Jeong Yakyong (丁若鏞, 정약용, 1762-1836) was a late Chosun dynasty philosopher, bureaucrat, poet, and civil engineer. He was of the Naju Jeong Clan (羅州丁氏, 나주정씨); his courtesy names (字, 자) were Miyong (美鏞, 미용) and Songbo (頌甫, 송보); his pen names (號, 호) were Dasan (茶山, 다산), Sammi (三眉, 삼미), and Yeoyudang (與猶堂, 여유당), among several others; and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Mundo (文度, 문도). At the age of 21, in 1783, Jeong Yakyong passed his first civil service examination. Thereafter, he continued his studies at the Sungkyunkwan (成均館, 성균관) and also rose through the bureaucratic ranks. Through his studies, he became introduced to Western Learning (西學, 서학), i.e., Catholicism, through fellow scholar Yi Byeok (李蘗, 이벽, 1754-1786). While there is no proof that Jeong Yakyong himself had ever converted, some of his close family members and friends were baptized into the Catholic Church. His associations with early Korean Catholics and more importantly with the Southerners’ Faction (南人派, 남인파) would later embroil him. Beginning in 1791, members of the rivaling Old Doctrines Faction (老論派, 노론파) started accusing him of being Catholic, an assertion that he repeatedly denied. For some time, however, Jeong Yakyong was still favored on the royal court. In 1792, for instance, already known for his knowledge of Western civil engineering techniques, he was asked to supervise the construction of Hwaseong (華城, 화성), a fortress in Suwon (水原, 수원). This changed with the start of the Shinyu Year Persecutions (辛酉敎難, 신유교난) in 1801, when Jeong Yakyong was arrested and banished for his associations with Catholics. During his banishment, he devoted himself to studying Confucian classics and started writing several notable works, including Remaining Thoughts on Managing the Nation (經世遺表, 경세유표) and Mind of Governing the People (牧民心書, 목민심서). He was released in 1818, but remained out of politics and passed away in 1836 near Seoul.
From an early age, Jeong Yakyong was recognized for his Classical Chinese poetry. By the age of 10, he had already amassed a collection of his own poetry. Jeong Yakyong’s style was somewhat unconventional in that he explicitly disliked the strict rules of recent style poetry (近體詩, 근체시) and preferred freer archaic style poetry (古體詩, 고체시). In one particular poem from his banishment, he remarked, “I am a man of Chosun / Gleefully writing Chosun poetry” (我是朝鮮人 甘作朝鮮詩 – 아시조선인 감작조선시). This line is surprising, because he brazenly ignores conventional tonal meter. (Also note that Hangul and Korean vernacular poetry written in Hangul had existed for well over three centuries when he wrote this line.) The poem below also does not conform to the strict rules of recent style poetry. In it, he describes farmers threshing barley. In Korea, the agricultural custom of threshing the barley (–打作, 보리타작) was traditionally associated with Grain in Ear Day (芒種, 망종). As a solar term, the day marks when the Sun is between the celestial longitudes of 75 to 90 degrees and falls around June 6-7 on the western Gregorian calendar every year. Barley has a long history in Korea, as the grain was introduced to the peninsula already domesticated from either China or Central Asia sometime during prehistoric times.
Threshing the Barley
The new hay and cloudy wine are milky white;
The large bowl is with barley feed one feet high.
Having finished their meal, they grab flails and go out to stand in the yard.
Twin shoulders, lacquered with sweat, overturn in the redness of the sun.
- 濁酒(탁주) – Literally “cloudy alcohol.” Refers to an unrefined rice wine known as Makgeolli (막걸리).
Oh, alas! Making noise, their feet are in lockstep.
For a brief moment, barley ears are stacked all over the place.
Various tunes call and answer in antiphony, with their voices becoming gradually louder.
But only seen are the barley flying scattered about upon the corner of the ceiling.
- 須臾(수유) – Binome word (連綿辭, 연면사) meaning “briefly.”
- 狼藉(낭자) – Binome word meaning “to be messy.”
Having observed their complexions, they cannot be any more joyous:
In the end, they do not regard their spirits to be servile to their bodies.
The paradisaical garden and paradisaical purlieu do not exist afar.
Oh, how I agonize over having left to become a traveler amid the windblown dust!
- 樂莫樂(낙막락) – Literally, “joy unlike joy.” Refers to extreme joy.
- 風塵客(풍진객) – Literally, “windblown dust’s guest.” The term “windblown dust” refers to the mundane world (俗世, 속세). The phrase as a whole refers to someone in bureaucracy.
- Heptasyllabic archaic poem (七言古詩, 칠언고시) with no riming scheme. The poem has been broken into three parts for the purposes of presentation.
- Korean translation available here.