The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 34)

In the spring of 1558 Yulgok, then twenty-two years old, went o Yean to to pay a courtesy to Toegye, the most famous scholar of the time. He stayed with the old master for a couple of days, composing poems and exchanging questions on M=Neo-Confucian learning and self-cultivation. He was impressed by Toegye’s character and scholarship. Recognising Yulgok as a great scholar, Toegye praised the young man’s intelligence and his knowledge of Neo-Confucinism. He said in a letter to his friend: “Yulgok is a very bright man who is now devoting himself to our learning. It is said the young students should be treated with respect and fear. Now I can see that the former sages told the truth.” In a long letter to Yulgok, however, he expressed his sincere concede concern about Yulgok’s early devotion to Zen Buddhism, although he praised Yulgok as an outstanding young scholar. Toegye told Yulgok that he made a wise decision to follow the Cheng-chu learning by overcoming his early mistake of studying and practicing Zen. Subsequently, Yulgok felt more confidence in his decision to pursue the Neo-Confucian way of learning and self-cultivation.

In the winter of the same year, Yulgok took a civil-service examination in Seoul and finished first. The philosophical essay he wrote in this examination is the famous Chondo cheek (Treatise on the Way of Heaven) on cheng-Chu Neo-Confucian metaphysics and ethics, one that astonished many people, who praised Yulgok as a true Confucian genius in producing such an excellent thesis on a difficult subject in a short time. It is said to be highly sophisticated to the extent that the senior examiners themselves needed several days to understand it. The Chondo cheek is 2,500 words long and demonstrates Yulgok’s early, mature knowledge of Neo-Confucian history, metaphysics, and ethics. It gained a high reputation in Korea and was introduced also to Ming China where it received admiration from Ming scholars.

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