Sirhak Pa

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sirhak P’a


(also sirhak, silhak; literally “school of practical learning”), a current of social thought in feudal Korea in the late medieval period.

Sirhak p’a, from its inception a critical and reform movement, opposed the stagnation and scholasticism of Confucianism by disseminating true, or real, learning (sirhak). Its adherents regarded as real learning not only the exact and natural sciences, such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, but also the study of Korea’s history, jurisprudence, geography, language, literature, and culture. For the country’s well-being, they considered it necessary to borrow the scientific, technical, and cultural achievements of other countries.

The rise of sirhak p’a is inseparable from the social and economic evolution of Korea’s decaying feudal society, which was held fast in the grip of acute class and social contradictions. Growing peasant discontent, due to increased feudal oppression, forced the leading members of the ruling class—primarily those not tied to the highest aristocracy—to consider the need for change in the existing order. Yi Su-gwang, who lived in the second half of the 16th and the early 17th century, was Korea’s first propagandist for European scientific knowledge and first student of mechanics and astronomy; he undertook a critique of the subjectivism of Confucian dogmas and called for objective study of the world. Scholars of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Yi Ik, subjected the philosophical bases of Confucianism to criticism and moved closer toward materialism, recognizing the primacy of the material (ki) over the spiritual (li). In the 18th century, Hong Tae-yong overturned Confucian notions of cosmology with his ideas about the rotation of the earth and the other planets.

The sirhak p’a scholars supplemented their philosophical criticism with a condemnation of class inequalities and officials’ extortions and abuses and with proposals for social and cultural reform, especially a land and tax reform. Yu Hyong-won (17th century) and other scholars wanted to limit large landholdings, decrease the requisitions imposed on the peasants, and improve agriculture by introducing better implements and improved methods of tilling the soil. In order to increase the wealth of the country, they proposed the development of crafts and trade, including maritime trade. The democratic convictions of sirhak p’a scholars, such as Pak Chi-won and Chong Yak-yon (18th and early 19th centuries), led them to a profound understanding of the sufferings and hopes of the popular masses. However, elements of Korea’s new bourgeois relations were extremely weak, and the ideas of the sirhak p’a reformers could not evolve into the ideology of the new class. Nevertheless, the ideas of the sirhak p’a touched upon the problems essential to the subsequent development of the country and thus played a significant role in the formation of a bourgeois ideology in Korea.


Istoriia Korei, vol. 1. Moscow, 1974. Pages 248–49,287–94.
Chong Chin Sok, Chong Song Chol, and Kim Chang Won. Istoriia ko-reiskoifiiosofii, vol. 1. Moscow, 1966. Pages 205-91. (Translated from Korean.)

M. N. PAK [23–1372–]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.