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 Neon-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.

Tour Through Time: Stop 17: Yeoju-Gun

Se-Jong (born Yi-Do) was the grandson of King Taejo (Yi Seong-Gye) and the 3rd son of King Tae-Jong. He was born on 7th May 1397 and excelled in his studies, being named Grand Prince Choong-Nyung at the age of just 12. His older brother Yi-Je recognised his “kingly” qualities and in order to ensure Se-Jong became king, manoeuvred his own banishment from the royal court by behaving rudely to court officials. Se-Jong’s other brother also stepped aside for him, instead becoming a Buddhist monk. Se-Jong became King of Joseon at the age of just 21 and immediately began to revise the government, bringing in people based on merit, not class, and encouraged his people to follow the guidelines of Confucianism in their everyday lives. He famously said “If I have to chose two, amongst army, finances and people’s minds, I would discard the army. If I had to choose one between the rest, I would discard finance. The thing that should not be discarded until the last, is the people’s trusts and their minds.

One lower class man that Se-Jong promoted into government was Jang Yeong-Sil. Jang built a celestial globe to track the sun, moon and stars, he also improved the iron printing press, water clocks, weaponry, sun dials and most notably invented the first Korean rain gauge in 1441. King Se-Jong was also hard at work himself, creating a book, the Nongsa Jikseol, which detailed various farming techniques to aid farmers across Korea. He pushed for military technology to be developed such as canons, mortars and other gun powder based weapons. He even reformed the Korean calendar to make it more accurate for the Korean people.

Most notably Se-Jong invented the Korean alphabet, or Hangul, as it is known today. He felt that Chinese Hanja was too complicated for the common man and wanted something simpler so that reading and writing wasn’t just something for the highly educated upper classes. By 1444 Se-Jong had devised 28 distinctly Korean letters (only 24 are used today). Many Korean scholars opposed the new alphabet but Se-Jong pushed forward and on 9th October 1446 (celebrated as “Hangul Day” in South Korea) he published a document describing the new system which would be easy for all Koreans to understand after just a few days of study, regardless of class. Later in September 1447 Se-Jong published “Dongguk Jeong-Un” (“Dictionary of Proper Sino-Korean Pronounciation”) and Hangul became the official national written language of Korea.

Sadly, Se-Jong passed away at 53 from diabetes, but his reign was known as the “Golden Age of Korean Culture” and he is one of only two Kings bestowed with the additional title “the Great”. In 1994, Hangul was described by Discovery Magazine as “the most logical language writing system in the world”, and in 2009 the United Nations Development Programme reported an outstanding literacy rate of 99% in both North and South Korea due to the invention of Hangul. Se-Jong is so revered that every year in the restored Gyeongbokgung Palace his original inauguration is re-enacted in a massive colourful ceremony. His face also appears on one side of the Korean 10,000 won note, with Jang Yeong-Sil’s celestial globe on the other.

We are celebrating our arrival here with 37 Celebration Flutter Crunches before continuing 77 miles east to a birthplace on the 38th degree latitude.