Silhak, a Confucian social reform movement in late Joseon Dynasty Korea

Silhak was a Confucian social reform movement in late Joseon Dynasty Korea. Sil means “actual” or “practical,” and hak means “studies” or “learning.” It developed in response to the increasingly metaphysical nature of Neo-Confucianism (성리학) that seemed disconnected from the rapid agricultural, industrial, and political changes occurring in Korea between the late 17th and early 19th centuries.
Silhak was designed to counter the “uncritical” following of Confucian teachings and the strict adherence to “formalism” and “ritual” by neo-Confucians.

Most of the Silhak scholars were from factions excluded from power and other disaffected scholars calling for reform. They advocated an empirical Confucianism deeply concerned with human society at the practical level.

In a broad sense, the beginning of Silhak can be traced to the aftermath of the Seven Year War, the devastating 16th century invasion by Japan. After the Manchu invasions in the 17th century, Korean art and science continued under the Silhak scholars. Additionally, the discontent of the people was expressed in writings and dramas of the period made by these scholars. Generally, the term “Silhak” refers to the reform-minded scholarship within the Confucian framework, rather than the more nationalistic peasant movements, or the later non- or anti-Confucian modernization schools. Many of the scholars in the Silhak school can also be found in the Seohak (“Western Learning”) movement.

Its proponents generally argued for reforming the rigid Confucian social structure, land reforms to relieve the plight of peasant farmers, redefining the traditionally submissive relationship with China, promoting Korea’s independent national identity and culture, encouraging the study of science, and advocating technology exchange with foreign countries. Silhak scholars wanted to use realistic and experimental approaches to social problems with the consideration of the welfare of the people. Silhak scholars encouraged human equality and moved toward a more Korean-centric view of Korean history. The Silhak school is credited with helping to create a modern Korea.

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