Poet, scholar, all-round good guy and bearded star of the thousand-won note, Toegye (퇴계; 1501–70) is one of Korea’s most revered historical characters. Born Yi Hwang, but better known by his pen name (pronounced Twegg-yeah), he exerted a major influence on the politics and social structure of his time. The country was then ruled by the Joseon dynasty, one of the most staunchly Confucian societies the world has ever known – each person was born with a predefined limit as to what they could aspire to in life, forever restricted by their genetics. The aristocracy oversaw a caste-like system that dictated what clothes people could wear, who they could marry, and what position they could hold, among other things.
Toegye was lucky enough to be born into privileged society. He excelled in his studies from a young age, and eventually passed the notoriously difficult governmental exams necessary for advancement to the higher official posts. Once there, he refused to rest on his laurels – he hunted down those he thought to be corrupt, and as a reward for his integrity was exiled, several times, from the capital. However, his intelligence made him a force to be reckoned with, and he set about introducing neo-Confucian thought, much of it borrowed from the Song dynasty in China; he advocated, for example, advancement based on achievement rather than heredity. After his death, the Confucian academy Dosan Seowon was built in his honour; it retains the contemplative spirit of the time, and of Toegye himself.