SŎ KYŎNGDŎK (1489–1546), was a leading neo-Confucian philosopher of Yi-dynasty Korea (1392–1910). In Korea he is best known by his honorific name, Hwadam. During the Yi dynasty, neo-Confucianism supplanted Buddhism as Korea's main spiritual and intellectual tradition. Among the many neo-Confucian thinkers in Korea during this five-hundred-year period, three are honored above all others: Hwadam, Yi Hwang (T'oegye, 1501–1570), and Yi I (Yulgok, 1536–1584). These three philosophers are credited with bringing the Korean assimilation of the complex neo-confucian system of thought to complete maturity and with developing a characteristic Korean problematic.
Hwadam, the earliest of the three, is renowned as an original and seminal thinker. He came from a relatively poor gentry family and was largely self-educated. Although he was repeatedly offered posts in government, he never accepted, choosing instead to lead an impoverished life in the mountains or countryside, where he devoted himself entirely to study and teaching. There are many anecdotes concerning his inquisitiveness regarding natural phenomena, but his most serious work was devoted to fundamental metaphysical questions and to the complex system of the Book of Changes (Kor., Yŏkgyŏng; Chin., Yi jing ).
Hwadam strongly proclaimed his independence of judgment and his originality; the small body of his writings that have come down to us, however, bear a marked resemblance to the monistic metaphysics of material force (Kor., ki; Chin., qi) developed by the early Chinese Neo-Confucian, Zhang Zai (1020–1077). Like Zhang, he taught that material force was the sole component of all existence. In its ultimate, formless, pure condition, material force is without beginning or end; this he referred to as the Supreme Vacuity (Kor., t'ae ho; Chin., tai xu ). By a process of condensation the distinct forms of the beings of the phenomenal world emerge from the Supreme Vacuity, and to it their stuff returns at death. Thus he argued that in the strict sense there is no death, only transformation.
Korean neo-Confucianism is especially known for its exclusive adherence to the orthodox tradition of Chinese neo-Confucianism derived from the thought of Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Hwadam lived at the end of Korea's fluid appropriation period. However, his thought is bold and deviant in a tradition that soon after became both more judicious and more authoritarian. Most later scholars followed the apparent dualism of the Zhu Xi school, but, among them, one school of thought tended to emphasize the role of material force; this school traces its immediate ancestry to Yi I, and ultimately to Hwadam. A distinctive characteristic of Korean neo-Confucian thought is its thorough exploration of the implications and tensions in Zhu Xi's dualism of principle (Kor., i; Chin., li) and material force. Hwadam's philosophy expressed a pure polar position that permanently established one of the extreme parameters of Korean neo-Confucian thought. As such it became a constant reference point for later generations of thinkers.
The first book-length treatment of Korean neo-Confucianism is The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and JaHyun Haboush (New York, 1985). It contains a range of articles on the major figures and facets of the Korean neo-Confucian tradition by leading scholars in the field. The best general history of Korea in English is Ki-baik Lee's A New History of Korea, translated by Edward W. Wagner and Edward J. Schultz (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).
Michael C. Kalton (1987)
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