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

(Darren Dugan) #1

Nevertheless, what was certainly lacking was an exaltation of reason as a cri-
terion of knowledge higher than the bequeathed wisdom of the classics. Nor is
there to be found in Yu's writings any suggestion that sense data are the only
reliable sources of information or knowledge such that a new political science
could be created independent of the maxims of Confucian wisdom. Yu's state-
craft never separated the facts of sensual experience from the moral truths of
Confucianism and never treated the facts of human society separately from the
underlying cosmological principles that inhere in the universe. Yu was always
a Confucian in morals and philosophy, holistic in his fusing of moral truth and
empirical knowledge. Thus to separate the rational and empirical elements of
his thought from the total context of his philosophical understanding of the world
is to do violence to the comprehensive nature of the Confucian world view.

Yu's Historical-Mindedness

Yu Hyongwon's significance as a statecraft thinker is not to be found in the cre-
ation of new and independent theories of government and politics. He believed,
as most Confucians, that the greatest wisdom was the product of the Chinese
sages of antiquity and that the models of government institutions were to be found
in the san-tai period in Chinese history, the age of the three dynasties of Hsia,
Shang, and Chou. Yu did not believe it was possible to improve on the wisdom
of the sages and he did not have the temerity to presume that he could attain, let
alone surpass, their creative genius. The task for him was to identify and extract
the fundamental principles of government theory and institutional practice as
used in ancient times and adapt it to the quite different historical and social cir-
cumstances of seventeenth-century Korea. His acknowledgment of the neces-
sity of adaptation meant, of course, that his own hopes for creating the best possible
society would always be less than ideal, that Utopian aspirations would always
be constrained by the contingency of existing social and historical circumstances.
The fascinating aspect of his thought is to be found rather in his working out of
compromise positions between the ideal and the real, revealing in the process
that his realization of the impossibility of total restoration of the world of the
ancient sages forced frequent pragmatic compromises.
Kim Chunsok in a recent study has drawn similar conclusions. He agrees that
Yu was not a Restorationist despite his admiration for sage antiquity, and that
he acknowledged the need to adjust principle to contemporary circumstance.
Kim also held that Yu regarded almost all institutions in the period of the "later
age" (huse) after the fall of the Chou dynasty, including the statutes of the early
Choson law code, the Kyongguk taejon, as immoral, corrupted, and deserving
of reform, if not abolition. In my view, however, Kim's conclusion derives from
his concentration only on Yu's land reform proposals and not consideration of
other issues like military and other reforms, which reveal a surprising willing-
ness to accept some of the early Choson institutions and restore them to their
pristine form. Yu's attitude toward the past and his sometimes pragmatic com-

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