The Life of Toi-Gye
Yi Hwang was born in On'gye-ri (now Tosan), North Kyôngsang Province, on November 25, 1501. He was a child prodigy. At the age of six, he started to learn the Book of One Thousand letters from an old gentleman in his neighborhood, and at 12 he learned the Analects of Confucius from his uncle, Yi U. At the age of 19, he obtained the two-volume Sôngni Taejôn, a great compendium of neo-Confucianism by Hu Guang, and experienced a process of great awakening. He became devoted to Song thought.
He came to Seoul when he was 23 years old to study at the National Academy, and passed the preliminary provincial Civil Service examination with top honours at the age of 33, continuing his scholarly pursuits whilst working for the Korean government. Indeed, he continued to work for the government throughout his life, moving through 29 different positions. His integrity made him relentless as he took part in purges of corrupt government officials. In a report to the king following an inspection tour of Ch'ungch'ông Province as a royal secret inspector, he ruthlessly condemned a provincial official who, ignoring an order from an honest magistrate, busied himself in illicitly building a fortune by taking possession of government articles. On numerous occasions he was even exiled from the capital for his firm commitment to principle.
In 1549 he retired back to his home and lived there until his death, thereby justifying his chosen pen name of Toi-Gye (meaning "retreating stream"). There he began to build the Tosan Sowon, a private Confucian academy offering instruction in the classics and honouring the sages with regular memorial rites. Unfortunately he died in 1570 and never lived to see the opening of his academy open, although his students continued to work after his death. Tosan Sowon opened in 1574, and remains in use to this day.
On his death, Yi Hwang was posthumously promoted to the highest ministerial rank, and his mortuary tablet is housed in a Confucian shrine as well as in the shrine of King Sonjo. He was the author of many books on Confucianism, and he also published a "shijo" collection, a short poetic form popular with the literati of the Choson period. During forty years of public life he served four kings (Chungjong, Injong, Myôngjong and Sônjo), and his interpretation of the "li-chi" dualism gained him fame in Korea and beyond.