Koihime Musou Girls and Famous Koreans - REBOOTED, Part II: Li Dian and Sir Ori Yi Won-ik (1547-1634) - The Shortest Prime Minister of Joseon Dynasty who lived in Frugal Life


Yi Won-ik (Hangul/Hanja: 이원익 [ROK Format] or 리원익 [DPRK Format]/李元翼; Born: December 5th 1547 in Soha-ri, Seo-myeon Commune, Geumcheon Prefecture, Gyeonggi Province [present-day Soha-dong, Gwangmyeong City, Gyeonggi Province] - Died: February 26th 1634 in Seoul-Hanseong), whose pen name was Ori (Hangul/Hanja: 오리/梧里) is the son of Prince Hamcheon Yi Eok-jae (함천군 이억재/咸川君 李億載). He is a member of Jeonju Yi Clan which is the Royal Family of Joseon Dynasty. That means, Yi Won-ik's great-grandfather was Prince Ingnyeong Yi Chi (익녕군 이치/益寧君 李袳), the son of King Taejong Yi Bang-won, third King of Joseon Dynasty (Reigned: 1400-1418) and Royal Concubine Seonbin of Sunheung Ahn Clan.  

He entered Donghak (one of four academies in Seoul) at the age of 15. He passed a samasi (civil officer qualification examination) in 1463 (19th year of King Myeongjong's reign), passed a byeolsimungwabyeonggwa (final stage of the highest-level state exam for civil officer) in 1569 (2nd year of King Seonjo's reign), and was appointed to the post of Seungmunwon Gwonjibujeongja in the next year.

At the time of the Japanese Imjin Invasions of 1592-1598, he worked as a border inspector in Pyeongan Province which is located at nowadays DPRK and contributed greatly to recapturing Pyongyang. He later led the nation to many victories as a commander extraordinary of all provinces. 

Yi was the prime minister during the reign of King Gwanghaegun (Reigned: 1608-1623) and was sent into exile to Hongcheon County, Gangwon Province for opposing the king when he demoted his stepmother, Queen Inmok. He became a prime minister again after King Injo's coup d'etat of 1623 and contributed greatly to the stabilization of the political situation. As public opinion was for the execution of Gwanghaegun, Yi Won-ik saved Gwanghaegun's life from death through telling King Injo that he also must be punished if Gwanghaegun would be executed because he had been the Yeonguijeong during the Gwanghaegun's reign

Throughout his life Yi Won-ik was much respected for his model conduct as a government official and for leading a frugal life. He was also a noted man of literature where he wrote many writings including Orijip (Sir Ori's Compilation Works), Sokorijip and Oriilgi (Diary of Sir Ori), and also wrote a gasa (an old form of Korean verse), 'Gogongdapjuinga'.

During the rebellion of Yi Gwal in 1624, Yi Won-ik was in attendance on the king to Gongju in spite of the advanced age of nearly 80. During the Chinese Invasion of Joseon in 1627, he escorted the crown prince to Jeonju as the Dochechalsa, and was appointed to the Jejo of Hunryeondogam after returning to the capital. Due to his advanced age, however, he went back to the hometown. Later, the king asked him to do official service several times, but he did not accept the request.

Yi Won-ik is also known as 'small prime minister' due to his short stature (roughly in 1 meter). Having an open heart and a strong sense of justice, he never showed off his authority but was devoted to his duties. He was clean-handed to the extent that his house was a small thatched straw house and his family managed to live after his retirement from office, although he served as the Prime Minister of Joseon Dynasty five times. In appreciation of his honest poverty, he was awarded a gwejang (set of a cushion and a cane) by King Injo. He died in 1634 when he was 87 years old.

Four years before the death of Sir Ori (1630), he wrote the last will and was left to his son, Yi Ui-jeong, and other descendants. His will could be summarized into six items as follows: first, the funeral must be simple; second, the tradition must be obeyed to build a hut near a grave and to take care of the grave for three years; third, shamanistic or Buddhist rituals are not allowed in the house; fourth, the theory of Geomancy is not trustworthy; fifth, things offered in the memorial service must not be extravagant; and sixth, the memorial service for Prince Ingnyeong must follow the suggested principles. This is valuable material for understanding the memorial service and the funeral ceremony of a "Sadaebu"(noble class of Joseon) family in the 17th century. The Last Will of Sir Ori Yi Won-ik was designated as 230th Cultural Asset of Gyeonggi Province.


Sir Ori Yi Won-ik's birthplace - Chunghyeon Museum
The Chunghyeon Museum (충현박물관/忠賢博物館) is the site of what was Chunghyeon Seowon (충현서원/忠賢書院), a private Confucian academy where the memorial services for Yi Won-ik, a noted statesman of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), were held. It is located at 5-5 Ori Avenue 347th Street/Ori-ro 347beon-gil, Soha 2-dong 1085-16 beonji, Gwangmyeong City, Gyeonggi Province. As the practice of ancestral veneration for a family is continued by the eldest son, this jongga (Family House) was founded by Dr. Yi Seung-gyu, Yi Won-ik's thirteenth-generation eldest son and his wife Hahm Geum-ja, who are also the directors and curators.

Chunghyeon Seowon was originally a shrine named Samhyeonsa which was built in 1658 to enshrine the memorial tablets of Field Marshal Inheon Kang Gamchan and Seo Gyeon, two outstanding officials of Goryeo (918-1392). It was made a Seowon in 1676 when King Sukjong renamed it Chunghyeon Seowon and had the memorial tablet of Yi Won-ik enshrined here.

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