[Scholars and their spaces] “If you don’t progress, you regress”

A restored Galsanseowon is located in Choryeo Historical Park in Sejong City. (Sejong City)

A monument to a scholar that stands in the center of the city of Sejong, the administrative capital of South Korea, is inscribed with a long letter to King Hyojong.

The letter, considered the most notable appeal of its kind, was unprecedented at the time. Over 20,000 characters long, it contains a comprehensive development plan for national reform proposed by Yi Yu-tae (1607-1684), a prominent scholar of the Giho school of neo-Confucianism in the mid-Joseon period. Reading the letter, King Hyojong shed tears and said, “All policies presented in this appeal must be implemented. This remains recorded in the “Seungjeongwon Ilgi”, or the “Royal Secretariat Diaries”.

“The king does not question his subjects about government policies. Subjects are not enthusiastic about their duties to the people. Schools do not make efforts to train students. The government is not implementing effective policies,” the letter read.

The first half of the call realistically analyzes the situation and identifies the social ills plaguing the Joseon era. Specific action plans for reform are presented in the final part of the call as follows. “Civil servants whose work requires professional expertise should be assured of continuity in their duties without frequent changes, while incompetent civil servants should be dismissed.”

A monument bearing the inscription

A monument bearing the inscription “Gihaebongsa,” Yi Yu-tae’s written appeal to King Hyojong, stands at Choryeo Historical Park in Sejong City. (Sejong City)

After the Second Manchurian Invasion (1636), the royal government of Joseon became obsessed with factions and theories. Moreover, public morals and official discipline were corrupt. It was under such circumstances that Yi attempted to stabilize the people’s livelihood through royal policy. In particular, it is notable that he called for reducing the dynasty’s harsh class discrimination and embracing a merit-based society. His policies gave shape to Yulgok’s plans for social reforms and put them into practice. Additionally, it caused a huge stir among Neo-Confucian scholars in Joseon and provided justification for King Hyojong’s plan to conquer the Chinese Qing dynasty, although the plan was never realized due to his sudden death. . Yi’s reform plans, ranging from education, finance, wealth, and the military to rural issues, led to lengthy discussions in the royal court over their adoption and thus energized a campaign for social reform. .

Although he returned home and concentrated on his studies, living in seclusion, Choryeo Yi Yu-tae was a reformist thinker who kept pointing out the social ills of the time and warned people to don’t close your eyes. He always asserted that everyone should take precautions against national crises by a practical approach to matters.

Choreyo Historical Park, built near the Sejong Government Complex in central Sejong in 2015, pays homage to the scholar’s life. It is also home to the restored Galsanseowon, a Confucian academy originally built in 1694, and where Yi’s tomb is located.

His best handwriting, “Gihaebongsa”, on the monument, shows his progressive and reformist thoughts, “If you don’t progress, you regress”.

By Park Jeong-eon ([email protected])

Park Jeong-eon is a senior researcher at the Chungnam Institute of History and Culture. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

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