Korean and world experts have celebrated Jeong Yak-yong's contribution to Korean philosophy. Eminent Korean Confucian scholars received a pen name in addition to their birth name. In the case of Jeon Yak-yong, he received the pen name Tasan. Tasan established his reputation by explaining and applying the eighteenth century Korean philosophy, Sirhak (also named Silhak), or Practical Learning. Sirhak arose when Korean scholars like Tasan worked to adapt Christianity and Western ideas with Confucian philosophy. Most Confucian scholars consider Tasan the foremost Silhak philosopher.
As professor Michael Kalton said that it is not only the volume of his writings which is impressive:
Tasan was also a great statesman who stood on the verge of accomplishing audacious reforms in Korea hand in hand with the king Chongjo. When ill fortune struck him with the death of king Chongjo in 1800, the national persecution and his banishment despised by all and living in dire conditions he proved a great man by accomplishing even more in true scholarship, contributions to the Sirhak transformations and help of the poorest among his fellow citizens.
The fruitful activity of the school of the Northern Learning happened at the best time of king Chôngjo. A young and brilliant man from the Chông family was watching these developments with a great interest. His name was Tasan who may be presently the most published on and the most appreciated for his innovative vision among the Sirhak thinkers.
The Chông family who included four brothers and a sister has been immortalized by the exceptional intelligence and dedication of its children but also by its close connection with the birth of the Korean Catholic Church at the end of the eighteenth century. The third son, Yak-chong, was among the first martyrs in 1801. His wife and children Paul and Elizabeth have been canonized by John-Paul II in 1984. Therefore Tasan’s nephew Paul Hasang Chông, one of the key organizers of the Catholic Church and who made come to Korea French missionaries, became the Korean Saint Paul.
Tasan was the fourth son of the Chông family and as the youngest he benefited from the example of his brothers, relatives and friends of the extended family. At a young age he devoured the books of his family’s library and was talented at writing. He was to become the Korean scholar who wrote the most numerous books in Chinese characters. Although his family was one of destitute families of the Namin party a lot of activities were happening since the new king Chôngjo was noticing the potential talent of such families.
The Chông and the Kwôn families among others attended a particular event during the winter of 1779 in a Buddhist temple at Ch’ônjinam. They met to discuss in depth the numerous documents they had received from Korean missions to China. These documents were books on Western science or on Catholic doctrine. Tasan may have been present. In that same year king Chôngjo called important scholars of the Northern Learning school to the kyujanggak.
A relative of the Chông family Yi Pyôk (1754-1786) is supposed to have introduced the Catholic doctrine to Tasan who was very moved and attended several church meetings organized unofficially. He even taught Catholic principles to some Sônggyun’gwan students when he was studying there.
Tasan succeeded the civil service examination in 1783 at the young age of twenty one. The following year king Chôngjo asked a series of questions on the Doctrine of the Mean to the students of the royal academy. He was astonished by the answers of Tasan and called him to join the Kyujanggak. From that moment on their relation remained very close until the king died in 1800.
This constituted a glorious period for Tasan when he could work close to the king at research projects on one hand related to sciences and on another hand to the reforms of the country. Although he did not go to China he was enthusiastic about the new approach introduced by the scholars of the Northern Learning. His writings during that period were for example on technology, Girye non, geography, Jirichaek, reforms in the administration, Inje chaek.
It was an intense discovery and a creative time for Tasan. One of the intellectual forces moving him was Sông-ho Yi Ik whom he considered as his master because he opened him to the infinite of the universe. Tasan attended meetings on Sôngho to explore the Master’s thought. At the same time, as we saw with the left and right schools issued from Yi Ik, a tension was developing between those who worked at the transformation of Korea in contact with Western ideas and those who converted to Catholicism and gave the priority to the religious study and to the evangelization of their fellow-men.
The question has never been fully clarified but Tasan struggled within the complex situation of Korea. He had a great career in front of him and people talked about him as a possible future Prime Minister. He wanted before all to help the king, who had full confidence in him, to achieve a real enlightenment and a practical transformation of Korea. However suspicions mounted against Tasan and his family. As early as 1785 and 1787 incidents happened and powerful enemies like Yi Ki-gyông and Hong Nak-an denounced Tasan to the king for his affiliation to the Catholic church. His dear friend Yi Pyôk died in strange circumstances in 1787. A scandal happened in the maternal branch of Tasan’s family when a funeral was conducted according to Catholic rites in 1791. This was interpreted as a betrayal of the Confucian rites and an offence to the Korean law.
From that moment on Tasan was caught in a whirlwind of events and critiques but the king never failed to protect him. In 1794 the king even sent Tasan in a provincial mission to silence his enemies. But Tasan finally resigned from his position in 1799 not to importune the king any more. Chôngjo called him back but suddenly died in June 1800.
As the future king was too young the queen dowager seized power only to take revenge against all the reformers like Tasan. She used the pretext of the Roman Catholic Church that she called a perverse religion and launched in 1801 a bloody persecution. Tasan seems to have renounced his faith. He nearly escaped death and was exiled in Kangjin down the south of the country.
Tasan recognized later that, had he stay in the palace of Seoul, he would never have achieved the same depth of study and of vision. His enemies thought to have got rid of him; he was living among peasants in a remote place, considered as a criminal. However Tasan turned around his situation into something positive. On one hand he studied and wrote ceaselessly. On another hand he progressively made friends with farmers and all kinds of poor people. He exchanged with Buddhist monks like Aam and Ch’oûi, sharing with them the Buddhist texts and the Confucian classics.
In a word, during that period Tasan lived truly what was the ideal of sirhak or enlightenment. He could discuss on the complex philosophical issues of the Book of Changes or enjoy talks about poetry or painting. But at the same time he was present among farmers advising them on how to improve the tilling of their land. He initiated with some eminent Buddhists a replanting of tea trees in the south-west of Korea as it had been neglected for a long time. Tea was a great affair not just in growing tea but in the way it was harvested, in the preparation of the drink and in the ritual according to which it was tasted.
During his exile Tasan worked at living a message behind him. One way was to transmit his ideas through teaching. He took the time to give lectures to 18 disciples in the little pavilion that he built himself not far from the sea. He also wrote often to his family, particularly his sons, to guide them in relation to important matters but he was never satisfied of their achievement. A more powerful way for him to reach future generations was through his writing. During that period he concentrated first on the Book of Changes, writing in 1805 an analysis of the Yijing, the Chuyôksachôn. Besides a reflection on the Book of Odes in 1809 he wrote on numerous subjects such as politics, ethics, economy, natural sciences, medicine and music.
When Tasan was pardoned in 1819 by king Sunjo, his life remained precarious. That is why he called his house Yôyudang, to live cautiously. Yôyudang is also the name of the collection of his complete works. Although some personalities would have liked that he came back to the government, others were still holding threats of death against him. Tasan during that time met less people and kept deeply thinking and writing.
In a few years Tasan wrote many important works on jurisprudence Hûmhûmsinsô (1819), on linguistics, Aônkagbi (1819), on diplomacy, Sadekoryesanbo (1820), on the art of governing, Mongminsimsô or on the administration, Kyôngsesiryông (1822). Among these works The Art of Governing is considered as the masterpiece of Tasan because it attempts to bring into practice the Confucian ideal within a modern context. Some of his words continue to resound:
Professor Ogawa Haruhisa of Nishogakusha University in Tokyo is very impressed by Tasan:
Professor Peng Lin at Qinghua University, Beijing teaches the Chinese classics and has a special interest in Tasan’s study of rituals. He published in the 1980’s research papers on Tasan in the Sônggyun’gwan Journal of East Asian Studies.
Professor Don Baker at the Asia Center of the University of British Columbia, Canada, is interested in Tasan for his role as an intellectual in a period of transition.
There is in Korea a revival of Chong Yag-yong Tasan's thought never seen before on that scale for any Korean philosopher. In a not distant past one could hear doubts about even the existence of a Korean philosophy. Since the liberation of Korea in 1945 Western philosophy has prevailed and philosophy departments in most Korean universities teach mainly European modern philosophy. Therefore Tasan is of great importance as he was able to get enthusiastic in modern Western ideas but remained deeply committed to the depth of Confucianism. He was not defending a tradition for its sake but wanted to keep the precious values of the early Chinese period because it was a foundation for man and society.
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