Lee Ji-ham, a far-seeing sage for the people

2011-04-21

Presenting the real Lee Ji-ham

At the beginning of every year many Koreans seek a certain book. It is called “Tojeong Bigyeol (The Secrets of Tojeong),” a compilation of predictions based on birthdates and the trigrams from the Book of Changes. Passed down from the Joseon era, the popular practice of reading Tojeong Bigyeol at the start of the year provides people with hope for the coming year and allows them to prepare for bad fortune.

The foresights in the book were what gave the impression that its author, Tojeong Lee Ji-ham, was an eccentric with special powers. In fact, Lee is counted as one of the three most uncommon sages of the time. But when all the eccentricities and bizarre accuracy are removed from the book, what is left is a new and surprising side of Lee.

Writer of fortunes and the future

Born in Boryeong, Chungcheong Province in 1517, Lee Ji-ham was the sixth generation descendant of Lee Saek, a faithful public official at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty. After his father died when he was only fourteen, Lee studied under his eldest brother and after his marriage under naturalistic philosopher Seo Gyeong-deok, who studied mathematical order in nature. Seo taught Lee about medicine, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and many other subjects, which helped Lee to attain and sharpen the ability of incredible foresight. Eerily He predicted that his father-in-law would die in a massacre of scholars and Japan’s invasion in 1592.

He used to live in a 10-foot mud hut on the shores of flood-prone Mapo. But his house and its ground remained intact even in a big flood. His modest yet sturdy mud house gave him the penname of Tojeong, which meant “a person who lives in an earthen pavilion.” But his true personality can be glimpsed not in Tojeong Bigyeol, but in Bukhakeui (A Lecture on Northern Studies).

Dreaming of reform

Championing the pragmatic philosophy of the late Joseon era, Bukhakeui, written in the 18th century, proclaimed Lee’s belief that poor people can be saved through overseas trade. Lee’s mentor, Seo Gyeong-deok, had many merchants in his following, which led Lee to be receptive to innovative social and economic ideas. In an era when commerce was looked down upon he argued for resources development and the importance of trade. In fact, he toured all over the country to teach people how to produce more crops and sell them at profit.

To further serve the people, he entered public service in his late 50s. During his years as a mayor, he established an agency for vagrants, which trained the elderly and the sick in simple tasks like making straw ropes and taught the young and healthy paupers to fish and sell their catch at the market. The agency was not a mere charity organization, but a job training and rehabilitation center that showed the feuding leadership of the 16th century Joseon what true public servants should do. When Lee died just three months into his mayorship, the people of Asan reportedly wept out on the street as if their own parents had died.

Some scholars claim that Tojeong Bigyeol, which grew popular in the late 19th century, was not actually written by Lee, but by someone else under Lee’s name to ease its introduction to the people. Whoever authored the mystical book, Tojeong Bigyeol is not the only and not even the greatest legacy of Lee. His real and enduring legacies are his keen insight into social conditions, advocacy for economics and science, and his caring heart for the people.

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