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Yulgok Yi I – a learned slouch with a stomach problem

LKL reports from the most recent Friday evening seminar at SOAS, in which Isabelle Sancho examined the letters of Confucian Scholar Yulgok Yi I

Yulgok Yi I
Yulgok Yi I

What should one expect from the letters of one of the best-known Confucian scholars? In some respects, the sort of thing you might expect from any correspondence: pleasantries about health, about arranging and re-arranging appointments, wondering if the last letter arrived.

But when you consider that these are the letters that survived, the letters to other noted Confucian scholars, letters that perhaps were written with the thought that they might be retained, collected or published, you revise your expectations about whether you will encounter anything risqué.

As part of her research, Isabelle Sancho is reviewing the correspondence of Confucian scholars to give an alternative to the more familiar views of the Confucian Scholar, the first, which Sancho called the “angelic” view – of the scholar as great philosopher – while the second view of the Confucian system presents it as simply a tool for social control. Sancho has the ambitious aim of exploring what it was like to live as a Confucian official. In selecting Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584) as her subject, Sancho was influenced in part by his prominence, by the availability of his letters, and by the fact that he is the son of the almost sainted ideal Confucian mother, Shin Saimdang, artist, calligrapher, poet, whose portrait graces the KRW50,000 banknote. A little bit of celebrity makes the research a bit more entertaining.

Shin Saimdang
Shin Saimdang

Sancho described some of the difficulties in distinguishing a letter from the other writings of Yulgok – not always an easy task. But the letters, being to other noted Confucian Scholars such as Song Ikp’il (1534-1599), Song Hon (1535-1598) and Chong Chol (1536-1593), contain a fair amount of abstruse discussion on the niceties of Confucian philosophy – the four-seven debate, the supremacy of Li over Qi. And we get updates on the progress of Yulgok’s commentary on the Elementary Learning.


In terms of intimate content, this is somewhat limited. If Yulgok’s letters to his wife or his concubine had survived1 maybe we would know more about his family life. What we do know is that he had two sons and two daughters, both by his concubine.

We learn from his letters that he was a modest, maybe an over-modest person, castigating himself for being lazy, saying frequently that he was not up to the task, that he was like a “mosquito” trying to bear his burdens which threatened to crush him under their weight. He also claims that he didn’t really start reading until he was 17 years old. What was his sainted mother doing – that paragon of Confucian motherhood – letting her son lounge about doing no work for so long? But how did he pass the civil service exams at the precocious age of 13 without opening a book?

Another surprising element of the letters is his readiness to talk about his physical ailments – he confessed to having a bowel disease at the age of 18, and later in life wrote to his peers about his constant puking.2 Yulgok often talked about the question of whether he should retire or continue in public service; about the poor state of his health; about his failure as a Confucian official. What comes across more than anything else is a sense of melancholy. Whether the letters were designed for publication or not, they bring a dusty old historical figure to life.

Yulgok Yi I on the 5,000 Won note
Yulgok Yi I on the 5,000 Won note
  1. Letters to his wife or concubine would have been written in Hangeul, whereas the letters which have survived to fellow scholars are in classical Chinese. []
  2. The easy way of the Choson dynasty Korean with bodily functions is something which merits further attention. For example, Michael Pettid in his fun book on Korean food culture quotes some advice to scholar families about table manners: “When you are having a meal with others, do not speak of smelly or dirty things, such as boils or diarrhea … Even when the food is bad, do not compare it to urine, pus or body dirt.” []

One thought on “Yulgok Yi I – a learned slouch with a stomach problem

    • Peter Corbishley: Well done!
    • Philip Gowman: Thanks. This one, as you rightly guessed, was a struggle to write up and I almost didn’t manage it! Wish I had known a bit more about Yulgok before going to the talk. Judging by the Wikipedia article he wasn’t a slouch at all – in fact really rather hard-working and clever.

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