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Yi T'oegye


YI T'OEGYE , pen name of Yi Hwang (15011570), founder of the Yŏngnam school of Korean Neo-Confucianism. T'oegye is credited with having established in Korea the orthodox Neo-Confucian tradition as propounded by the Cheng-Zhu school, so-called after its putative founders Cheng I (10331107) and Zhu Xi (11301200), and is widely regarded as the greatest of all Korean Neo-Confucian thinkers.

Yi T'oegye was born in Yean in Kyongsang Province, in the southeastern part of Korea. He began his studies with his uncle, Yi U, and continued them at the Royal College in Seoul, which he entered in 1523. He passed the preliminary civil service examination in 1528 and the final examination in 1534, after which he joined the small governing elite by embarking upon a long official career. His career, which followed the pattern typical of the elite of the period, included posts in such metropolitan bureaus as the Office of Diplomatic Correspondence, the Censorate, the Office of the Crown Prince Tutorial, and the Royal College. He also served as a magistrate in local government. Despite the rather volatile political atmosphere of the time, his career was a smooth one. The highest positions he held included appointments as Minister of Rites, Fifth State Councillor, Director of the Office of Royal Decrees, and Director of Special Councillors. In 1569 he retired from public life and returned to his place of origin. The kings he served, Chungjong (r. 15061544), Myŏngjong (r. 15451567), and Sŏnjo (r. 15671608), all treated him with great respect. Legend has it that King Myŏngjong, to whom T'oegye submitted his celebrated Ten Diagrams of Sage Learning (Sŏnghak sipto), was supposed to have been a devotee.

Despite his long and illustrious public career, T'oegye is remembered as having maintained, or perhaps even initiated, the tradition of scholarly independence from the state. While he did not shy away from public life, T'oegye seems to have been constantly attracted to independent scholarship and educational activity. He frequently professed his desire for the life of a private scholar devoted to learning and teaching. Whenever possible, either between official posts or during his service, he attempted to pursue this ideal. During his tenure as the magistrate of P'unggi County, T'oegye successfully campaigned for government support of a private academy in the area, setting a frequently observed precedent. Eventually, he founded the Tosan Academy in his place of birth, which attracted numerous students through the generations. It was to this academy that he retired periodically in pursuit of scholarship. His alleged preference for the scholarly life influenced the attitudes of later scholars; indeed, the majority of the scholars of the Yŏngnam school (School of Principle) remained private scholars. This of course reflected political realities such as violent factionalism and fierce competition for office. But these scholars also preserved a certain pride in their independence from the state and in their exclusive devotion to scholarship. They believed they were true heirs of T'oegye not only in their scholarship but also in their mode of life.

T'oegye based his philosophy largely on that of Zhu Xi. He endorsed Zhu Xi's dual theory of li (Kor., i; "principle") and qi (Kor., ki ; "material force"), but labored over the question of whether Zhu Xi's priority of principle over material force referred to a valuative or existential priority. He concluded that the priority of principle obtained in the realm of values. His belief in the superiority of principle, which he identified with original nature and the moral mind, defined his position on the sadan (Chin., ssu-tuan ; "four beginnings") and the ch'ilchong (Chin., qi-qing ; "seven emotions") in the famous debate with Ki Taesung (15271572). Here, T'oegye argued for their separate origins, proposing that the Four Beginnings were initiated by principle and the Seven Emotions by material force. In order to maintain this position, however, T'oegye saw principle as having a generative power of its own. This position became a focus of the scholarship of the Yŏngnam school.

A perhaps more meaningful aspect of his scholarship is his position on moral cultivation. Dismissing Wang Yangming's (14721529) theory of the unity of knowledge and action as irresponsible in its disregard for the rationality of man, T'oegye was firmly committed to the need for a daily regimen of moral cultivation, a slow and painstaking process. He regarded sincerity and reverence as fundamental necessities in the acquisition of knowledge, which could be sought only through laborious step-by-step inquiry and meditation. The rather quiescent and meditative quality of his scholarship was inherited by his followers and remained a distinctive feature of the Yŏngnam School.

See Also

Confucianism in Korea.


Works by Yi T'oegye are collected in T'oegye chonso, 2 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 1958). An authoritative study on him is Yi Sang-un's T'oegye ui saengae wa hangmun (Seoul, 1973). Articles discussing his philosophy in English are Tomoeda Ryutaro's "Yi T'oegye and Zhu Xi: Differences in Their Theories of Principle and Material Force," Tu Wei-ming's "Yi T'oegye's Perception of Human Nature: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Four-Seven Debate in Korean Neo-Confucianism," and Sa-Soon Youn's "T'oegye's Identification of 'To Be' and 'Ought': T'oegye's Theory of Values," all in The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and me (New York, 1985), pp. 243260, 261282, and 223242, respectively.

New Sources

Chung, Edward Y. J. The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi T'oegye and Yi Yulgok: A Reappraisal of the "Four-Seven Thesis" and Its Practical Implications for Self-Cultivation. Albany, 1995.

Kalton, Michael C., trans. The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning by Yi T'oegye. New York, 1988.

Lee, Kwang-Sae. "Yi T'oegye [15011570]." In Great Thinkers of the Eastern World: The Major Thinkers and the Philosophical and Religious Classics of China, India, Japan, Korea, and the World of Islam, edited by Ian P. McGreal, pp. 413417. New York.

JaHyun Kim Haboush (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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