穀仙 표박수비벽곡선 平仄平平仄仄平(韻)
城市遺墟如古壁 성시유허여고벽 平仄仄平平仄仄
山川燒地起新田 산천요지기신전 平平平仄仄平平(韻)
東風不待干戈息 동풍불대간과식 平平仄仄仄平仄
細草遍生敗壘邊 세초편생패루변 仄仄仄平仄仄平(韻)

The peninsula and its mountains and rivers brim with the encampments’ smoke;
Brutish Chinese standards and Oceanic Barbarians’ sails cover the spring sky.
Wandering and itinerant, all are homeless travelers;
Roaming and vagabond, who is not a grain-refusing hermit?
The remnant ruins of the town’s market are like old ramparts;
The smoldering grounds of the mountains and streams give rise to new paddies.
The easterly winds do not await the resting of spears and lances.
Thinly spread grass sprout all around, surrounding the fallen fort.


  • Heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩, 칠언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 先(선). The poem generally complies with the rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시).
  • 胡(호) – Refers to the Chinese. Before the fall of the Ming dynasty, the character was used to refer to northern peoples such as the Mongols and Manchus. However, after the Ming dynasty was conquered by the Manchus, many Korean writers believing themselves to be last remnant of Sinitic civilization used this character to refer to all Chinese in general. The People’s Republic of China intervened in the Korean War in October 1950.
  • 洋(양) – Refers to Westerners, more specifically, the Americans.
  • 辟穀(벽곡) – Refers to refraining from grains, and instead eating jujubes, pine needles, dates, and the like.
  • Korean translation available here. More of Rhee Syngman’s Classical Chinese poetry categorized by theme can be found here.

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