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Chông Yagyong: Korea's Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism, by Mark Setton. Korean Studies series. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. (ISBN 0-7914-3173-8 cloth; ISBN 0-7914-3174-6 paper).

Reviewed by John I. Goulde
Sweet Briar College

[This review first appeared in
Acta Koreana, 1 (1998): 160-63]

The Chosôn Period (1392-1910) in Korea is well known as a period when Neo-Confucian orthodoxy dominated the political, philosophical, religious, and social landscape. It is also a period when this same orthodoxy became so inextricably tied to factionalist politics and regionalist agenda, that by the late Chosôn period it had become an obstacle to modernization, national independence, and the creation of a democratic state. Before it was abandoned, though, there were serious attempts to re-envision the Confucian tradition, to make it more practical and more responsive to the ethical and social needs of the Korean people, to reestablish the relationship between Confucian self-cultivation and political application, and to free it from its centuries-long preoccupation with metaphysical questions. It was these two latter issues, the supposed conflict between self-cultivation and political practicality and the endless debates about metaphysical problems that had divided Korean scholars regionally during the 16th century and had led to political factionalism in the court. By attacking the metaphysical theory of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, these late Chosôn scholars sought to recover something of the practical Confucian humanism of the pre-Ch'in period and to overcome the apathy of an entrenched bureaucracy in regard to the lives of the common people. Foremost among these reformers was Chông Yagyong (1762-1836), also known as Tasan.

Setton's study of Tasan, his intellectual heritage, his place within the history of Chosôn Confucian philosophy, and his philosophical innovations and reforms is a timely one. At no other time has there been as much interest in Korea's early modern period as there is today. Tasan represents for many today a seminal thinker and founder of political modernization. His writings about the relationship between government and the people appeal to modern Koreans concerned with democratic values. His call for reform of administrative structures and law so that government may better serve the needs of the people resonates in the minds of modern Koreans who wish to make their own society more equitable and just.

While the modern use of Tasan is dictated by the needs of Koreans confronted by issues of modernization, participation in the global economy, and the shift from authoritarian military rule to civilian government, Tasan's own world and world outlook was very different from that of Koreans today. Understanding what Tasan's philosophical contributions meant within the context of 18th and 19th century Korea and how those contributions were related to conditions created in the 16th and 17th centuries is a whole other matter.

Setton's study does much to clarity and to contextualize what Tasan and other reformers of the period were attempting to do. Native Korean scholarship and current Korean interest in Tasan assumes that as a member of the Practical Learning Movement (the Shirhakp'a), Tasan attacked Neo-Confucian learning and orthodoxy in order to replace it with some form of modern utilitarianism or pragmatism. This is far from the case. Setton demonstrates in his first chapter ("Tasan's Intellectual Heritage") that Tasan's critique of Ch'eng-Chu Learning was done from within the Confucian tradition, not from outside it. His concern with developing an integrated ethical philosophy that would transform the nature of Korean government was in fact as much a continuation of the earliest Chosôn period Confucian concern for "practical affairs" as it was a critique of the excessive Korean dependence on and sacralization of the authority of the Ch'eng-Chu tradition of Neo-Confucian Learning. Setton also demonstrates that Tasan built this philosophy upon the work of his immediate predecessors, who, like Tasan, were influenced by the writings and insights of members of the Evidential Learning Movement in Ch'ing China and the Ancient Learning Movement in Tokugawa Japan. Setton rightfully argues that it was not "in spite of Neo-Confucian learning" but as a part of a centuries-long Neo-Confucian attempt to understand the classics, that Tasan's philosophy and critique of Ch'eng-Chu learning should be understood. Tasan was as orthodox a Confucian scholar as the Sung scholars he criticized.

Setton also does the reader a service by dealing with the issue of factionalism in the Chosôn period. Modern Korean scholarship on the Practical Learning reformers all but ignores this issue, as though Practical Learning emerged as a new stage in Korean thought only after factionalized Neo-Confucianism had declined. Tasan was himself a member of the opposition Southerner lineage, and we should expect that his philosophical critique of Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy was as much motivated by the need to attack the establishment ideology that kept Southerners out of the government as it was an attempt to recover the true and practical meaning of Confucian texts. Setton demonstrates that factional disputes were indispensable in the development of Practical Learning and served to open up new areas of inquiry and investigation into the meaning of Confucian ideas. Southerners benefited from their own exclusion from government and when they turned to the investigation of such "unconventional" and "unorthodox" traditions as "Western Learning" (Catholicism). Evidential Learning, and Ancient Learning they did so in the full knowledge that they were defending their right to freedom of interpretation in the face of an increasingly conservative and narrow-minded bureaucratic adherence to Ch'eng-Chu orthodoxy. Southerners adopted from these movements the spirit of "verification of the facts" and applied it not only to their reexamination of the classics and the Ch'eng-Chu commentarial tradition, but also in such fields as history, geography, technological development, and policy proposals for reform. Tasan's own call for a return to "classical learning" (susahak) though not the direct result of a factional dispute, was nevertheless a product of his own factional allegiance to the Southerners and their tradition of criticism that began with Yun Hyu (1617-80) and was carried on by Yi Ik (1681-1763).

After giving the context for understanding Tasan, the history of Confucian factionalism, and the various issues that became part of the Practical Learning movement, Setton turns to a philosophical analysis of Tasan's "classical learning." This is the longest and most complicated section of the book since Setton is dealing with Tasan's own commentaries on classical texts, which include comments and criticisms of the Ch'eng-Chu commentaries on the same texts. Setton focuses on Tasan's reinterpretation of the Four Books and the Book of Changes, texts that were at the heart of Ch'eng-Chu Learning. Through philological and historical reconstruction of the meaning of those texts and through an analysis of how those texts were interpreted in the commentarial tradition of the Ch'eng-Chu school, Tasan was able to demonstrate that on the issues of human nature, self-cultivation, and the practical ordering of society the Ch'eng-Chu school had misinterpreted the meaning of the classics. He showed how extraneous (Buddhist and Taoist) elements such as principle and material force (li / ch'i) had been introduced into Confucian tradition by the Sung philosophers and had become the basis for the elaboration of a system of fixed cosmological objects (virtue, mind, nature, heaven, principle) that had no basis in the classical texts and even obscured their meaning. In Tasan's view, the introduction of static ontological categories into the discussion of ethics robbed the Confucian tradition of its dynamic and person-engaging character. Tasan argued from the classics that human nature was dynamic and characterized by graded levels of appetites, desires, and affective tendencies that seek fulfillment through right action. Human nature was not the embodiment of a cosmic principle (or a Buddha-nature) that had been obscured by physical, social, and mental endowments, as Ch'eng-Chu commentators had argued. This reformulation of the understanding of human nature allowed Tasan to enunciate an understanding of self-cultivation (the pursuit of the morally satisfying) as a psychological process of deliberate and autonomous choices that would result in human happiness. It also allowed him to abandon the cosmological dualism that was present in Ch'eng-Chu Learning and had been the focus of centuries of debate and speculation. Since self-cultivation or moral action could only be done through engagement with the outside world, Tasan argued that there could be no conflict between the Confucian goals of self-cultivation and the right ordering of society. The right ordering of society through moral action was itself self-cultivation and the only medium through which one could personally acquire sincerity of the will and the rectification of the mind. When applied to the area of politics and social leadership, Tasan could argue that all humans were equal in their ability to produce right relations (virtue) and were not hampered in doing so based upon their mental or physical endowment. Moral leadership or the ability to arouse the people to moral action came from the people as a whole, who, according to Tasan, selected leaders from among themselves.

Tasan's "classical learning" thus is a repudiation of the moral determinism implied by Ch'eng-Chu Learning and its inability to accept the Mencian proposition that all humans were potentially sages. Tasan restricted the meaning of virtue and self-cultivation to the objectification of moral tendencies. Great sages like Yao and Shun were not moral by nature, but by self-nurture. The practical ethics taught by Confucius and Mencius was nothing more than the nurturing of natural moral tendencies, not the uncovering of a virtuous nature endowed at birth.

Finally Setton compares Tasan's critique of Ch'eng-Chu Learning to that of Ch'ing Evidential Learning scholars and Tokugawa Ancient Learning scholars and notes where there were direct influences and where there were differences. Setton demonstrates that it was the Tokugawa scholars who seemed to have had the greatest influence on Tasan and themes and attitudes developed in Japanese scholarship resonate in Tasan's personal writings. This last chapter is intended to show how Tasan's philosophy represents a major contribution to the development of Korean Confucanism in the 19th century even while it benefits from and builds upon contemporary scholarship from abroad.

This study does an admirable job in advancing our knowledge of Tasan's philosophical contribution to late Chosôn period Confucian philosophy by demonstrating how Tasan built upon the intellectual trends and insights of Chinese, Japanese and Korean predecessors and contemporaries. By doing this comparative analysis, the peculiar nature of Tasan's philosophical reformulation comes into sharp focus. Setton also grounds Tasan firmly within the history of Confucianism within Korea and demonstrates that Tasan's work, though a direct challenge to the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy of the day, must be seen as being part of an ongoing tradition of Confucian scholarship, rather than, as some moderns think, being opposed to it.

Goulde, John I. 1998
Review of Mark Setton, Chông Yagyong: Korea's Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism (1997)
Korean Studies Review 1998, no. 11
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr98-11.htm
[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana, 1 (1998): 160-63]

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