The Korean Neo-Confucianism Part 185

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most reformers in Ching China, Choson Korea, and Tokugawa Japan criticised especially the orthodox Chu Hsi tradition as an abstract or impractical learning that maintained its traditional and nonreformist affinities. The Korean Practical Learning (Sirhak) scholars, such as Yi Ik (Songho, 1681-1763), Park Chenga (Chochong, 1750-1805), and Chong Yagyong (Tasan, 1762-1836), argues that it failed to comprehend new ideas and values. Although these men were initially trained in the Chu Hsi tradition, They condemned it as an “empty” or “lip-service” learning that could not confront new historical conditions, especially the urgent economic and socio-political problems. Defining the term sirhak in the context of promoting a direct beneficial affluence on the daily lives of people, they made a clear-cut distinction between traditional Neo-Confucianism and their sirhak. In this regard, sirhak was a new learning not only for reforming the bureaucratic institutions of the nation, but also for developing economy, science, and technology. And yet, the empirical and pragmatic and political reform exerted a significant impact on the rise of Practical Learning school among Korean Neo-Confucian reformers. This will be discussed further in the next chapter.

If we define utilitarian practicality in terms of ordering the state, transforming the society, and benefiting the people through concrete economic and political measures, then Yulgok’s sirhak has an utilitarian practicality. Even if we define it in terms of a pragmatic way to reform and modernise the state or a functional way to deal with new economic and social needs, Yulgok’s sirhak qualifies well as a Neo-Confucian form of utilitarian learning. On the contrary, if it is defined in the strict contemporary (but narrow) sense of advancing science and technology, then the practical, pragmatic, and reformist dimension of his sirhak fail to satisfy such a definition. Empirical rationality and functional practicality are two important features of Yulgok’s Neo-Confucianism. It was philosophically and ethically appropriate for Yulgok to reinterpret the theoretical and practical patterns of Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism. Realising the lack of a concrete political guide in the Cheng-Chu tradition, he offered an integrated ethic-political system of realistic strategies and applications, one that could deal with an utilitarian reform appropriate for the contemporary Korean context. Although the essence of his sirhak is based on Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism, it is carefully furnished with a systematic framework in which he strived to strengthen Neo-Confucian political ideas and ideals. Its vital implications for sagehood and political reform are based on his philosophy of ki that grew especially out of his Four-Seven thesis. This, then, concludes our analysis of the practical implications of Yulgok’s Four-Seven philosophy, bringing us to a comparative study of Toegye and Yulgok in the following chapter.

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