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A glimpse of a Confucian scholar’s intimacy

More details of this Friday’s free seminar at SOAS

Friday, February 5th, 5pm, room G50 (main building)
Isabelle Sancho, EHESS
“A glimpse of Confucian scholar’s intimacy: the correspondence of Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584)”


Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584)
Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584)

The talk will focus on the correspondence of Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584), one of the most outstanding Confucian scholars of the first half of Chosŏn Korea. The Confucian scholars’ correspondence has often been regarded as a reservoir for biographical details or minor anecdotes at best. On the other hand, it has also been studied until now as a significant secondary source in order to deepen the philosophical understanding of a few erudite and technical debates in Korean Neo-Confucianism. One good example is the famous controversy between Yulgok and Ki Taesŏng over the sadan ch’iljŏng problem. This problem has been extensively studied in Korea as well as abroad, insomuch that it became either a fascinating or, conversely, a slightly frightening topos of Korean intellectual history and Chosŏn elite culture.

Taking an approach borrowed from the history of representations, this talk would like to tackle another aspect of Korean Neo-Confucian thought and culture: the intimacy. The topic has not been studied yet for itself, in spite of its potential contribution at the crossroads between intellectual history in a broad sense and literature. Confucianism is an ideology, but it is also a culture shared by a specific social group that constitutes not only the bureaucracy but also the socio-intellectual elite of Chosŏn Korea. This talk will aim at examining both the private and public correspondence of Yulgok Yi I, in an attempt to understand what it meant to be and to live as a Confucian scholar-official at the 16th century Chosŏn Korea.

Between public and private spaces, the intimacy appearing in the rather voluminous correspondence with multiple addressees – king included – in the Collected Works of Yulgok is a good means to explore the sociability and some of the representations of this prominent scholar-official. Beyond the solely anecdotic interest of many letters or, more precisely, thanks to these anecdotes, one can find a stimulating view of what could be called the dialectic of theory and praxis in Neo-Confucianism. In other words, one can see how Yulgok Yi I and his peers and friends – like Sŏng Hon and Song Ikp’il for instance – were talking about themselves and others, how they practiced friendship and how they tried to apply Confucian principles in their own lives.

One of the main interests of the correspondence lies indeed in the very epistolary genre that let individual voices resonate mutually and rather freely, between collective norms and individual freedom. Listening to these voices could let us have a glimpse at the intimate world of Confucian scholars, who used to have been merely encapsulated and reduced to their philosophical systems or Byzantine debates. Such a reduction is problematic and should be further questioned, for it provides a biased view of Confucianism as a historical phenomenon, by presenting a disembodied Confucianism – a fleshless and voiceless body of theoretical texts.

Speaker Bio:
Isabelle Sancho is a specialist of Chinese and Korean Confucianism. She earned her Ph.D. in East Asian languages and civilizations from the INALCO in 2006 with a Korea Foundation Fellowship. While completing her Ph.D., she taught Chinese Neo-Confucian texts at INALCO. Her doctoral dissertation studied the reception and reappraisal of Song-Yuan Confucianism by Korean scholars-officials from the 14th to the 16th century. It was titled “Chòngsim (“straightening one’s heart”), one of the central ideas of the Korean interpretation of Neo-Confucianism. Study focused on Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584)”.

She pursued her research interest in Korean Confucian thought and culture as a postdoctoral fellow at the Korea Institute of Harvard University (2007-2008), as well as a research assistant at the Chair of Chinese Intellectual History of the Collège de France (2008-2009).

She became this fall a permanent researcher at the History Department of the CNRS and the Centre of Korean Studies of the EHESS in Paris with a long-term research project titled: “Confucian elites of the 16th century Korea: identity, ideology, social practices and political trajectories”. Secretary of the French Association for Korean studies and member of the European Association, she will be pursuing collaboration with different institutions inside and outside France.

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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