The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 20)

The circumstances of these four persecutions of Korean Neo-Confucians differed in each case, but their major cause was the factional struggle for political power between the aristocratic class and the Neo-Confucian elite. The latter suffered a setback as victims in this political strife. However, the result was not entirely unfruitful because most of them retired to their home regions and continued to build private academies (swoon) for promoting Confucian scholarship. With their solid bases in the countryside, the power of the Neo-Confucian literati became stronger. In fact, these Neo-Confucians controlled the village codes, thereby solidifying the economic, social, and political power in their own regions.

The Paegundong Academy is the most famous swoon established in the Yongnam region in 1543. It adopted the rules that Chu His laid down for his Pai-lu-tung Academy in Sung China. Obviously, the Korean Neo-Confucian scholars built the swoon as something that came to occupy a significant position in Choson society exactly like that maintained by the Buddhist temples in the Koryo period. It must be emphasised, therefore, that, during the difficult period of the literati purges, they found in these private academies the hope for laying the intellectual basis for their revival, as well as for their return to political power. Historically speaking, this trend also led many of the Korean Neo-Confucians to maintain serious dedication, more than ever, not only to the education of the younger generations but, more significant, to the philosophical development of Sung Neo-Confucianism.

Unfortunately, however, another historical fact is that most private Confucian academies gradually became stronger breeders of political and intellectual factionalism. Nevertheless, they served as the important local centres for Neo-Confucian education and scholarship through which many retired scholars were able to make a significant progress in the study of Cheng-Chu teachings from the middle of the sixteenth century. Indeed, during this period, the most glorious period in the entire history of Korean Neo-Confucianism, many eminent thinkers emerged, including Toegye and Yulgok. This, then, brings us to the philosophical scene of Korean songnihak (school of human nature and principle) prior to, and including, Toegye’s and Yulgok’s lifetime.

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