Chong Yagyong: Korea’s Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism by Mark Setton tells the story of Korea’s last great Confucian scholar, who lived from 1762 to 1836 and wrote under the nom de plume of Tasan, meaning “Tea Mountain.” The title of the book refers to the sage’s calls to reform Neo-Confucianism by eschewing its metaphysical ponderings and returning to the humanistic and practical teachings of Confucius and Mencius. He sought to show that “this prevailing ‘orthodoxy’ was, in important ways, unorthodox.”
Although he is remembered and respected by his countrymen today as a reformer and even visionary, due to his being on the wrong side in a dispute over royal succession and his familial ties to the newly introduced Catholic religion (his brother was one of the first martyrs), in 1801 Tasan found himself stripped of his government position and spent the rest of his life in lonely exile near the Tea Mountain that gave him his name. While in exile, “the sympathies he had for the economic and social difficulties of the peasantry” and well as his concerns about “concentration of power” (pg. 65) and “the ineptitude of the scholar-bureaucrats” (pg. 109) became more pronounced. However, the chief “reform” he was interested in, as we will see, was in “the cultivation of self” (pg. 67).
As a young man, Tasan was influenced by his reading of The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven by Matteo Ricci, S.J., the Apostle to China, and was baptized as “John.” His faith later lapsed, however, but Tasan nevertheless remained “monotheistically inclined, and [his] depiction of the Confucian Heaven as a personal being stood in sharp contrast to [the Neo-Confucian] interpretation of Heaven as principle” (pg. 50).
“Tasan’s monotheistic interpretation of Shang-ti [Heaven] as an entity with ethical predilections responsive to, and involved in, human affairs” (pg. 77) led Tasan to speak of “human beings as a subtle combination of spirit and physical form, their natures being the appetites or propensities exhibited by these dual aspects” (pg. 78). He was wary of cosmologies that “denigrated man’s status as a unique being with capacities unparalleled in the animal and plant kingdoms” (pg. 80). For Tasan, our “moral nature, which is transcendent in form” (pg. 81) is what makes us unique. Recognition of the resulting “internal struggle” led to “the great, and unprecedented, importance that Tasan placed on the role of free will, and particularly kwonhyong, the faculty or power of deliberation, which gave human beings the power to decide on moral courses of action” (pg. 83).
This “dynamic interpretation of human nature and virtue” led not only to his “outward-looking theory of self-cultivation” (pg. 108) but also served as the basis for his ideas on “the ordering of society” (pg. 109), these being the “dual goals of Confucian learning” (pg. 110). For Tasan and the Confucian tradition he belonged to, “the ordering of society was achieved through the power of moral example” (pg. 114). Here, the term chih-jen “is translated as ‘ordering society,’ as opposed to ‘governing society’” (pg. 182), which for Tasan “revolved entirely around moral example and had nothing to do with the ruler’s active involvement in the inculcation of values or the provision of resources” (pg. 115). Tasan put these words into the mouth of his ideal sage-king: “Once I have attained the highest goodness the people will follow me of their own accord and attain goodness. So the highest goodness of the people is not something which I can forcefully demand of them. ‘The practice of humanity depends on oneself. Does it depend on others?’” (ibid.). By quoting The Analects, XII, 1. to end the above passage, Tasan is reiterating one of the chief Confucian principles, rule not by force but by moral example.
Tasan was, in a sense, a populist. He rejected “the traditional assumptions that the educated class had a head start in the pursuit of virtue and thus enlightened leadership” and professed “an unprecedented confidence in the ability of the uneducated majority to choose virtuous leaders” (pg. 120). Ever wary of “abuse of power,” he “favored systems of government built upon populist principles that would discourage such abuse” and “qualitative change in political attitudes along the lines of classical political humanism” (pg. 121).
Tasan was perhaps as unaware of his contemporaries Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) as they were of him, but they were of a like mind in extolling liberty based in deep-rooted traditions.