Swords Into Plowshares

Two weeks ago, Thailand marked the beginning of its rice-growing season with the Royal Plowing Ceremony, a centuries-old ritual rich with omen and celestial portent.  Last week, Cambodia followed suit –although with starkly different soothsaying results.  The Khmer oxen ate from plates containing corn [maize] and beans, but ignored the rice platter.  Not a good sign for paddymen and their families.  Of course, this isn’t the first time that Thais and Khmer have had differences of opinion.

In the colder regions of North Asia, the rice-growing season usually starts later.  In the DPRK, the Dear Leader’s mastery over everything (including Mother Nature herself) didn’t delay the rice-planting schedule:  mechanized swamp-buggies performed their rice-planting ritual for domestic and international media observers shortly after the Thai ceremony occurred.  It’s understandable that North Koreans would want to get a headstart on the countdown to harvest … so that every mouth can beeeeee fed.

In South Korea, no such worries.  On Thursday, President Lee Myung-bak –still smarting from regional legislative elections that saw his governing GNP badly bruised in key areas of the peninsula– himself took the wheel of a rice-planter and performed his ceremonial role.  In Korea, presidents are constitutionally limited to one term (a legacy of/reaction to the Park Chung-hee era), so Lee’s participation in the ritual was not aimed at enhancing his personal political prospects.  Instead, it can be more clearly understood as his cultural obligation in his role as leading patriarch-figure/dynastic-crypto-monarch of a Neo-Confucian society.

As usual, there are additional layers of meaning within and behind the overt [en]action.  Here are some of the cultural strata beneath the rice paddy surface:

Subject:  In the Confucian social hierarchy of virtue and value, the farmer holds second rank, directly beneath the scholar-nobles whose adherence to ritual makes society sustainable.  Farmers merit the second rank because they grow the food that enables everyone else to live.  The ritual performance of farm tasks by the scholar-sovereign re-emphasizes the links and relationships that bind together society’s ranks (as well as the precedence implicit in hierarchical order).  The fact that Lee alone appears in these pictures is an indication that –as sovereign– he alone is in charge and ultimately responsible for carrying out the will of Heaven.

Location:  The chosen (;) rice paddy is located in Chunju, North Chungcheong Province, close to the geographic center of the ROK nation.  Symbolism is one thing, but political pragmatism is another:  North Chungcheong Province is a key swing district in national elections because its political loyalties are rather evenly divided between the GNP (whose core support is in the southeast) and the Democratic Party (primarily based in the southwest provinces).  If your party wants to elect the next president of Korea, you need North Chungcheong votes.

Garb:  President Lee is wearing a dark blue windbreaker (with what appears to be the presidential logo & his title) over a buttoned-up white golf shirt.  The sleeves of the windbreaker are neatly rolled up, and he’s wearing white cotton work gloves as he loads trays of rice seedlings onto the rice-planter hoppers.  He’s also sporting a broad brimmed straw hat.  This clothing may convey several messages.

1]  The windbreaker and golf shirt are Lee’s uniform-of-choice for settings in which it is inappropriate (too high-status) to wear the business suit, which he prefers. (As a side note, Lee caught flak from some quarters earlier this year when he wore traditional Korean costume to deliver his televised New Year’s message to the nation.)  Prior to becoming mayor of Seoul, Lee’s professional background was in the construction industry:  the windbreaker/shirt/tie combination is standard management attire for ceremonial urban construction site visits.  When travelling even further afield into the rural countryside, the necktie is too much for a man-of-the-people to be seen wearing.

2]  White cotton gloves with rubberized, no-slip grip on the palms and fingers are in widespread use by manual laborers of all kinds throughout Korea.  For all Lunghu knows, their use may even be required by workplace safety regulations for certain occupations.  So at the very least, Pres. Lee is conforming to workplace cultural expectations and practices.  At the same time, white gloves = clean hands.  Several of Lee’s political associates have been embroiled in bribery scandals of various kinds (it’s an occupational hazard of Korean politics, and that’s what aides are for).  President Lee is keeping his hands clean.

3]  For centuries, a broad straw hat fastened under the chin with a simple silk cord was traditional headwear for yangban nobility and scholars who traveled to the countryside to visit tenant farmers on their agricultural estates.  A badge of rank (and the quality of their robes) distinguished them from commoners and slaves.  Lee’s hat is of modern design, but carries echoes of the past into the present day.

Technology:  Lee is driving a DaeDong compact tractor (Duo60 model) with a rice-planter attachment.  DaeDong (Great East) produces tractors, combines, rice transplanters and tillers.  The company sells its tractors in the USA under the Kioti (pronounced “coyote“) brandname.  DaeDong Industrial Company Ltd, which is based in Daegu, South Korea, was founded in 1947.  Back in the day, Daegu was part of the Silla Kingdom.  Now, the city of Daegu is has special administrative status as a Metropolitan City located within North Gyeongsang Province.  North Gyeongsang is the heartland of Lee’s GNP, and Daegu is party headquarters.  The choice of tractor is a little shout-out to the homies in Daegu.  Plus ça change

These four aspects of the rice-planting photo op are hidden in plain sight.  Video footage might show even more, and wider shots that included other Koreans in the frame could add further information.  But GNP media wranglers may not have wanted to muddle the message:  President Lee is the learnéd sovereign, he diligently works to improve the lot and lighten the burden of the common man, and thus he carries out the mandate of Heaven.  In difficult times, the people need a simple, familiar message.

Just in case anyone was wondering, Lunghu is not aware of any Korean soothsayers who published predictions about the Korean rice harvest based on the outcome of President Lee’s ceremonial excursion across the Chunju rice paddy.  But some of those crop rows he’s leaving in his wake look a little bit askew … it’s clear that you need a steady hand to guide the wheel of a Daedong tractor.

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