The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 27)

It is appropriate to mention a few facts about Toegye’s life. We can divide his life into three major periods: first, the study period until age thirty-three; second, the official period until age forty-nine; and finally, the period of retirement, teaching, and writing for twenty years until his death at age seventy. Toegye was by nature a modest, sincere, and friendly person. At age twelve, Toegye learned the Analects from his uncle Yi U (Songjae, 1469-1517), a stern teacher who helped his nephew master this text from the first to the last chapter, without missing a single character. His uncle had a reputation for poetry, so Toegye also learned it from him and developed a serious lifelong dedication to it. He composed over 2,000 poems of various types. He was attracted particularly to the poetry of Tao Yan-ming (365-427), a famous Chinese poet, who wrote many poems especially about rural retirement and closeness to nature. In fact, this aspect of life exerted certain influence on Toegye’s mature philosophy directed toward the inner-directed and contemplative way of life.

At age nineteen, Toegye obtained a copy of the Hsing-li ta-chuan (Great Compendium of Human Nature and Principle), a seventy-facicle encyclopaedic compendium of the discussions of the Sung and Yuan Neo-Confucian thinkers, topically arranged to cover the most fundamental doctrines and concepts in the Cheng-Chu school. This text first inspired Toegye to dedicate his life to the study and practice of Neo-Confucianism. He was a quite and introspective man by nature, who always liked reading and study. Even in the early years of his life, he practiced quite-sitting meditation and reflection over what he learned from books, especially when his mind recovered its serenity at night.

While studying in Seoul, the young scholar Toegye obtained a copy of the Hsin ching/Simgyong (Classic for the Mind-and-Heart) written by Chen Te-hsiu (1178-1235), a leading follower of the Cheng-Chu school in late Sung China. The main emphasis of this text is on the way of moral self-cultuvation. According to Toegye’s biography, ever since his encounter with it in his early days, it had been a continuous source of inspiration for his study and practice of simhak (learning of the mind-and-heart). Chen’s Hsin ching circulated in Korea in an expanded version, entitled Hsin ching fu-chu/Simgyong puju (Classic for the Mind-and-Heart Supplemented and Annotated), compiled by the Ming scholar Cheng Min-heng (1445-1499). The Hsin ching fu-chu was published in China in 1492, but it is unclear when it was introduced to Korea. In his later years, Toegye used it as a standard text for lectures at the court and to his students. Holding it in great veneration, he ranked it along with the Four Books, Chu Tzu ta-chuan (Great Compendium of Chu Hsi’s Works), Hsing-li ta-chuan (Great Compendium of Human Nature and Principe), as well as Chu Hsi’s Chin-ssu lu (Reflections on Things at Hand). In his Simgyong huron (Epilogue to the Hsin ching), he affirmed his faith in Chen’s Hsin ching as his “divine spirit” and “parents.” Partly due to Toegye’s influence, it was printed in Korea seventy years later and became one of the most important Neo-Confucian texts in there, leading to twenty-five more printings from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.

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