Yi I

Yi I, who worked tirelessly to reform the country

Yi I is one of the two prominent Joseon Neo-Confucian scholars and government officials, the other being Yi Hwang. The reason why Koreans respect him today is because he loved the nation and worked tirelessly to reform it in the right direction. He was an exceptionally foresighted man when it came to predicting the nation’s future. While he was Minister of War, he proposed to the king that the government should recruit wise and competent men and appoint them throughout the nation. He also proposed that government
recruit and train 100,000 soldiers, as well as horses, to prepare for possible war.

However, his proposal was not accepted and tragically, war did break out eight years after his death, and the nation was practically destroyed. In 2008, the Korean navy commissioned its second Aegis destroyer, the Yulgok Yi I, which honors his insistence that national defenses must be strengthened in order to keep the peace. Yi I’s mother, Sin Saimdang, is well-known woman in Korean history. She was an outstanding painter and  calligrapher, who upheld Confucian ideals and had a great influence on her son’s education. In June 2009, a 50,000 won banknote was printed with her portrait on it. She is the only Korean woman to be so honored. Her son is on the 5,000 won banknote.

Achievements as a Great Scholar

Yi I was an outstanding Neo-Confucian scholar, who focused on social reform, while Yi Hwang tried to build an idealistic moral society. In Neo-Confucianism, li stands for the moral doctrine and ki stands for the material force. He criticized the contemporary trend in Neo-Confucianism by insisting that neither li nor ki was superior to the other, but that they existed simultaneously in all phenomena. In other words, what Yi I tried to emphasize was harmony between spirit and body, ethics and the economy, ideals and reality, theory and practice. While Yi Hwang emphasized ideals, Yi I was more realistic and progressive. He was open to science and various other studies. In his later years, he greatly influenced the various schools of Neo-Confucianism in Joseon. He criticized the idealism of Neo-Confucianism and tried to reform society. He emphasized that it was better to face reality and participate in civic affairs, rather than passively meditating in the countryside. He was a scholar who was also adept in political, economic and social affairs, as well as in law, administration, education, military affairs and ethics.

Achievements as an Official

Yi I was appointed as an official in the government during a period of chaotic political infighting and transition of power from one faction to another. He understood the necessity of a systematic revolution with the transition in power. He suggested to the king a new system of governance to tighten official
discipline and a new tax system to relieve the pain of the common people. Yi I was a prodigy who passed the high civil service examination with highest mark at the age of 13. He passed nine civil service examinations, each time with the highest grade, and became an official at the age of 29.

Through his years in government, he was appointed as the inspector-general, minister of taxation, minister of personnel, minister of punishments and minister of war and other high positions. While he was working as the minister of war, he presented a document to the king, which stated six principles to be pursued to
protect the nation. These included that officials should be appointed according to their characters and abilities, that the frontiers should always be thoroughly guarded and that the country should always be prepared for war, in case of an unexpected attack.

He predicted that Japan would attack in the near future and in 1583, proposed to the king an additional military buildup, which was rejected. In 1592, eight years after his death, the Japanese invaded Korea and over the next seven years, the country was devastated. Koreans admire his patriotism and foresight and the fact that he worked hard to change the nation for the better.

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