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Yi Yulgok


YI YULGOK , pen name of Yi I (15361584), Korean Neo-Confucian thinker whose stature in the tradition is equalled only by that of Yi T'oegye. Yulgok is credited with having established the Kiho ("material force") school in Korea. Born in Kangnŭng in Kangwon Province in western central Korea, not far from the capital, Yulgok began his studies with his mother, Sin Saimdang, a well-known poet and painter. Her death when he was sixteen seems to have brought about a profound personal crisis. After three years of mourning, Yulgok retreated into a Buddhist mountain temple intending to become a monk. Although he changed his mind after a year of studying the Buddhist scriptures, his resulting familiarity with Buddhism supposedly influenced his scholarship. In 1564 he placed first in both the preliminary and final civil service examinations and thus acquired the nickname Lord First Candidate of the Nine Examinations. His ensuing reputation as a brilliant scholar and a quick study led to his meteoric rise in the bureaucracy. He served in numerous offices in both metropolitan and provincial government. In 1568 Yulgok traveled to China on an ambassadorial mission. His official posts included appointments as minister of military affairs, minister of public works, and minister of personnel, in which post he died at the age of forty-nine. He enjoyed a close relationship with King Sŏnjo (r. 15671608), whom he served as a royal tutor.

As was typical of Yi dynasty officials, Yulgok's illustrious public career was interrupted by short periods of retirement either for personal reasons or because of an unfavorable political climate at court. Nevertheless, he is regarded as representing the activist tradition of Confucian scholar-statesmanship. In this respect, Yulgok is viewed as the opposite of T'oegye, his scholarly rival, who is known for his preference for private life. This reputation seems to be based on Yulgok's wide range of interests and concerns. Unlike T'oegye, whose scholarship was confined mainly to philosophical issues, Yulgok was keenly interested in the practical aspect of government. He wrote copiously on such matters as fiscal reform, the problems of resettlement of landless peasants, military organization and finance, questions of disseminating Confucian mores to the populace, the relationship of the monarch and the bureaucracy and their respective roles, potential frictions within the bureaucracy, and the regulation and curricula of private academies. His proposal for a strong army of one hundred thousand, although unheeded, is often cited as prophetic in view of the disastrous Japanese invasions of the 1590s. He is said even to have written a memorial on his deathbed emphasizing the need for more effective government policies. His successors, the scholars of the Kiho school, inherited this activist tradition, and perhaps it is not purely coincidental that they maintained power throughout the Yi dynasty.

While Yulgok remained within Cheng-Zhu orthodoxy (named for the Chinese thinkers Cheng I and Zhu Xi) he rejected the dual theory of i (Chin., li; "principle") and ki (Chin., qi; "material force") held by Zhu Xi and T'oegye. While he accepted a conceptual distinction between the two, he maintained that they were inseparable in both function and manifestation. Rather than seeing principle as one, unchanging and immanent in all things, he saw the principle in each thing as distinct, conditioned by its material force and thus always changing. His belief in the primacy of material force as the determinant of an entity led to a corresponding theory of the sadan (Chin., situan; "four beginnings") and the ch'ilchŏng (Chin., qi-qing; "seven emotions"). Taking issue with T'oegye's position that the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions had separate origins, Yulgok insisted that they are both manifestations of material force that contain principle. Moreover, he held that the Four are "good" manifestations of material force. The difference between the Four and the Seven lies in how they are manifested, that is, the Four Beginnings are the Seven Emotions themselves manifested as good. This was a clear departure from the idea that principle and material force were the sources, respectively, of good and evil. The scholars of the Kiho school continued to develop the primacy of material force, posing a scholarly as well as political alternative to the Yongnam school of Yi T'oegye.

See Also

Confucianism in Korea; Yi T'oegye.


Works by Yi Yulgok are collected in Yulgok chonso, 2 vols. (Seoul, 1961). A comprehensive study is Kim Kyongt'ak's Yulgok ui yon'gu (Seoul, 1960). Articles discussing his philosophy and activities are Julia Ching's "Yi Yulgok on the 'Four Beginnings and Seven Emotions' " and Sakai Tadao's "Yi Yulgok and the Community Compact," both in The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and me (New York, 1985), pp. 303322 and 323348, 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.

JaHyun Kim Haboush (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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