The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 1)

Preface

There is a definite need to study more closely and seriously the philosophy of Yi Hwang (Toegye, 1501-1570) and Yi I (Yulgok, 1536-1584), the two leading thinkers of Korean Neo-Confucianism. Toegye and Yulgok established the characteristic patterns of the Korean Neo-Confucian tradition from the late sixteenth century up to the opening of the present century, exerting a profound influence on the metaphysical and ethical systems of the Yi Choson dynasty ((1393-1910). Both of the were followers of the so called Cheng-Chu school (Chongjuhak) or Chu His school (Chujahak), a Neo-Confucian legacy associated with the Sung Chinese thinkers such as Cheng I (1033-1077) and Chu His (1130-1200). Also known as the school of human nature and principle (songnihak/hsing-li hsueh), this tradition served as the orthodox school of Neo-Confucianism for five centuries in Choson Korea.

Toegye has been called the Master Chu His of Korea. His philosophical, ethical, and spiritual synthesis of Sung Neo-Confucianism not only assured the dominance of Songnihak in Choson Korea, but also facilitated its spread to, and development in, Tokugawa Japan. Yulgok came thirty-five years after Toegye, and he has been respected not only as a great scholar of Korea, but also as a distinguished statesman who had a good deal of knowledge about social and political matters. Most modern Koreans still admire both men as their two greatest scholars of the past, from whom the proud and inspiring source of learning, self0cultivation, and cultural identity is still drawn. Toegye and Yulgok are presented as the Korean models of education and morality, conveying the general public view that one’s proper understanding of them is an important part of educational curriculum in the country.

As we know, the Neo-Confucian traditions of China and Japan have already been studied to a great extent in the West, but this is not yet the case for the Korean tradition. There appears to be a growing interest in Korean philosophy and religion in both East Asia and North America. Recently, William T. de Bary, for instance, has pointed out: “There has been increasing recognition of the importance of Korea in East Asian civilisation…in the premodern period (twelfth to nineteenth centuries) as an active contributor to the new Neo-Confucian culture.” For the English-speking word, however, we have a translation of, and commentary on, Toegye’s Songhak sipto (Ten Diagrams of the Learning of the Sages), a study of Yulgok’s Neo-Confucianism, and several exploratory works by distinguished scholars of Confucian thought. As fas as I know, there is, as yet, no full-length and comparative study of Toegye and Yulgok.

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