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    “Let the Chief State Councilor read this petition aloud for all ministers to hear.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    Receiving the petition from Sejong, the Chief State Councilor cleared his throat and soon read it aloud.

    “Scholar  Lim Soonwook, performs a deep bow with his head touching the ground twice, and now picks up the brush…”

    The petition read by Lim Soonwook was divided into two major parts.

    One was a proposal on methods of recruiting talented individuals.

    The other was pointing out overlooked aspects in the recent reforms and suggesting alternatives.

    Firstly, regarding the recruitment of talents, Lim Soonwook criticized the current implementation of the civil service examination system.

    – The timing of the civil service examinations should be changed. Currently, they are usually held from January to May.

    However, holding them between March and April is problematic, as this period limits the examinations to a specific group of people.

    This is because March to April coincides with the spring hunger period and the planting season. Many people lose their strength after the spring hunger period and must devote themselves to farming during the planting season.

    Therefore, holding examinations during this time does not align with the goal of finding proper talents. Only those who have the leisure, mainly the children of the local gentry, can afford to take the exams during this period.

    Holding exams from January to February is equally unsuitable. This period is in the midst of a harsh winter, not suitable for traveling long distances.

    Thus, it is appropriate to conduct examinations between May and June, or between September and November, after the harvest and before the onset of winter.

    After addressing the timing of the examinations, Lim Soonwook pointed out the next issue.

    – The nature of the examination itself for those who sit for the civil service exams is problematic.

    Looking at the records from the year 1428 (10th year of Sejong’s reign), decisions were made based on literary composition.

    However, the debate between focusing on scripture recitation and interpretation versus literary ability has been ongoing.

    The issue with choosing scripture recitation is that the exam period can take almost a month, and there is a risk of corruption if the examiners and candidates know each other.

    Choosing literary composition, on the other hand, risks undervaluing Neo-Confucianism and encouraging a focus solely on literary flair.

    (Note 1)

    To resolve this issue, it is suggested to set ‘essay writing’ as a subject.

    If the exam involves discussing current or planned state policies, it can filter out those who rely solely on their writing skills.

    – Additionally, as arithmetic becomes increasingly important, an arithmetic exam should also be formally included in the subjects, and this should be widely publicized so that candidates can prepare adequately.

    The method of announcing examination results should also be improved. Instead of merely publishing a list of successful candidates, it should also include why the unsuccessful candidates failed. This will allow them to understand their shortcomings and decide whether to try again or pursue other careers.

    Next, Lim Soonwook proposed a method of recruiting talents without the civil service exams.

    – It should be widely publicized that the great benevolence of His Majesty has allowed me to enter the royal court.

    – As the saying goes, ‘Start with following Kui,’ this will let people know that His Majesty and the court highly value talents, thereby attracting them.

    – First, widely publicize my story, and then issue the following decree nationwide:

    ‘Discuss improvement strategies for the current affairs of the court. Those who provide good answers will be valued highly.’

    Seeing my example, those with aspirations will surely present good strategies, and by selecting the excellent among them to fill the roles of the court’s leadership and support, the nation can thrive for a thousand years.

    – This applies to those already in government service as well. Not only those studying at Sungkyunkwan to advance to higher ranks above Junior 5th Rank, but all officials from the rank of Chamhagwan (Junior 7th Rank to Junior 9th Rank) must submit at least one proposal related to state governance every two years.

    This is to select those who actively engage in governance, not just those who are passive.

    Upon hearing Lim Soonwook’s suggestion that ‘one must submit at least one paper every two years,’ the ministers nodded.

    “That’s a good idea. We’ll be able to find those who work independently.”

    “The problem is that we’re already hearing groans.”

    Hearing the ministers’ whispers, Kim Jeom shook his head in disapproval.

    “Don’t you realize that we are also included in this?”

    “Oops!”

    As the ministers’ faces turned pale, the Chief State Councilor continued reading Lim Soonwook’s petition.

    – The biggest problem in the current reforms is the increasing number of items under state monopoly, starting initially with salt and sugar, and now expanding to glass products, iron materials, spices, etc.

    While it’s acknowledged that the monopoly benefits the state budget and the households, like the case of paper, excessive monopolization can demotivate artisans and increase illicit production. Thus, it’s crucial to decide on items to be released from monopoly as the reforms progress.

    (Abbreviated)

    * * *

    After the Chief State Councilor finished reading, Sejong looked around at the ministers with a pleased expression.

    “It seems we have found a truly valuable talent, haven’t we?”

    In response to Sejong’s remark, Chief State Councilor Lee Jik replied.

    “That is true, Your Majesty. Of course, there are areas where his enthusiasm might be too much, but I believe those will be resolved with experience.”

    Sejong nodded at Lee Jik’s words.

    “That’s true. We should leave those matters to the wisdom of the experienced officials.”

    At Sejong’s words, the ministers’ faces fell.

    ‘Does this mean more work for us?’

    ‘I’m writing a resignation letter! I will do it!’

    Whether Sejong knew the ministers’ inner thoughts or not, he looked towards the Eastern Palace and continued.

    “Our Crown Prince seems to have great fortune in attracting talents. How does he manage to find such capable people?”

    Hearing this, the ministers inwardly groaned.

    ‘It’s not a fortune in people but a fortune in work!’

    Whether he knew the ministers’ feelings or not, Sejong reached a conclusion.

    “Let’s proceed to announce the laws regarding market regulation and land taxes as planned.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “And regarding the civil service exam issue, since Scholar Lim’s points are valid, let’s give some thought to it. Also, devise ways to uncover talents hidden in remote rural areas.”

    “…We accept your command.”

    The ministers replied with mixed emotions, prompting Sejong to add:

    “Do not forget that having more talented individuals will alleviate the burdens of the officials.”

    “We will bear it in mind!”

    The ministers responded loudly to Sejong’s words.

    “Let’s take a break for now.”

    Upon Sejong’s declaration of adjournment, the ministers hurried out of Geunjeongjeon and headed towards the State’s Council.

    * * *

    Upon arriving at the State Council’s meeting room, the Minister of Rites was the first to speak.

    “Which topic should we discuss first? The civil service exam or the strategy to recruit talents outside the traditional system?”

    Hearing this, the ministers all answered simultaneously.

    “The strategy for talent recruitment, of course!”

    “The talent recruitment strategy seems more pressing, doesn’t it?”

    “What else is there to discuss besides the talent recruitment strategy?”

    With the ministers’ unanimous reaction, Chief State Councilor Lee Jik concluded.

    “Since everyone agrees, let’s start with the talent recruitment strategy.”

    “That sounds good.”

    “Indeed.”

    As the ministers agreed, Maeng Sa-seong continued the conversation.

    “This will be an extremely challenging task, so take care of your health in advance. Turtle soup is excellent for strengthening vitality, isn’t it?”

    Following Maeng Sa-seong’s comment, the Right State Councilor added:

    “Speaking of turtle soup reminds me. We should send some turtles to Governor Hwang in the northeast. He seems to have weakened from working in the distant lands, and it’s difficult to see him except during regular reports. The development in the northeast also seems slower. If we help restore his vitality, he might be able to handle the affairs in the northeast more swiftly and return.”

    “That’s a good idea!”

    “I’ll ask the physicians at the royal medical office to find herbs that complement turtle soup.”

    The ministers responded cheerfully to the Right State Councilor’s words.

    In the following days, every turtle that entered the medicinal shops of Hanyang mysteriously disappeared.

    While these events were unfolding in Hanyang, Hwang Hui, overseeing the administrative work in the pioneer lands of the northeastern region, furiously rubbed his little finger in his ear.

    “Why is my ear so itchy? Did a bug get inside?”

    Hearing Hwang Hui’s mumbling, Kim Jong-seo, who was processing documents next to him, spoke up.

    “Maybe someone is speaking ill of you, Governor.”

    “Ill words? Who would?”

    “Well…”

    Kim Jong-seo stuttered, then buried his eyes in the documents.

    “Hmm…”

    Squinting at Kim Jong-seo, Hwang Hui muttered to himself.

    ‘Too many suspects!’

    From Kim Jong-seo working closely beside him to his sons and children mining coal in the distant mines, his wife worried sick about them, and lastly, his colleagues struggling in Hanyang.

    As Hwang Hui chuckled at the thought of all those who might be bad-mouthing him, he laughed softly.

    ‘Pfft! Is that really the issue now? I have bigger problems to deal with. Let them talk if they wish.’

    The reality of having a lot to do with few hands in the northeastern pioneer lands was a more urgent matter.

    ‘I refuse to be tied down to the clerk’s desk until death!’

    Reinvigorated, Hwang Hui called out to Kim Jong-seo while reviewing the documents.

    “Hey, Jong-seo!”

    “Please call me Deputy Administrator!”

    “Right, Deputy Administrator! This document is wrong! Aren’t you going to work properly? Do you want to go back to Hanyang working like this? Planning to celebrate your 60th birthday here in the northeastern region and then return? Huh? Is that it?”

    “Understood!”

    Receiving Hwang Hui’s reprimand, Kim Jong-seo took the problematic document to fix it.

    Grinding his teeth while reviewing the document, Kim Jong-seo was frustrated.

    “These fools! I told them to refer to ‘Yuseopilji’ for guidance! Using vernacular script in official documents!”

    Yuseopilji, literally meaning “What Confucian Scholars and Clerks Must Know,” contained various official document formats and writing guidelines, and was a constant on the officials’ desks.

    After identifying who prepared the problematic document, Kim Jong-seo immediately rushed to their location.

    “Are you really going to work like this? Do you want to return to Hanyang after this? Remember! If I can’t go back, neither can you! Not even in death!”

    Kim Jong-seo was increasingly resembling Hwang Hui.

    * * *

    Amidst this busy routine, Sejong was troubled by a request from Hyang.

    “You want to build a new building?”

    “Yes.”

    “The budget?”

    “We plan to use the budget from the Crown Prince Management Bureau.”

    “That aside, why do we need a new building? The censors might rise in protest, accusing us of extravagance.”

    “It’s not about luxury. It’s a necessary need.”

    “A necessary need? What kind of building is it?”

    To Sejong’s question, Hyang replied briefly.

    “A dining hall.”

    “A dining hall?”

    “Yes.”

    According to Hyang’s explanation, the purpose of building a dining hall was to cater to the staff of the research institute, the eunuchs and court ladies working in the Eastern Palace, and the royal guards.

    Firstly, for the research institute staff, who exhaust their minds daily with intense work, there was an issue of significant energy depletion.

    “That’s why we aim to provide proper meals for lunch and dinner to replenish their energy.”

    “That seems reasonable.”

    Sejong nodded in agreement with Hyang’s explanation.

    “The reason for including court ladies, eunuchs, and the royal guards is due to ‘sangmullim’ (leftover food from superiors).”

    “Sangmullim? Why?”

    In Joseon’s custom, it was common for lower-ranking people to eat the leftovers of their superiors. Therefore, it was considered polite for the higher-ups to eat neatly using the front plate.

    In the palace, it was a routine for court ladies and eunuchs to share the leftovers from the king and royal family, with additional side dishes – in Sejong’s case, usually meat.

    “This also addresses hygiene issues, hence the shift to communal dining. Lastly, I too will dine in the cafeteria.”

    “Why? That goes against the protocol.”

    To Sejong’s concern, Hyang emphasized a different aspect.

    “It’s a matter of security. Surely, no one would risk poisoning me while endangering hundreds of others?”

    “Ah…”

    “Moreover, showing that high-ranking individuals eat the same food can boost loyalty.”

    After pondering Hyang’s explanation, Sejong nodded.

    “It seems like a good idea. Go ahead with it.”

    “Your benevolence is immense!”

    After Hyang left, Sejong, deep in thought, turned to the Chief State Councilor.

    “Quite a good idea, isn’t it?”

    “…”

    * * *

    Note 1) In April of the 10th year of King Sejong’s reign, following a petition from Byeon Gye-ryang, Sejong, after discussions with the ministers, decided to center the civil service examination on literary composition. From the book ‘King Sejong the Great: A Single-Volume Chronicle’ by Park Young-kyu, Woongjin Knowledge House.

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