The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 36)

These works demonstrate the practical and pragmatic aspects of Yulgok’s thought, including government administration, economy, social reform, and popular education. Yulgok addressed an urgent need to abolish political corruptions maintained by the traditional rules and customs of government and to establish new institutions, programmes, and strategies to bring about the economic, social, and political harmony and progress of the country. For example, given the emphasis on service by the capable, he urged for liberation of talented slaves and advocated a reform measure so that sons of secondary wives of the yangban class could be appointed to both civil and military government offices. With a clear vision of history, Yulgok even predicted the potential for a Japanese invasion and proposed the preparation of 10,000 soldiers for such an emergency. However, most conservative politicians found Yulgok’s reform ideas too radical for existing socio-political systems in sixteenth century Korea. His advocacy of strengthening national defence met opposition by Prime Minister Yu Songnyong (one of Toegye’s disciples) and his powerful Easterners (tonging) faction; Yu argued that to train such a large army in peacetime for no specific reason would result in an economic and social disasters. If Yulgok’s reform measures were accepted by the government, they might have facilitated a possible process of reform and modernisation in sixteen century Korea. As the unfolding history of the late Choson dynasty indicates, the combination of internal economic, social, and political powers created a national crisis that eventually led to various criticisms of the Cheng-Chu tradition by the reformers of the Practical Learning (Sirhak) school, especially in the Nineteenth century.

Yulgok was a follower of Confucius and Mencius in his attitude of learning and self-cultivation, as well as in his serious concerns for social and political matters. He always emphasised that any benevolent ruler should adopt the sagely way of learning and self-cultivation before he could govern the people. Learning, self-cultivation, and government administration, in the true Confucian spirit, could never be separated from one another. In comparison to Toegye who had no serious interest in politics, Yulgok was an active statesman who utilised Confucian principles and ideals to formulate his political thought in terms of reform. Historically speaking, Toegye had to overcome three Neo-Confucian literati purges, which made him stay away from politics as much as possible; in addition, he was more interested in reading and writing, as well as in a contemporative way of self-cultivation. By contrast, Yulgok lived in a period when the government was relatively stable, and this tended to allow him to participate more actively in politics. This corresponds to the fact Yulgok highly respected the late Neo-Confucian politician Cho Kwang-jo as a true Confucian political thinker.

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