The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 17)

Upon the impact of Chong’s and Kwon’s writings in particular, the Choson dynasty declared Sung Neo-Confucianism as the basis of its orthodox school. The announcement was made memorable in King Sejong’s royal edict of 1421. According to it, even the king, his sons, and all scholars-officials, should go to the Confucian shrine and humble themselves before the sages and worthies.

The question is, To what extent was Neo-Confucianism compatible with the social and political conditions of the Koryo-Choson transitional period? Undoubtedly, the first step for scholar-officials was to establish it as the state religion and ideology by giving an ethic-spiritual and political justification for the new dynasty’s legitimacy. For the new elite class, it meant a renewed commitment to China and its Confucian tradition. For example, Sambong and Yangchon supported the new dynasty to promote the Cheng-Chu school. They argued that because the old dominance of Buddhism was morally and spiritually corrupt, cultural progress must involve a reform to bring about moral, social, and political orders according to Confucian principles. Their rejection of what the Cheng-Chu tradition saw as a “pessimistic” Buddhist worldview was not a difficult matter in an environment whose culture had already been considerably Confucianised from early times.

Why did this generate such irreversible enthusiasm and conviction in the Korean context? As we have seen in Sambong’s and Yangchon’s writings, Neo-Confucianism was considered as the new intellectual, ethical and spiritual guide for scholar-officials to sustain a centralised, bureaucratic Confucian state. Following the Four Books and Neo-Confucian commentaries, they found an inseparability of Confucian scholarship and politics. Confucian ethics emphasises the essential link between learning, self-cultivation, family regulation, social harmony, political order, and cultural prosperity. To Korean scholar-officials, it represented a cultural universalism base on the harmony of the natural, social, and political orders, which reflects the “secular as sacred” symbol (to use Herbert Fingarette’s terminology). Of course, the entire Confucian tradition tends to reveal certain complexity about the notion of “sacredness.” In addition to the family as the basic locus of sacredness and continuity, the Korean Neo-Confucians took the socio-political order as another source of them. They saw no separation between the church and the state, as well as no room for any utopian spiritual sanctuary outside the world of here and now. The Cheng-Chu tradition was considered a convincing force that could universalise an ethic-political ideology and and educational and social system. In other words, the state itself assumed a good deal of which-religious significance.

To Sambong and his fellow scholar-officials, Neo-Confucian metaphysics, moral teachings, and political ideologies were an effective alternative to the corrupt Buddhist tradition of the Koryo dynasty, one that had a concret and practical way to govern the govern the country including educational, social, and spiritual matters. This was addressed in the light of what Neo-Confucianism, especially its statecraft tradition, calls kyongse/ching-chih (“to manage the world”), chemin/chi-min (“to save the people”), chemin/chi-min (“to save the people”), and kyongguk/ching-kuo (or chiguk/chi-kuo; “to rule the country”). In fact, Sambong used all of these ideas not only to address the essentials of Confucian political thought, but also to title his writings, such as the Choson kyongguk chon, Kyongje mungam, and Kyongje mungam pyolchip. For example, the Sino-Korean term kyongje (or kyong-che with a hypen) in the last to titles is the combined form of the kyongse and the chemin. For among and his followers, then even economic issues were to be addressed in the context of administrating a political economy. These Neo-Confucian political ideas and concerns were the focus of their statecraft school; in the lair period, they also played a major role in the works of other eminent Korean Neo-Confucians, especially Cho Kwang-jo (Chongnam, 1482-1519) and Yi Yulgok.

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