Shifting perceptions of insects in the late Chosŏn period

Sangho Ro

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In this paper, I examine the historical shift of Korean perceptions about insects that occurred in the late Chosŏn period. By analysing three specific cases of bees, moths, and hoppers, I argue that Korean knowledge of insects expanded its volume with the appearance of new consciousness about nature. Although Korean concepts of insects initially depended on Chinese books and Neo-Confucian natural philosophy, the eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw new voices of Koreans who perceived insects as the object of scientific research. The Chosŏn dynasty and its ruling ideology of Neo-Confucianism introduced the notion that humans and insects were inter-connected in the same realm of li. Moral philosophy not only instructed how humans could cultivate their moral integrity by watching virtuous insects but also encouraged cooperative relations between the two. The philosophical fiction that insects could think and behave ethically nurtured early interest in insects, but some Korean intellectuals, most notably Yi Ik (1681-1763), Yi Pinghŏgak (1759-1824) and Yi Kyu-kyŏng (1788-?), realized the distance between moral philosophy and physical reality. Especially, Yi Kyu-kyŏng attempted to reform Korean knowledge of insects by using observation and empirical evidence. His realistic description of Korean insects reflected the intellectual efforts to relativize moral knowledge in the production of scientific knowledge. Influenced by many Chinese thinkers such as Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) and Fang Yizhi (1611-1671), the Korean thinkers of the late Chosŏn period questioned how accurate knowledge of things could be found. Their discourses on the insects of Korea, therefore, give us a unique opportunity to see how Korean perceptions of nature transformed within their Confucian tradition on the eve of the modern era.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-83
Number of pages43
JournalInternational Journal of Korean History
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Center for Korean History,Korea University. All rights reserved.


  • Confucian epistemology
  • Oju yŏnmun changjŏn san’go
  • Sŏngho sasŏl
  • Yi Ik
  • Yi Kyu-kyŏng


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