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    Won Tae-so’s argument had Emperor Xuande re-examining the design of the currency closely.

    “Indeed…”

    The image of two dragons facing each other, with a magical orb between them, seemed as if they were growling at one another.

    That’s when the heated debate among the officials began.

    The main participants were the assistant instructors of the National Academy.

    “What if we just add another magical orb, if it’s all about the one orb?”

    “The problem is the two dragons. Two complete dragons in one place? That implies the nation will be divided!”

    “Even numbers easily split into two! We must never have an even number!”

    “How about three dragons, then?”

    “That wouldn’t be balanced, would it!”

    “Look at the ‘Ding’ (鼎, an ancient cooking vessel, symbolizing nobility). It stands on three legs, doesn’t it! Yet it’s perfectly balanced and held in high esteem!”

    “How many corners does the currency have? Four, right! And you suggest putting in only three dragons? Does that make sense to you? We need to put in four!”

    “Four dragons on that small currency? Do you not know the meaning of ‘excess’ (절)? Ah, to think a high official of this empire could be so ignorant!”

    “Ignorant? Such insolence!”

    The fierce debate escalated dangerously. However, considering the recent incident that led to many eunuchs, officials, and warriors being imprisoned, and eventually executed, they were careful not to cross the line of danger too blatantly.

    “One dragon is enough!”

    “Aren’t you considering the harmony of Yin and Yang? Can harmony be achieved with just one?”

    “In all my years, I’ve never heard of dragons having genders! Dragons, by definition, are mythical creatures that ascend to heaven by absorbing the qi of the universe through cultivation! The idea of sacred dragons mating like common beasts and having offspring is ludicrous!”

    While watching the heated debate among Ming officials and eunuchs, the Vice-Minister of Taxation muttered to himself in frustration.

    ‘Just use a landscape painting!’

    He wasn’t the only one with this thought. Emperor Xuande, looking tired and irritated, suddenly shouted in anger.

    “Enough! Stop this at once!”

    At the emperor’s stern command, the officials immediately ceased their arguing and prostrated themselves on the floor. Emperor Xuande, with a face full of annoyance, turned to the Minister of Taxation.

     

    “I ask the envoy from Joseon! How did Joseon resolve this issue?”

    “As you know, we used a landscape painting.”

    “Right.”

    Hearing the Vice-Minister of Taxation’s response, Emperor Xuande looked back at his Ming subjects.

    “If we must include an image on the currency, let it be a landscape painting instead of dragons.”

    “That would be unacceptable!”

    The objection came immediately from the Minister of Internal Affairs.

    “Why is that?”

    “Dragons symbolize the emperor and the empire itself! We cannot possibly remove the dragon!”

    “That’s right!”

    “The dragon must be included!”

    With those words, the previously arguing parties united in support of the Minister of Internal Affairs. Emperor Xuande, placing a hand on his forehead, sighed deeply.

    “Ah, how shall we resolve this…”

    After a long and intense debate, Emperor Xuande finally made a decision.

    “If a dragon must be included in the new currency, then it shall be only one. There is but one emperor, and one empire. Thus, there shall only be one dragon. Like the emperor’s sovereignty encompassing the four seas, the dragon shall encircle the four corners of the currency.”

    “We obey your command!”

    “Long live the emperor! Long, long live!”

    At Emperor Xuande’s decision, the officials and eunuchs all prostrated themselves and responded in unison.

    Watching from the side, the Minister of Taxation joined in the cheers but grumbled to himself.

    ‘Really, if he was going to decide it all along, why put us through all this trouble!’

    *       *       *

    Two weeks later, the Vice-Minister of Taxation was finally able to return to his homeland.

    “There’s Jemulpo!”

    Hearing the shout of a subordinate official, the Vice Minister of Taxation rushed out of the cabin to the bow of the ship.

    “Finally, back to Joseon! I’ve returned to Joseon!”

    Emotion filled the Vice-Minister of Taxation’s voice.

    *       *       *

    Upon arriving at Jemulpo, the Vice-Minister of Taxation and his entourage switched boats and traveled via the Han River directly to Hanyang.

    Entering Geunjeongjeon, the Vice-Minister of Taxation and his party reported their return to King Sejong.

    “You have endured much hardship, taking on unexpected tasks.”

    “It is our duty to follow Your Majesty’s commands.”

    Though their words were respectful, the faces of the Vice-Minister of Taxation and the envoy were worn.

    Seeing their weary faces, King Sejong gave an order.

    “There must be much you need to report, but seeing your current state, rest is paramount. Take two days off, then come to report.”

    Upon King Sejong’s words, the Vice-Minister of Taxation and his entourage immediately prostrated themselves and exclaimed,

    “Your benevolence is boundless! Long live the king, long, long live!”

    The historian who recorded all these events added a note at the end.

    -The historian remarks,

    (We’re) full of envy.

    *       *       *

    Two days later, the Vice-Minister of Taxation went straight to Geunjeongjeon upon his court appearance. In the presence of King Sejong, high-ranking officials, and senior ministers, the Vice-Minister of Taxation reported everything that had transpired in Ming.

    “…Therefore, Ming is preparing to circulate new currency. They anticipate the new currency will be in circulation in about two years.”

    “I see. What about the population and commercial scale of Ming?”

    At King Sejong’s inquiry, the Vice-Minister of Taxation paused to recollect before responding.

    “While I could not access detailed information to provide exact figures, it is estimated that the population is about 12 times larger, and the commercial scale is about 20 times that of ours.”

    “Twenty times!”

    The words “the commercial scale is 20 times” caused a stir among the ministers gathered in Geunjeongjeon.

    “On what basis can you make such a claim?”

    King Sejong asked with a trembling voice. He was aware that Ming was a great nation, but the notion that their commercial scale was 20 times larger was hard to believe.

    In response to King Sejong’s question, the Vice-Minister of Taxation explained the basis of his claim.

    “Although I couldn’t access precise information, during the planning for the new currency, I had a brief opportunity to see the household registers and tax lists prepared by Ming’s Ministry of Taxation. Based on the population recorded in the household registers and the tax amounts listed, I estimated the commercial scale to be 20 times larger.”

    “Even so, 20 times is…”

    As King Sejong shook his head in disbelief, Hyang intervened.

    “Couldn’t it be possible?”

    “You think it’s possible?”

    “Yes, the founding of Ming predates ours in Joseon. Moreover, we in Joseon have hindered the growth of commerce and industry. Combining these two factors, it’s entirely plausible.”

    “Is that so…”

    Sejong nodded, persuaded by Hyang’s explanation.

    *       *       *

    Hyang’s argument had some merit.

    Ming was established in 1368, while Joseon was founded in 1392, leaving a gap of about 24 years between their foundations. Additionally, Joseon emphasized agriculture in accordance with Neo-Confucian ideals.

    Of course, the 24-year gap was during the late Goryeo period, which had a tradition of favoring commerce. However, during this gap, the Korean Peninsula was devastated by invasions from Japanese pirates and internal strife among political powers, making it unsafe for commerce and industry to flourish.

    The time gap and the agricultural focus of political ideology contributed to this significant disparity.

    *       *       *

    Hearing Hyang’s explanation, King Sejong and the ministers nodded in agreement.

    “I thought we had somewhat caught up, but to still be so far behind… Sigh.”

    King Sejong sighed deeply and commanded his ministers,

    “It seems we still have a long way to go. Let’s put in more effort.”

    “We will follow your command!”

    Once again, King Sejong and his ministers reaffirmed their resolve.

    *       *       *

    The Vice-Minister of Taxation then began to speak about what he considered to be the most crucial issue.

    “Your Majesty, during my stay in Beijing, I deemed one matter of utmost importance, which I shall report. As you might already be aware, the value of silver in Ming continues to rise.”

    King Sejong turned to Hyang upon hearing the Minister of Taxation’s words.

    “I have received reports. Is it that serious?”

    “Right before my return, one could exchange 1 nyang of gold for 8 nyang of silver. Consider this in light of the time when Joseon attacked Tsushima Island and we obtained sulfur from Ming for gunpowder production, where the exchange rate was 1 nyang of gold for 10 nyang of silver.”

    “Hmm…”

    King Sejong pondered for a moment. The conquest of Tsushima Island had occurred 11 years prior. During the preparation for that campaign, there was a need to increase the stockpile of gunpowder by obtaining sulfur from Ming.

    “I see. The value of silver has risen significantly. What’s the reason?”

    “The consumption of silver has increased. Ming had already started collecting taxes in silver and conducting commercial transactions in silver long before Joseon. As a result, the consumption of silver outpaced production, leading to an increase in its value.”

    “I understand. So…”

    Pausing briefly, Sejong turned to Hyang, recalling the flurry of activities that ensued upon receiving information about the influx of silver from Ming.

    Reflecting on Hyang’s actions, Sejong asked the Minister of Taxation,

    “What do you think would have happened if we hadn’t mentioned the currency circulation issue to Ming this time?”

    “I tentatively brought up the subject with the Ming officials we’ve established rapport with, and it seems there was a considerable likelihood that they would have recouped silver in the form of tributes.”

    “Is that so? That was a close call.”

    Hearing the Vice-Minister of Taxation’s response, Sejong sighed deeply and brushed his chest in relief. If the commercial scale of Ming was as immense as described by him, there was a risk of all of Joseon’s silver being drained away as tribute, without proper compensation.

    Sejong looked around at his ministers.

    “As you’ve heard from the Minister of Taxation, with the increasing demand for silver in Ming, we must find ways to protect our silver. And we must do so without provoking Ming, a superior nation.”

    “We will follow your command!”

    As soon as the ministers responded, Hyang joined the conversation.

    “Your Majesty, may your son speak?”

    “Proceed.”

    With Sejong’s permission, Hyang quickly got to the point.

    “To prevent our silver from being drained into Ming, we must consider various strategies. However, the first thing we should do is prevent Joseon’s merchants from bringing gold into Ming.”

    “Why gold of all things, not silver?”

    At Sejong’s question, Hyang succinctly replied,

    “Even if individual merchants profit, it’s a loss for Joseon as a whole.”

    “Hmm?”

    Hyang’s answer made Sejong and the ministers stroke their beards as they pondered the underlying meaning.

    After a moment, Sejong, Minister of Taxation Kim Jeom, and Maeng Sa-seong simultaneously exclaimed in realization,

    “I see! For every nyang of gold that comes in from Ming, we lose two nyang of silver!”

    “Exactly!”

    What Hyang was referring to was the arbitrage opportunity and loss between the gold-to-silver exchange rates of Ming and Joseon.

    *       *       *

    When they first introduced paper money, Hyang and the Ministry of Taxation set the gold-to-silver exchange rate at 1:10. This rate was decided not only based on production and circulation volumes but also for ease of management in various economic aspects, including taxation.

    However, if the gold-to-silver exchange rate between Ming and Joseon differed, as it currently did, it was clear that merchants would exploit this difference.

    Immediately, merchants buying gold in Ming and bringing it to Joseon to exchange or to pay for goods would gain an additional two nyang of silver for every nyang of gold, due to this rate difference.

    While this was profitable for individual merchants, it was a loss for the nation as a whole.

    This was not just a theoretical concern. During the latter part of Ming and the Qing Dynasty, European merchants trading with China maximized their profits precisely through such arbitrage.

    Until the 17th century, Europe’s exchange rate maintained a traditional level of 1:12. However, China’s rate was 1:6. Simply put, European merchants could buy gold in China and sell it upon returning to Europe for a 100% profit.

    Thus, the merchants of the East India Company busily traversed between Europe, China, and Japan, reaping substantial profits through arbitrage.

    They would take silver from Europe and Japan to China, exchange it for gold, take that gold to Japan to exchange for silver, and then bring that silver back to China to exchange for gold again before returning to Europe to sell it for a profit, multiplying their earnings several-fold. (Note 1)

    *       *       *

    Understanding the issue Hyang raised, King Sejong and his ministers decided to immediately enact relevant laws.

    Then, Hyang made another assertion.

    “We must bring Japan under control.”

    “Subjugate Japan? Isn’t that too hasty?”

    Sejong, who equated ‘subjugation’ with ‘war,’ expressed his concern in a worried tone. Hyang elaborated further.

    “I’m not suggesting we subjugate them through military force. We need to make the Japanese market exclusively ours.”

    *       *       *

    Note 1: The Story of the Jews – How They Created the History of Wealth, by Hong Ik-hee. Published by Planet;B Leaf.

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