The Korea Herald


[Scholars and Their Spaces] 'New wave' seen through Korean eyes

By Kim Hoo-ran

Published : Nov. 12, 2022 - 16:01

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Yi Sang-jae (seated right) is seen in a photograph of the leaders of Seoul YMCA (Yi Sang-jae Memorial Association) Yi Sang-jae (seated right) is seen in a photograph of the leaders of Seoul YMCA (Yi Sang-jae Memorial Association)

Korea's first public funeral was held for Yi Sang-jae (1850-1927), one of the leaders of Korea's enlightenment period. The event was attended by some 100,000 people, a testimony to his huge following. His voice was heard through a phonograph and a recording of his speech, "To Young People of Joseon," was released in July 1927, four months after his death.

"Now, the world is getting worse and worse, there is no morality. People focus only on material things and kill others to satisfy their selfish desires. But, you are different. You have been disciplined at home to be a person with a moral spirit of loving and caring for others. You deserve to lead the world. That is why I place my hope on you, the young people of Joseon,” Yi said in the speech.

Yi came from a typical family of scholars. He was a descendant of Yi Saek (1328-1296) who was a prominent scholar of the late Goryeo period, often referred to as "the seeds of Korean neo-Confucianism."

Although he was highly talented and excelled in scholarship, Yi failed the state examination due to the backlog in government appointments. Yet, he never despaired. Instead, he was dispatched to Japan as a personal assistant to the enlightenment thinker Park Jeong-yang, who was a member of the diplomatic corps of Joseon. It was Yi’s first time on the global stage, where he also came into contact with Western culture.

He considered the future of Joseon to be dependent on its acceptance of new ideas, systems and education of the youth. Although he did not trust the West, he was sure that the survival of Joseon could be guaranteed only by accepting Western culture and making changes by itself. In the long run, all his activities were for freedom, human rights, peace, and the future of Joseon's youth.

Old Korean Legation building in Washington D. C. (Academy of Korea Studies) Old Korean Legation building in Washington D. C. (Academy of Korea Studies)

“Look at the Western powers. Academic development and moral progress, they are getting stronger day by day. Their culture seeks freedom and has a high regard for the spirit of adventure instead of forcing the people to surrender under an autocracy. Let’s embrace a new culture as well as putting Joseon’s best foot forward and lead the world in the preservation of unique cultural strengths,” Yi urged in an article he wrote for the Daehan Mail Shinbo in 1910, the year the Japan-Korea Treaty, by which Japan formally annexed Korea, was signed. The article, titled "Culture and Force," reflects his experience as a secretary at the Embassy of Joseon to the US in its early days.

Yi played the role of a mediator in a time of political turmoil and conflict between the old and the new brought on by the influx of new cultures. For example, Yi resolved a conflict by stating that "jesa," or ancestral rites, should be respected as filial duty when most Christians rejected the practice. In addition, he hired American and French teachers when he became the principal of foreign language school despite Japan's pressure to teach Japanese. Yi knew all too well that Joseon needed to reinforce foreign language education and communication to meet the demands of globalization.

The Old Korean Legation in Washington is the only building that retains the original interior and exterior among the city's 30 diplomatic spaces dating back to the 19th century.

It may be valuable not only in terms of US diplomatic history, but also as a testament to Yi's diplomatic activities in the US. It also shows the "new wave" as seen through Korean eyes. When this former diplomatic office reopened in 2012, Yi’s great-grandson hoisted a flag of the Republic of Korea.

“Even if you lose, do not disappointed and fight to the end. Teach and learn. Do what is right in your own sight. Ultimately, the key to success is inside your own heart,” Yi said.

Faced with a difficult situation, Yi always held out hope of victory because of his passion and trust in young people. He might have said to the independence activists of his time, “It’s the education, stupid.”

By Park Jeong-eon (

Park Jeong-eon is a senior researcher at the Institute of Korean Confucian Culture. -- Ed.