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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Confucian Confusions in Korea, Part IV: Wolbong Seowon, Gwangju Gwangsan-gu


Gi Daeseung (pen name Gobong) was praised by Yi Hwang (pen name Toegye) who said "You are better than me." People often remember Toegye Yi Hwang a great Neo-Confucian scholar of the Joseon dynasty, but do not often remember Gi Daeseung. While Yi Hwang was in Gyeongsang Province, Gobong was in Jeolla Province. 

The birthplace of Gobong is Dujeong-dong, Gwangsan-gu, Gwangju Metropole. Gobong Gi Daeseung read books diligently and passed the state examination to become a Third Copyist of the Office of Diplomatic Correspondence. Here he met Toegye Yi Hwang. At their first meeting Gobong asked Toegye about 'the conduct of a right scholar.' Toegye answered "a scholar has only to do what is pure and right." Gobong unsparingly criticized the contradictions that had existed within the core of Joseon society since its inception. His unwaveringly critical consciousness and straightforward nature made him a loner, and after a long time he decided to leave his government post at the age of 44. He decided to rusticate after giving up his service. 

King Seonjo tried earnestly to him from doing it. However Sir Gi Daeseung expostulated to King Seonjo the importance of good government for the people and then left Seoul (formerly called Hanyang) after packing his bags. But he had hardly reached Cheonan when a swelling broke out on his cheek. He bore the illness until he arrived in Taein. After hearing the news of his illness, King Seonjo sent medicine for him, but he passed away before it arrived. King Seonjo sent the money for the funeral expenses and enshrined his body in a large village of Imgok-dong. 

To King Seonjo, he had been a tenacious and obstinate subject for his whole life, but Sunjo could not forget such a one who took righteousness and morality as his position his whole life. Sunjo considered all the lessons of Gi Daeseung carefully and made a book, which is called Nonsarok. This book contains logical theory about politics, economics, society and culture, and the truth of Sung Confucianism, whose purpose was to straighten society. He stressed the access to the King for offering advice or opinion. For sure, many scholars uttered it before his time, but that was all. However, he presented the way of positive speaking, that is, when a scholar give honest advice to the gentry or intellectuals, if the Royal court intercepts it, the scholar should risk his life to open the way. 

Wolbong Seowon a.k.a Bingwoldang (Hanja: 月峯書院 a.k.a 氷月堂) was built in memorial of this marvelous person, Gobong Gi Daeseung. It is located at 133 Gwanggok Drive/Gwanggok-gil, Gwangsan-dong 432-beonji, Gwangju Gwangsan-gu, and is for the religious service of a great scholar Gi Daeseung. 

After the demise of Gi Daeseung, his eldest son, Gi Hyojeong, built the Confucian School to pay high tribute to his deceased father's charitable deeds at Wolbong village, Sanwol-dong, Gwangsan-gu. The name has been called Wolbong Seowon after the name of the village. After that, Jeongjo dedicated an engraved board entitled 'Bingwoldang', meaning 'Bingwolseolwol', which symbolizes Gi Daeseung. However, it was torn down in 1868 when a decree went out by Daewongun to destroy all Confucian School. 

Local inhabitants restored Bingwoldang to its former state and moved it to Gwangsan-dong in 1938. The current complex consists of a library and a shrine. Dongseoje was completed to remember him and was named the Wolbong Academy (Bingwoldang). Bingwaldang and a block-book entitled A Collection of Gobong´s Works are Cultural Assets of Gwangju City. Sitting and looking around the floor of the Wolbong Academy (Bingwoldang), we can vividly feel the popularity of a great scholar Gi Daeseung’s philiosophy. We can also feel the anxiety and despair he felt in that oppressive age. He was so lonely. But what he will be remembered for is his care for the people and the realization of a just and rich society for them. We can feel as if he were together with us right here and now.