Noblesse Oblige of the Rich
By Soo Yong Kim
Korean Air’s Vice President, Cho Hyun-ah, once complained about a flight attendant's Macadamia nut service and demanded that the flight return back to the gate after the flight had already taken off. Because the captain followed her "Peanut Return," the flight was delayed by 46 minutes. She was arrogant and impudent despite being the vice president of Korean Air Lines. Her oppressive behavior and manner provoked people and led to anger and resentment.
As a society elite, she was supposed to practice “Noblesse oblige." She was shamed within the country, and brought shame to our nation. Internally and externally it was big news and an even bigger issue.
It is with this story I want to introduce the French origins of ‘Noblesse Oblige'. Several hundred years before, there had been a war called the One Hundred Year’s War between France and England.
In 1347, Calais, the coastal city of France, was subjected to a British attack due to its distance disadvantage. They faced British troops for around a year and eventually surrendered. At first, King Edward III of England tried to kill all of the citizens of Calais that had harassed British troops throughout the year. However, the King decided he would pick only six citizens. He said, “I will execute only the six citizens who were destined to die in despair on behalf of all citizens of Calais."
One of the wealthy people, ‘Eustache de Saint Pierre’, volunteered to be the first of the six. He cried out, “I will wear a rope around my neck with bare hair on my clothes and bare feet, and I will follow the will of the King.”
Then another rich and respected citizen, Jean-De, stood up and volunteered, followed by a third businessman named Jacques de Vissang who had not only inherited property, but also had earned a fortune in business. His cousin ‘Pierre de Visa’, who stood next to him, volunteered next and the other two, ‘Jean de Pinne’ and ‘Andrieu de’Anne,’ also bravely offered up their lives.
Even though only six people were required, another person came out voluntarily. He was also willing to give his life for the other citizens. When it came down to having to exclude one of the seven people, Saint-Pierre said “I decided to draw a lot first, but if I do a lot, I think in my mind that I might be excluded and live, so I decided to exclude one person from coming."
The next morning, six people came out to the place where they had first made their promises, but the seventh person was not there. It was the first volunteer, “Saint Pierre'. The six people went to Saint-Pierre’s house to inform him that he was going to be excluded, but it was too late.
Saint Pierre had already committed suicide in his home. It was not to weaken their minds, but instead to inspire courage in the six people. They went to the English King without any hesitation, each with a rope around their neck. They were all prepared to be executed. However, the six were dramatically released by the King because the queen had persuaded him not to execute them because she was pregnant. She was afraid that if the King executed them, an ominous thing would happen to their future child.
Since then, the ‘Citizens of Calais’ have become a symbol of ‘Noblesse Oblige’ and several hundred years later, Rodin would complete the sculpture of the ‘Citizens of Calais’ by request of the city of Calais. It has been displayed in the city hall of Calais in France, and depicts the six citizens walking with ropes and sacks around their necks, just as the British had demanded.
This brings me to the topic of ‘Noblesse Oblige’ in Korea.
From the 1st generation Choi Jin-lip to the 12th and last generation Choi Jun, the Choi family has been the richest in Kyeong-ju city, famous for practicing Noblesse Oblige. Almost 300 years to the 12th generation, the richest Choi family maintained a reputation of wealth and kept it by living according to Ga-hoon(family precept) from generation to generation (usually rich families keep wealth only up to the third generation). They shared their food and wealth with the poor, their neighbors, and others such as beggars and strangers.
Choi Jun said, “Wealth is like manure, and only greed of gain has a stink, but if wealth is scattered to help poor and needy people, it is like a fertilizer to grow plants abundantly.”
The lineage of the Choi family has been honored and praised by Korean people from generation to generation and serves as a great example for the rich.
The last richest, Choi Jun, was an independent activist who provided enormous independent funds to the provisional and interim government of our nation during the Japanese occupation.
I wish all plutocracy would practice ‘Noblesse oblige’ in Korea. They should ask themselves why they want to make money and how they should spend money. If we follow a philosophy of sharing, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet do, we will live better lives in a better world.
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