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Nammyeong Cho Shik: teacher, philosopher and inspiration for the anti-Japanese resistance armies

Sancheong-gun, Thursday 5 May 2011. Students of Korean history in the Koryo and particularly the Joseon period cannot avoid grappling at some stage with the concepts of Confucianism. Distilled down to its most digestible elements, it is portrayed in the West as a deeply conservative doctrine designed to keep people in their places: wives had to obey their husbands, subjects their king.

But if that was all Confucianism was about, the Sage himself would not have been able to spin out his thoughts over the five Classics attributed to him, which formed the basis of any cultivated person’s education, and which provided the foundation for the Chinese and Korean civil service exams.

When I was in Sancheong County last year, I was shown the memorial to one of Korea’s most prominent 20th Century Buddhists: the Venerable Seong Cheol. This year, I was introduced to the one of the most eminent Joseon dynasty Confucian scholars. I was once again accompanied by the expert guide to Sancheong-gun, Mr Min, but he confessed to me afterwards that Confucian scholarship was not his specialist subject, and he had to do some hard studying the day beforehand in order to be prepared to show me around the various sites. As last year, my time in Sancheong-gun was sadly limited, so my tour of the noteworthy attractions relating to Nammyeong Cho Shik’s later years in Sancheong-gun was rather rushed, and the snippets of history I picked up from Mr Min have had to be supplemented with what little is available in English on Nammyeong’s life elsewhere.

Nammyeong Cho Shik's funeral portrait
Nammyeong Cho Shik’s funeral portrait

Nammyeong Cho Shik (or Jo Sik, 남명 조식) (1501-1572) was born in the small village of Samga, Hapchon-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, near the famous Haeinsa temple. He is recognised as among the most prominent neo-Confucian scholars of the middle period of the Joseon dynasty. His philosophy was of the value of the integration of morality with action. Cho Shik (曺植) was his family and given name, and Nammyeong (南冥) was the pen-name he adopted for himself. He was born in exactly the same year as another prominent neo-Confucian scholar, Toegye Yi Hwang.

From his early years, he was known for brilliance in astronomy, geography, painting, medicine, and military science – areas of study which were known as “miscellaneous learning” by orthodox neo-Confucians, that is, not part of the core curriculum of the Confucian classics consolidated and commentated upon by Song dynasty scholar Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200). Cho Shik believed that the theories of Neo-Confucianism had already been perfected by Master Zhu: what was needed now was to practise those theories in everyday life. Thus, his version of neo-Confucianism always reached towards the practical application of the centuries of learning.

Nammyeong Cho Shik
The statue of Nammyeong Cho Shik at his memorial museum in Sancheong-gun

He led a life entirely secluded from worldly affairs to devote himself to academic researches, in the process establishing his twofold doctrine of Kyong (moral purity) inside which gives rise to its external manifestation, Eui (right conduct). He was proclaimed as a great master by contemporary scholars.

Nammyeong Cho Shik declined repeated offers of high-ranking government posts from the king. Instead, he felt free to compose regular and stringent criticisms of the monarch, at the risk of his own life, when the people’s well-being and social justice appeared to be in danger.

In a court where Confucian doctrine and political power were inextricably interlinked, Nammyeong Cho Shik had political reach despite his self-imposed non-engagement with the political machine. Confucian ideology contained a bewildering array of variants, and later in the 16th century the adherence to one abstruse school of thought rather than another could get you killed. Nammyeong, together with Toegye Yi Hwang, were the leading scholars in the Dongin wing of the Sarim faction; within that faction, Nammyeong was one of the early leaders of the Buk-in (“Northern”) faction while Toegye Yi Hwang lead the Namin (“Southern”) faction. Confusingly, Nammyeong was based in Gyeongsangnam-do (South Gyeongshang) while Toegye was in Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang).

Nammyeong’s brand of Confucianism was a refreshing variant on the predominantly inward-looking scholarly mainstream of the Sarim faction. Another of the more practical scholars in the younger generation was Yulgok Yi I, who in 1583 advocated building up Korea’s armies. He was shouted down. Nine years later, the Japanese invaded.

Nammyeong reached out as an inspiration to later Confucians and fellow-countrymen long after his death. His doctrines of Kyong and Eui contributed to fomenting Silhak (Practical Learning) in the late Joseon dynasty. But more immediately, it is noteworthy that around 85% of the leaders of the Righteous Armies (called Uibyeong, 의병, coinciding with Nammyeong’s doctrine of 의 (right conduct)) who fought the Japanese invaders in the late 16th century were pupils of Nammyeong. The Righteous Armies, a motley collection of peasants, scholars and monks, became the main land-based resistance to the Japanese, as a large part of the regular armies had been destroyed early in the invasion.

Nammyeong is remembered as a hugely successful educator who influenced a large number of outstanding scholars. And while Confucianism was supposed to have driven out Buddhism in the Joseon dynasty, to a certain extent the world views were permeable. Many of the Buddhist warrior monks who fought in the Righteous Armies were inspired by Nammyeong’s doctrines.

Despite his eminence, Nammyeong’s life and achievements have been overshadowed by those of Toegye Yi Hwang and Yulgok Yi I. Part of the reason for this is that his followers ended up backing the wrong horse in royal succession at the beginning of the 17th Century. Nammyeong’s best-known pupil, Jeong In-hong, who fought with distinction the Righteous Armies against the Japanese invasions, supported the only sensible successor to King Seonjo – Gwanghaegun, second son of one of Seonjo’s consorts – the only son of the Queen being only three years old at the time. And in the typically forceful manner of the times he secured the succession by killing Gwanghaegun’s young half brother and ensured the Queen’s cooperation by throwing her in jail. But when King Injo seized the throne in 1623 the supporters of Gwanghaegun were rooted out – and with them any scholar who would preserve the memory of Nammyeong’s achievements.

Monuments commemorating Nammyeong’s life can be found throughout Gyeongsangnam-do, which is where he spent much of his life, preferring, in common with many of the Sarim faction, to keep clear of the capital, particularly since the various purges in the early 16th century. Outside of Sancheong-gun the two main sites are

  1. The Sanhae-jong (산해정) at Judong-ri, Daedong-myeon, Gimhae (김해시 대동면 주동리) where he settled down to teach his students from the age of 30. His pupils built the Shinsan Seowon (신산 서원) next to the Sanhae-jong in memory of their master (Provincial Cultural Asset No 125)
  2. The Neryong-jong (뇌룡정) at Weto-ri, Samga-myeon, Hapchon-gun (합천군 삼가면 외토리) where he tought for 12 years from the age of 48 (Provincial Cultural Asset No 129)

Within Sancheong-gun, where Nammyeong spent the last decade or so of his life, there are several sites which commemorate the great scholar:

The Sancheon-jae (산천재)

The Sancheon-jae
The Sancheon-jae

The Sancheon-jae (National Cultural Asset No 305) at Deoksan, Sicheon-myeon, Sancheong-gun (산청군 시천면 사리), is where Nammyeong spent the last ten years of his life, again engaged in lecturing his students. This residence, which has a commanding view towards Chonwangbong (천왕봉), Jirisan’s highest peak, was burned down during the Imjin wars, but restored in 1817.

The view of Chonwangbong from the Sancheon-jae
The view of Chonwangbong from the Sancheon-jae

It was in his daily contemplation of Chonwangbong that Nammyeong came upon one of his insights. The peak is shaped like a giant temple bell. And while it is easy to make a small bell ring in the wind or with the flick of a finger, it is much harder to make a temple bell ring. A scholar should therefore strive to be like Chonwangbong or a temple bell, and not be disturbed or set off course by a trifling distraction.

The Deokcheon Seowon (덕천서원)

Deokcheon Seowon
The main courtyard of the Deokcheon Seowon. The study hall is the building on the right

The Deokcheon Seowon is also in Sicheon-myeon, (산청군 시천면 원리), and forms National Cultural Asset No 305 along with the Sancheon-jae. It was constructed by Nammyeong’s pupils in his memory: part academy, part shrine. The seowon was built in 1576 with the financial backing of the mayor of nearby Jinju and the governor of Gyeongsang province.

Inside the main study hall
Inside the main study hall

The layout of the academy is typical – a space for study at the front, with living quarters either side of the courtyard, and a ritual shrine at the back.

The shrine to Nammyung Cho Shik at the rear of the Deokcheon Seowon
The shrine to Nammyung Cho Shik at the rear of the Deokcheon Seowon

While the academy is in a beautiful spot, not far from the Deokcheon river, it was apparently not in the ideal place from the geomantic perspective: hills to the east and west of the shrine would have improved the pung su. To compensate, at either end of the shrine are paintings of a tiger (which symbolises the West) and a dragon (for the East):

A Tiger painted on the west-facing external wall of Nammyung's shrineA Dragon painted on the east-facing external wall of Nammyung's shrine

Dragon and Tiger guard the East and West ends of the scholar’s shrine

Nammyeong is still honoured at the shrine today, in rites which are held every Spring and Autumn.

Sesimjeong pavilion (세심정)

The Sesimjeong
The Sesimjeong

The Sesimjeong pavilion (세심정) sits in a shaded spot on the river near the Deokcheon Seowon and is designed as a scholar’s resting place.

Nammyeong’s tomb

Nammyeong's Tomb
Nammyeong’s Tomb

The tomb which is his final resting place is also in Sancheong-gun. Its location, above the Sancheon-jae, was carefully selected by the great scholar himself, up in the foothills of Jirisan looking up at the great Chonwangbong peak itself. From his grave, Nammyeong can still contemplate on the eternal changelessness of the great peak.

The Nammyeong Memorial Hall (남명 기념관)

The Nammyung Memorial Hall
The Nammyung Memorial Hall

A museum of Nammyeong’s life and works (The Nammyeong Memorial Hall – 남명 기념관) provides a cool refuge on a hot day, with plenty of information on his life, much of it in English. In the park outside is a white statue of the scholar, behind which can be seen the peak of Nammyeong’s beloved Jirisan.

Nammyung's statue in the grounds outside his memorial hall
Nammyung’s statue in the grounds outside his memorial hall

Image sources:

All images are my own holiday snaps apart from the following:

  • Nammyeong’s tomb: Source
  • The Nammyeong Memorial Hall: Source
  • The Sesimjeong: Source
  • The funeral portrait: scanned from a leaflet from the Nammyeong Memorial Hall


2011 Travel Diary – index

3 thoughts on “Nammyeong Cho Shik: teacher, philosopher and inspiration for the anti-Japanese resistance armies

  1. Several years down the track, so if you get this message it will no doubt be dredging up old history for you, but thank you for this post! I’m actually looking for some tips to seowon-hunting. Specifically, I’m hoping to track down some sources on Nammyeong’s buddy Daegok Seongun…

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