As a leader of Silhak, or Realist School of Confucianism, Jeong Yak-yong became one of the greatest social reformers in Korean history. Jeong blended the traditional values of Confucianism with a philosophy to find solutions to real-world problems. Through Silhak, he introduced technologies for Korea’s modernization.
Most Koreans have heard of Jeong Yak-yong. He was a prominent philosopher during the Joseon Dynaasty, which united Korea under one ruler and propagated Confucian ideals throughout the country. But what many people don’t realize is the critical role of Jeong played in modernizing the peninsula.
Jeong Yak-yong was born in Namyangju, Gyeonggi-do Province, as his family’s fourth son. From a young age, he devoured the books of his family’s library and showed a remarkable talent for writing. Jeong passed gwageo, or civil service examination, in 1783, and served the government in various capacities for the rest of his life. His first post was as the Gyeongui Jinsa to give a lecture in the Royal presence. In the next year, he became interested in Western ideas and Roman Catholicism through one of the founding fathers of the Catholic church in Korea, Yi Byeok. Jeong and his brothers were among the earliest Korean converts to Roman Catholicism. While Jeong’s new religion helped shape his later work with the Silhak Movement, the conversion created problems for him with the government. The government repressed freedom of religion and discriminated against Catholics in particular. While Jeong was appointed the governmental positions of Gajuseo and Geomyeol in a row, he was exiled to the small town of Haemi not long after receiving these posts. King Jeongjo took pity on Jeong, however, and he was able to return to court after only ten days of exile.
In the lathe 18th century, Koreans became interested in using scientific methods to help improve public welfare. The Silhak Movement arose as philosophers like Jeong tried to blend Western concepts and philosophies with the dominant ideology of the day, Confucianism. Under his pen name, Dasan, Jeong published numerous books that explained and applied Silhak to everyday life.
Jeong was appointed to supervise the construction of Hwaseong Fortres in Suwon in early 1792. He used a device of his own invention called a geojunggi, a type of pulley, to help construct the fortress. Jeong became a secret royal inspector in Gyeonggido Province in 1793, investigating the misconduct of other government officials. This experience awoke Jeong to the large scale of corruption in the government bureaucracy and may have inspired some of his later writing on the proper roles of government.
While King Jeongjo protected Jeong from political rivals who disliked the philosopher’s investigations into corruption, the king’s successors were not as kind. When King Sunjo and Queen Jeongsun seized power, they sought to get rid of reformers like Jeong. He was exiled to Gangjin, Jeollanamdo Province, for 18 years. During that period, Jeong lived in poverty and studied the plight of rural Koreans. His writing during this time covered everything from land systems and political structure reforms to the fairer distribution of wealth and abolition of the social hierarchy system.
In Keeping with the Silhak philosophy, Jeong asked how Confucianism could be applied to solve the problems of poverty. He concluded that the government should play a major role in improving the lives of the poor. In his writing, Jeong stressed the importance of fair governor who maintains his integrity during every official action. Jeong’s important work on jurisprudence, Heumheumsinseo, as well as his books on the art of governing, Mokminsimseo or The Mind of Governing the People and Gyeongseyupyo or Design for Good Government, were written during this period.
Jeong was pardoned by King Sunjo in 1819, but his health had suffered from his years of exile. He died in 1836 in his hometown, Namyangju. Even today, Jeong is revered as an ideal Korean bureaucrat. He was a brilliant inventor who introduced baedari, a bridge made of many boats, and the geojunggi pulley, and he was an upright politician. While Jeong was unable to see his vision of a fair and responsible government materialize during the Joseon Dynasty, he never stopped believing in the egalitarian principles found throughout his writings.
Jeong Yak-jong As A Master of Silhak
Silhak was a Korean Confucian social reform movement in the late Joseon Dynasty. It developed in response to the increasingly metaphysical nature of Neo-Confucianism that seemed disconnected from the rapid agricultural, industrial and political changes that occured in Korea between the lathe 17th and early 19th centuries. At the age of 28, Jeong suggested that boats could be strung together to form a pontoon, and when he was 31 years old, he discovered the principle of the pulley while building the fortress wall in Suwon. He was also interested in an early form of vaccination and his books carry notes on inoculation. Most of the Silhak scholars were from factions excluded from power and other disaffected scholars calling for reform. Jeong was the most renowned Silhak scholar and his pen name, Dasan, remains synonymous with the movement. He advocated for an empirical Confucianism deeply concerned with human society at the practical level. He argued for reforming the rigid Confucian social structure, land reforms to relieve the plight of peasant farmers, redefining the traditional relationship with China, promoting Korea’s own national identity and culture, encouraging the study of science.