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The Significance of Ye-ak Politics

Imbalance in Joseon Dynasty's Confucian politics due to neglected musical harmonization.

The kings of the Joseon dynasty all pursued politics grounded in Confucian ideology, so called ye-ak.

King Sejong made a great contribution not only in making new music but also in restoring Chinese music. The policies and outcomes of the reigns of King Seongjong, Sukjong, Yeongjo, and Jeongjo all contributed to rebuilding the system of court rites in order to realize ye-ak ideology. However, in substantializing ye-ak ideology in the rites, there was a problem of imbalance between ye and ak.

Generally, the idea of ye, meaning rules and standards, became highlighted. On the contrary, the court paid little at-tention to the idea of ak, meaning harmonization. Many had appealed the biased view and imperfection in ye-ak politics, and ‘ak’ (music) was always marginalized. For example, Che Je-gong (蔡濟恭, 1720-1799), a illustrious retainer of King Jeongjo, stated, “ye and ak are both mandatory, but people only pur-sued and discussed the ideology of ye, not ak. This is harmful.”

There were several reasons that ak became neglected and inadequate. The intrinsic value and attributes of ye and ak were different, and this transferred over to the social aspects as well. Third, as explained there were difficulties finding, training, and practicing for the various rites and rituals with in-sufficient support for the arts. For example, after the war not only the instruments were broken and lost, but also the musicians were scattered. Even if music was played, it was not adequate with untrained musicians. Contradictory views on tmusic and musicians also disturbed the balance between ye and ak. Even though the court understood the importance of the music, the musical skills were devalued and the compensation to the musicians was poor.

The socially communicated aspects of music brought an imbalance between ye and ak. However, the politics during the Joseon dynasty was focused on the realization of ye and ak. The kings throughout the generations paid attention to the coexistence and balance of ye and ak, because they learnt that the right music was closely related to the right way of ruling the nation. As stated in “the chapter on music” in Liji, “Music is the mirror of politics,” the kings believed that the emphasis on music would be truthful, reflecting his virtuosity. Therefore, the court rites revealed the ultimate goal of harmonizing music with the political ideals of Joseon.

sourse: Song Ji-won, “Introduction”, 『KOREAN MUSICOLOGY SERIES, 8 ‘Ritual Music of the Korean Court’』 27~28p, 2015.
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