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    “A ship has arrived in Jemulpo[1]!”

    “Really? Did it arrive without any issues?”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    By the command of Emperor Yongle, King Sejong, who had procured hawks for hunting, dispatched a Falconry Envoy. Naturally, merchants followed the hunting party, and they returned with a significant gain.

    They also plentifully extracted reciprocation gifts for the hawks they offered as tributes. And as always, they used half of the funds acquired from the top to purchase rice. As much money was spent, the rice came to Jemulpo using a ship from Ming.

    “Did those books and goods also arrive?”

    “Yes, Your Highness the Crown Prince.”

    If Sejong and the ministers were interested in grain, Hyang’s interest was elsewhere. Where Hyang’s interest lay were the books recording the expeditions of Zheng He[2] and the goods optimal for resale.

    Two days later, a tremendous number of chests arrived at the palace.

    The chests were placed in the courtyard in front of Geunjeongjeon Palace, and for the confirmation of the contents, not only Hyang and the ministers but even Sejong came out to the courtyard.

    The scholars from Hall of Worthies, who were checking the contents as the chests were opened, looked at Sejong with surprised eyes.

    “Your Majesty, these do not seem to be copies, but originals.”

    “What?”

    ◈◈◈

    (Flashback)

    Although the court was noisy due to the issue of expanding the vaccination with the first shot nationwide, apart from that, there were piled-up tasks that had to be done, and Sejong and the ministers proceeded by discussion.

    “Has the issue of the hawks to be sent to Ming been resolved well?”

    “The falconers from Falconry division are catching and moving five of them.”

    At the ministers’ response, Sejong frowned and replied, “Five… falcorners and the people must have had a hard time.”

    “Not at all, Your Majesty.”

    “Please provide the necessary compensation for them.”

    “We will obey your command.”

    Having dealt with the issue of the hawks to be offered as tribute, Sejong and the ministers moved on to the next agenda.

    “What would you subjects like to receive in return for offering the hawks as tribute?”

    “Primarily, sulfur and copper would be best.”

    The Minister of Military Affairs casually mentioned sulfur. As the importance of gunpowder weapons was gradually increasing, the supply of sulfur and copper was essential. However, since sulfur was not produced in Joseon, it had to be procured mostly from Ming and Japan, making the supply considerably difficult.

    The same was true for copper. No, copper was even more difficult than sulfur. Copper was not produced in Joseon, but the problem was that copper, a mineral that is not easily exported due to its high domestic consumption in both Ming and Japan.

    Eventually, copper and sulfur took up the most significant part of the tribute trade between Ming and Joseon, and the rest were rare books and cotton fabrics.

    At the end of the continuous discussion, it was decided to request sulfur and copper as per the Minister of Military Affair’s opinion.

    “And what else would be good?”

    As soon as Sejong’s words fell, Hyang stepped forward. “There are rare books we absolutely need to acquire!”

    “Books we absolutely need to acquire?”

    Sejong and the ministers’ eyes gathered on Hyang’s remark.

    “What kind of books are you talking about? We have all sorts of classics in Joseon too?”

    “Not classics. It’s Zheng He’s voyage records.”

    “Zheng He’s voyage records?”

    When Sejong expressed his confusion, the Minister of Rites feigned knowledge, exclaiming, “Ah! Among the emperor’s eunuchs, there is a man named Zheng He.”

    “But what are these voyage records?”

    “He led a fleet on an expedition under the emperor’s command.”

    “Ah! I heard about that.”

    At the Minister of Rites’ answer, Sejong nodded. Not only Sejong, but most of the ministers also nodded.

    In the 5th year of Taejong’s reign, the court was stirred up by rumors that an eunuch, who had received Emperor Yongle’s command, was embarking on an expedition with a huge fleet composed of massive ships. At that time, the Joseon court was in a state of emergency when they obtained information that such a massive fleet was about to set sail.

    -Where is the destination of that fleet? Is it Joseon? Or is it heading to another foreign country?

    Amidst the tense atmosphere in which King Taejong and the court were on high alert, word came that the fleet in question was heading not towards Joseon or the foreign country, but towards the distant open sea. Only after confirming that the rumor was true could Taejong and the court relax.

    “But why do we need those navigation records?”

    At King Sejong’s question, Hyang appeared bewildered. “Huh? Why do we need them? They’re worth their weight in gold!”

    Although it was Sejong who asked, seeing that the ministers also wore similar expressions, Hyang’s blood pressure rose.

    ‘These noblemen, no, are they for real?!’

    Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Hyang explained why Zheng He’s navigation records were important.

    -Zheng He visited countries that our Joseon could not, and those records are the navigation logs.

    -If we get those records, we can know the countries that have what our Joseon needs.

    -It’s not just about knowing the countries. We can know in advance the routes to get there, the time it takes, the risks, and so on, reducing trial and error.

    “Hmm… is that so? Hmm… perhaps…”

    “Hmm… uh huh…”

    After listening to Hyang’s explanation, King Sejong showed a reaction of gradually understanding while nodding his head, but the other ministers still looked as if they didn’t understand.

    Seeing this, Hyang not only felt his blood pressure rise but also felt disheartened.

    ‘These noblemen for real… not even ignorant country bumpkins would act like them…’

    Hyang, regaining his composure, gave an easily understandable example.

    “Think of the composite bow, the most important weapon of our Joseon soldiers. The most important ingredient among those used in the composite bow is the water buffalo horn. But where do we get these water buffalo horns from now? Mainly from the Ming country. But does Ming country give them easily?”

    “Not at all.”

    At Hyang’s question, all the ministers answered in unison. Joseon’s composite bow was famous for its powerful force. Therefore, the Ming country did not sell many water buffalo horns, the main ingredient of the bow. Hence, even though Joseon suggested them to sell the water buffaloes, Ming had remained silent so far.

    Consequently, despite the Joseon court strictly forbidding smuggling, it actively encouraged smuggling when it came to water buffalo horns. Ultimately, a significant portion of the water buffalo horns needed by Joseon had to be imported through the foreign country and Ryukyu.

    As soon as the ministers understood, Hyang added more.

    “Are water buffaloes only found in the southern region of Ming? While they exist in the southern regions of foreign countries and in the continent, I’ve heard that they are common in Dai Viet and Siam. Especially in the case of Siam, an envoy came during the time of King Taejo, but there hasn’t been proper trade since. What’s the reason? Isn’t it because we don’t know the way there?”

    “Ah!”

    At Hyang’s words, all the officials let out an exclamation. It was a matter they remembered.

    During Taejo’s time, an envoy from Thailand came and offered tributes, and Taejo also showed interest in trade, but he didn’t achieve any notable results, and it ended up in uncertainty. Or rather, uncertainty was a good expression. Most of the officials at the time thought, ‘We’ve been deceived!’

    In addition, most officials who ran the court from Taejo to Sejong believed that one of the biggest reasons for the fall of Goryeo was commerce. The nobles who colluded with the merchants indulged in luxury, leading to the corruption of the national administration, and all the damages ended up falling on the ordinary, powerless people.

    Sharing these thoughts, the court officials and the Confucian scholars in the common houses moved as follows based on Neo-Confucianism: “To avoid such a situation, the nobles had to be frugal, and the country had to focus on the fundamentals over the details.”

    Although they said this, the main source of income for the Confucian scholars, who were also landlords, was the agricultural products produced by the farmers. Ultimately, the hardship of the lives of ordinary people, including the farmers, did not change much.

    In the end, today, the officials who ran the national administration based on such a mindset clashed with Hyang, which led to the purge of the government officials, chief state councilors, and chief inspectors.

    Ultimately, Hyang’s proposition was accepted, and it was decided to obtain Zheng He’s voyaging records.

    And with a birdcage filled with eagles, the envoy set off for Beijing.

    “You’ve worked hard.”

    “Your Majesty’s grace is boundless.”

    At the words of Emperor Yongle’s greetings, the high-ranking envoys accompanied by the lower-ranking officials, bowed their heads in gratitude.

    Emperor Yongle, who was looking at the eagles in the birdcage with satisfaction, opened his mouth, “Well, since we’ve received something precious, we must reciprocate. What does Joseon want?”

    “We desire sulfur and copper.”

    At the envoy’s response, the Emperor glanced at his own Minister of Internal Affairs and Grand Councilor.

    “Grand Councilor, consult with the envoys and give an appropriate amount of sulfur and copper.”

    “I obey your command.”

    After issuing the order, the Emperor turned to the Joseon envoys and opened his mouth, asking once again, “And is there anything else you want?”

    “Apologies for the inconvenience, but we desire a copy of the expedition records carried out by the eunuch Zheng He.”

    “Oh? Zheng He’s expedition record?” The Emperor showed curiosity at the interpreter’s words.

    “Why does Joseon want that?”

    At the Emperor’s question, the envoy deeply bowed and explained the reason:

    “Our Joseon, a small nation nestled in a remote corner of the expansive world, remains unaware of its true vastness. It is only through the Emperor’s benevolence that our humble country has learned about the existence of numerous other nations. This revelation deeply moves us, yet we have received news that Zheng He, under the Emperor’s decree, has brought the Emperor’s prestige and the Empire’s grandeur to the farthest reaches of the oceans. Despite receiving such grace from the Emperor and gaining insight into the vastness of the world, our Joseon still resembles a frog newly emerged from a well, oblivious to the immensity of the Yangtze River. We yearn to comprehend the vastness of the seas and witness the Empire’s magnificence spanning across those waters. Therefore, we humbly request a copy of the documented records.”

    The words made the translator cringe. Of course, this dialogue was not made by the envoys. It was a dialogue created by Hyang in a mock conversation held together with the envoys and Sejong.

    The Hyang who created the dialogue went back to his room, scratching his arms, grumbling, “Augh! It’s so disgusting that it makes my skin crawl! Goosebumps! I sucked it off so well! But, ah! Goosebumps!”

    “Puhahahahahaha!”

    When the words were heard through the interpreter, Emperor Yongle laughed out loud. The Emperor, who had laughed so hard that tears came to his eyes, opened his mouth, “The current king of Joseon is really virtuous! He knows his limits well! Better than his father or grandfather!”

    At his words, the Joseon envoys clenched their teeth. But, they endured it and bowed their heads.

    “The Emperor’s grace is boundless!”

    “That’s right! A small country in the corner wants to know the width of the four seas, so I’ll give it to you! The royal scholar will write a copy and send it to Joseon!”

    “We will obey the Emperor’s orders!”

    When the Emperor’s order was given, the Joseon envoys raised their arms up and shouted, “The Emperor’s grace is boundless! Long live the Emperor! Long live the Emperor! Long live the Emperor!”

    And so, Zheng He’s records came to Joseon.

    ◈◈◈

    The problem was that the original came, not a copy.

    “Is it an administrative mistake?”

    “Isn’t this a problem?”

    When faced with an unexpected problem, not only Sejong but also Hyang and the envoys were pondering, a scholar of Hall of Worthies who was opening another box found a sealed letter.

    “Here is a sealed letter!”

    The Minister of Rites, who received the sealed letter in an expensive silk envelope, broke the seal, read the contents, and tilted his head.

    “What is it?”

    “It’s a letter sent by the Grand Scholars of the Inner Palace.”

    “Let me see it.”

    Sejong, who received the letter from the Minister of Rites, read the contents and made a more puzzled face.

    “It’s even more incomprehensible.”

    At the reaction of the Minister of Rites and Sejong, Hyang intervened, “May I read it?”

    “Yes. Try reading it.”

    Hyang, who received the letter, immediately checked the contents.

    The contents of the letter were simple.

    -This was done through legal procedures, so Joseon should not doubt or inquire about it.

    Hyang, who read the contents of the letter, raised his head. ‘This is no matter how I look at it···.’

    No matter how many times he read it, the atmosphere of the sentence was this.

    -Just put it in! Hey! It’s not stolen goods! Just put it in! And don’t say anything! Shush! Shush! Hey! Just put it in!”

    Thinking about it, Hyang recalled his memories of the 21st century and muttered to himself.

    “Was it really a chicken rib (little value) after all?”

    “Chicken rib? Crown Prince, do you know what you’re saying?”

    When Sejong asked a question after hearing Hyang’s muttering, Hyang nodded, “Yes, it’s just my personal opinion but…”

    He then began to explain.

    1. A port in Incheon, South Korea. It was a significant trading port during the Joseon Dynasty, especially with China and Japan.[]
    2. Zheng He (1371-1433) was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral, and court eunuch during China’s early Ming dynasty. He was originally born as Ma He in a Muslim family and later adopted the surname Zheng conferred by the Yongle Emperor. Commissioned by the Yongle Emperor and later the Xuande Emperor, Zheng commanded seven expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433.[]
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