The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 124)

The Inseparability and Harmony of I and Ki

Yulgok’s understanding of the Four-Seven relationship in terms of i and ki is articulated in most of his letters to Ugye. Generally speaking, Yulgok, like Toegye, affirms the Cheng-Chu doctrines on the ontological and conceptual “distinction” of i and ki, as well as on their phenomenalistic “inseparability.” Unlike Toegye, however, he does not emphasise the i-ki distinction and contrast in addressing the Four-Seven relationship. He points out carefully that, although i and ki are inseparable in concrete phenomena, they cannot be referred to as one and the same thing. For this reason, Chu Hsi said that i itself is i and ki itself is ki, and they are not mixable with each other. In his second letter to Ugye, Yulgok begins with the Cheng-Chu doctrine of principle. The so-called oneness of principle refers to “the original essence of human nature” or “the mystery of the Great Ultimate.” This is, Yulgok argues, what the central Cheng-Chu doctrine of “principle is one; its particularisations are diverse” (iil puns) really means. He argues further in an empirical context: “The original essence of i (i chi pinyon) is purely good. But when it flows by riding on ki, it generates irregularities and nonuniformities. I is everywhere existing in valuable things of extreme clarity and purity, as well as in invaluable things of extreme turbidity and impurity. In clear and pure things, i is also clear and pure; in turbid and impure places, i is also turbid and impure. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to say that there is unclear and impure is not the original essence of i. It is incorrect to say that there is no i in dirty places.”

For Yulgok, “the original essence of i” refers to the oneness of i; however, “it moves by riding on ki.” Both dimensions of i must be understood together; one should talk about not only “the original essence of i” (or i in itself), but also the i that moves by riding on ki to produce its diverse particularisations in concrete phenomena. In other words, principle must be discussed both ontologically and phenomenalistically, without neglecting one or the other aspect.

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