94 miles later and we arrive at the Confucian Academy of Dosan Seowon, Andong. Yi Hwang was born near here in On’gye-ri on 25th November 1501, the youngest of 8 children. His Uncle taught him the Analects of Confucius at just 12 years old. He then moved onto writing poetry after admiring the work of Chinese poet Tao Qian; writing “Yadang” (Pond in the Wind) at 18 using the penname “Toi Gye” meaning “returning stream”.
At the age of 20 he then studied the ancient Chinese text I Ching and at the same time Neo-Confucianism, travelling to Seoul at 23 to enter the National Academy. He passed all the preliminary exams to become a government official and later also the Civil Service exams (usually only passed by those much older than Yi Hwang), with the highest of honours.
Yi Hwang held several positions in government, including Secret Royal Inspector, a role appointed directly by the King to travel to local provinces and secretly monitor officials to root out corruption, whilst still continuing to write poetry. He also enjoyed a game of “tuhu” (arrow throwing) which involved throwing arrows by hand into a jar 2 meters away.
Disillusioned, as many were, with the constant power struggles within the government, Yi Hwang decided to retire, but stepped out of retirement at 48, albeit away from the Royal Court, to become Governor of Danyang and later Punji, where he redeveloped the Baekundong Seowon (a private Neo-Confucius Academy).
Yi Hwang’s Neo-Confucianism grew in popularity amongst scholars and government officials, who supported the building of schools devoted to its teachings. Yi Hwang then founded the building we have travelled to, the Dosan Seodang, a private school, which prospered no end from his royal connections, allowing it to run for free with numerous generous donations of books and land etc. from the King.
As Neo-Confucianism increased in popularity with Yi Hwang and his younger contemporary Yi I, Buddhism went into decline. Because of the differing philosophies, government officials started arguing and fighting, which contributed to the later Japanese invasion and occupation of Korea by Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1583.
Yi Hwang turned down many positions in government to focus on his private studies. However, King Myeong-Jong’s successor King Seonjo did eventually manage to convince him to come back at the age of 68 to write advisory documents and give lectures on Neo-Confucianism and the Confucian scripts he had studied.
Yi Hwang died in 1570, aged 70. In his lifetime he had held 29 different positions within government and served 4 different kings, as well as developing Neo-Confucianism. King Seonjo posthumously awarded Yi Hwang the highest ministerial rank and reformed the Dosan Seodang into what is now known as the Dosan Seowon, creating a shrine for Toi Gye as well as retaining its areas for study. Still preserved at his shrine today are four wooden blocks recording the “Twelve Songs of Tosan”, carved from Yi Hwang’s own handwriting in 1565 and celebrated as the oldest existing written version of any traditional Korean poetry.
We will be celebrating our arrival here with 94 narrow squats before continuing 37 miles south to a famous birthplace.