The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 38)

Why the Four-Seven Controversy Developed in Korea: Some Historical Reflections

The Four-Seven controversy was a powerful philosophical and moral issue not only for Toegye and Yulgok, but also among their disciples and followers from the late sixteenth century on. Philosophical views and interpretations depended on different thinkers, groups, and academies, so they served a crucial historical function as well. In the intellectual sphere, for example, the controversy contributed enormously to the development of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Choson Korea from the late sixteenth century, producing divergent and sophisticated views of Chu Hsi’s philosophy. It definitely established a distinctive intellectual agenda for many Neo-Confucians and, thus, initiated a unique feature of Korean Neo-Confucianism, one that demonstrated an exclusive loyalty to the Cheng-Chu school and inhibited any significant spread of Wang Yang-ming’s thought in the Choson dynasty’s intellectual domains.

The crucial question we have to address here is, Why did the Four-Seven controversy begin in sixteenth century Korea and develop further among later generations? There is no simple answer to this challenging question because it involves a few historical circumstances related to the intellectual and political settings of sixteenth century Korea. We have look at some of these specific circumstances. Although the fundamental metaphysical and ethical issue of Toegye’s and Yulgok’s Four-Seven debates are significant for the entire Neo-Confucian tradition in East Asia, they had never been raised with the same urgency and intensity in China, either before or after Toegye and Yulgok. With the issue of Chan (Zen) Buddhism in the background,the famous “Goose-Lake” debate between two Chinese Neo-Confucian thinkers, Chu His and Lu Hsiang-shan (1139-1193), did not alter the general direction of Chinese Neo-Confucianism in the twelfth century. On the contrary, the Four-Seven debate between Toegye and Kobong and that between Yulgok and Ugye determined the characteristic patterns of Korean Neo-Confucianism for later generations.

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