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The COVID-19 Crisis as Seen through the Lens of History

Tae-jin Yi

Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University

The coronavirus known as COVID-19 is dealing a heavy blow to the world. Some even say that the global economy is grinding to a halt. In this urgent situation, is there any room for the field of history, which deals with the past, to have a voice? In 2003, there was the SARS pandemic, which was followed by MERS that spread in 2015. And now, COVID-19. Does this trend suggest that a global history of pandemics is being written in the 21st century? If so, are we not supposed to predict and prepare for yet another mutant virus that might soon threaten us?

If all these three can be categorized as respiratory diseases, air pollution has to be a relevant issue. There was a warning against the global warming that was attributed to the rapid industrialization. Then, as the colossal socialist state that is China adopted a capitalist economy, fine dust began to cover the sky in Korea, frequently making it difficult for many to breathe freely. Under the circumstances, can it be ascribed to mere chance that the outbreak of mutant viruses originated from that country twice? Principally, the environment of the earth is affected by the mechanism of the solar system. Both in the East and in the West, natural anomalies are deemed disasters from heaven. But what is happening before our eyes is different in that this is a preventable calamity caused by humans.     

In the 1990s, I examined 25,670 entries of the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty recording the natural anomalies that occurred in the 463-year period from King Taejo to King Cheoljong (1392–1863). By doing so, I was able to verify the phenomena of a “little ice age” spanning 270 years from 1490 to 1760, during which the earth remained noticeably colder. There, I found just as many records of meteors as those related to the cold weather. And so I enlisted help from Professor Gwangseop So, an expert in astrophysics, in order to gain access to the latest research on the near earth objects.  

In the latest research, the solar system is pictured in a way that is completely different from what I saw in the past. Between Mars and Jupiter, there is an asteroid belt, which is marked by numerous rocks. Larger ones are called asteroids, and smaller ones are termed meteoroids. These rocks gravitate around the sun on an oval orbit, and when crossing their paths with the earth revolving on the circular orbit, they gravitate toward the earth and enter the atmosphere, becoming meteors.  

In my analysis, the Veritable Records not only contain records on small and large meteors but also describe more than 20 derivative phenomena. Small and large meteors entering the earth’s atmosphere explode due to friction and leave fine particles in the air. Such cosmic dust sometimes enters the atmosphere en masse, while enveloping a multitude of meteors. The accumulation of cosmic dust intercepts the heat and light radiating from the sun, thereby lowering the surface temperature of the earth.

As a result, atmospheric moisture was frozen by the lower temperature and became innumerable ice particles. Multiple solar halos, which were caused by sunlight interacting with such ice particles, more than amazed the people. They downright frightened them. King Jungjong had Jo Gwangjo, his favored minister, drink poison because of the slanderous charge that the “dual suns,” which actually were highly unusual double solar halos, indicated Jo’s treasonous intent.

 The Veritable Records describes a situation in which Seoul was apparently surrounded by cosmic dust for 43 days from the 12th day of the 3rd lunar month to the 24th day of the 4th lunar month in 1661. The capital city was hazy and frosty every day, and dust seemed to be falling everywhere. The lower temperature ensured poor harvests. Crop failure ensued year after year, causing famine and epidemics that claimed many lives. One official historian recorded one million deaths in one year, further commenting that the actual casualties far exceeded this number.   

European scholars estimated that the little ice age lasted about 80 years in the 1600s, but the Veritable Records show that this situation spanned 260 years. Enveloped by cosmic dust, Europe was devastated by plagues, and China and Joseon were crippled by pandemics with symptoms of severe coldness. There is a record stating that the bugs then devouring crops had the grotesque features that had never been observed before, suggesting mutation. This may point to certain parallels between the situation at that time and the conditions for the occurrence of mutant viruses today.

The civilizations responded to these natural calamities with startling intensity. Confucians interpreted the natural anomalies as heavenly warnings against the wrongful deeds of men. The king and his officials had to express their repentance with fear and trembling. Factional strife over whose fault this was led to political conflicts and literati purges.

The Japanese samurais, viewing the natural anomalies as signs of Heaven deserting their lord, rebelled against their ruler for over 70 years. In Europe, celestial chaos was seen as signs of God’s final judgment, and wars of religion erupted. For one century, the madness of “witch hunts” continued on the grounds that witches performing agrarian sacrifices were instigated by Satan to bring about crop failures.

The long emergency shook the ruling systems to the core. In Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi seemed to have unified the warring states, but it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who became the ultimate victor that pacified the country at long last. In China, the Ming dynasty imploded, and the Jurchens came down from the north to take over the mainland. Curiously, Joseon did not fall. Joseon Confucians believed that just governance would make heavenly anomalies dissipate. Thus, Yi Hwang and Yi I presented arguments that self-cultivation leads to good governance. Their theses were highly esteemed. Thus, the rules of propriety were studied earnestly, with the conviction that good character should produce good conduct.

Nevertheless, natural disasters kept occurring. A new breed of scholars then emerged with the slogan that self-cultivation and good governance have to be proven by delivering the people from famine. This marked the beginning of the Practical Learning. After Chief Minister Ryu Seongryong’s relief effort during the Imjin War, Kim Yuk devised the Uniform Land Tax Law and implemented the new tax system province by province. Previously in the Joseon court, all the taxes collected from towns across the country had been brought to the ferries on the Han River in Seoul. When a famine struck a village, relief grain was sent from Seoul. Even surplus grain in a neighboring town could not be transferred directly to the famine-stricken village. The Uniform Land Tax Law broke this centripetal convention. Under the direction of the Border Defense Council, tax grain in nearby towns was allowed to be sent directly to the village in need, thereby improving responsiveness to crises.

Another innovation was a change in the payment method of tribute. Previously, tribute items had been collected in specified goods. But the system was now changed to have the tribute items paid in rice, beans, or cotton cloth, which were needed more than anything else in famine and cold weather. Also, the work of unloading the tax grain arriving at Yongsan and Mapo ferries in Seoul was no longer done by forced labor but by paid workers, which led to the birth of the Capital River Merchants. Such emergency measures eventually combined to form the basis of the sustained protectionism of the common people, resuscitating farmers and merchants. This prevented the dynasty from collapsing.

The Practical Learning of the Joseon period was a reshaping of Neo-Confucian thought in pursuit of resolving the crisis caused by the little ice age. This can be compared to what happened in Europe of the same period, namely, the transformation of astrology into astronomy in the process of observing the heavenly anomalies of the times. As the alarm is being raised that our timely response to a possible global economic meltdown is critical, I hope that we can rebuild our confidence in overcoming the crisis by correctly reading the history of the Joseon dynasty.

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