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Chŏng Yagyong


CHŎNG YAGYONG (17621836), foremost representative of Korea's Sirhak (Practical Learning) movement and creator of a theistic Confucian philosophy. He is best known by his honorific name, Tasan. The Sirhak movement was characterized by a spirit of seeking evidence to establish fact, as opposed to more speculative modes of thought, and a spirit of practicality as seen in studies concerned with administrative and economic reform. Contemporary Koreans look to Sirhak as a kind of indigenous proto-modernity within their own tradition, although the movement seems to have largely dissolved by the second half of the nineteenth century. Tasan is especially revered as the preeminent intellectual figure of the movement, a polymath who mastered the principles of Western mechanics to build a town wall, wrote insightful treatises on government and social reform, and in his many works passed in critical review some two thousand years of Confucian learning. He was also one of East Asia's most prolific authors: his collected works, written in literary Chinese, come to more than eighteen thousand pages.

In his youth Tasan was a member of the small group of scholars that became interested in the Chinese writings of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (15521610). In 1784, while on a tribute mission to Beijing, one of the members of the group, Yi Sŭnghun, visited a European missionary and was baptized; he returned to Korea and baptized a number of other members in the group, including Tasan's two brothers. The movement spread rapidly, and when the first priest arrived in Korea in 1794 there were already some four thousand Korean Catholics.

It is not clear whether Tasan was ever baptized, but his connections to Catholicism were close enough to implicate him in the first large-scale purge of Catholics from government in 1801. The nineteen years of exile that followed these persecutions were a period of enforced seclusion in which Tasan devoted himself completely to study and writing, a style of life he maintained after the ban was lifted. During this long period he occupied himself not only with the practical studies typical of Sirhak but with the whole tradition of Confucian scholarship. In fact more than half of his voluminous collected works is devoted to commentary on the Confucian classics and related matters.

Tasan's reappraisal of the Confucian tradition is unusual, perhaps unique, for he took his viewpoint from the earliest classics, those that preserved an early Chinese theism that was already waning by the time of Confucius. On this basis, he reconstructed not just a primitive theistic Confucianism but a philosophically systematic Confucian theism that matched the sophisticated metaphysical and ascetic systems of the neo-Confucians. His work in this regard is notable especially for the completeness and maturity with which he grasped the ramifications of a theistic perspective.

Tasan's Confucianism had no intellectual heir. In part this is because he spent his last thirty-five years under a cloud of suspicion and in relative isolation, in part because his accomplishments occurred when Korea was on the threshold of a tumultuous change that dislocated the tradition he had accepted as authoritative.

See Also

Confucianism in Korea; Ricci, Matteo.


For general introductions to Sirhak, see The Traditional Culture and Society of Korea: Thought and Institutions, edited by Hugh H. W. Kang (Honolulu, 1975), and my article "An Introduction to Silhak," Korea Journal 15 (1975): 2946. A biographical account of Chŏng Yagyong's life can be found in Gregory Henderson's "Chŏng Ta-san: A Study in Korea's Intellectual History," Journal of Asian Studies 16 (1957): 377386. A discussion and analysis of the meeting of theistic and nontheistic worldviews in Chŏng's work is my "Chŏng Tasan's Philosophy of Man: A Radical Critique of the Neo-Confucian World View," Journal of Korean Studies 3 (1981): 338.

New Sources

Kalton, Michael C. et al., trans. The Forty-Seven Debate: An Annotated Translation of the Most Famous Controversy in Korean Neo-Confucian Thought. Albany, 1994.

Kim, Sunghae. "Chŏng Yagyong (Tasan): Creative Bridge between the East and the West." In Confucian Philosophy in Korea, edited by Haechang Choung and Hyong-jo Han, pp. 213291. Songnam, 1996.

Setton, Mark. Chŏng Yagyong: Korea's Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism. Albany, 1997.

Michael C. Kalton (1987)

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