Yi Hwang

Yi Hwang (1501-1570), Yi-dynasty philosopher, poet, scholar, and educator, was one of the greatest Korean Confucian philosophers, famous for his comprehensive studies of the great Sung Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi.

Yi Hwang, whose literary appellation was T'oegye (Stream Hermit), was the youngest son of scholar Yi Sik, who died seven months after Yi Hwang's birth. The family was plunged into "honest" poverty because of the loss of the father's government stipend. When Yi was 12, he began his studies in preparation for the government entrance examinations, a basic feature of the Confucian bureaucracy. He studied the Analects of Confucius with his uncle Yi U. Yi Hwang attracted the attention of his elders by his precocity. He is said to have loved the poetry of T'ao Yuan-ming, the outstanding post-Han era nature poet of China.

When Yi was 17, he began his study of the Confucian commentaries of the Sung Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi which was to bring him lasting fame. About his twentieth birthday Yi was initiated into the mysteries of the Book of Changes (I ching) and is said to have injured his health and even neglected his meals pondering the philosophy of change.

Yi married when he was 21, and his first son was born two years later. In 1527 he passed the Kyngsang provincial qualifying examination and passed the metropolitan examination the next spring, placing second and earning his literary licentiate degree. His wife died only a few months before his success. In 1530 he remarried, and another son was born the following year. In 1534 Yi placed in the higher government examination and was appointed to office in the Royal Secretariat. He was prevented from advancing in his career by a faction led by Kim Anno despite his aristocratic background.

Yi held various minor posts until his mother died when he was 37. In accordance with Confucian custom, he left the government for an extended period of mourning. Near the end of this mourning period Kim Anno's faction fell from power, and there were no further major political obstacles in Yi's official career. He was given a post in the very powerful Office of Special Counselors and simultaneously in the prestigious Office of Royal Lectures. At 43 he was appointed assistant headmaster of the National Academy, but he left office shortly thereafter and returned to his home, turning his back on court politics to devote himself to his philosophic studies.

Five years later Yi was made headman of Tanyang county, a position which provided him with a stipend away from the factional tensions of court; however, his elder brother, Duke Taehn, was made chief magistrate of the province, obligating Yi to request a transfer for the sake of propriety. He was transferred to P'unggi county in Kyngsang Province to serve as headman there. The next year he petitioned the chief magistrate to relieve him from duty, and his request was granted the following year. He retired to the west bank of T'oegye Stream and devoted himself to philosophical studies.

At the age of 52 Yi was recalled to the capital to be the headmaster of the National Academy. He repeatedly requested to be relieved because of his failing health; however, he served as minister of works, minister of rites, and chancellor of the Office of Royal Decrees. In 1569 he returned to his home in Andong in poor health. The next year he passed away. The Tosan Academy in Kyngsang Province was established in his honor five years after his death. The following year the King conferred the posthumous title of Mun Sun (Pure Word) upon him.


Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism

In the late 12th century Chu Hsi became the leader of the Sung philosophical School of Principle, and his commentaries on the Confucian canon and his interpretations of Confucian principles became the orthodoxy of the Yi-dynasty Confucianists in Korea under the influence of Yi Hwang (T'oegye), Yi I (Yulgok), and others. Even in China, the Chu Hsi interpretation stood as the standard for government examinations with only occasional challenges by new interpretations from philosophers such as Wang Yang-ming and Lu Hsiang-shan. Self-improvement, polishing of one's virtues, was the ideal and objective of the true adherents of Neo-Confucianism.

Two major Confucian schools in Korea were the Yngnam school, led by Yi at Andong in North Kyngsang Province, and the Kiho school, led by Yi's contemporary Yi I, the only other Korean philosopher of T'oegye's stature. Both schools were factions of the Korean School of Nature and Law, but they differed substantially in interpretation. A third contemporary, S Kyngdok, evolved a monistic emphasis in his cosmology; Yi T'oegye, a dualistic emphasis; and Yi Yulgok's group, a middle ground.


"Twelve Songs of Tosan"

Yi wrote a large corpus of poetry in Chinese in traditional Chinese forms. He also composed a famous cycle of sijo, three-line poems, in Korean titled the Twelve Songs of Tosan. They sing of the beauties of Mt. To, yet each incorporates a didactic Confucian lesson, such as the eleventh song of the cycle: "The ancients see me not, nor I, the ancients,/ Though I see the ancients not, the Way they trod is before me,/ Their Way before me, can I but follow?" Yi also wrote Tosan Records, a diary of his recollections at Tosan.

Further Reading on Yi Hwang

There are no major studies of Yi Hwang's life or works in Western languages. For background see Evelyn McCune, Korea: Its Land and People and Culture of All Ages (Seoul, 1960; rev. ed. 1963) and The Arts of Korea: An Illustrated History (1962), and Peter H. Lee, Korean Literature: Topics and Themes (1965).