Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions. Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty - James B. Palais

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Discussing the writings of an armchair scholar when his work was unknown
to men who counted in government affairs, let alone the public at large, might
appear to some as a futile, antiquarian exercise with no relevance to the under-
standing of real history. Some might even regard a study of an armchair Con-
fucian writer as a waste of time with only the marginal utility of revealing the
views of an single idealist. The best defense against this charge is that Yu
Hyongwon did what contemporary historians and social scientists do - and what
contemporary politicians cannot do - he provided a detailed study of the his-
tory of institutions from their origin and development throughout three millen-
nia of Chinese as well as Korean history, and a lively discussion of the views
of leading officials and statecraft scholars for overcoming the problems of those
institutions. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Yu's own recommendations
for reform. he provided what was truly an epochal and pioneering study of the
institutions of his time that was far more valuable and enlightening than the usual
recitation of eternal and universal Confucian moralistic verities that peppers the
oft too brief and vague memorials of thousands of active officials.

Rationality and Empiricism within the Confucian Tradition

In the twentieth century, Yu, along with other members of the Sirhak or prac-
tical learning group, have been described variously by scholars as the harbin-
gers of modernity because in their investigation of the problems of real life and
the real world they seemed to presage the beginnings of a materialist rejection
of Confucian moral idealism. In their use of reason and empirical observation
as a means of questioning the standards of their time they seemed to threaten
the solid unity offact and value enshrined in holistic Confucian philosophy. In
their awareness of Korean uniqueness and national identity they appeared to
pose a threat to universal and cosmopolitan Confucian culture. In their concern
for the welfare of the common man they suggested a populist attack on hered-
itary privilege, and in their desire for wealth and power they threatened to break
the stranglehold of Confucian physiocracy and unleash the forces of produc-
tion and the market.
As this study will reveal, however, these generalizations about Sirhak thought
are misleading half-truths, often the product of an anachronistic misreading of
the essence of Confucian statecraft in terms of modern, Western categories of
positivistic science. Where rationality and empirical method is discovered, it is
usually interpreted as a sign of modernity, when in fact traditional premodern
or nonscientific Confucianism could be quite rational and even empirical in its
approach to problem solving in the art of government. But Confucian rational-
ity and empiricism were not based on a rigorous epistemology. Confucian thinkers
could move with ease from blind dogmatic faith in the virtually holy writ of the
ancient Chinese classics to a critical use of reason in attacking the anomalies of
contemporary society and back again with hardly a hint of remorse over any
logical contradiction.
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