The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 13)

Neo-Confucianism in the Early Choson Dynasty

Instead of his duty to fight the Ming Chinese forces in 1388, General Yi Songgye, who had already witnessed the collapse of the Yuan empire and the rise of the Ming dynasty, withdrew his army from the Yalu River and marched toward the Koryo capital to seize political power. This led to the beginning of the Yi Choson dynasty (1392-1910). Liberal Neo-Confucian scholar-officials, such Chong To-jon and Kwon jun, supported Yi’s claims of the legitimacy of the new dynasty. However, others like Chong Mong-ju opposed Yi’s revolt by maintaining that it was an immoral act and the new regime could never, according to Confucian moral principles, achieve political legitimacy. As a result, Chong was murdered by one of Yi’s sons, and Koryo quickly fell. Chong is still admired by modern Koreans not only because he suffered martyrdom to defend his loyalty to Koryo, but also as a Korean paradigm of the Confucian virtues of loyalty and righteousness.

Chong Mong-ju’s followers, such as Yi Saek (Mogun), Kil Chae (Chiun), and Yi Sung-in (Toun), chose to have the term un (literally, “retirement”) as the second character of their pen names. To them, this was important not only for sharing the same second character of Chong’s pen name (Poun), but also for paying respect to their spiritual leader. These Neo-Confucians, in fact, retired from the political world of the day; therefore, they and their followers became known as the Mountain-Grove School (sallim hakpa), referring to their retirement to the countryside, For example, Kil Chae withdrew to his home province of Koyngsang, the southeastern Yongnam area of the Korean peninsula, and established an academy there to tray his students in Neo-Confucianism. Many eminent Neo-Confucian scholars, especially Yi Toegye and his followers, cam from this region during the later period. In fact, they developed the famous Yongnam school that become closely associated with the school of the primacy of principle (churipa), one of the two leading schools of Korean Neo-Confucianism.

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