The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 40)

This historical setting can be explained from a political perspective as well. Most Korean Neo-Confuciucians were proud of being faithful to Cheng-Chu orthodoxy and used it as a weapon against any new schools of thought including the Wang Yang-ming school. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “In Korea, full commitment to the heritage of the Chu His school was the basis of political ideology and legitimacy,” and Korean Neo-Confucian scholar-officials maintained this scholarly commitment to the heritage of Chu His orthodoxy. In the sixteenth century, Toegye and others eventually came to see themselves as the faithful guardians of the Cheng-Chu tradition, calling it “right learning” (chonghak). This tendency was, in fact, established by Chong To-jon, Kwon Kun, and their followers at the beginning of the Choson dynasty; in other words, there had already been an exclusive political tendency toward the view that only one orthodox teaching should be allowed to exist.

By the time of Toegye, the champion of Cheng-Chu orthodoxy in Korea, other teachings were regarded as “heretical” and, therefore, had no solid grounds on which to stand. For example, the Korean Neo-Confucians felt extremely uncomfortable about the fact that contemporary Ming thought in the form of the Wang Yang-ming school of the mind had displaced the Cheng-Chu school in the homeland of orthodox Neo-Confucianism. Although the Wang Yang-ming school was introduced to Korea sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, Toegye immediately condemned as “heretical learning” and became the first major critic of Wang Yang-ming. His strong faith in the Cheng-Chu school is expressed in his famous biographical work of the Cheng-Chu school, the Songgye Won Myong ihak tongnok (Records of the School of Principle in the Sung. Yuan, and Ming Dynasties), as well as in his essay, the Chonsumnok nopyon (Critique of Wang Yang-ming’s Instructions for Practical Living). Especially in the latter, he seriously criticised Wang Yang-ming’s reformulation of Neo-Confucinism as “false,” “anti-Chu His,”Zen Buddhist.” His own scholarly discipline resulted in the view that any deviation from Cheng-Chu orthodoxy was “heretical.” For Toegye and others, then, right learning meant a full commitment to the Cheng-Chu school, setting absolute standards of scholarly pursuits. As a result, the Wang yang-ming school could not develop into an independent school of thought that could compete with the Cheng-Chu school.

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