The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 41)

In Ming China and Tokugawa Japan, the Wang Yang-ming school developed by compromising with the Chu His school, bringing about flexibility and diversity in Neo-Confucian thought. Chinese and Japanese Neo-Confucians took the Lu-Wang thesis that “the mind is principle” and were not led into any kind of the Four-Seven controversy on the specific issues of human nature and feelings in Chu Hsi’s philosophy. By contrast, Toegye, Yulgok, and their challengers took the Cheng-hu school seriously, to the extent that they discovered its distinctive philosophical agenda. This was part of the impact of Toegye and Yulgok, then, the Wang Yang-ming school was not convincing to most Korean scholars in such a focused intellectual environment. As a result, the exclusive devotion of Toegye’s and Yulgok’s followers t the Cheng-Chu tradition maintained the Four-Seven controversy until the end of the nineteenth century. They continued to formulate different views according to Chu Hsi’s original thinking and their masters’ interpretations. However, the Korean tradition of Songnihak often serve as a system of thought for the literati bureaucrats, including many of Toegye’s and Yulgok’s followers, who engaged themselves constantly in political power struggles and factional disputes, some of which were, in fact, related to the Four-Seven controversy itself.

Neo-Confucian scholarship in Tokugawa Japan was more devoted to practical matters rather than doctrinal disputes; therefore, various schools of Neo-Confucian thought prospered, and criticism of the orthodox Shushigaku (Chu His school) was kept comparatively free. This was possible through the development of the Wang Yang-ming school (Yomeigaku), Yamazaki Ansai’s Southern school (Nangaku), Ito Jinsai’s Ancient Learning school (Kogaku), Ogyu Sorai’s school of political Neo-Confucianism (Soraigaku), and the Mito school (Mitogaku), which produced flexibility and vitality in Japanese Neo-Confucian thought. Unlike the Chinese or Japanese, who developed different schools of Neo-Confucianism, the Korean thinkers who came after Toegye and Yulgok devoted their energy to the study of Songnihak only and were always interested in philosophical debates on it. In addition to the Four-Seven debates, the “Horak Debate” also took place in the eighteenth century. It was a hair-splitting philosophical debate between three leading followers of Yulgok’s Chugripa, Kwon Sang-ha (Sangam, 1641-1721), Han Nam-dang (Wonjin, 1682-1750), and Yi Kan (Oeam, 1677-1729), on the distinction of human nature and the nature off things.

The Four-Seven debates were significant both historically and philosophically. Undeniably, the Toegye-Kobong and Yulgok-Ugye debates generated a convincing model of scholarly debate, giving rise to the unique Korean style of systematic inquiry and moral reasoning for later generations. In shorts, Korean Neo-Confucianism is characterised by a strong commitment to Cheng-Chu orthodoxy; the entire legacy of the Korean Four-Seven debates demonstrates this historical and philosophical fact. Given such a commitment to continuity, both Toegye and Yulgok found it necessary to clarify the Cheng-Chu tradition of metaphysics and ethics.

As philosophical introduction to the Four-Seven debate in Korea, let us now examine the textual legacy of Chinese Confucianism.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

London United Korean Fan Club

London United Japanese Fan Club