Changes in the Concept of Yulli during the Enlightenment Period in Korea

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Yi, Hye Gyung
Issue Date
Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies, Seoul National University
Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, Vol.24 No.2, pp. 219-239
Gaehwagi (the enlightenment period of Korea)Korea (Joseon dynasty)Yulli(倫理)EthicsCivilization
This article examines how the concept of yulli 倫理 (“ethics”) was regarded during the modern period of enlightenment (Gaehwagi) in Korea. We first examine how the term yulli was employed in Japan, since it played a key role in transmitting to Korea the elements of modern Western civilization that it had already adopted; in addition, Japan shared the common traditions of Confucianism and Chinese characters with Korea. We can obtain a better understanding of the use of yulli in modern Korea by identifying the similarities and differences vis-à-vis its use in Japan. The use of yulli in pre-modern Korea is then considered. During the Joseon period, the term yulli referred to “the objective principles of beings” as well as “the virtue of the mind” in a Neo-Confucian context. This is then followed by a discussion of the semantic shift that the term yullihak倫理學 (a translated term for the Western concept of “ethics” imported from Japan) underwent during the modern period of enlightenment in Korea. Introduced as a discipline of modern Europe, yullihak allowed Korean intellectuals to perceive yulli as an element of civilization and take pride in the fact that this element of civilization had a long tradition in Korea. Finally, the way in which Korean intellectuals of the

enlightenment period began to present the yulli of Korea as a distinctive and key

strength of their nation is discussed. It is demonstrated that Korean intellectuals believed the reason Korea faced the loss of its sovereignty was not because it was a savage society, but because it had focused too much on the “civilization of yulli” to the detriment of a “materialist civilization.” Unlike the Japanese, this illustrates that Korean intellectuals did not differentiate between the ethics of modern Europe and pre-existing Neo-

Confucianism ethics.
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Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies (규장각한국학연구원)Seoul Journal of Korean StudiesSeoul Journal of Korean Studies vol.24 (2011)
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