The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 9)

The Introduction of
Neo-Confucianism to Korea

There has been some dispute over when and how Neo-Confucianism was brought to Koryo. Some say that the scholar-official An Hyang (1243-1306) introduced it during the region of Chungyol (1274-1308). This claim is based on the biography of An Hyang, and modern historians tend to favour it. However, others argue that Paek I-jong (fl. 1275-1325) was the first Korean scholar to propagate Sung Neo-Confucianism in Korea, and this occurred a few years later in King Chungsuk’s region (1313-1339). This view corresponds to the biography of Paek I-jong, and some early Korean historians accepted it, without giving further historical evidences.

An Hyang was a member of the new elite class of confucian scholar-officials. He believed that the most effective way to confront the entrenched aristocrats and corrupt Buddhists was to follow the Chinese model of adopting Sung Neo-Confucianism as the new state religion and ideology. In 1290, he accompanied King Chungyol on a royal trip to Beijing, where he met Chinese Neo-Confucian scholars. After becoming deeply impressed by Chu Hsi’s writings in particular, he brought home in the following year a copy of Chu Tzu churn-shu (Complete Works of Master Chu). As a high-ranking government official, he then revitalised the national Confucian Academy to disseminate Neo-Confucian learning. He also found it necessary to expand that state schools so that they could overcome the popularity of private academies. For this task, he established a scholarship fund to support state academies and purchase Sung Neo-Confucian texts from China. In recognition of these accomplishments, he was later appointed as the head of the Confucian Shrine. These facts support the view that An Hyang was the first Korean who introduced Neo-Confucianism to Koryo Korea.

According to another view, An Hyang’s junior Paek I-jong brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea in 1314. Paek is considered as “the first Korean to study the Cheng-Chu learning” in China where Neo-Confucianism was flourishing under the state support of the Yuan dynasty. He stayed with King Chungson (r. 1298 and 1308-1313) in the Yuan capital for about a decade, and there be devoted himself to the study of Sung Neo-Confucianism. When he returned to Koryo, he taught it to Yi Che-hyon (1287-1367), Pak Chung-hwa (1287-1349), and other Korean scholars. Several historical points are relevant here. Although An Hyang might not have had sufficient time to study Sung Neo-Confucianism or teach it to other Koreans, he actually laid the foundation for the transmission of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Korea. On the other hand, we have to give a good deal of credit to Paek I-jong for mastering Neo-Confucianism in China, as well as for helping to propagate it in Korea.

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