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

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icy waned almost to the point of extinction. Since all active officials in the reg-
ular bureaucracy of the Choson dynasty were certified through the civil service
examinations as orthodox believers in the Neo-Confucian canon, there could be
no clear accusation that the regime was failing to live up to its obligation to respect
Confucian principles of governance. Active officials, however, were subjected
to the debilitating effects of routinization, neglect, and even corruption as well
as lingering practices and institutions carried over from the Koryo dynasty with-
out Confucian rectification.
Furthermore, scholarly interest among Korean Confucians had gravitated away
[rom tbe initial stress on an unsophisticated conversion o[the benighted masses
from Buddhism, animism, and other "barbaric" tendencies to the knowledge and
practice of lives governed by Confucian ethical and social principles. The stress
on tutelage of the unenlightened shifted by the sixteenth century to a more sophis-
ticated concern with the interpretation of the abstruse metaphysics associated
with fundamental cosmic principles and the rectification of the mind's procliv-
ity for immoral, unethical, and antisocial actions. But as the major concern of
Confucian scholars shifted to an inner struggle for the correct understanding of
the mind's relation to pure cosmic principle, contemplation and writing on prob-
lems of statecraft faded as a subject of scholarly interest. For the Neo-Confu-
cian ethicist, good government was simply a problem of the moral conversion
of sinners to saints, to borrow a Christian phrase, not the manipulation of insti-
tutions, which was left to active officials to work out in practical affairs. To draw
another analogy with the twentieth-century West, the relationship of statecraft
thought to ethical metaphysics was analogous to the relationship between
applied and pure science; the former was useful and practical but less respected
than thc latter, which dealt with fundamental truths.
For thosc reasons, the initiative for institutional reform came in the middle
of the sixtcenth century from active officials after the serious deterioration of
many institutions had run its course. Those initiatives were taken by men like
Yulgok (the ho or pen name of Yi I), Cho Hon, and Yu Songnyong, who pro-
vided the impetus for others like Kim Yuk to sustain an institutional reform
movement that carried over into the seventeenth century. A few scholars out of
office as well then began to shift their attention to matters of statecraft and insti-
tutional reform after r600, but it was not until r650 or so that Yu Hyongwon
embarked on an effort that would consume the rest of his scholarly life. That
effort was to layout the fundamental principles for institutional reform based
on traditions hallowed by Confucian scholars and officials back to the age of
antiquity in China.


The Seventeenth-Century Situation

Unfortunately, the seventeenth-century situation contrasted markedly from the
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