Ch'oe Pu: Castaway in China (1454 – 1504)

Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society

From Homer’s Odyssey to Marco Polo’s tales in China, stories of travelers in far away lands, both fiction and non-fiction, have enchanted readers for centuries. Seen through the eyes of the brave adventurer, the reader is escorted through exotic lands and foreign peoples. Although most of these travelers left the comfort of their home seeking the unknown, some were ill-fated men and women that stumbled upon adventure rather than looking for it. One of these hapless travelers was Ch’oe Pu (1454 – 1504), a scholar-official in Korea during the fifteenth century.

Caught in a winter storm, Ch’oe, along with forty-two other men, drifted across the vast expanse of the Yellow Sea to eventually land in China. Surviving starvation and braving thieves, mobs, and storms, these men of Chosǒn Korea caught rare glimpses of the vast expanse of the Chinese empire. Surprisingly, what saved these men from several near-death experiences was not heroic physical strength or ingenious escape plans, but an undying commitment to Confucian values. In Ch’oe Pu’s diary of his escapade, A Record of Drifting Across the Sea, we not only find an exciting adventure of a group of Koreans through China, but also a demonstration of the level of Korean’s faith in and commitment to Confucianism.

Born in 1454 CE, Ch’oe Pu was the son of a respected Confucian scholar. As the son of a scholar, Ch’oe’s parents expected him to become a master in the Confucian classics. Obedient to his father, Ch’oe studied hard and became a dedicated follower of Confucianism. His commitment to his studies helped him to eventually pass the government civil service exams and become a government official. After serving in several posts, in October 1487 he received an official assignment that required him to travel to Cheju Island, a large volcanic island south of the Korean peninsula. While in Cheju, Ch’oe received a message that his beloved father had passed away.

Mourning His Father’s Passing

In Confucianism, filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents, ranks as one of the most important values. With the passing of his father, Ch’oe Pu was required to enter a mourning period of three years. During the mourning period, Koreans wore white mourning clothes and refrained from eating certain foods like meat and wine. Truly filial sons would even go as far as to building a small hut to live in next to the gravesite. Ch’oe was one of these sons.

Because of his strong desire to return home to comfort his mourning mother and family, he quickly gathered a crew and boarded a ship to make the crossing, despite warnings that it was not safe to set sail. Leaving Cheju in February with forty-two other men, the ship soon got caught up in a storm and the sailors became lost at sea. In his diary, Ch’oe laments their situation, “The ship had been pounded by violent waves now for many days. There were a hundred holes and a thousand strains.”1 When the men used all of their supplies, they resorted to drinking their own urine to quench their thirst.

After two weeks of despair, the ship encountered a group of Chinese sailors who boarded the ship and stole the remaining food and belongings. To add insult to injury, they stripped the boat of its sails and oars, leaving the unfortunate Koreans hopelessly adrift. Shortly after their encounter with the Chinese pirates, another group of Chinese sailors discovered the Korean ship and towed them into a harbor. Once inside the harbor, the Chinese turned on the Koreans and demanded that they hand over all their valuables. Finding the Koreans bereft of any valuables, the Chinese returned to their boats to discuss what to do with the Koreans. Taking this as an opportunity to make a run for it, Ch’oe ordered that they abandon ship and head for the nearest village.

Encounters in China

Unfortunately, their streak of bad luck did not end there. As Ch’oe and his men approached the first village, a group of villagers came out to see the strange foreigners. Ch’oe and his men were then hurried into a small home where they are given some food and water, but, soon after, they were forced back into the streets. Thinking that the Koreans were Japanese marauders, the villagers chased the Koreans out of the village and into the next one. Each successive village provided Ch’oe and his men with the same rough treatment until they finally reached an army garrison.

At the garrison, they were questioned as to how they came to China. Ch’oe relates his tale of being lost at sea, but it was not enough to convince the Chinese officials. The Chinese officials then asked if they observed the mourning rites of Chia li. Ch’oe responded, “in observing mourning, everyone of my countrymen respects the Chia li. I should have followed it, but being driven off by winds, I have not yet been able to weep before the coffin.”2

Chinese Support Korean Confucian Scholar

Convinced that Ch’oe was not a Japanese marauder, but an honorable Confucian gentleman, the Chinese officials decided to assist the Koreans in returning home. In order to help the Koreans, they had to be passed up the chain of command in order to receive official help to return home. From the garrison, the Koreans were handed off to additional officials who again questioned the Koreans, their story of being lost, and even Korean history. This helped to convince the officials for the second time and they sent the Korean to another set of interrogations.

In a final set of examinations, Ch’oe was thoroughly questioned on his knowledge of Confucianism. When asked to list the Confucian classics, Ch’oe was quick to reply by listing out the classics. “The Mean, Great Learning, Analects, and Mencius are the Four Books. The Books of Changes, Book of Odes, Book of History, Spring and Autumn Annals, and Book of Rites are the Five Classics.”3

With this final set of officials convinced that they should help the Koreans return home, another Chinese official, Yang Wang was assigned to escort the Koreans to the capital, Beijing. Taking a large river boat along the Grand Canal, the Koreans were privy to see the full range of Chinese cultures and peoples. In describing one of the cities Ch’oe wrote, “Foreign ships stand as thick as the teeth of a comb, and in the streets wine shops and music halls front directly each on another. There are flowers that do not fade through the four seasons and scenery of everlasting spring all year round.”4

Despite seeing the exotic and often entertaining parts of the empire, Ch’oe often lamented the situation.

After a month of traveling, the party of Koreans eventually made it to the capital Beijing. In Beijing, another round of questions followed and Ch’oe consistently satisfied and impressed the questioners with his extensive knowledge of Confucian doctrine and practices. The Chinese were perhaps so impressed that they allowed the Koreans to stand in the presence of some of the highest Chinese officials, even the emperor.

After some time in Beijing, arrangements were made and the Koreans made the final leg of their journey back home to Korea. Upon returning home, Ch’oe reported to the court about his journey and returned home to his grieving mother and family, thus fulfilling Ch’oe’s desire to be a filial son.