Seongho Yi Ik

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This is a Korean name; the family name is Yi.
Seongho Yi Ik
Hangul 이익
Hanja 李瀷
Revised Romanization I Ik
McCune-Reischauer I Ik
Pen name
Hangul 성호
Hanja 星湖)
Revised Romanization Seongho
McCune-Reischauer Sŏngho

Courtesy name
Hangul 자신
Hanja 子新
Revised Romanization Jasin
McCune-Reischauer Chasin

To appreciate the value and the richness of the Korean Sirhak, one thing is to study its unfolding within the historical context. But another thing is to meet directly the actors of that audacious movement. At a time when the authorities were lacking a vision, when politicians were fighting over shallow matters, some men looked anew at the realities. They realized the their country was only a backward small country in need of urgent reforms, they were shocked at the living conditions of many of their poor fellow men in contrast with empty ideas and talks, they wondered at an infinite universe that they did not know before. More than all, these men got the courage to break the lazy habits, to speak out what had to be done and to involve themselves, at any cost, in the changing of the situation.

Therefore Yu Hyông-wôn, Song-ho, Yi Ik and the thinkers of the Northern Learning school, like Park Chi-won, briefly introduced below deserve our admiration for having been the pioneers of the Sirhak not just for Korea but for Asia and the world. Today scholars research on them, publish their writings and reflect on their powerful contribution like James Palais as done for Yu Hyông-wôn.

Yu Hyông-wôn (1622-1673)

One of the front runners of Korean Sirhak is Yu Hyông-wôn (1622-1673) Pangye. If Pangye was admired by Yi Ik it was for his clear-sightedness of the weaknesses of the institutions and for his compassionate heart towards the underprivileged. He therefore set the direction of Sirhak not to remain at a technical level.

Pangye was among the first to fight the abuses of government concerning land, slavery and corruption. He paid a prize for it and spent his life in a remote farming village where he could observe the real condition of local society. His aim was not just critical. He wanted to contribute to an improvement in institutions, in economy and military affairs. Therefore his studies were precise and his suggestions very relevant. Pangye has been carefully researched by the American historian James Palais in his major book, Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions, Yu Hyông-wôn and the late Chosôn dynasty. [1]

Pangye for example rebelled against the meaningless system of slavery according to which individuals were condemned to remain slaves, without any hope, even when showing outstanding capacities. Knowing the Confucian ideal he denounced the inhumanity with which slaves were treated.

“At the present time people simply do not treat slaves in a humane way. Note: It is the national custom to treat slaves in ways that is divorced from considerations of kindness and righteousness. People think that starvation, cold, hardship and difficulty are simply the slave’s lot in life, and they never show any pity toward them. They control them with punishments and laws and spur them by beating them with a stick, allowing them to live or die much alike they would treat an ox or a horse.” [2] Such an outcry was an indirect critic of a government who claimed to be Confucian but who in practice had lost grip with reality and any conscience of caring.

Yi Ik Sông-ho (1681-1763)

Yi Ik is very well known by the Koreans and his bearded face very familiar to them. He is of the stature of the European encyclopaedists. He combined the depth of the Chinese scholarship and the study of Western science and religion at a very high level of research.

Although he never went to China Yi Ik was eager to discover Western science. He acquired a telescope and used to observe the stars, writing his own analysis in short and precise essays in his Sônghosasôl, for example on the “North Pole star,” on the “rising sun,” on the positions of “the earth within the universe.”

Yi Ik was fascinated by the infinity of the universe and wanted to understand rationally what he looked at. Despite conflicting views coming from China on Copernicus and Galilee, like Hong Tae-yong (1731-1783) who visited China he came to the conclusion that the earth was not the center of the universe but was revolving around the sun

The knowledge of Yi Ik was so vast and impressive that Tasan wrote a poem about it. While he could appreciate nature, its cycles and its myriad things with the Chinese classics like the Yijing, he was rediscovering it through Western science. He observed birds and fishes, bees that he was raising and left numerous writings on them.

However Yi Ik did not get lost in his scientific researches. He was primarily concerned by the life of his contemporaries. Like Pangye he lived in a rural area and was never interested in succeeding at civil services examination or in achieving a political career. Despite living an isolated life he was followed by many disciples and powerful leaders respected his views.

Yi Ik symbolizes an aspect of Korean Sirak related to the agricultural modernization. Living among poor farmers and watching their hard work, Yi Ik came to think of how to use new technological ideas to help the life of those farmers and to increase the agricultural production. He therefore considered the importance of new water-driven mills, dams to irrigate rice-fields, better systems of irrigation and more efficient ploughs. He studied also the use of new carts and transportation systems.

What seems simple today raised opposition in those days. Yi Ik fought against what was called the “yangban” mentality according to which only scholar studies were considered as dignified for the higher class. Yi Ik took a revolutionary stand in saying for the first time in Korea that the yangban, the nobles, should work with their hands. He gave the example by farming and Tasan later followed him in planting tea trees and amending the land with farmers.

Yi Ik was not yet too favorable for the use of money and material objects because of the desires it could create in people but he wanted that useful machines improve people’s life. Of course his first education had exposed him to the fundamentality of morality and self-education and he wanted to retain it.

In the Confucian tradition the world of people is essential and Confucius and Mencius have warned about the research of profit which can damage the ren, caring and loving, in man. Therefore Yi Ik was reflecting on how to develop a more modern society in keeping firmly the Confucian values.

Yi Ik remains as a great example of that period of Korean Sirhak in that he put order and priorities in the tasks to fulfill. The modernization of the institutions and of agriculture, also the use of technical instruments were necessary but not at the cost of human qualities. Therefore for Yi Ik remained valuable the model of the society presented in the Classics as geared toward harmony, justice and taking into account the fulfillment of each one.

Yi Ik meditated he great sage rulers of ancient China, particularly the duke of Zhou and found inspiration for rethinking the political and juridical system of Korea. He was much interested in the foundation of the law and the changes which needed to be done.

“Laws of change” “When the laws last for a long time, corruption takes place and if there is corruption, what requires changes will become an adequate law..” “Man and law supporting each other.” “In the Hô Hyông one finds: ‘The crucial point in the art of governing consists in employing qualified persons and in establishing laws.’”

The role of Yi Ik cannot be overemphasized in that he has taught many influential leaders of Sirhak during his long life. Two major schools came out of his ideas. The first is called the left branch and was made of scholars who shared the master’s enthusiasm for Western science but who were reserved or critical concerning the Catholic doctrine. Belonging to that branch Sin Hu-dam (1702-1762) and An Chông-bok (1712-1791) warned Korean scholars against the spreading of Catholic ideas.

The second school called the right branch was made of scholars like Yun Tong-gyu, Kwôn Il-sin, Kwôn Chol-sin, and Yi Ka-hwan who progressively got converted to Catholicism and played a major role in the foundation of the Catholic Church. Later on they were caught in the persecution and several were martyred.

Yi Ik himself was very prudent in his connection with Catholic ideas. He was ready to recognize scientific Western ideas if they proved more correct than Eastern ideas but he remained convinced of the strength of Chinese classics and used his Confucian rationality to check in what seemed sometimes to him contradictions within Catholicism.

The School of Northern Learning

Another facet in the diversity of the Sirhak movement is related to an initiative of Korean scholars eager to witness first-hand the changes happening in Qing China. The name of Northern Learning comes from the travel done to the Chinese capital and further north to the summer residence of the Chinese emperors called Jehol. From that experience came out a movement of reform, of technological improvement and of commercial opening.

It started under the reign of King Yôngjo (1724-1776) with Yu Su-won (1695-1755) but flourished under the great king Chôngjo (1776-1800) who created the research center of the kyujanggak as soon as he ascended to the throne. Chôngjo selected brilliant scholars to study in the kyujanggak and to be his advisers. These scholars used to meet also in the area of Chongno pagoda and to exchange ideas.

The most famous Northern Learning scholars were Park Che-ga (1750-?) who visited China in 1779, Park Chi-wôn (1737-1895) who went to China in 1780, Hong Tae-yong (1731-1783) who exchanged with Chinese scholars on scientific matters, Yi Tông-mu (1741-1793).

Many of these scholars wrote diaries about their travel that were translated into Korean and which, becoming bestsellers, opened the eyes of the Koreans about the needs of reform. Among the two most powerful diaries let us mention the Discourse on Northern Learning, Pukhakûi, in which Park Che-ga introduced new machines that were used in China for example the carts for good roads and agricultural machines. The other is Jehol Diary, Yôrha Ilgi by Park Chi-wôn who was fascinated by new Chinese building techniques like the use of bricks and who pointed out the backwardness of Korean economy.

The Northern Learning School fought for taking Korea out of its isolationism, to open its commerce to foreign countries, to modernize its transportation system, to develop the use of money. The Sirhak movement was at this stage not concentrating any more on agriculture but was aspiring to the modernization of Korea in economy and commerce.

Scholars of the School of Northern Learning were not just keen in introducing new technical tools in Korea. They were talented in writing, writing diaries as mentioned before but also literary essays, short stories that formed the beginning of Korean novels. The most popular of them, still today, is Park Chi-wôn.

Park Chi-wôn wanted to show that Korean society was sick and needed urgent remedies to recover. Instead of philosophical or political discourses he chose the satirical genre of stories using humor and irony to sketch typical personages of society and to awaken the public to the urgent need of change. Among his most famous stories are Hosaeng chôn, The story of Master Hô, Yangban chôn, The story of a yangban or Hojil, a tiger’s reprimand.

For example The story of Master Ho, which at the beginning describes a scholar who is lost in his books and who cannot cope with the reality of the world, makes people laugh but at the same time think about the ills of Korean society. With a subtle talent Park Chi-wôn unveiled various problems such as the corruption in market monopoly, the existence of bandits, the poverty of many people and the difficulties of raising a family. But more importantly he wanted to get at the roots of these problems which for him were the yangban mentality, the incompetence of the government, the fossilization of the Neo-Confucian tradition and the incapacity to see how commerce should be the foundation of the nation.

In one of his satirical essay he sketches the yangban as such:

"They do not till the soil or engage in trade. With a smattering of classics and histories, the better ones will pass the final examination (becoming officials), lesser ones will become doctors. The red diploma of the final examination is no more than two feet long, but it provides everything one needs—indeed it is like a purse..." [3]

These early Sirhak scholars combined an intense research of the new ideas and specific talents. Some of them went to China, some did not not, but they all looked for the crucial documents guiding them to a revolution of the mind. On one hand they were able, like Song-ho Yi Ik to seee that they were living in a new universe and that changed their perspective on everything and on another hand they were concerned by human affairs. Although they were all able to study the Chinese classics and explore Western documents, they focused on some specific issues: Yu Hyong-won dealt particularly with the institutions, the Northern school thinkers dealt with the technical revolution.


  1. James B. Palais, 1996, Confucian statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyŏngwŏn and the late Chosŏn Dynasty. Korean studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 9780295974552
  2. Peter H. Lee, 1991, Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, 180-182, Columbia University Press, ISBN 9780231079129
  3. Kichung Kim, "The story of a yangban," in An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature, M.E. Sharpe, 1996. ISBN 9781563247866

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
  • Kim, Kichung. 1996. An introduction to classical Korean literature: from hyangga to pʻansori. New studies in Asian culture. Armonk, N.Y.: 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, 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

External links

All links retrieved January 26, 2023.


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