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Diplomacy through poetry

Posted July. 27, 2017 07:25,   

Updated July. 27, 2017 07:36

한국어

After Nikita Khrushchev took power in the Soviet Union in November 1956, Chinese leader Mao Zedong, during a meeting with the Soviet ambassador to China, cited an old poem metaphorically urging Moscow to make a concession on border issues. With the poem, Mao recovered its territory yielded to the Soviet Union during the early days of the People’s Republic of China as well as economic cooperation with Moscow, although the two countries had ideological and territorial disputes later.

It was the Spring and Autumn period’s diplomatic practice called “fushi yanzhi,” by which one used or quoted poems to express one's intention. Feudal lords of the period even hired officials whose job was to collect poetry to be used for diplomacy. Confucius compiled China’s first book of poetry entitled the “Classic of Poetry” with 311 poems selected from a collection of some 3,000 verses popular during his time. About 300,000 poems have been added to the book by the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Chinese people learn more than 300 poems by the time they graduate from high school. Intellectuals can recite at least 200 poems, and even ordinary people know around 100 poems by heart. Chinese poems can be very useful at times of diplomatic difficulties. When South Korea asked China to denounce North Korea for having sunk a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, Beijing responded with a poem depicting how a brave man does not get surprised by an unexpected incident, implying a call on Seoul to restrain itself while not acknowledging Pyongyang’s responsibility.


After receiving his letter of appointment from President Moon Jae-in, Moon Moo-il, new prosecutor-general, recited a Chinese poem depicting a silkworm wanting to stay warm while barleys want a cold weather, sparking a speculation that he expressed his discontent over the administration’s plan to reform the prosecution. Nevertheless, President Moon said he and the new prosecutor-general were largely in agreement over the plan. Was it the prosecutor-general’s domestic diplomatic tactics to make the prosecution reform a fact? He said he conveyed the poem to the president after receiving different demands from political parties and wondering how much more difficult the job would be for the president. From what I have seen in the new prosecutor-general for over 20 years, he is not the type of man who says one thing but means the other.