Below is a biographical overview of the poet-historian Yu Deuk-gong who is regarded as one of the “practical learning” (實學 silhak) scholars and associated with the Northern Learning school (北學派 bukhak-pa). Whilst “practical learning” is a relatively loose term applied retrospectively to all of the slightly progressive thinkers of the later Joseon dynasty, the Northern Learning scholars were a close-knit group of genuine friends. To my knowledge, there is not much information on Yu’s life in English so hopefully it is of interest.
Unless otherwise stated, the information is taken from Jeong (1998), referenced at the bottom. I include also a quote taken from a letter written to Yu by one of his close friends, Bak Je-ga; this has been skillfully translated by Marion Eggert and is found in Epistolary Korea edited by Haboush (2009). For the sake of variation lunar months are sometimes referred to by calendar month names, so July means “the 7th lunar month.”
Yu Deuk-gong (柳得恭) was born into a destitute yangban family on the 5th day of the 11th lunar month, 1748 (Yeongjo 24). It is thought he was born at his mother’s house in Namyang (南陽, modern Hwaseong city, Gyeonggi province), Baekgok (白谷). Just four years after his father, Yu Chun (柳瑃 1726-52), died at the age of twenty-seven. He was thus brought up by his mother, Madam Hong of Namyang (南陽洪氏, 土洪 Tohong branch, 1725-1801), alongside his two, only slightly older, paternal uncles Yu Min and Yu Ryeon (柳玟 1733-54 and 柳璉 1741-88; their own mother, his grandmother, having died in 1750), who treated him much as a brother. Many of Deuk-gong’s paternal relatives died during widespread epidemics of smallpox and cholera which had reduced the household to poverty. Alongside affection, therefore, great expectations were placed on Deuk-gong to continue the family line; in 1758 his mother moved the family to Seoul to further his education. They lived in the central district of Gyeonghaengbang (慶幸坊, to the northeast of present day Tapgol ‘Pagoda’ Park) where Yu’s resourceful mother supported the household taking in sewing work from more affluent families.
From around the age of eighteen onwards, Deuk-gong began to associate with the circle of contemporaries known as the Northern Learning (北學派 bukhak-pa) scholars which principally included Hong Dae-yong (洪大容 1731-83), Bak Ji-won (朴趾源 1737-1805), I Deok-mu (李德懋 1741-93), Bak Je-ga (朴齊家 1750-1805) and I Seo-gu (李書九 1754-1825) as well as Yu himself. In particular, Yu Deuk-gong and his surviving uncle were close to Hong Dae-yong who was from a related branch of the same Hong clan as his mother. Hong became the first of their circle to visit Beijing in 1766 where he formed friendships with several Chinese scholars and brought back accounts of the state of development in China to his younger friends who in the meanwhile passed much of their days drinking and composing poetry, self-styling themselves the Baektap-dong’in (白塔同人 ‘White Pagoda Companions’).
Apart from Hong and Bak Ji-won, the others all came from secondary lineages and so were disqualified from seeking high office. In Deuk-gong’s case, his paternal great-grandfather, Yu Sam-ik (柳三益 b.1670), had been born to an unofficial second wife some thirty-two years younger than Sam-ik’s father and as a consequence Deuk-gong’s lineage was officially regarded as an illegitimate line of descent. The effect of this discrimination naturally encouraged the friends to develop a more critical awareness of their society and in a bid to challenge the hardened dogma of their times, they turned to the neighbouring Qing as a model for development.
Yu Deuk-gong married Madam I of Jeonju (全州李氏) in 1770 but shortly after, his grandfather, Yu Han-sang (柳漢相 1707-70), died and for two years he took on mourning responsibilities in place of his own late father. Notably during this time he compiled a collection of ancient Korean poems covering the period from Gi Ja to Later Baekje, titled Dongsimeng (東詩萌 ‘Poetic Buds of the East’), of which only the preface still survives. Yu’s marriage produced two sons and two daughters.
Sometime in early 1773 Yu passed the sogwa (小科) lower civil service examination, attaining the title of saengwon (生員), and in the spring he went on a trip to Gaesong and Pyeongyang for the first time together with I Deok-mu and Bak Je-ga. His impressions were left behind in two short collections, Songgyeong-jabjeol (松京雜絶 ‘Miscellaneous Quatrains of the Pine Capital’) and Seogyeong-jabjeol (西京雜絶 ‘Miscellaneous Quatrains of the Western Capital’) consisting of nine and fifteen poems respectively. After returning he failed the higher mun’gwa (文科) civil service examination and subsequently visited the region of Gongju (公州), one of the former Baekje capitals.
With prospects for his future looking decidedly bleak, a significant event occurred when, in late 1776, Deuk-gong’s uncle, Yu Ryeon, had the occasion to accompany an envoy to Beijing in the position of makgwan (幕官). The emissary of the mission, Seo Ho-su (徐浩修) had been instructed by King Jeongjo to obtain a complete copy of the monumental Gujin Tushu Jicheng (古今圖書集成 ‘Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Illustrations and Writings,’ 1725) encyclopedia; according to Deuk-gong, it was his uncle who successfully found it.
On the trip, Yu Ryeon took with him a collection of 399 poems consisting of a hundred each composed by Yu Deok-gong, I Deok-mu, Bak Je-ga and I Seo-gu, titled Han’gaekgeon’yeon-jip (韓客巾衍集 ‘Small Collection of the Korean Wayfarer’). Whilst searching for acquaintances of Hong Dae-yong in the Liulichang district of Beijing, Yu Ryeon found a copy of Li Diaoyuan’s (李調元 1734-1803) Huanghua-ji (皇華集) and visiting the author, he received a ‘critical preface’ (序評) for Hangaekgeon’yeon-jip. He received a second ‘title preface’ (題序) from Pan Tingyun (潘庭筠 반정균) and the following year Li Diaoyuan had it published. On the strength of the work’s appraisal, the four young poets became known in Beijing as the ‘new four masters of Literary Chinese’ (漢文大四家) even before they had set foot there themselves. This was in reference to the four poets, I Jeong-gu (李廷龜, 1564-1635), Sin Heum (申欽, 1566-1628), Jang Yu (張維, 1587-1638) and I Sik (李植, 1584-1647) who had been termed the ‘four great masters of Literary Chinese’ (漢文四大家).
In the third lunar month of 1778, I Deok-mu and Bak Je-ga had their first opportunity to visit and they took with them Yu’s recently completed Sib’yukdo-hoegosi (十六都懷古詩 ‘Nostalgic Reflections of the Sixteen Capitals,’ – the number was subsequently revised to twenty-one as it is now known) which won further high praise from Pan Tingyun and others. Yu himself first visited China in the seventh month, separately accompanying an official envoy in the position of makha (幕下) sent to pay greetings to the Qianlong Emperor who was visiting the imperial tombs at Shenyang. Just after setting out, he in fact met his two friends on their return journey at Gaeseong. Yu spent some two and a half months in Manchuria travelling through the former territories of Goguryeo and Balhae.
Upon his return the following year, Yu was then selected to serve as a geomseogwan (檢書官) editor at the Gyujanggak (奎章閣) royal library, established only three years earlier, together with I Deok-mu, Bak Je-ga and Seo I-su (徐理修 1749-1802). These appointments were part of a wider policy enacted under King Jeongjo (r.1776-1800) to reduce official discrimination against secondary sons and offer an alternative route into officialdom for those deemed talented enough amongst them. The position finally brought to Yu’s life some stability and ended his continued state of relative poverty. It also gave him access to many books aiding his study of ancient history which likely contributed to his subsequent volume on Balhae, Balhae-go (渤海考 ‘Study of Balhae’ 1784), today regarded as a seminal contribution to Korean historiography.
After two years’ tenure he was made a civil official and from 1783 onwards served as a regional official, first as the chalbang (察訪) county station master of Geumjeong (金井) and then as gunsu (郡守) county magistrate of Yanggeun (1788) and Ga’pyeong (1792) before becoming busa (府使) of Pungcheon (1800). Throughout this period he would at times return to Gyujanggak to work on editing and revision projects.
Yu finally visited Beijing in 1790 when, together with Bak Je-ga, he accompanied an emissary dispatched for the 80th birthday celebration of Qianlong. They were originally planning to arrive in Beijing for the festivities beginning the 8th of lunar August (all following months refer to lunar months), but after arriving at Uiju (義州) on the border with China on June 11th, where they remained for ten days, they received instruction that their destination had been changed to Jehol (熱河, modern Chengde) and must reach there in time to attend a banquet to be held on July 10th. Hurriedly departing, on 23 June the party divided themselves at the border town of Zhamen (柵門) with Yu, Bak and just four others accompanying their ambassador to Jehol on a road (熱河路) which had never officially before or after been travelled by Koreans and had no rest stations along the way. By July 10th they had barely covered half the distance to Jehol, and finally arrived on the 15th in time for another banquet being held the following day. Departing Jehol on the 21st they subsequently arrived in Beijing. Reentering Joseon on 10th October the total journey was around 135 days; Nan’yang-nok (灤陽錄 ‘Record of Luanyang’) completed the following year is his combined poetic and prose account. Upon his return he was bestowed the rank of jeyonggam (濟用監) judge.
Yu retired from office shortly after his last post in January 1801 (Sunjo 1) and the following month left on a mission to Beijing, his third and final trip to China. Yu was requested to accompany a courtesy envoy dispatched by the Joseon court after a Qing envoy had visited to express condolences for the death of King Jeonjo. Due to hesitation amidst concern for his aging mother, he departed a few days late, catching up with the main envoy near Pyeongyang. In Beijing Yu was tasked with finding a good edition of Zhu Xi’s works (朱子書 – the granddaddy of Neo-Confucianism), but was informed by his Chinese acquaintances that Zhu Xi was no longer studied and despite spending some thirty-two days there he was unable to procure any copies. His record of the roughly 107 day journey is Yeondaejaeyu-rok (燕臺再遊錄 ‘Return to Yantai’).
In his final years he compiled two further significant works, the Gyeongdo-japji (京都雜誌 ‘Seoul Miscellany’) recording descriptions of local folk customs from around the capital, and a historical study of the so-called Han Commanderies, Sagun-ji (四郡志 ‘History of the Four Counties/Commanderies’).
Yu passed away during the 7th lunar month of 1807 and was buried on Mount Song (松山) in Yangju (楊州, modern Nakyang-dong in Uijeongbu city) beneath the grave of his 11th generation ancestor Gamchal-gong (監察公) Yu Seung-jo (柳乘祖).
From Bak Je-ga to Yu Deuk-gong (date unknown):
Rain has drizzled down like cow’s spittle for three days on end. The lanes around your living quarters must be muddy indeed. For a long time I have wished to be able to talk to you, my beloved friend, but I would have to sit for such a long time while riding to you. If I don’t ride, I will have to walk a long way, and so I hesitate. I should just sell my mule and buy a house so I could live closer to you – how happy we would be!
Haboush, JaHyun Kim, ed. Epistolary Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Jeong Jin-heon 정진헌. Silhakja Yu Deuk-gong ui godaesa insik 실학자 유득공의 고대사 인식. Seoul: Doseochulpan Sinseowon, 1998.