The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 14)

Chong To-jon: The Establishment of Neo-Confucianism as the State Religion and Political Ideology

In a period of dynastic and ideological transition, Sung Neo-Confucianism facilitated Yi Songgae to ascend to the throne and to begin the Choson dynasty as King Taejo (r. 1392-1398). As a military man rather than a scholar, he was initially not interested in Neo-Confucianism partly because he tended to remain faithful to Buddhism. Although he condemned the political corruption of Koryo Buddhism. Although he condemned the political corruption of Koryo Buddhism especially in terms of its corrupt monks, its land holdings, and its control over slaves, he did not quite reject the basic religious doctrines of Buddhism. Nevertheless, by taking advantage of Yi’s rise to power, many Neo-Confucian scholar-officials began to establish Sung Neo-Confucianism as the new state religion and ideology. These men were concerned with the scial, political, and economic problems of this time; therefore, the Cheng-Chu school offered them not only the hope of creating a new socio-political order out of the corrupt old society but also an ethical and religious system of thought that provided a refreshing set of goals and methods to legitimise the authority of the new dynasty.

Among Yi’s close supporters was Chong To-jon (Sambong, 1342-1398) who assisted his ascent to power. Sambong was a graduate from the Songgyungwan and a disciple of the eminent late Koryo scholar Yi Saek. As an influential Neo-Confucian and a close friend of Yi, he laid the foundation of crucial role in establishing the Cheng-Chu tradition of Neo-Confucianism as the ethical and religious basis for it. His first approach to reform was a revision of the legal code according to Neo-Confucan ethical and political ideals. As the principla architect of the new dynasty, he wrote major political works, such as the Choson kyongguk chon (Choson’s Codes for Governing the country), Kyongje mungam (Historical Mirror for Managing the World and Saving the People), and Kyomhje mungam pyochip (A Supplement to Kyongje munugam). All of these provided a general framework of the polity and social order of the new dynasty, becoming the basis of his Kyongguk taejon (Great Coded for Governing the Country), the new dynasty’s political canon. In addition, he wrote the first draft of a history of Koryo that constitutes the core of Koryo’s official history known as the Koryosa.

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