The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 128)


As J. Ching points out correctly, Yulgok is giving a philosophy for Chou Tun-i’s explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate. But Yulgok means that what is not uniform in things and phenomena is due to the various grades of ki’s purity. As Ching argues, Yulgok’s interpretation of Cheng-Chu metaphysics emphasises the role of ki in all cosmic phenomena including self-cultivation. For Yulgok, i is the ultimate reality for which ki generates regularities and irregularities. Human nature is not the same as the nature of things because ki is limited, particular, and causes i’s diverse particularisations. Among human beings, the sages “received the extremely penetrating, correct, clear, and pure ki, and their virtues are united with Heaven and Earth.” They have an unchanging nature that is never disturbed by physical form; therefore, they have ability to fulfil their status as the sages. As Yulgok writes, “Heaven and Earth are the models for the sages who are, in turn, the models for all other people.” This is, of course, a moral argument in the Confucian context of self-cultivation. The practice of moral cultivation is to follow the sages’ instructions.

Yulgok also compares Toegye with the Ming Chinese Neo-Confucian Lo Chin-shun, criticizing the former for separating i and ki in terms of his hobal theory. Undoubtedly, he wanted to convince Ugye that both Toegye and Ugye are wrong. According to Yulgok, although Lo Chin-shun saw correctly that i and ki are inseparable in concrete things, he went too far in seeing i and ki as fundamentally one and, therefore, i almost as ki. In other words, Lo ignored to discuss clearly the distinction of i and ki that happens to be part of the basis of Chu Hsi’s philosophy. It is precisely in this sense of the inseparable and harmonious relationship of i and ki that Yulgok prefers his own interpretation.

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