Yi Hwang

Yi Hwang, prominent Korean Neo-Confucian scholar

Toegye is the pen name of Yi Hwang, one of the most prominent Korean Neo-Confucian scholars, who studied in depth how to become fully human and how human beings relate to the universe. He was thus concerned about how one might best fulfill one’s potential. Koreans respect him not only because he was an outstanding scholar but also because he lived what he taught. His personality shines throughout history. For example, he left a will stating that only his name should be carved on his tombstone, without any
indication of his social standing. This was very unusual for his time and even today. In this way, he gave future generation a lesson in true modesty.

He began a career in government and held numerous positions, but in later years refused high position and instead built Dosan Seowon, a private Confucian academy, to continue his scholarly pursuits and train disciples. He taught that studying is not for making a fortune but for learning how to live a moral life. Later, his students became leaders in society, and the truths he taught have been handed down for nearly 500 years. His teachings and philosophy have spread outside Korea. Chinese and Japanese scholars as well as those from other countries are researching his life and teaching.

About Yi Hwang (Toegye)

Yi Hwang (1501-1570), a man of profound learning and high moral character, is one of the two greatest Korean Neo-Confucian scholars of the Joseon era (1392-1910), the other being his younger contemporary Yi I (Yulgok). Yi Hwang had a pleasant and modest personality and was a good filial son who understood proper etiquette even as a child. When he was young, he studied the Confucian classics from his uncle and was later admitted to Seonggyun-gwan, the National Confucian Academy. He studied hard and started a career in government but later turned down many positions in order to pursue his own scholarly studies.

Dosan Seowon

His greatest achievement was the establishment of a new school of thought based on the Neo-Confucianism of the Song scholar, Zhu-xi (1130-1200). He emphasized the four components of a good nature, first expounded in the Book of Mencius—benevolence, righteousness, ropriety and wisdom. He had 260 followers, including Ryu Seong-nyong (1542-1607; a scholarofficial and State Councillor during the Japanese Invasion of 1592-1598), Yi San-hae (1539-1609; a scholar official and Chief State Councillor) and Jeong Tak (1526-1605, a State Councillor). Moreover he, along with Seong Hon (1535-1598) and later Yi Ik (1681- 1763), was the chief exponent of one of the two main branches of Neo-Confucianism in Korea.

After the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, his books were published in Japan during Edo period when Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, was in power. They greatly influenced the major schools of modern Japanese Confucianism. Even in China, the home of Confucius, he had substantial influence, and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a Confucian scholar, journalist and reformist, considered Yi Hwang a sage.

The reason why Yi Hwang is noteworthy is because his life and conduct were consistent with his teachings. His integrity and frugality is reflected in the following poem he wrote:

A simple thatched shack
A leaky ceiling and drafty walls
Repeatedly moving furniture to dry spots
Books need to be kept in old boxes

The life and teaching of Yi Hwang can still provide lessons for people living in today’s hectic and competitive world.

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