Tour Through Time: Stop 18: Ojukheon House

77 Miles later we arrive at Ojukheon House in Gangneung where Confucian scholar Yi I was born on 26th December 1536. The house was built during the reign of King Jung-Jong (1506-1544) and was named after the black bamboo trees which surrounded it. It is now one of the oldest wooden residential buildings in Korea and was designated as national treasure no. 165 in 1963 for its historical value. It has been very well maintained by Yi I’s family through many generations and is a popular tourist attraction, now housing Mongryongsil (Yul-Gok’s Memorial Hall).

Yi I himself was a child prodigy, born the son of a State Councillor and an accomplished calligraphist, poet and artist. It was said that he could read Chinese scripts by 3, was writing his own poetry by 7, and passed the Civil Service literary examination at 13. But after his mother passed away in 1551 he withdrew himself from society and studied Buddhism for 3 years on Mount Kumgang (the Diamond Mountain). After this he studied Confucianism and stayed for a year with Yi-Hwang, another great Confucian Scholar and his elder. They both developed Neo-Confucian philosophies based on 12th Century Chinese Scholar Zhu-Xi, but differed in their opinions. Yi-Hwang believed that Li (reason) controlled the Chi (vital force), whereas Yi I believed that Chi (vital force) was the controlling factor of Li (reason).

Following the death of his father and a traditional 3 years in mourning, Yi I passed a Higher Civil Service exam with full marks due to the thesis he wrote titled Ch’ondoch’aek (Book on the Way of Heaven) which showed an impressive understanding of Confucian philosophy. His success continued and he held many important positions in government including Korea’s Minister of Personnel and War, Rector of the National Academy and Minister of Defence. His vast experience across government offices gave him a good view of what the kingdom needed and he wrote many documents to present to the royal court. His views included gaining a national consensus of the people and their views, and a system of taxing land not houses to help solve the poor financial state at the time. But by 1586 political strife had escalated and Yi I became disillusioned, stepping down and returning home to study and write The Essentials of Confucianism a text showing how to lead a good life based on Confucianism.

He tried to return to government when he was 45 but little had changed and the two main political parties were bickering and undermining each other, making it harder for Yi I to remain neutral. Just before he left again in 1583 he suggested an Army Reserve Corp of 100,000 be trained to reinforce the regular army, but due to political conflicts it was never implemented. Just 9 years later Korea was invaded and occupied by the Japanese as the Korean Military failed to resist Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s army. Yi I died one year later.

Yi I believed strongly in loyalty and sincerity; he once said that “a sincere man was a man that knew the realism of heaven” and that harmony could not be maintained in a house unless every family member was sincere. During his life he wrote a total of 193 works in 276 publications in 6 languages. His writings continued to have a lasting effect on Korea long after his death and he is remembered as one of the two Great Confucian Scholars of Korea along with Yi-Hwang. Yi I’s face appears on the 5,000 won banknote with Ojukheon House in the background. The painting of insects and plants on the reverse is by his mother, Shin Saimdang.

We will be marking our arrival here with 77 Diamond Press Ups before continuing 110 miles south west to buy some straw sandals.

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