The Formation and Development of Korean Silhak, Astronomy and Geography

The Museum of Silhak

1. Formation of Silhak
From the mid-16th century, the three principal countries of East Asia, Joseon (Korea), China, and Japan, underwent dramatic changes under the influence of western culture and civilization. In Japan, Oda Nobunaga unified the country with the assistance of imported matchlock guns. In contrast, the Ming Dynasty of China ran into a crisis after failing to cope with the new challenges. The situation led to a seven-year war (1592-1598) that started with Japan’s invasion of Joseon. Several decades later, the Qing Dynasty of China invaded Joseon in 1636-1637. The entire territory of Joseon was laid waste by the two devastating invasions. The Joseon government saw the need to push ahead with far-reaching reforms, including tax reforms, to cope with the difficult situation. During the Joseon Period, three types of tax were imposed on the people, i.e. field tax, tribute, and labor mobilization. Of the three types, ordinary people found tribute the most burdensome. The government adopted two epoch-making systems, Daedongbeop, a system in which people paid all tributes to the central government in the form of rice, and Gyunyeokbeop, a system in which tax was imposed in the form of cotton cloth instead of military service according to the acreage of fields owned by people rather than the number of people. As a result, the tax burden imposed on commoners was alleviated considerably. This was followed by the development of periodically-opened markets and the goods-based economy. In contrast, the country’s academic elite was still engrossed in the theory of li and qi, the study of prose composition and verse, and study of the etiquette system, which were hardly practical at all. By the mid-17th century many people had awakened to the need to use academic learning to improve their everyday lives. This was the very beginning of Silhak, which began developing amid efforts to introduce reforms and the introduction of natural science from western countries. Such initiatives led to innovation in the land system and the lord-vassal relationship as well as the promotion of commerce and industry. The introduction of more advanced natural science stimulated the development of astronomy and geography, and, for that matter, Silhak. The emergence of Silhak also encouraged scholars to focus on the need to reform existing systems, promote commerce, and develop technology.

Western culture and civilization was first introduced to China in the mid-16th century, although its influence was fully felt only after the Italian Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) settled in Beijing in 1601 as a Jesuit missionary. Meanwhile, Korean royal envoys who were dispatched to China naturally brought western culture and civilization back home with them. Jibongryuseol written by Yi Su-gwang (1563-1628/pen-name: Jibong) in 1641 offers a detailed explanation of the western culture and civilization introduced to China at that time.

Yi Su-gwang paid three visits to Ming China as a royal envoy. In Beijing, he met with his counterparts from Southeast Asia and gained a deeper understanding of their history and culture. He also witnessed the religious and cultural activities of western missionaries there. From the map of the world made by Matteo Ricci in 1602, he acquired an understanding of many aspects of European civilization.

Jibongryuseol briefly explains the content of The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven written by Matteo Ricci and provides information on the geography, climate, production, history, etc. of over 50 countries including Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy. The book maintains an objective viewpoint, distancing itself from the traditionally rigid Sino-centric worldview. It also introduced Buddhism and Islam favorably. Such an objective view of countries other than China formed the basis of the Silhak worldview.

During the Joseon period, royal envoys were dispatched to Yanjing (present-day Beijing), the capital of the Qing Dynasty of China, to offer tribute to the Chinese emperor, who customarily offered a present to the Joseon king in return. An envoy was accompanied by hundreds of attendants, and usually stayed in China for a few months, while his entourage engaged in trading activities. Envoys would meet with Chinese intellectuals, examine items of culture and civilization to take home with him, or pay a visit to a Catholic church, thus exposing them to western culture and civilization. All this served as a stimulus to the development of Joseon’s culture and, for that matter, the development of Silhak

This painting was made by a Chinese artist named Hu Bing for Gim Yuk during the latter’s stay in China as a royal envoy. Gim Yuk played a leading role in the implementation of the Daedongbeop (an innovative system in which people paid all tributes to the central government in the form of rice).

Gim Yuk (pen-name: Jamgok) was a reformist statesman who put innovative ideas including Daedongbeop and Siheolryeok (a calendar developed under the influence of western astronomy) into practice. Among the works left by him are Jamgok Yugo, Jamgok Byeolgo, and Jamgok Sokgo, which are collections of his prose and verse, and Yuwonchongbo (A Collection of Useful Phrases Taken from Classical Writings). Jamgok Yugo contains information on the implementation of the Daedongbeop system and the circulation of currency.

2. Development of Silhak
At the turn of the 18th century there emerged a group of scholars united under the banner of Silhak. Yi Ik (1681-1762/pen-name: Seongho) led a group of physiocrats who saw the need for innovation of the state systems. In the late 18th century, Bak Ji-won (1737-1805/pen-name: Yeonam) led a group of mercantilist scholars who stressed the importance of commercial promotion and technological development. In the early 19th century, there was a group of scholars led by Gim Jeong-hui (1786-1856/pen-name: Chusa) who emphasized the importance of seeking truth from fact. They also stressed the importance of positivism, including the use of historical records or epitaphs in academic research. As visionaries who saw the need for social reform of the Joseon society, these groups of Silhak scholars engaged in academic research closely associated with people’s daily life. There emerged a group of scholars who emphasized “Joseonology” (a study of the language, history, geography, and industry of Joseon), which marked a departure from the Sino-centric tradition. Around the same time, “the methodology of historical research” and “ancient learning” developed respectively in China and Japan - countries that were similar to Silhak in Joseon in nature and played a key role in accommodating western culture following the opening of their doors to external influences.

Yi Ik (pen-name: Seongho) led a group of physiocrats as the founder of Silhak during the late Joseon Period. Active in Ansan near Hanyang (present-day Seoul) in the early 18th century, he energetically absorbed the western culture and civilization that had been introduced to the capital. He stood against neo-Confucianism, which was now focused largely on maintaining the etiquette system and had been degraded to an ideological tool of the reigning powers. Yi engaged in realistically useful academic studies on history, geography, politics, economy, military, and education among other matters.

Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836/pen-name: Dasan) was a scholar who compiled diverse relevant materials about Silhak into a single book in the late Joseon Period. He started reading the writings of Yi Ik at the age of 16 and developed a profound interest in Silhak. When he was 23, he had an opportunity to read western books obtained through Yi Beok, a brother-in-law of his brother Jeong Yak-hyeon. By 28, he had become an official and was helping King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) to implement a reality-based system of governance in accordance with the principles of the Silhak philosophy.

Bak Ji-won was a Silhak scholar and writer who specialized in classical Chinese in the late Joseon Period. Along with Hong Dae-yong and Bak Je-ga, Bak led a group of mercantilist scholars who sought to overcome the false social consciousness prevalent in the Joseon society, including the noble-class consciousness and the view that the Qing Dynasty should be punished for its invasion of Joseon in 1636 and its conquest of the Ming Dynasty, an ally of Joseon. They stressed the importance and usefulness of academic research to the everyday life of the grassroots people. They also pointed out that Joseon should rehabilitate her culture by accommodating more advanced cultures from China and western countries. Such a view formed the basis of the reformist and enlightenment philosophy of that period.

Distancing itself from conceptual learning, Silhak aimed to develop academic learning that would serve a practical purpose in the daily life of the people, which naturally led to the development of ‘Joseonology’ (a study of the language, history, geography, politics, economy, and culture of Joseon). This latter development brought about an epoch-making conversion from Sino-centric learning to learning focused on Joseon herself.

Choe Han-gi (pen-name: Hyegang) was a Silhak scholar and philosopher of science toward the end of the Joseon Period. He established an independent theory based on qi associated with the Confucian tradition that adopted the advanced natural science of western countries, and wrote many books displaying his interest in western academic learning. He is widely recognized as a promoter of Silhak and enlightenment philosophy at the time of a historic watershed in Joseon’s history, and as an independent scholar who strove to build a civilized society based on scientific learning.

Written by Choe Han-gi in his early days, the book examines both peaceful and turbulent periods in Korea’s history based on scriptures and historic records in an attempt to chart a way of “caring for the people according to the precepts of the scriptures,” which was the East Asian notion of economy.

This is a collection of rough drafts of writings by Choe Han-gi (pen-name: Hyegang) that was put together for the publication of a book of his works. It displays his ideas as a scholar who inherited the philosophy of leading Silhak scholars such as Jeong Yak-yong (pen-name: Dasan), developed it further, and linked it to the enlightenment philosophy. It contains forewords, selected writings, miscellaneous writings, and invocations, and serves as a basic material for studies of Choe’s ideas.

Bak Gyu-su, a grandson of Bak Ji-won (pen-name: Yeonam), was an enlightenment philosopher during the last decades of the Joseon Period. He inherited the view that Joseon should rehabilitate her culture by accommodating more advanced cultures from China and western countries, and maintained that the country should open its doors and start trading with other countries. He inherited Bak Ji-won’s mercantilism and strove to turn the country into a modern state through the opening of its ports.

He sent this letter to Yun Jong-eui (pen-name: Yeonjae) while making preparations for his trip to Yanjing, along with his attendants Gang Mun-hyeong and O Gyeong-seok, as a royal envoy in 1872 (the 6th year of the reign of King Gojong).

The letter displays his sense of expectation regarding his second trip to China, during which he witnessed the Qing people’s involvement in the modernization movement led by bureaucrats, which served to reinforce his belief about the need for aperture and enlightenment in Joseon.

Bak Gyu-su sent this letter to his elder brother in 1849 (the 15th year of King Heonjong’s reign), when he was serving as the local administrator of Yonggang-hyeon in Pyeongan-do. In the letter, he says that people were agitated about the news that an envoy of the Qing Dynasty had crossed the border, and compares the area administered by him with Hanyang based on modern scientific knowledge.

3. Silhak and science (astronomy and geography)
With the introduction of advanced natural science from the West, Joseon’s astronomy and geography started developing markedly. The most important change in Joseon concerned people’s perception of basic elements of the universe: previously they had thought that time and space had a certain philosophical meaning, but now they knew that they were simply natural phenomena. The most important development in Korean astronomy was the start of the use of Siheolryeok, a luni-solar calendar made under the influence of western astronomy and the solar calendar in 1653. The 24 divisions of the year were fixed in accordance with the solar calendar. Scholars now understood that the changes in the seasons occurred as a result of the relationship between the earth and the sun, rather than as a result of the circulation associated with Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, and started studying the round earth and heliocentric theories, etc. In geography, the way people looked at the world changed dramatically with the introduction of the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (Chinese for Gonyeo manguk jeondo) map made by Matteo Ricci. The Sino-centric worldview was rejected, while there was growing awareness of the intrinsic differences between different peoples and different nations. The maps of the country were drawn up based on real measurements with the adoption of Jeong Sang-gi’s 100 ri (=40km)-based reduced scale and the sectional paper-type map production method. As a result, Daedong Yeojido (Territorial Map of Korea), which was made by Gim Jeong-ho (? ~1864) in 1861 based on the map production methods developed up to that time, was a relatively accurate one.

This is a portable astronomical device used to determine the positions of the stars, the time, and longitude/latitude. They were chiefly made in Arabia. This one was made by Yu Geum (1741-1788), a Silhak scholar who was well versed in geometry and astronomy, and worked together with others including Bak Ji-won who held the view that Joseon should rehabilitate her culture by accommodating more advanced cultures from China and western countries.

Astronomical devices made in Joseon under the influence of western science include the ganpyeongeui, pyeonghoneui, (Equatorial Mounting), and various astronomical maps. The pyeonghoneui (Celestial Globe) made by Bak Gyu-su (1807-1877) marks the constellations of the southern and northern hemispheres on a plane circle. The locations of the constellations tell about the time and the seasons.

The country had used the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which is based on the fact that it takes the Moon about one month to go through all its phases, and that the four seasons repeat themselves every year. This calendar has undergone frequent changes as a result of changes in the dynasty and under external influences. It was replaced by Siheolryeok under the influence of the solar calendar, which was introduced in the early 17th century.

Siheolryeok was made based on Chongzhen lishu (Chongzhen Treatise on Calendrical Astronomy) compiled by Jesuit missionaries such as Adam Shall (1591-1666) and Chinese government officials including Xu Guangqi (1562~1633) toward the end of the Ming Dynasty. It is a calendar that makes it possible to calculate the 24 divisions of the year and the times of solar and lunar eclipses.
Siheolryeok was adopted in China in 1645 during the transition from Ming to Qing, followed by Joseon in 1653. When Gim Yuk was dispatched to Beijing as a royal envoy in 1646, he instructed one of his attendants to learn about the calendar.

Siheolryeok was a new calendric system made with the aid of new astronomical devices and techniques, including theories about the universe based on the round earth theory adopted in western countries, the theory of planetary motion proposed by Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Brahe, western geometry including spherical trigonometry, celestial measuring devices (like sanghaneui, gihaneui, hosiequi) and telescopes.

Traditionally, geography had been regarded as an important subject from the political, military and everyday perspectives in Joseon. Maps were drawn up early in the country’s history, but they had limitations due to political and ethical factors, and cartographic techniques did not develop noticeably. All this changed, however, with the introduction of western maps and natural science in the early 17th century and thereafter.

In 1602, Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest, jointly with Li Zhizao, a Chinese scholar, made Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (Chinese for Gonyeo manguk jeondo) in Beijing. The map was introduced to Joseon as early as 1603, and two hand-copied prints were made of it in Joseon at request of King Sukjong in 1708. The map currently kept at the Silhak Museum is a restored copy made in 2011 based on photos of the one that was destroyed along with Bongseonsa Temple in Namyangju during the Korean War.

The second to seventh panels are a world map. The first panel contains the foreword written by Matteo Ricci, and the last panel the foreword written by Prime Minister Choe Seok-jeong.

The Museum of Silhak
Credits: Story

Planning in charge
The 1st director, Byeong-jik Ahn
The 2nd director, Si-up Kim
The 3rd director, Deokho Jang

Taeyoung Kim, Jaeso Song, Changryeol Jeong

Seonghwan Kim, Junho Jo, Hyungseop Kim, Seonghee Jeong, Jaerin Won, Wongi Hwang, Chiyong Chae, Hyogi Kim, Moonchul Jang, Changho Gwak, Chunok Jeong, Yeonjung Hwang

Administrative support
Younghui Park, Eunkyung Seo, Byunghyun Kang, Hosun Lee, Wonyoung Choi, Jinho Jeong

Project support
Taeyong Kim, Seoyeon Choi, Youngdae Kim, Hakseong Lee, Sohyun Park, Hyungmo Seong, Hogyun Kim, Kyeongmin Kim, Sujin Jo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.