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Reviewed by:
  • The Philosophical Thought of Tasan Chŏng
  • Don Baker, Professor
The Philosophical Thought of Tasan Chŏng. By Shin-Ja Kim, translated from the German by Tobias J. Kōrtner in cooperation with Jordan Nyenyembe, New York: Peter Lang, 2010, xxviii + 383 p.

Outside of Korea, Korean Confucian thought is a much neglected field. There have been a few scholarly articles and monographs in English on T'oegye Yi Hwang (1501-70) and Yugok Yi I (1536-84) but very little has been published [End Page 191] on other important Korean Confucian writers. Even though Tasan Chŏng Yagyong (1762-1836) is usually considered the third most important Confucian writer in all Korean history, up to now only one slender monograph (Mark Setton's Chŏng Yagyong: Korea's Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism) and a few articles have introduced his ideas to the Western world.

Shin-Ja Kim has stepped in to fill that gap. First in German and now in English translation, she has provided a comprehensive introduction to Tasan's writings. She opens with an overview of the history of Neo-Confucianism in Korea and of Sirhak ("Practical Learning"), which she describes as a reaction against, rather than an outgrowth of, Neo-Confucianism. She also devotes a chapter to Korean Confucian criticisms of Catholicism. She then introduces Tasan, beginning with two chapters in which she focuses on how his views of the material world and the invisible realm (the realm of li, ki, and Sangje) were influenced by what he learned from Catholic publications. She also devotes a chapter to Tasan's understanding of human nature and virtue, which, she points out, also reveals some Catholic influence. However, she follows that with an entire chapter on "the incompatibility of Catholicism with Tasan's philosophy." She concludes that, though there is no denying that Tasan was inspired by Catholic writings in his redefinition of some core Confucian concepts, in his heart he remained a Confucian. His belief in the importance of ritual displays of filial piety was too strong for him to renounce his Confucian heritage for a religion that prohibited such rituals.

In her final three chapters, Kim pushes aside all discussion of Catholic elements in Tasan's thought and instead focuses on how he, as a sincere Confucian, proposed to create a more just government and society. Drawing on his manual for district magistrates (Mongminsimsŏ), his plans for a reform of central government administration (Kyŏngseyup'yo), and his handbook of forensic medicine (Hŭmhŭmsimsŏ), she argues that he wanted Korea to have a paternalistic government, one that resembled the ideal government of ancient China and was based on a respect for the fundamental equality of all human beings.

Unlike most Korean-language studies of Tasan by one author, Kim looks at both sides of Tasan's philosophy, his concern for both personal morality (sugi) and political reform (ch'iin). Such a thorough survey of what Tasan [End Page 192] wrote is useful, especially for those who have not had the time, or lack the linguistic ability, to wade through the massive amount of scholarship on Tasan's philosophical and political thought that Korean scholars have produced over the last forty years. However, the book's wide scope left her little room for any insights into why he thought the way he did. For example, she offers no explanation as to why Tasan incorporated Catholic concepts into what was otherwise a Confucian philosophy. This work is more descriptive than analytical. Moreover, rather than a work of original scholarship, it is primarily a summary of previous scholarship, as though it were written for those wanting an introductory survey of Tasan's writings.

In addition, there are some contradictions in the way Kim presents Tasan's ideas. First, she says at one point that he remained a Catholic inwardly even after he had publicly renounced Catholicism (pp. 130-32). However, later she writes, "After his apostasy, however, he returned to his original Confucian point of view" (p. 234) and that "it was not possible for Tasan as a Catholic to write about ancestral rites in detail" (p. 250), though, as she points out, in his...