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.
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.