In the British Museum’s Korea Gallery can be found a wood block printed book, The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning, written by Korea’s most famous Confucian scholar, Yi Hwang (이황, also known by his pen name, Toegye, 퇴계) (1501-1570). The volume is on loan from the British Library. The work was completed in 1568 and presented to the young King Seonjo (r 1567-1608) to guide him in the Confucian way of kingship.
Confucianism originated in China but was developed in Joseon Korea (1392-1910). It came to define the Korean way of living, thinking and studying. Confucian study in the Joseon court was not just a hobby: Confucianism was a hugely influential political philosophy, and knowledge of its precepts was essential for the day-to-day running of the country. When a king made important decisions on matters of state, he had to follow Confucian rules. Respecting the past kings and studying Confucian classics were part of the King’s duty. If his decisions were not in tune with Confucian precepts, literati officials would strongly object and the king would have to reconsider or lose the support of the literati class.
Court ceremonies and routines were governed by Confucianism. For example, ancestral rites were one of the most important duties of a king, following the Confucian principles of respect for one’s parents. Royal ancestral rituals took place at the Jongmyo shrine and was governed by a strict set of complicated rules. The King and Queen also greeted the Queen dowager every morning to show their respect.
King Seonjo (r.1567∼1608) was crowned King when he was only 15. Joseon society required the king to rule wisely like the sage kings of Confucian tradition. The king could not make decisions based merely on what he wanted to do.
Yi Hwang personally preferred to study rather than engage in politics, so he refused many important government positions citing ill health. Instead, he built the Dosan academy (Dosan Seowon) and enjoyed teaching his pupils. However, he could see that the young King Seonjo would need his knowledge to control the factions of literati in court.
Yi presented the book to Seonjo in 1568 and passed away shortly afterwards in 1570. Throughout the Joseon dynasty there was severe political tension between different factions amongst the Confucian literati officials. It was important for the king to be able to control these factions using careful strategy.
As if being only 15 was not enough, King Seonjo’s position was further weakened by the circumstances of his birth. He was the first Joseon king who was not a son of a king.
His father was a son of a concubine belonging to Seonjo’s grandfather, King Jungjong. King Seonjo’s uncle, King Myeongjong, passed away without a son and he appointed him as his heir. This meant that right from the start some members of the literati were already calling into question the legitimacy of his rule. If he was unable to assert his authority the young king would be at the mercy of the bickering factions in the literati court and the nation would suffer from a lack of strong leadership.
Yi saw that the best way Seonjo could command the respect of the literati would be through knowledge of the Confucian classics. If the king was able to base his decisions on firm Confucian principles the literati would have no choice but to obey him. Yi realized that he could no longer refuse to get involved in politics and created this book in order to teach the king those Confucian principles which would be essential learning throughout his rule. Therefore Yi presented this book which contained his wish that his young Majesty could rule Joseon peacefully.
Unfortunately, King Seonjo’s reign was to be even more troublesome than Yi could have imagined. Yi’s book failed to prevent infighting amongst the literati factions at court, and the Japanese invasions known as the Imjin war under the leadership of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi devastated the country. It was one of the most demanding periods for a Joseon king to rule, but Seonjo’s reign will nevertheless be remembered for the military achievements of Admiral Yi Sun-shin against the Japanese, for the commissioning of the Donguibogam medical textbook, and of course for Yi Hwang’s Ten Diagrams of Sage Learning.
- Shin, Myungho (translated by Timothy V. Atkinson), Joseon royal court culture: ceremonial and daily life, Gyeonggi-do, Korea : Dolbegae, 2004