There was a man of Yong-nam, named Yoo, who lived in the days of Se-jong. He had studied the classics, had passed his examinations, and had become a petty official attached to the Confucian College. He was not even of the sixth degree, so that promotion was out of the question. He was a countryman who had no friends and no influence, and though he had long been in Seoul there was no likelihood of any advancement. Such being the case, disheartened and lonely, he decided to leave the city and go back to his country home.
There was a palace secretary who knew this countryman, and who went to say good-bye to him before he left.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, the countryman said, "I have long been in Seoul, but have never yet seen the royal office of the secretaries. Might I accompany you some day when you take vour turn?"
The secretary said, "In the daytime there is always a crowd of people who gather there for business, and no one is allowed in without a special pass. I am going in to-morrow, however, and intend to sleep there, so that in the evening we could have a good chance to look the Palace over. People are not allowed to sleep in the Palace as a rule, but doing so once would not be specially noticed." The secretary then gave orders to the military guard who accompanied him to escort this man in the next day.
As the secretary had arranged, the countryman, on the evening following, made his way into the Palace enclosure, but what was his surprise to find that, for some reason or other, the secretary had not come. The gates, also, were closed behind him, so that he could not get out. Really he was in a fix. There chanced to be a body-servant of the secretary in the room, and he, feeling sorry for the stranger, arranged a hidden corner where he might pass the night, and then quietly take his departure in the morning.
The night was beautifully clear, and apparently every one slept but Yoo. He was wide awake, and wondering to himself if he might not go quietly out and see the place.
It was the time of the rainy season, and a portion of the wall had fallen from the enclosure just in front. So Yoo climbed over this broken wall, and, not knowing where he went, found himself suddenly in the royal quarters. It was a beautiful park, with trees, and lakes, and walks. "Whose house is this," thought Yoo, "with its beautiful garden?" Suddenly a man appeared, with a nice new cap on his head, carrying a staff in his hand, and accompanied by a servant, walking slowly towards him. It was no other than King Se-jong, taking a stroll in the moonlight with one of his eunuchs.
When they met Yoo had no idea that it was the King. His Majesty asked, "Who are you, and how did you get in here?"
He told who he was, and how he had agreed to come in with the secretary; how the secretary had failed; how the gates were shut and he was a prisoner for the night; how he had seen the bright moonlight and wished to walk out, and, finding the broken wall, had come over. "Whose house is this, anyway?" asked Yoo.
The King replied, "I am the master of this house." His Majesty then asked him in, and made him sit down on a mat beside him. So they talked and chatted together. The King learned that he had passed special examinations in the classics, and inquiring how it was that Yoo had had no better office, Yoo replied that he was an unknown countryman, that his family had no influence, and that, while he desired office, he was forestalled by the powerful families of the capital. "Who is there," he asked, "that would bother himself about me? Thus all my hopes have failed, and I have just decided to leave the city and go back home and live out my days there."
The King asked again, "You know the classics so well, do you know something also of the Book of Changes?"
He replied, "The deeper parts I do not know, but the easier parts only."
Then the King ordered a eunuch to bring the Book of Changes. It was the time when his Majesty was reading it for himself. The book was brought and opened in the moonlight. The King looked up a part that had given him special difficulty, and this the stranger explained character by character, giving the meaning with convincing clearness. The King was delighted and wondered greatly, and so they read together all through the night. When they separated the King said, "You have all this knowledge and yet have never been made use of? Alas, for my country!" said he, sighing.
Yoo remarked that he would like to go straight home now, if the master would kindly open the door for him.
The King said, however, that it was too early yet, and that he might be arrested by the guards who were about. "Go then," said he, "to where you were, and when it is broad daylight you can go through the open gate."
Yoo then bade good-bye, and went back over the broken wall to his corner in the secretary's room. When morning came he went out through the main gateway and returned to his home.
On the following day the King sent a special secretary and had Yoo appointed to the office of Overseer of Literature. On the promulgation of this the officials gathered in the public court, and protested in high dudgeon against so great an office being given to an unknown person.
His Majesty, however, said, "If you are so opposed to it, I'll desist."
But the day following he appointed him to an office one degree still higher. Again they all protested, and his Majesty said, "Really, if you so object, I'll drop the matter."
The day following he appointed him to an office still one degree higher. Again they all protested and he apparently yielded to them. But the day following higher still he was promoted, and again the protests poured in, so much so that his Majesty seemed to yield. On the day following this the King wrote out for him the office of Vice-President of all the Literati.
The high officials gathered again and inquired of one another as to what the King meant, and what they had better do about it. "If we do not in some way prevent it, he will appoint him as President of the Literati." They decided to drop the matter for the present, and see later what was best to do.
A royal banquet was announced to take place, when all the officials gathered. On this occasion the high Ministers of State said quietly to the King, "It is not fitting that so obscure a person have so important an office. Your Majesty's promoting him as you have done has thrown the whole official body into a state of consternation. On our protest you have merely promoted him more. What is your Majesty's reason, please, for this action?"
The King made no reply, but ordered a eunuch to bring the Book of Changes. He opened it at the place of special difficulty, and inquired as to its meaning. Even among the highest ministers not one could give an answer. He inquired by name of this one and that, but all were silent. The King then said, "I am greatly interested in the reading of the Book of Changes; it is the great book of the sages. Any one who understands it surely ought to be promoted. You, all of you, fail to grasp its meaning, while Yoo, whom you protest against, has explained it all to me. Now what have you to say? Yoo's being promoted thus is just as it ought to be. Why do you object? I shall promote him still more and more, so cease from all opposition."
They were afraid and ashamed, and did not again mention it.
Yoo from that time on became the royal teacher of the Choo-yuk (Book of Changes), and rose higher and higher in rank, till he became Head of the Confucian College and first in influence, surpassing all.
Note - Many people of ability have no chance for promotion. It is difficult to have one's gifts known in high places; how much more difficult before a king? The good fortune that fell to the first scholar was of God's appointment. By caring for a vacant house the honour came to him, and he was promoted. The other's going thus unbidden into the Palace was a great wrong, but by royal favour he was pardoned, received and honoured.
By one line of poetry a man's ability was made manifest, and by one explanation of the Choo-yuk another's path was opened to high promotion.
If Se-jong had not been a great and enlightened king, how could it have happened? Very rare are such happenings, indeed! So all men wondered over what had befallen these two. I, however, wondered more over the King's sagacity in finding them. To my day his virtue and accomplishments are known, so that the world calls him Korea's King of the Golden Age.