The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 26)

Yi Hwang

Yi Hwang is commonly known by his horrific name, Toegye, and often referred to as the Master Chu His of Korea. Tu Wei-ming calls Toegye “a major source of inspiration for creative scholarship on Confucian philosophy and its modern scholarship.” The contemporary Japanese scholar Abe Yoshio considers Toegye as “the greatest scholar of the Cheng-chu school in Korea.” In Choson Korea, Yulgok had praised his senior: “Only after Toegye explained the learning of the Way (tohak/tao-hsueh, or Neo-Confucinism), our scholars in Korea finally understand the essence of Neo-confucinism.” Moreover, “Toegye’s scholarship is unchallenged by any other Korean scholars.” Toegye was the first Korean thinker who studied Neo-confucianism thoroughly while writing many significant works.

Toegye’s thought exerted a good deal of influence on the development of the Shushigaku (Chu His school) in Tokugawa Japan as well. Fujiwara Seika (1561-1619), the founder of the Japanese Chu His school, and his disciple Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) respected him as the Korean transmitter of the Cheng-chu tradition. These Japanese Neo-confucians and their followers studied Neo-Confucianism through reading his original works, as well as the Korean editors of the Sung, Yuan, and Ming writings of the Chinese Cheng-Chu school compiled by him. This facilitated Seika and Razan to establish the orthodox Cheng-Chu school in Tokugawa Japan. Razan, for example, mastered Toegye’s Chonmyong tosol (Diagrammatic Treatise on Heaven’s Imperative) and his annotation of Chu Hsi’s dialogue with Li Yen-ping (Yen-ping ta-wen). He respected the former so much that he published it in 1651, introducing Chu Hsi’s philosophy and Toegye’s commentary on it. after Seika and Razan, Yamazaki Ansai (1618-1682) respected the teaching and character of the Korean scholar, regarding Toegye as the most distinguished scholar of the Korean Chu His school. Ansai was inspired especially by his philosophy of self-cultivation through reading the latter’s own writing. Ansai studied the Chasong non (Record of self-Reflection), a collection of about 100 letters written by Toegye, Chujaso Choryo (Essentials of Master Chu’s Letters), Chu Hsi’s philosophical letters collected by Toeye, and Toegye sonsaeng munjip (Collected Works of Master Toegye). Among Japanese scholars, who studded Toegye’s works extensively, were especially Ansai’s disciples who respected him as the champion of the Cheng-Chu orthodoxy in Korea. Sato Naokata (1650-1791), for example, claimed that Toegye’s remarkable scholarly achievement stand unchallenged by any of the Yuan and Ming Chinese Neo-Confucians. In Meiji Japan as well, a few Neo-Confucians claimed that the development of the Japanese Chu His school was greatly influenced by Toegye who inherited the Cheng-Chu legacy in Korea.

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