The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 11)

Chong Mong-ju and Other
Neo-Confucian Scholar

The second stage of development began when Neo-Confucian scholar-officials especially Yi Saek (Mogun, 1328-1396), Chong Mong-ju (Poun, 1337-1392), Yi Sung-in (Toun, d. 1392), Kim Ku-yong (1339-1384), and Par Sang-chung (1332-1375) began to institute the state education system at the Songgyungwan and attack the Buddhist institutions. These men strongly supported the status of the Songgyungwan as the national centre for Confucian education, In 1363, for example, Yi seek proclaimed that everyone, who wished to take any state examination, must first study Neo-Confucianism at the Songgyungwan. Several years later, at the request of him or others, the Songgyungwan revised its programs to establish specialised course offerings in the Five Classics and Four Books. They taught Sung Neo-Confucianism to such brilliant students as Ching To-jon (Sambong, 1342-1398), Kwon Kun (Yangchon, 1352-1409), and Kil Chae (Yaun, 1353-1418), all of whom became influential Neo-Confucian scholars in the transitional Koryo-Choson person. Thereafter, the Songgyungwan continued to flourish, many more students came to study there, and the Koryo government finally closed the private academies in 1391.

Chong Mong-ju, like Yi Saek, was an influential scholar-official and served as an instructor at the Songgyungwan. Hw was well versed in the Five Classics, Four Books, and Chu His commentaries on the Four Books. Yi Saek once parsed Chong’s knowledge of Sung Neo-Confucianism highly, saying that Chong’s understanding of Cheng-Chu teachings was accurate, rich and original. He even called Chong the “founder of the school of principle (ihak/li-hsueh) in Korea.” The term ihak is one of the common terms used for referring to Sung Neo-Confucianism; it is usually reserved for the Cheng-Chu school as something opposed to the Lu-Wang “school of the mind” (simhak/hsin-hsueh), a main outgrowth of Neo-Confucianism associated with the Ming philosopher Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) and his predecessor Lu Hsiang-shan )1139-1192) in Sung China. Chong seriously learned Sung Confucianism and put it into his practice of the moral life. For this reason, his contemporaries praised him as the first Korean who elevated Confucianism in Korea to the level of philosophical thinking and moral self-cultivation. Of course, this claims is valid partly because Confucianism, ever sine its introduction to early Korea, was studied from the standpoint of either literary composition or political ideology.

To propagate Neo-Confucian ethics, Chong Mong-ju encouraged others to use the Confucian custom of a three-year mourning for the death of parents. At the same time, he criticised the traditional Buddhist 100-day mourning and observed the Confucian custom for the death of his father. The was especially noteworthy because other Neo-Confucians scholars sae it as crucial to changing a social and ethic-religious practice on the basis of Neo-Confucianism. Furthermore, Chong was the first Korean Neo-Confucian who also advocated study and practice of Chu Hsi’s Chia li (Family Rituals). Following Chu Hsi’s recommendation, he strongly urged every family to build a Confucian shrine called sadang (place of worship) for performing ancestor veneration and other Confucian rituals.

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