Yi Hwang and Yi I

Yi Hwang and Yi I

The balance of the 16th century was a time of great peace and progress, particularly in regard to Neo-Confucian philosophy. From 1545 to 1592 the major landmarks on the historical scenery of Korea were the two giants of Neo-Confucian scholarship, Yi Hwang and Yi I.

Yi Hwang (1501–70), also known by his pen name, Toegye, was the older of the two, but his work overlapped that of Yi I, also known by his pen name, Yulgok (1536–85).

The two scholars met only once but exchanged letters from time to time. More important than the things they discussed with each other, however, were the issues they discussed with their disciples. The issues were extremely arcane, deal-ing with philosophy as developed by the great Chinese Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi.

He, with other scholars, was responsible for the revival of Confucianism called Neo-Confucianism. Zhu Xi had worked in the realm of previous scholars who wrote commentaries on the classics, but his approach was so comprehensive that it was a virtual reconstruction of Confucianism. Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok made their contributions by commenting on Zhu Xi’s commentaries.

The two great 16th-century Korean scholars agreed more than they disagreed, but they and their disciples were known for what they dis-agreed on. The important issue was that by that point, with 200 years of experience with Neo-Confucianism behind it, Choson-dynasty Korea had become an orthodox, thoroughly committed Confucian society, at least philosophically.

Although most of their discussion centered on arcane aspects of Neo-Confucianism, such as whether li or qi dominates, Yi Hwang and Yi I famously disagreed during these discussions.

At the outset of the dynasty, there were court records of complaints that certain officials were not carrying out the ceremonies; later, however, the prestige associated with being able to carry out the ceremonies seems to have been sufficient motivation for those who could afford it.

Since the proper performance of the ceremonies was an expensive affair, only the upper class could afford such luxury. This and the printing of one’s genealogy, another expensive enterprise, thus became proof that one belonged to the upper class.

The genealogies recorded the important dates on which ceremonies were to occur as well as the gravesites, the places where such ceremonies took place.One of the more practical issues Yulgok raised was military preparedness and a possible invasion from Japan.

He warned of the need to raise a larger army; this went unheeded, and he died in 1584. By 1592 the people of Choson Korea must have wished they had been better prepared: The Japanese invaded.