Master T'oegye, Yi Hwang, Philosopher (1501 – 1570)


The Portrait of Yi Toegye, Lee Yu-Tae,
Courtesey of the Advancement Center of Korean Studies

Written by Mark Peterson
Professor of Korean Studies, Brigham Young University

Yi Hwang, known more respectfully as T’oegye (1501 – 1570), is the only Confucian scholar in Korean history who is said to be the founder of a school of Confucianism. In the Korean language, the term “-hak,” meaning school, is only attached to a few Chinese scholars and only one Korean. Confucianism is called “kongja-hak,” the school of Confucius; Neo-Confucianism is called “chuja-hak,” the school of Zhu Xi. Daoism can also be called “noja-hak,” the school of Lao-zi. T’oegye-hak is an acceptable term in Korean, meaning that the teachings and commentaries on the classics by Yi Hwang are worthy of calling being called an established school of philosophy.

Yi was born in the heart of yangban territory — Andong. The northern part of North Kyŏngsang province has been known as an area of aristocrats, and, indeed, studies on the numbers of men who passed the all-important civil service exams and then served in the government show that more people passed the exams from this area than any other place outside of Seoul. Yi was born to a scholarly family that had a tradition of passing the exams.

Like most who passed exams and served in the central government, Yi’s career rotated between periods in Seoul in office and periods out-of-office in their country homes. Yi Hwang said he liked to return often to his home in the countryside to get away from the potential corrupting influence of long terms of service within government. Even after retiring from office and returning to Andong, the king again assigned him to a position in the central government and occasionally in the countryside as a magistrate.

In the corner of the yard in front of Yi Hwang’s home is a small, square-walled lotus pond. Yi used to say that he wanted to be like the pure, white blossom of the lotus. The lotus lifts itself above the muck and mire of the stagnant water of the pond to blossom clean and pure — unstained by the corruption of power and politics.

Four-Seven Debate

Yi Hwang left a large corpus of writings, most of which were explanations of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Neo-Confucianism was developed, in large part, by the Southern Song figure, Zhu Xi. Zhu’s contributions were mostly in the form of commentaries on the Confucian classics, the writings of Confucius. Like Zhu, Yi Hwang’s best contributions were his commentaries on the commentaries of Zhu Xi. The subject matter was quite arcane. Neo-Confucians were concerned with man’s character: there were complex formulae for analyzing man’s basic nature that looked at yin and yang, and the “four beginnings,” and the “seven emotions.”

Yin and yang is the principle of complementary oppositions of nature — day and night, summer and winter, male and female. The “four beginnings” were defined by Mencius and is translated as: “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.” The “seven emotions” are joy, anger, anxiety, adoration, grief, fear, and hate. The way these “four” and “seven” interact provides the basis for understanding human activity and making judgments about good behavior, good character, and their opposites. Often, these discussions were called the “four-seven debate.”

Kyŏng: Self-Cultivation and Beyond

In addition to elaborating on the four beginnings and seven emotions, Master T’oegye is also known for his philosophy on “kyŏng,” or respect. Yi, like other Confucians, believed that one of the highest priorities of a Confucian was self-cultivation. Yi believed that this inward self-cultivation was, in and of itself, not enough. He supported the idea that a Confucian gentleman’s self-cultivation should not only lead to the betterment of one’s self, but also should encourage a greater respect for those around you. This respect for the goodness in others helped lead to an increased awareness and knowledge of the world around you.

Tosan Sodang: Tosan Confucian Academy

Yi Hwang’s scholarship attracted many students. His home, well-preserved today, was small, but he had a wooden veranda on which students would sit to discuss philosophical ideas with the master. Attesting to Yi’s popularity as a teacher, the veranda features a unique roof extension over an addition that was built to accommodate more students.

Yi Hwang’s recognition as a scholar increased after his death. His disciples built a school and shrine dedicated to the memory and teachings of the master. The school portion has three buildings — one for the teachers to stay when school is in session (as well as space for a classroom), and two are for dormitories for the students. The shrine portion of the complex is separated from the school by a wall and a gate, and is comprised of one building. The shrine houses the “spirit tablet” of Yi Hwang and some of his disciples. On special occasions, disciples would meet for ceremonies — and still do today. In the same way that Confucianism calls for ancestor ceremonies for one’s ancestors, the academic “descendants” (the chain of disciples down to the present) perform ceremonies for their intellectual “ancestor” — Yi Hwang.

Enshrined in the Royal Shrine and Sŏnggyun’gwan

Because of his remarkable accomplishments as a scholar and government official, Yi Hwang received several posthumous awards. Koreans during the Chosŏn dynasty frequently awarded titles and dedicated shrines to significant individuals to honor the life of that person. He was enshrined in the royal Shrine (Chongmyo) with the king that he served most — King Sŏnjo. Perhaps the highest honor, moreover, is that he was one of eighteen Koreans enshrined in the Sŏnggyun’gwan, the shrine to Confucius, himself. There, a spirit tablet for Confucius is in the center of the hall, and in front of it are the tablets to the four disciples and the sixteen Chinese sages, including Zhu Xi, and then the eighteen Korean sages.

More than being one of the eighteen sages of Confucianism, most Koreans consider Yi Hwang the greatest of all of the Korean scholars. Some speak of the two great scholars, Yi Hwang and Yi I. However, if one is to narrow the field to one, then most would say the greatest scholar was Yi Hwang. Today, he is honored on the most common monetary denomination, ₩ 1,000 note, as well as having one of the major streets in Seoul named after him, T'oegye-ro.