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Hangul 실학
Hanja 實學
Revised Romanization silhak
McCune-Reischauer sirhak

Sirhak translated as Practical Learning or Practical movement refers to an important shift from a Neo-Confucian metaphysically-rooted vision of man and society to a concern for real facts and situations with a strong will of reform. It happened in China as early as the seventeenth century with a focus first on reanalyzing the textual tradition according to a scientific approach. On another hand, in dialogue with the West, particularly the scientific minded Jesuits, it became a movement of exploring all kinds of sciences and techniques like astronomy and irrigation devices. Through the annual embassies in Beijing Koreans came into contact with what was happening in China already in the seventeenth century but with the fall of the Ming in 1644 and the coming to power of the Qing, they suspended their rich relations with China until the end of the eighteenth century; however the Korean Sirhak developed strongly from that time on.


Sirhak is a kind of Asian Enlightenment. When hearing the term Enlightenment people spontaneously think of the European eighteenth century, the time of the philosophers, of the Encyclopedia and of the new intelligence in and application of sciences and technologies, as if it was the only Enlightenment. But Asia had also its own Enlightenment. It should be more known that Asia, particularly China, had been ahead in scientific and technological discoveries since antiquity until the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. Even Korea had pioneered printing techniques, the first book being printed in Korea with a metal technique in 1377. Enlightenment does not deal with just techniques, but a vision and Asians—on the base of their rich tradition and creativity—had a great potential of a renewal of the understanding of man and the universe. The Chinese in the seventeenth century proved to be earlier than the Europeans in textual exegesis. They did for their own corpus of sacred texts of the Classics what Christian scholars did in Europe with the demythologization approach.

The Asian Enlightenment is delicate to appreciate, especially due to the hegemony of Western thought in the world. It took time for the Chinese and for the Koreans to reassess the role and the values of Sirhak. Because of the historical turmoil, the failure of a true exchange East-West from the second half of the nineteenth century to the rise of communism in China and its consequences. Korea lost confidence in its own culture, indiscriminately absorbed Western culture and economic models and much forgot its own important treasures as the famous Korean philosopher Park Chong-hong (1903-1976) said. If the Sirhak leaders like Yi Ik and Chông Yag-yong, Tasan are raising interest and even pride among Koreans today it is a recent phenomenon because they had been forgotten for a long time. Tasan had wished that after his death Koreans read some of his books instead of bringing offerings on his grave. His wish is at last becoming fulfilled.

The Korean Sirhak is a rich and complex movement to which many important thinkers and statesmen contributed. It is far from being just one school with a unique set of ideas and goals. Therefore its unfolding in history has to be meticulously observed, the scientific research having started late during the second half of the twentieth century. Sometimes scholars tried to define clear-cut specific schools within the Sirhak but it may alter the true picture. For example the Korean Sirhak was not just an anti Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) movement because it had its own positive agenda and to limit the Sirhak to a reaction against outmoded Neo-Confucian theories would miss substantial views of Sirhak.

As we read history from books and wish to have well-explained ideas, it is striking how Sirhak thinkers did painfully search for a way within a difficult situation. There were not yet democracy, freedom of speech, material transformations and the authorities were often opposed to new ideas and changes. To speak out often had hard consequences—not just rebuff—but exile and even death. Adhering to Sirhak in those days meant to be a courageous man, a man of conviction and endurance and to accept solitude and ill-consideration.

Korean Sirhak in History

Main Articles: Seongho Yi Ik, Jeong Yak-yong

Debates have taken place among Korean scholars about the beginning of the Korean Sirhak. Some have mentioned that Yi I, Yulgok (1536-1584) manifested already a practical mind although he lived in a Neo-Confucian atmosphere. Beyond the debates it is true that Yulgok emphasized a research of “real/substantial mind, (silsim) in harmony with real/substantial principles, (silli) aiming at real/substantial results (sirhyo).” In his time Yulgok demonstrated already an encyclopedic knowledge and a commitment to reforms in economy, education, institutions and military affairs which were ahead of his time and not much understood by politicians around him. Great Sirhak thinkers like Yi Ik and Tasan admired him and found an inspiration in his writings and accomplishments. Yi Ik wrote for example: “One can count in Korea on the fingers of one’s hand those who have understood the urgent affairs contributing to the establishment of the nation. Among them I will mention Yi Yulgok and Yu (Hyông-wôn) Pangye. The great majority of Yulgok’s ideas are worthy to be put into practice. […] If one had insisted on practice like Yulgok and Pangye, one would have reached good results.” [1]

It is useful to have some idea of the frame of the development of Korean Sirhak. For this we are helped by the studies of two Korean scholars. The first is Chôn Kwan-u in the 1950’s who saw three main periods of Sirhak, a period of preparation from 1550 to 1650 with main figures like Kim Yuk (1580-1658) and Yi Su-gwang (1563-1637), a period of development from 1650 to 1750 with Yu Hyông-wôn (1622-1673) and Yi Ik (1681-1763) and a blooming period from 1750 to 1850 with Park Ch’i-wôn, Hong Tae-yong and Chông Yag-yong, Tasan (1762-1836) This analysis has been qualified as somehow abstract and not taking enough into account the developments in Korean society.

Before Korea closed itself in the middle of the seventeenth century and was caught in its own ideological struggles Kim Yuk and Yi Su-gwang planted an interesting seed of renewal. Kim Yuk visited China and contributed to introduce in Korea the reformed calendar made by the Jesuit missionary Adam Schall and new technological tools such as the water-driven mill. Yi Su-gwang played an important role in meeting Italian Jesuits in China and bringing back important books. Among these books were some of the great Matteo Ricci’s works such as The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. Yi wrote in 1614 a 20-volume encyclopedia, Chibong yusol or Discourses of Chibong, on what he learned about geography, Western food and Western weapons, and astronomy. He promoted an open attitude in economy and trade that became one of the themes of Sirhak. His appreciation of Catholicism at an early stage is also significant since Catholicism really developed only toward the end of the eighteenth century.

Another analysis of the Sirhak movement has been done by Yi U-sông in the 1970s. Yi considers the Sirhak movement as meaningful only from the reign of the king Yôngjo (1725-1776) and put emphasis on the essential ideas. Therefore three stages have been put into light: The School of Pragmatic Statecraft, Kyôngse ch’iyongp’a 경세치용파/經世致用派 or School of Yi Ik, the School of Improvement of life through Practical Utilization, Iyong husaeng’a 이용후생파/利用厚生派 of Park Ch’i-wôn and the School of Seeking Truth from Facts, Silsa kusip’a (실사구시파 / 實事求是派 ) of Kim Ch’ông-hûi. (English terms according to Michael Kalton in Korean Philosophy.) Such analysis can give an impression of coherence in the Sirhak that did not really exist at the time of its formation.

Studies by Korean scholars and foreign specialists will probably continue to help finding in the future a more accurate picture of the Sirhak movement. At the moment there is a kind of revival in Tasan studies, a great interest in king Chôngjo’s role in the momentum of reform at that time. Many aspects such as sciences, institutions, philosophy, literature, of Korean Sirhak are reflected on.

Experts tried also to uncover essential characteristics of the Sirhak movement. Among those could be distinguished as significant the critical approach of the traditional Neo-Confucianism and especially of the theories of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the interest in the practical applications, the methodology of research oriented toward demonstrating facts and a spirit of independence. However these characteristics cannot be systematically applied to all Sirhak thinkers. For example An Chông-bok (1712-1791), like some other early Sirhak thinkers, were still much relying on Zhu Xi’s ideas. There was also no consensus among Sirhak scholars on the stand to hold towards Catholicism.

As the Korean Sirhak movement unfolded under the inspiration of strong personalities, it is worth remembering some names like Yi Ik, the spiritual mentor of Tasan who focused more on the modernization of agriculture; Park Ch’i-wôn who through his diary of travel in China helped the Koreans to take conscience of their technological backwardness; Tasan unanimously recognized as a genius in various fields, as the fulfiller of the practical movement and as a true guide of the country despite his rejection; Kim Chông-hûi, an original scholar talented in exegesis, archeology, and art and at the same motivated by the research of real facts.

The Korean Sirhak progressively arose from a combination of factors. In the 17th century corresponding to the beginning of the Qing dynasty in China and to the Tokugawa in Japan the Korean government felt no threat from Japan and became overconfident. Many Koreans due to the improvement of the economical situation thought that Korea was a very developed and important country while certain scholars especially in hearing about China and Japan started to think it was a mistake.

At the early stage scholars like Yi Su-kwang previously mentioned were mainly curious about the foreign documents which they discovered in China. Chông Tu-wôn brought back from China a telescope and a world map in 1631. It was somehow similar to the past curiosity about new documents of Buddhism or Neo-Confucianism.

Korean Sirhak was partly initiated by such curiosity about new documents coming from the West and by the study of actual things more than by theories. It was a time when bright scholars wanted to look at everything concerning either man or the universe in a new way, without any prejudice.

However it was not just a scientific curiosity or methodology. Some Koreans suddenly realized the absurdity and injustices of their institutions and in consequence the suffering of ordinary people particularly from the low classes. The greatest Sirhak thinkers became the voice of ill treated people somehow like Voltaire fought to rehabilitate unjustly condemned innocents in the famous Calas family case of 1692. Some of the greatest Sirhak thinkers are presented in another article, see: Jeong Yag-yong (Chong Yag-yong) Tasan Yu Hyông-wôn, Sông-ho, Yi Ik and Northern Learning Thinkers

Korean Sirhak and the search for new creativity

The Korean Sirhak was not limited to a time in history. It has become part of the struggle for the Koreans to modernize their country. The spirit of Sirhak remains very present today and inspire people to think the process of globalization. The Korean Sirhak has recently inspired anew Asian and Western scholars and among the Sirhak thinkers Tasan holds a prominent place. Although the world has become westernized in many ways local cultures have their own important contributions to make.

Professor Ge Rong jin, director of the Eastern culture research Institute at the Academy of social sciences in Beijing University wrote in 2002 a book on the History of Korean Sirhak from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth century. “In this time of open market China is in need of a vision. In addition to the historic mission of modernization, our society confronts numerous pot-modernization problems, moral crisis, ethical crisis… The China-Korea-Japan practical school should suggest solutions to the issues arising in the 21st century…. That is a significant historic mission.” [2]

Professor Ogawa Haruhisa of Nishogakusha University in Tokyo also wrote books on the Cultural history of Chosôn (Korea) and on Chosôn Sirhak and Japan with a comparative approach: “Our mission in the twenty-first century is to restore sincerity. The solution is not as simplistic as to return to the 18th century but we must rediscover those precious things that have been lost in the modern world. The Korean sirhak of the 17-18th centuries becomes relevant to modern East Asia.” [3]

These remarks by some foreign scholars show the importance of Korean Sirak in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries but also the new interest it creates today. Asian people are reflecting on the consequences of the fast development and they are looking for inspiration to overcome the ill effects of this development.

In fact the present situation in Asia is a bit similar to what the sirhak thinkers were facing in their time. Western science and technology cannot be avoided because they have allowed overcoming poverty and initiating prosperity. But this development needs to be balanced by strengthening humanistic values. Here, as the foreign scholars mentioned above said, Korean Sirhak thinkers can be of a great help.

Much remains to be done and the cooperation between Korean and foreign scholars is of great importance to continue researching in a creative way on the Asian and Korean Sirhak and to introduce them worldwide. For example other figures like Kim Ch’ông-hûi (1786-1856) and later on Ch’oe Han-gi (1803-1877) would deserve a great attention. The Asian Studies research center of Sônggyun’gwan has selected recently Ch'oe Han-gi as a new field of research and younger scholars are specializing on Ch’oe Han-gi’s thought like professor Kim Yong-hôn of Hanyang University for whom Ch’oe has made great efforts to develop a new system of thought in a changing time and for that continues to give us light today.

Prominent scholars

  • Kim Yuk, 1580–1658, postwar reformer
  • Yi Su-gwang, 1563–1627, scholar-official who introduced Western thought to Korea.
  • Yu Hyeong-won, 1622-1673, representing what is sometimes considered the first generation of Silhak scholars and advocated a "public land system" where the state would hold title and allocate the land for the farmer to use. [4]
  • Yi Ik, (1681–1764), of the second generation of Silhak scholars, founder of the Gyeongsechiyongpa (경세치용파/經世致用派), advocating reforms of land ownership, economic infrastructure, and government administration. [2]. This is known as the "equal field system" and was suppose to guarantee enough land for each farmer to provide for his livelihood. [3].
  • An Jeong-bok, (1712–1791), student of Yi Ik.
  • Yun Hyu, (1617–1680)
  • Pak Se-dang, (1629–1703)
  • Pak Jiwon, (1737–1805), center of the Iyonghusaengpa (이용후생파/利用厚生派), promoting industrialization, technological reforms. [4].
  • Sin Gyeong-jun, (1712–1781)
  • Wi Baek-gyu, (1727–1798)
  • Hong Dae-yong, (1731–1783)
  • Yi Deok-mu, (1741–1793)
  • Pak Je-ga, (1750–1815), was a part of the Northern School of Silhak and was particularly critical of the civil service examinations (kwago), which was designed to select the most intelligent men for high governmental service but had become corrupt and allowed incompetent men into government. [5].
  • Kim Jeonghui, (1786–1856), representing the Silsagusipa (실사구시파/實事求是派)
  • Jeong Yak-yong, (1762–1836), leading the third wave of Silhak. He was the author of the Mongmin Shimso, written while he was under house arrest. He was a devout Catholic and advocate for the right of the people {min kwon). He believed that rigid class boundaries should be broken and thought that the common people should be able to participate in the government, criticize the government, and be able to vote. [6]. He advocated the "village land system" were the village would hold the land in common and the village would farm the land as a whole and the products of the land would be divided based on the amount of labor inputted. [7].


See also


  1. Yi Ik, Sônghosasôl, Volume IV (Fragmental Discoures of Songho)
  2. Korean Arirang channel
  3. Reference needed
  4. Young W. Kihl. Transforming Korean Politics: Democracy, Reform, and Culture. [1].Retrieved March 1, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chon, Syngboc. 1984. Korean thinkers: pioneers of silhak (practical learning). Seoul, Korea: Si-sa-yong-o-sa. OCLC: 15695650
  • Hanʼguk Sasangsa Yŏnʼguhoe. 1996. Sirhak ŭi chʻŏrhak. Hanʼguk chʻŏrhak chʻongsŏ, 7. Sŏul-si: Yemun Sŏwŏn. ISBN 9788976460479
  • Jeon, Sang-woon. Science and Technology in Korea: Traditional Instruments and Techniques. The MIT Press, New Ed. 1974. ISBN 0262600528
  • Kalton, Michael C. and Oaksook C. Kim. The Four-Seven Debate: An Annotated Translation of the Most Famous Controversy in Korean Neo-Confucian Thought. (S U N Y Series in Korean Studies) with contributions by Sung Bae Park. 1984. ISBN 0791417514
  • Kim, Kichung. 1996. An introduction to classical Korean literature: from hyangga to pʻansori. New studies in Asian culture. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 9781563247859
  • Lee, Peter H., William Theodore De Bary, and Yŏng-ho Chʻoe. 2000. Sources of Korean tradition, Vol. 2, From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Introduction to Asian civilizations. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231120302
  • Paek, Pong Hyon. 1981. Silhak scholarship in Yi Korea. Thesis (Ph. D.)—Harvard University, 1981. OCLC: 8381740
  • Yi Ik, Sônghosasôl, Volume IV (Fragmented Discoures of Songho)
  • Yi, Ki-baek. 1984. A new history of Korea. Cambridge, Mass: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by Harvard University Press. ISBN 069780674615755
  • Yunesŭkʻo Hanʼguk Wiwŏnhoe. 2004. Korean philosophy: its tradition and modern transformation. Anthology of Korean studies, 6. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym. ISBN 1565911784


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