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  • The Great Synthesis of Wang Yang Ming Neo-Confucianism in Korea: The Chonŏn (Testament) by Chŏng Chedu (Hagok) by Edward Y.J. Chung
  • Maria Hasfeldt Long (bio)
The Great Synthesis of Wang Yang Ming Neo-Confucianism in Korea: The Chonŏn (Testament) by Chŏng Chedu (Hagok). By Edward Y.J. Chung. Landham: Lexington Books, 2020. Pp. vii+ 351. Hardcover $137.00, isbn 978-1-7936-1469-8.

The Korean Neo-Confucian tradition during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) was dominated by the orthodox Sŏngnihak (School of Human Nature and Principle), which is also known as the Chŏngjuhak (Cheng–Zhu School). This school of Neo-Confucianism followed the doctrines and teachings of the Great Synthesizer Zhu Xi (1130–1200) to such a point that other Neo-Confucian schools were labeled as wrong and even persecuted until the late nineteenth century. One of these schools was Simhak (School of the Mind/Heart) established by the Chinese scholar Wang Yangming (1472–1529), which during the Ming dynasty (1382–1644) had grown to rival the Cheng–Zhu school. However, the academic-political power of the Cheng–Zhu school in Korea managed to suppress Yangming scholarship and maintain dominance throughout the dynasty. Despite that, a few scholars did take up the scholarship of Simhak in Korea, with the most influential being Chŏng Chedu, also known as Hagok (1649–1736) (p. 4).

In his book, The Great Synthesis of Wang Yang Ming Neo-Confucianism in Korea: The Chonŏn (Testament) by Chŏng Chedu (Hagok), Edward Y.J. Chung presents not only an annotated translation of Hagok's main writings but also a look into intellectual scholarship that opposed the orthodoxy of the Cheng–Zhu school of Korea. This in-depth study and translation of Hagok into English was motivated by the lack of attention in Western scholarship on Korean Neo-Confucianism. It presents a study that goes beyond the three most famous scholars, Yi Hwang T'oegye (1501–1570), Yi I Yulgok (1536–1584), and Chŏng Yagyong Tasan (1762–1836), who founded the three mainstream schools of the Chosŏn dynasty. According to Chung, Hagok's writing not only represents important aspects of intellectual history but also serves as a fourth and lesser-known school of Korean Neo-Confucian thinking that should be placed on the same level as the other three.

Unlike other Korean scholars who tried to take up the Yangming doctrine, Hagok did not care that the doctrine was prohibited. This set him apart from other scholars. Despite the Cheng–Zhu school being the "right learning," Hagok did not agree with the majority of it and based his theories on the Yangming doctrine. Although Hagok openly followed the Yangming doctrine, he did not do so blindly. [End Page 1] Hagok was aware that Yangming's theories had their flaws and he agreed with some theories of the Cheng–Zhu school (p. 7–8). This resulted in him trying to synthesize the two schools into one harmonious doctrine, which is why Chung believes Hagok to be important and has undertaken the task of bringing attention to this Korean scholar.

Consisting of two distinct parts, Chung gives the reader a solid introduction to Hagok and his main theories via the selected translations from his most influential text, Chonŏn, which can be translated into "testament" or "living words." The first part of the book is divided into notes on the translation itself, such as transliteration, citation style, abbreviations, and, more importantly, how and why Chung selected the sections of the Chonŏn that have been translated. Through the selection, translation, annotation, and discussion of forty-one important essays from Chonŏn's three parts, Chung wishes to show the heart of Hagok's Neo-Confucian thought (p. x). The Chonŏn is not organized according to any thematic system and consists of different paragraphs, notes, and comments. Chung has, therefore, chosen which parts to translate in order to best portray Hagok's interpretation of the key concepts, the theories found in the Yangming Neo-Confucianism, and Hagok's criticism of Zhu Xi and T'oegye. All of this is properly introduced and explained in...