The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 19)

The Purges of Neo-Confucian Literati

During King Songjong’s (1469-1494), many rural Neo-Confucian intellectuals were appointed to high-ranking government positions. The Sino-Korean term sari (fore of literati) commonly designated groups of these Neo-Confucian literati who maintained their academic bases in the countryside. In the southeastern Kyongsang province, a few Neo-Confucians carried on the teachings of Kil Chae, a follower of the late Koryo scholar-official Chong Mong-ju, who had retired to his home province. Like their spiritual masters, Chong and Kil, these men had remained faithful to the declining Koryo court, refusing to accept any government positions under the Yi Songgae faction. Their leading figures were Kim Chong-jik (1431-1492), Kim Il-son (d. 1498), and the former’s decibels, Kim Koeng-pil (1453-1504) and Chong Yochang (1449-1504). their scholarship was generally based on an idealistic philosophy of learning and self-cultivation one that significantly differed from the statecraft tradition of scholar-bureaycrats in the capital. They made their appearance and exerted their political influence on the central government when King Songjong appointed these sarim Neo-Confucians in an effort to prevent the further expansion of the dominant power of the court aristocrats. Consequently, serve political conflict developed between the two forces: the Neo-Confucian literati and the aristocrats in the central bureaucracy. This, then, led to a series of political events known as sahwa (literati purges) that continued from the mind-fifteenth century to the early sixteenth century.

Under the power of the tyrannical king Yonsangun, the first two purges of 1498 (muo sahwa) and 1504 (kapcha sahwa) resulted in the banishment or death of many members of the aristocratic elite, as well as numerous sarim Neo-Confucian scholars. King Chungjong (1506-1544), who highly respected the Neo-Confucian literati, brought forward the young Neo-Confucian Cho Kwang-jo (Chongnam, 1482-1519) to a succession of influential government positions. chi’s primary political objective was a rational reform of the state in accordance with the Neo-Confucian ideal. For example, he proposed the village code (hyangyak), a model of local self0government; encouraged the translation of basic Confucian writings to promote and spread its moral and social teachings among the populace at large; and put into practice a much more simplified examination system for recruiting men of virtue. As his political power grew quickly, a greater number of Neo-Confucian scholars who supported Cho were appointed to high-ranking official positions, and his reform group became known as the school of political thought. However, the aristocratic families managed to get rid of him and his reform faction, and this political event was the third literati purge of 1519 (kimyo sahwa). Toegye and Yulgok later praised Chongnam highly as a true Neo-Confucian political thinker. Another literati purge occurred in 1545 after a series of factional events surrounding the successive enthronement, which once again broke the political power of the Neo-Confucian scholar-officials.

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