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Rewriting the Annals of Joseon

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1: The Flicker of Innovation

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1

 

April in the third year of King Sejong’s reign.

 

The cherry blossoms were in full bloom along the banks of the Han River. Outside the eastern gates of Hanyang, in a secluded manor, a crowd had gathered.

 

In the courtyard of the manor, young Baek Dong-su stood over a ceramic lamp, a small, intricately crafted object with several tiny holes. The lamp was connected to a series of copper tubes and a peculiar contraption filled with something Baek called "biogas."

 

The students around him watched in rapt silence as Baek lit a torch and brought it close to the ceramic lamp.

 

With a soft hiss and a sudden ‘pop’, a small, steady flame appeared, burning brightly atop the ceramic wick.

 

“It’s done. This lamp will provide you with light for your late-night studies. Just be cautious and keep it away from water.” Dong-su announced.

 

The group erupted into applause.

 

The students, all dressed in simple but neat hanboks, were amazed. One of them, Kim Min-jae, stepped forward.

 

“Master Baek, we are indebted to you for your kindness and wisdom,” Min-jae said.

 

The other students quickly followed suit, their faces reflecting their gratitude and admiration.

 

Baek waved a hand dismissively, though he couldn’t hide the pleased smile tugging at his lips.

 

“There’s no need for such formalities, Min-jae. When you all succeed and bring prosperity to our land, that will be thanks enough.”

 

“You have our word, Master Baek. Your generosity and vision will be remembered always.” Min-jae replied earnestly.

 

The students bowed once more before dispersing, each hurrying back to their quarters. Dong-su watched them go.

 

As the chill of the evening set in, Dong-su turned and made his way back to the main house of the manor. The interior was modest but comfortable, heated by a system of underfloor heating known as ondol, a feature that Dong-su had recently improved to increase efficiency.

 

Once inside, he closed the door securely and leaned against it. His thoughts turned inward as he summoned a screen visible only to him, a system from his unexpected journey to this time and place.

 

On the screen, a number flickered into view: 1720 hours.

 

Dong-su exhaled slowly.

 

“I’ve gained more time,” he murmured to himself. “Another 1200 hours...”

 

He recalled the moment, months ago, when he first realized he possessed this mysterious ability. Every advancement he brought to this world, every piece of knowledge he shared, was rewarded with additional lifespan. It was both a blessing and a burden.

 

Before the current number, he had only 542 hours left to live.

 

Each hour was precious, and he had used his knowledge to trade for essential resources and technologies. The biogas lamp had cost him dearly, but seeing the joy and benefit it brought to others made the sacrifice worthwhile.

 

Dong-su glanced around the room. It was filled with books and scrolls. He had a thousand acres of land to manage and over fifty students to mentor.

 

“We need to find a way to sustain ourselves. Spring is here, and with it, opportunities. We must be prepared.”

 

The manor and its surrounding lands were a sanctuary for scholars and innovators. Dong-su had ensured that the tenants working the fields were treated fairly, providing them with oxen and plows, and only asking for a modest rent in return.

 

 

Spring had firmly taken hold in the Joseon Kingdom, and the manor was a hive of activity.

 

Baek Dong-su stood on the porch of his modest estate, surveying the bustling courtyard as the first light of dawn crept over the horizon.

 

Today marked a critical turning point in their endeavors—a day to plant the seeds that would ensure their future sustenance and prosperity.

 

The tenants had gathered early, their tools ready, and their spirits high. Dong-su’s innovations had transformed their lives.

 

Dong-su joined them. He wore a simple hanbok, the fabric worn but clean. He moved among the workers, offering words of encouragement and practical advice.

“Remember to space the garlic cloves evenly,” he instructed, demonstrating with a gentle touch. “They need room to grow.”

 

The air was filled with the scent of fresh earth and the sound of animated conversation.

 

The tenants worked with a steady rhythm, their hands moving skillfully as they planted the garlic that would, in time, yield a bountiful harvest. This crop, carefully chosen and nurtured, was a cornerstone of Baek Dong-su’s vision for their self-sufficiency.

 

By midday, the sun had climbed high in the sky. The workers paused for a well-deserved break, gathering under a large tree where the manor’s servants had laid out a simple but hearty meal.

 

Bowls of millet porridge and plates of freshly pickled vegetables awaited them, along with a surprise from Baek—a small bowl of the soy sauce they had tasted the night before.

 

“Try it with your meal. It’s a new recipe we’ve been working on.”

 

The tenants and students eagerly dipped their food into the soy sauce, savoring the complex, rich flavor.

 

It was a taste of what could be—a product they could sell to sustain the manor and its people.

 

“This is wonderful, Master Baek,” said Jung Mi-so, one of the younger tenants.

Baek nodded, pleased with her reaction.

 

The soy sauce was more than a condiment. It represented the potential for growth and prosperity that he had envisioned when he first set foot on this land.

 

 

In a neighboring estate, Lord Kim Jae-hyun, a man of considerable influence and reputation, stood by his window, his keen eyes scanning the horizon.

 

He had heard rumors of Baek’s manor, of the innovations and education flourishing there. Intrigued and a touch skeptical, he decided to investigate personally.

 

“Who is this Baek Dong-su?” Lord Kim asked his steward, Min-ho, who was standing nearby.

 

“He’s an orphan from a minor clan,” Min-ho replied. “When the elders of his clan passed away, they left him with a small inheritance. He’s been using it to develop his manor and support scholars.”

 

“And the sound of children reciting the Thousand Character Classic? It seems quite the scholarly endeavor for a young man,” Lord Kim remarked.

 

“Indeed, my lord. Baek Dong-su has opened his doors to students and tenant families. He provides them with education and shelter in exchange for their help on his land,” Min-ho explained. “He’s even managed to build a kiln for making bricks and has rented out rooms to scholars in the capital.”

 

Lord Kim’s lips curled into a thoughtful smile.

 

“A young man with vision and generosity. Let’s see if the rumors hold any truth. Min-ho, we shall go visit this Baek Dong-su. And let us do so discreetly. Change into simpler clothes; we shall leave the horses behind and take the back route.”

 

Min-ho hesitated for a moment, glancing at his lord’s elaborate attire. “Are you sure, my lord? It might be dangerous.”

 

“Dangerous?” Lord Kim chuckled. “Hardly. It’s just a visit to a farm.”

 

With that, they donned plain robes and set off on foot, taking a path that led them away from prying eyes and directly to the heart of Baek’s estate.

 

Meanwhile, at Baek’s manor, the students were busy with their morning chores. They had just finished tending to the animals—cleaning the cowshed, pigsty, and chicken coop—when Lord Kim and Min-ho arrived.

 

Lord Kim watched in amazement as the students worked diligently. They were young scholars, yet they did not shy away from manual labor. He wandered closer to the cowshed and noticed a pair of calligraphy couplets pinned to the entrance.

 

The first read:

 

"With a calm brow, face the world's judgment."

 

"I am willing to toil like an ox for my children’s future."

 

Lord Kim’s eyes widened in appreciation. “Remarkable. Such wisdom in a place like this.”

 

Min-ho, following closely, pointed to another couplet at the pigsty:

 

 

"No pig, no family."

"Without a nation, the clan cannot thrive."

 

“These are not the words of mere farmers,” Lord Kim said.

 

He moved to the chicken coop, where the students were diligently cleaning.

 

The coop bore another set of couplets:

 

"Every morning, the phoenix sings and takes flight."

 

"At dusk, I long for the call that brings me home."

 

Lord Kim stood silently for a moment, absorbing the profound messages embedded in these humble surroundings. Each couplet reflected deep thoughts on duty, family, and homeland.

 

Just then, a student approached, bowing respectfully. “Good morning, sir. Are you here to see Master Baek?”

 

Lord Kim, taken aback by the student’s poise, nodded. “Yes, we were hoping to speak with him.”

 

The student gestured towards the main house. “Master Baek is often in the fields at this hour. He’s overseeing the planting of garlic. If you wait, he should return by noon.”

“We shall find him there,” Lord Kim decided.

 

As they walked towards the fields, the sound of children reciting their lessons floated through the air, a melodic reminder of the manor’s unique blend of tradition and innovation.

 

“The sky and earth are dark yellow, the universe vast and boundless,” the children’s voices echoed, reciting the classical text.

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