Yi Jehyeon (李齊賢, 이제현, 1287-1367) was a late Goryeo dynasty (高麗, 고려, 918-1392) bureaucrat, Neo-Confucian scholar, and poet. He was of the Gyeongju Yi Clan (慶州李氏, 경주이씨); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Jungsa (仲思, 중사); his pen name (號, 호) was Ikjae (益齋, 익재); and his posthumous name (諡, 시) was Munchung (文忠, 문충).
He was recognized for his abilities from a young age and advanced to the top of Goryeo dynasty bureaucracy. In 1301 at the age of 14, Yi Jehyeon passed the civil service examination for entering the National Academy (國子監, 국자감 or 成均館, 성균관) in first place, and promoted quickly through the bureaucratic ranks. In 1314, at the request of King Chungseon (忠宣王, 충선왕, 1275-1325, r. 1298, 1308-1313), who spent most of his reign in China, Yi Jehyeon traveled to the Yuan dynasty’s capital of Yenjing (燕京, 연경) to advance his studies at the Hall of Ten Thousand Volumes (萬卷堂, 만권당). While in China, he became acquainted with many Chinese scholars and traveled across the continent. In 1320, when King Chungseon was banished to Tibet (吐蕃, 토번), Yi Jehyeon traveled all the way to meet the King. He later plead to Mongol officials to release the King and worked to minimize Mongol interference in internal affairs. In 1324, he returned to Korea and continued serving in government. In 1339, however, with the chaotic situation on the Goryeo royal court, he decided to seclude himself away from politics to study and write a series of works, which would be compiled as the Scribbles of Old Man Oak (櫟翁稗說, 역옹패설). In 1344, Yi Jehyeon returned to public life and proposed reforms, emphasizing the Confucian tenets of “analyzing things and reaching knowledge” (格物致知, 격물치지) and “making the will sincere and rectifying the mind” (誠意正心, 성의정심). In 1356, as the Yuan dynasty was collapsing, he took the side of the pro-Ming faction. Shortly thereafter, however, Yi Jehyeon retired permanently from politics and spent the remainder of his life studying and composing a history of the Goryeo dynasty. He passed away in 1367, and is survived by members of the Ikjae-gong Branch (益齋公派, 익재공파) of the Gyeongju Yi Clan.
He was also renowned for his Classical Chinese poetry, in particular, lyric poems (詞, 사) and music bureau poems (樂府, 악부) — though the poem here is neither form. Below is one of eight poems he wrote on various scenes in Gaeseong (開城, 개성), the capital of the Goryeo dynasty. In it, Yi Jehyeon writes about the Cleansing Drink Day (禊飮日, 계음일). This festival falls on the third day of the third month on the Lunar Calendar and falls on April 21 this year. It has several names, including First Rat Day (上巳日, 상사일), Field Outing Day (踏靑節, 답청절), Double Third Day (重三日, 중삼일), and Samjitnal (삼짇날). The festival traditionally marked the day swallows migrated and returned from the south. There are many customs associated with this festival. The custom alluded below is to bathe in a river and drink alcohol thereafter.
松都八詠 熊川禊飮 송도팔영 웅천계음
Eight Poems on Songdo – Cleansing Drinks at Ungcheon
Atop the sandy banks, with my wine deplete, I wish that the sunshine inclines.
Washing my feet in the clear stream, I gaze at birds flying.
This meaning by itself is beautiful — Who shall receive it?
As a student of Confucius, I too dance upon the rain altar and return home.
Sand • head • wine • deplete • wish • aslant • shine
Wash • feet • clear • stream • to see • bird • to fly
This • intent • by itself • beautiful • who • to receive • to handle
Confucius • student • I • together • dance • rain • to return
- Heptasyllabic truncated verse (七言絶句, 칠언절구). Riming character (韻, 운) is 微(미). Though the last character of the third line may appear to be a rime, 取(취) is a rising tone (上聲, 상성) character.
- 松都(송도) – Literally, “pine tree capital.” Refers to Gaeseong. It is located just north of the North-South Korean border.
- 熊川(웅천) – Refers to a stream near Gaeseong.
- 孔門吾與舞雩歸(공문오여무우귀) – Allusion to Analects of Confucius (論語, 논어), Xianjin Chapter (先進, 선진). In the story, Confucius asks four of disciples what their wishes were. Three of the four replied that they wished to enter government service and manage a state. The fourth, remaining disciple, Zeng Xi (曾皙, 증석), replied that he wished to bathe in the waters of Yishou (沂水, 기수), enjoy the breeze upon the rain altar, and return home singing. Confucius, in response, commended him.
Zi Lu, Zeng Xi, Ran You, and Gong Xi Hua were sitting by the Master. He said to them, “Though I am a day or so older than you, do not think of that. From day to day you are saying, ‘We are not known.’ If some ruler were to know you, what would you like to do?”
Zi Lu hastily and lightly replied, “Suppose the case of a state of ten thousand chariots; let it be straitened between other large states; let it be suffering from invading armies; and to this let there be added a famine in corn and in all vegetables – if I were intrusted with the government of it, in three years’ time I could make the people to be bold, and to recognize the rules of righteous conduct.”
The Master smiled at him. Turning to Ran You, he said, “Qiu, what are your wishes?” Qiu replied, “Suppose a state of sixty or seventy li square, or one of fifty or sixty, and let me have the government of it – in three years’ time, I could make plenty to abound among the people. As to teaching them the principles of propriety, and music, I must wait for the rise of a superior man to do that.”
“What are your wishes, Chi,” said the Master next to Gong Xi Hua. Chi replied, “I do not say that my ability extends to these things, but I should wish to learn them. At the services of the ancestral temple, and at the audiences of the princes with the sovereign, I should like, dressed in the dark square-made robe and the black linen cap, to act as a small assistant.”
Last of all, the Master asked Zeng Xi, “Dian, what are your wishes?” Dian, pausing as he was playing on his lute, while it was yet twanging, laid the instrument aside, and said, “My wishes are different from the cherished purposes of these three gentlemen.” Said the Master, “What harm is there in that? Do you also, as well as they, speak out your wishes.”
Dian then said, “In this, the last month of spring, with the dress of the season all complete, along with five or six young men who have assumed the cap, and six or seven boys, I would wash in the Yi, enjoy the breeze among the rain altars, and return home singing.”
The Master heaved a sigh and said, “I give my approval to Dian.” The three others having gone out, Zeng Xi remained behind, and said, “What do you think of the words of these three friends?”
The Master replied, “They simply told each one his wishes.” Xi pursued, “Master, why did you smile at You?” He was answered, “The management of a state demands the rules of propriety. His words were not humble; therefore I smiled at him.” Xi again said, “But was it not a state which Qiu proposed for himself?”The reply was, “Yes; did you ever see a territory of sixty or seventy li or one of fifty or sixty, which was not a state?”
Once more, Xi inquired, “And was it not a state which Chi proposed for himself?” The Master again replied, “Yes; who but princes have to do with ancestral temples, and with audiences but the sovereign? If Chi were to be a small assistant in these services, who could be a great one?”
Translation by James Legge
- Korean translation of poem available here.