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Although Confucianism was introduced to Korea before Buddhism,
its ideological flowering occurred later through the introduction of
Neo-Confucianism during the late-Koryo and early-Choson
periods. For this reason, we will look at five Confucian thinkers from the Choson
(1342-1398), styled Sambong, was a thinker who played a central role in
overthrowing the Koryo Dynasty and establishing the
new Choson Dynasty on the basis of Neo-Confucianism.
In his teachings, he elucidated Confucian orthodoxy, claiming that Buddhism and
Taoism stood outside of the Confucianism orthodoxy and were thereby heterodox.
According to Chong, li (principle) was the
basic concept of Confucianism, ki (material force) the basic concept of
Taoism and mind, that of Buddhism. Since ki and mind only operated based
on li, they could not be used as a basis for philosophy. Chong
thus claimed that Taoism and Buddhism were one-sided and incomplete heterodoxies
which should be abolished and replaced with orthodox Confucianism. In works such
as Choson kyonggukchon,
Chong advocated a reordering of society to accord
with the times. As a reformer, he advocated social change based on enlightened
government and Confucian orthodoxy. Through his efforts, Neo-Confucianism was
established as the ideology of the newly formed Choson
Kwon Kun (1352-1409, styled
was a scholar who, along with Chong To-jon,
established the Confucian tradition of the Choson
Dynasty. He translated the "Four Books and Three Classics" of the
Confucian canon from the standpoint of Neo-Confucianism, bringing classical
studies to a new height. In his diagram Ch'oninshimsong
habiljido, he clarified the concepts of Heaven, man, mind and human nature,
laying the foundation for Choson Neo-Confucian
thought. Through his research on the classics, he developed Confucian orthodoxy
and through his theoretical studies, he prepared the philosophical basis of
Neo-Confucianism. In this sense, he served as a prominent leader of Confucian
studies of the period.
Yi Hwang (1501-1570), styled
T'oegye, is the scholar who
brought Choson Neo-Confucianism into full bloom. In songhak
shipto (Ten Diagrams of Sagely Learning) and numerous other writings, he
propounded his doctrine that li and ki arise in mutual
correspondence. This theory touched off a vigorous debate among Choson
Neo-Confucian scholars, which in the end led to extraordinary developments in
the school's doctrines. In terms of theory, T'oegye propounded the view that li
was dominant. However, instead of stopping at mere theory, he developed a
practical teaching method aimed at personal cultivation. Neo-Confucianism is
often called, simply, the "study of the Way." With a teaching that
encompassed both theoretical reflections as well as practical cultivation,
T'oegye can be said to have perfected this teaching. His Neo-Confucian thought
gathers the brilliant practical ideals lying within each theory and puts them
together to form a whole. In a sense, his theoretical doctrines form the
starting point of the study of the Way, while his doctrine of practical
cultivation represents its culmination. Thus, T'oegye was not a fundamentalist
or a dogmatist, but was rather an intelligent advocate of piety who devoutly
sought the practical realization of his ideals.
Yi I (1536-1584, styled
Yulgok), along with T'oegye, was one
of the two great masters of Choson Confucianism.
Although Yulgok praised T'oegye's philosophy, he criticized many of its
theoretical aspects. His numerous written works, including songhak
chibyo (Compilation of the Essentials of Sagely Learning), indicate diverse
and extensive scholarly interests.
In Yulgok's thought, that which manifests is ki and
that by which it is manifested is li. He thus emphasized that li
and ki were an inseparable entity. According to his theory, when ki
becomes active, li ascends it so as to become a unity. The fact that
Yulgok was able to apply this doctrine to the diverse aspects of his teaching
while maintaining logical consistency demonstrates his brilliance as a thinker.
His general theory is also related to his theory of government, in which he sets
forth numerous programs for social reform. He is remembered as an outstanding
intellectual of his time who worked to realize an ideal Confucian society.
The last figure we will look at is Chong
Yak-yong (1762-1836). Styled Tasan, he is a representative Sirhak scholar
of the late 19th century. Sirhak (Practical Learning) is an ideology that
sought to reform the institutionalized Neo-Confucianism of the Choson
period, and thus represents a liberal movement within the Confucian tradition.
In order to put an end to the doctrinal disputes that had plagued
Neo-Confucianism during the previous two centuries, Tasan felt that it was
necessary to elucidate the central teaching of Confucianism. Thus, Tasan began a
radical reinterpretation of the vast corpus of Confucian classics. Based on this
work, Tasan penned an extensive collection of treatises on government, including
his famous work Mongmin shimso (On Leading
the People). His theory of government focuses on assuring the livelihood of the
people and the nation's legal system. For this reason, his practical philosophy
rejected the Neo-Confucian obsession with metaphysics. Instead, it sought to
resolve issues affecting the livelihood of the people while encouraging good
government capable of helping people during times of crisis. In this sense,
Tasan was a forward-looking thinker who sought to reform tradition in response
to the needs of the times.
The five Confucian thinkers discussed above all created
monumental works that helped define the history of Korean Confucianism. As can
be seen, Choson-era Confucian scholars placed great
importance on a pious fidelity to their tradition. For this reason, they had a
very exclusive attitudes towards other religions. In this light, they certainly
appear to be self-righteous. Yet if we reach a more comprehensive understanding
of these five thinkers, we discover something quite different. Instead of
clinging to Neo-Confucian dogma, they sought to elucidate the ideals of
Neo-Confucianism according to their historical circumstances and reform the
societies in which they lived. Understood within this context, they must not be
seen as exclusive dogmatist, but as creative intellectuals.
In Korea, the representative Buddhist and Confucian thinkers
were not interested in theory for its own sake. Instead, they utilized their
independent intellectual abilities to elucidate religious ideals within the
context of their unique historical reality. This intellectual attitude has
formed the basis of Korea's ancient classical culture. From the Three Kingdoms
through the Choson period, countless Buddhist and
Confucian thinkers have left their legacy of refined philosophical works as well
as beautiful, practical examples of their search for human ideals. For this reason, Korea, even more than China or Japan, has been able to preserve
Confucianism and Buddhism in their classical forms.
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