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  • A Korean Confucian Way of Life and Thought: The Chasŏngnok (Record of Self-Reflection) by Yi Hwang
  • Youngsun Back (bio)
A Korean Confucian Way of Life and Thought: The Chasŏngnok (Record of Self-Reflection). By Yi Hwang (T'oegye). Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Edward Y. J. Chung. Korean Classics Library: Philosophy and Religion. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. Pp. xix + 256. Hardcover $52.00, isbn 978-0-8248-5584-0.

Edward Y. J. Chung's A Korean Confucian Way of Life and Thought is great news to the field of Korean philosophy. It has been some twenty years since Chung, one of the few experts on Korean Confucianism in English-speaking academia, published his first monograph on Yi Hwang (T'oegye, 1501–1570) and Yi Yi (Yulgok, 1536–1584) in 1995,1 and now we are able to see and savor another fruit of Chung's lifelong scholarship. This time, by providing an English translation of T'oegye's own work, Chung lays a stepping-stone for readers to gain direct access to the scholarly life of T'oegye.

Given this purpose, I think Chung's choice of the Chasŏngnok 自省録 (Record of self-reflection) is not only critical, because this work has not been sufficiently appreciated in the current literature on T'oegye in both Western and East Asian languages, but also very fitting, for several other reasons. The Chasŏngnok is a collection of twenty-two letters compiled around the year 1560 by T'oegye himself. These letters were written to his six disciples and three junior colleagues when T'oegye was in his fifties and so reflects his mature scholarship. These letters record his life and thought in real time; hence, we can have a glimpse of major philosophical concerns of T'oegye and his correspondents and the actual interactions and happenings around them. In addition, given the fact that T'oegye selected these letters for the purpose of inspiring and guiding his own self-cultivation and that of others, the Chasŏngnok reveals to us the ensuing trajectory of his life as a Confucian practitioner as well. In addition, this epistolary genre serves as a curious intersection of T'oegye's philosophical knowledge and practice of self-cultivation. These letters are records of how he experienced Confucian learning as a student, thinker, scholar, teacher, and spiritual practitioner in daily life. As Chung remarks, the Chasŏngnok can be called T'oegye's experiential interpretation of Confucian learning and self-cultivation. This holistic combination of knowledge and experience is what T'oegye took to be true learning.

Chung's book is divided into two parts: Translator's Introduction and Translation of the Chasŏngnok. In the first part of the Introduction, Chung describes T'oegye's life [End Page 626] and scholarship. This is an excellent and concise introduction for readers familiar with Korean Confucianism but would be a bit light for those who do not have any background in the Korean philosophical tradition. If Chung had provided a more detailed description of T'oegye's scholarship in the context of the overall development of Neo-Confucianism in East Asia, it would have been more helpful and attractive to unseasoned readers.

Following this brief sketch of T'oegye's life and scholarship, Chung explains the gist of T'oegye's thought in six dimensions: his views on principle, human nature and emotions, Buddhism and Daoism, true learning, self-cultivation, and reverence and spiritual cultivation. The virtue of this part is that among T'oegye's various writings, Chung relies solely on the letters from the Chasŏngnok and weaves them together into a seamless whole. These letters were, after all, written to different addressees at different times for different reasons, and they are, all in all, disparate and occasional, not thematically tightly or explicitly connected. T'oegye himself noted in his introduction to the Chasŏngnok that he was able to copy the drafts of letters that he happened to possess at the time. Thus, Chung's philosophical introduction provides a fine road-map for readers to maneuver swiftly through a stack of twenty-two letters; otherwise, readers...


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