Korean Confucianism

One of the most substantial influences in Korean intellectual history was the introduction of Confucian thought as part of the cultural exchange from China. Today the legacy of Confucianism remains a fundamental part of Korean society, shaping the moral system, the way of life, social relations between old and young, high culture, Korean pottery and is the basis for much of the legal system. Confucianism in Korea is not an ideology but indeed a religion, and to some extent much more than that as well: a pragmatic way of holding a nation together without the civil wars and internal dissent that was inherited from the Goryeo dynasty, and before.



From its location, Korea has always been greatly influenced by China, the big neighbour to the west and north. The influence of Buddhism in the Korean educational, moral, and political systems was the first major intellectual import; Confucianism came to Korea in the Three kingdoms period alongside of Buddhist teaching.

The Goguryeo Kingdom was inspired and strengthened by Chinese culture and Confucianism, but initially maintained its own customs and traditions. The Baekje Kingdom, on the other hand, adopted Confucianism. This shaped the administrative system and the culture and arts. Silla was the last kingdom to accept the Confucian way of life at the highest levels of administration.

King Seingjong was a key figure in establishing Confucianism. This was facilitated by the establishment in 1398 of Sungkyunkwan University—a national university with a Confucian curriculum—and the building of an altar at the palace, where the king would worship his ancestors.

Goryeo Dynasty Confucianism

To a great extent, two figures have lasting influence concluding the Goryeo dynasty: Jeong Dojeon (1324-1398) and the monk, Gihwa (1376-1433) who assisted the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism with tremendously interesting debate.

Jeong, in his Bulssi Japbyeon or "Array of Critiques of Buddhism" summed up critiques of Seon Buddhism brought by Hanyu, the Cheng brothers, and Zhuxi. Gihwa answered with his Hyeonjeong non or "Exposition of the Correct", a polite defence of buddhism, but at the same time an aggressive taking to task of neo-Confucian waivering between ideal and execution. Texts are cited at length in external links below.

Neo-confucianism in the Joseon dynasty

Under Joseon neo-confucianism, or seongrihak, there was even greater encouragement of Confucian ideas and ideals such as ch'ung or loyalty; hyo or filial piety; in or benevolence; and shin or trust.

To a great degree the harmonic Confucian ideals of familial, local, regional, and national development in a peaceful way gave the Joseon dynasty both its strength, and its long reign of peaceful relations with its neighbours. But such Korean benevolence also made it both naive and vulnerable against bellicose states such as Japan which had no such moral restrictions after the decline of the samurai realpolitik and the limitless expansionism after the Meiji restoration.

During the Joseon Dynasty, from 1392 on, Confucianism was the primary system of belief amongst the scholarly yangban classes and generals. Koreans historically have found religions natural and easy, and have maintained an overlap between all religions - the Yi family generals, thus restrained buddhism, maintained shamanism in rural areas, but encouraged Confucianism for its use in administration and social regulation; as well as integrating a civilised society very fast on the Chinese bureaucratic models to increase cultural transference from China.

Korean Confucian schools were built, all of which had foreign educated scholars, large libraries, patronage of artisans and artists, and a curriculum based on Confucian ideals. Thus by the time of King Sejong (r. 1418 - 1450), all branches of learning were rooted in this way of thinking although branches of Korean buddhism were still let to grow outside of the major political centres in a tolerance of other kinds of worship. The Korean Confucian curriculum of 13 to 15 major works, and exegetical commentary was extensive, and requires time which we do not have here.

Confucianism in Joseon Korea flourished most notably in the 16th century, under the guidance of the country's two most prominent Confucian scholars. Yi Hwang (1501-1570) and Yi I (1536-1584)—who are often referred to by their pen names "Toegye" and "Yulgok" respectively —are commemorated today on South Korea's 1,000- and 5,000-Won notes respectively, and in the names of major thoroughfares in central Seoul.

As the Joseon dynasty lasted more than five centuries, a rough division of the progression of Korean confucianism is this:

  • First century, governmental administration confucianized
  • Second century, golden age of Confucian philosophers
  • Third century, development of patrilineal lineage system based on power wielded by the eldest son
  • Fourth century, Confucian mysticism and seeking of sage-like qualities in ruling classes
  • Fifth century, Confucian system breaks down when faced with western encounters, collapse of Q'ing dynasty, and Japanese invasions; Confucianism goes underground, to await a revival in the sixth century republican period.

Contemporary society and Confucianism

By 2005, with almost 50% of the Korean population putting themselves down as Christians, the landscape of Confucian schools, temples, places of ancestral worship, and scholarship have been minimized, if not put to the side as historical artefacts worthy only of tourists, scholars, or neglected preservation.

This despite strong elements of the thought that still exist in day to day administrative and organizational hierarchies, but without the fixtures and services which brought these into being. Taken out of the school curricula, and taken out of the daily life of Koreans, the sense that something essential to Korean history is missing has led to a small rebirth of Confucianism in the late 1990s, as well as an interest in foreign scholars on seeing Korean confucianism as an over-riding element within governance, and maintenance of the new elites within Korea dependent on all the cohesive devices of confucianism from the 14th century onwards.

Culturally, the arts still maintain great traditions: Korean pottery, the Korean tea ceremony, Korean gardens, and Korean flower arrangement follow Confucian principles and a Confucian aesthetic. Scholarly calligraphy and the most serious poetry again continue in much fewer numbers this heritage. In films, school stories of manners and comic situations within educational frames fit well into the satires on Confucianism from earlier writings. Loyalty to school, and devotion to teachers is still an important genre in popular comedies.

Korean confucian art

Korean Confucian art and Korean Confucian philosophy had great and deep effects on the Korean culture. They are discussed at length elsewhere, but will be discussed briefly here.

Confucian ceremonials

The most important ceremonies of Korean Confucianism were those that celebrated the coming of age, marriage, death, as well as the anniversary of the death of the ancestors. Funerals had the greatest impact on the lives of ordinary people. Although Confucianism is no longer the ruling ideology, its influence on the contemporary Korean society are not difficult to spot.

The future of Korean confucianism

Contemporary Confucianists are attempting to bring back a Confucian based college or university that will educate a new generation of scholars. In many cases older temples are being restored by cities for tourist purposes.

External links

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