Master Yulgok, Yi I, Scholar, Official and Reformer (1536 – 1584)

Yi I Portrait

The Portrait of Yi I, Wikipedia

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

Yi I (1536 – 1584) was one of the most prominent Confucian scholars of Korea; together with Yi Hwang (Master T’oegye), they were called the “twin towers” of Neo-Confucian philosophy in Korea.  That fact is perhaps best depicted today by the two of them featured on the basic monetary notes, ₩ 1,000 and ₩ 5,000 bills. The two great masters were contemporaries and met once. Yi Hwang was a little older and wrote of being impressed with the intellect of the younger Yi I who came to visit him. The disciples of the two masters became rivals and created two major schools of Neo-Confucianism: Yi I’s was also called the Seoul and Southwest School, and Yi Hwang’s was referred to as the Southeastern School.

Life and Civil Service Exams

Yi was born in 1536 and was initially taught at home by his mother. This factor was somewhat unusual since most women did not study the Chinese classics — the curriculum for the well-educated of traditional Korea. But his mother was a remarkable woman, known better by her penname, as Shin Saimdang. She fit into a prescribed role-model, that of the wise mother and she came to be compared to the mother of Mencius, the most-famous of the disciples of Confucius. Mencius, one of the greatest of the Chinese scholars of Confucianism — second only to Confucius himself, was inspired to study by his mother. Thus in Korea the great role models for motherhood, and the unparalleled role of the mother in a child’s education, are found in the mother of Mencius and the mother of Yi I.

Yi passed his first exam at age thirteen — a truly remarkable feat. The role of the examination system cannot be exaggerated, it was everything in regard to social success and the obtaining of a government position, the highest measure of success and social status in traditional Korea. Businessmen were looked down upon, doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientists, and translators all had government positions, but were considered second-tier when compared to those who passed the civil service exam.

There were three different exams: the high civil service exam, and the two secondary civil service exams — called the chinsa and the saengwon exams. There were three levels for each exam: provincial, capital, and palace exams. One only had to complete one three-level exam sequence to qualify for government office, but often in the early Chosŏn the second-tier exam was taken preliminary to taking the High Civil Service Exam, somewhat like taking a Master’s degree before completing the PhD. But over time, by the end of the dynasty, the chinsa and saengwon were not considered a preliminary for the highest level degree, but were equivalent to what we would call a terminal master’s degree today.

Yi took all three exams, and passed at all three levels — nine exams. Remarkably, he took first-place honors and all nine exams. This became one of his nicknames — “Lord of Nine Valedictories.” He was thirteen years old when he passed the first exam!

His march up the ladder of success in the examination system was halted when his mother died. In mourning, he retired to a Buddhist temple for a time, but then returned and studied Neo-Confucianism again. In addition to studying the classics, and most-importantly, Zhu Xi’s commentaries on the classics, Yi wrote commentaries on the classics, and as was fashionable in those days, wrote commentaries on Zhu Xi’s commentaries. Yi’s collected writings are among the most voluminous of the scholars of the Chosŏn period.

Once he passed the exam, and did so in unparalleled manner, he was given a position in the government. He served in the Censorate where he interacted personally with the king, then held a variety of positions in various ministries. His career path was the ideal set of appointments — none of which he held for more than six months. This was typical. If the king did not reappoint him after six-months, he might request leave to study, or for his health, and Yi indeed did both. As the years went by, he requested leave more often and more often for health reasons. Indeed, his health was failing him and he died at the young age of 48.

Scholar-Official and Reformer

His range of service included Minister of Military Affairs, Chief Scholar in the Royal Library, Minister of Personnel and Minister of Ritual. He advocated three important reforms that were not accepted at the time, but all of which came to be seen as necessary, and Yi I came to be seen as prescient for advocating the reforms ahead of their times.

The most dramatic of these was the calling for an increase in the size of the army by 100,000 men. Yi died eight years before the disastrous Japanese invasion of 1592 — and if Korea had had ten thousand more soldiers, it would certainly have made a difference.

The other two reforms included a tax reformation that converted taxes to money — up to this point taxes were paid in cloth, in rice, and in specialty goods from regions where they were grown, ginsaeng, for example, and finally a reform in the handling of political factions. The court had become dependent on one faction at the expense of another, and then at times would shift, and oust all those of the first faction in favor of the second. Yi advocated a balanced program where representatives of each faction could be employed at court. His proposal made eminent sense, but was not adopted until nearly two hundred years after his death.

These three programs that he strongly advocated before he died and which were not adopted lend gravitas to his legend. He was a man ahead of his times, or a man who, if only the court had listened, would have been a more for his times. Coupled with the fact that he died so young, and yet accomplished so much added to the mystic of a man of genius to whom “we should have listened.”

Enshrined in the Royal Shrine and Sŏnggyun’gwan

In Confucianism, honors do not end with death. Kings get their “temple name” or formal title after they have died. Scholar-officials also get titles and honors after their death. Yi I is one of only eighteen men enshrined in the Confucian Academy, known as the Sŏnggyun’gwan, the forerunner of today’s Sungkyunkwan University. The Academy has the “spirit tablet” for Confucius himself, for his four disciples, for sixteen Chinese scholars, and for eighteen Korean scholars. Yi was also enshrined in the Chongmyo, the shrine for the kings of the Chosŏn Kingdom — which was designated in 1995 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although it is a place for enshrining of the spirit tablets of worthy kings — not all kings are automatically enshrined — in each hall there is also room for the spirit tablet of one or two of that king’s most noble advisors. Yi I served two kings, Myŏngjong and Sŏnjo — he is enshrined with King Sŏnjo.

In addition, Yi was enshrined in more than twenty sŏwŏn, or “private academies,” which were places dedicated to the memory of a prominent scholar. Yi was the main figure in the shrine of several of the private academies, and the second or third figure in several others — often the shrine at a private academy will house one principle figure and two or three or four related figures.

One additional honor that usually attends the enshrinement in a private academy is the publication of the scholar’s collected writings, called a “munjip.” The publication was printed on paper and bound, in the case of Yi I, in ten volumes. However, the printing process did not include metal movable type, which was available, but instead involved the carving of wooden plates. The plates were preserved in one of the halls of the academy and could be used again years later, or centuries later, for another edition as needed.

Yi Yulgok was the best example of a scholar-official of the Chosŏn Kingdom. He studied well and passed the exams. He served his king in multiple offices and yet would often formally resign to return home. But when called upon again, he would return to Seoul and take up another office. His counsel to the king was legendary, yet, his best advice went unheeded to the detriment of the kingdom. And Yulgok’s memory is formally preserved in the most-honored places in Korea. Finally, as a Confucian-scholar official he might not welcome the most-recent, and largest of honors — that of being featured on modern-day currency.