Confucianism in Korea

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CONFUCIANISM IN KOREA . While Confucianism did not achieve status as a dominant thought system in Korea until the founding of the Yi dynasty (13921910), the introduction of the Confucian classics to the peninsula predates the common era. In the seventh century, the Silla government, at first a tribal federation, turned to Confucianism as a tool of centralization. In 651, the Royal Academy was established, in which officials, drawn from the aristocracy, were exposed to the Confucian classics. Furthermore, Confucian precepts found their way into aristocratic codes of behavior, even becoming incorporated into the rules of conduct for the hwarang, a knightly class instrumental in the Silla unification of the Korean Peninsula in 668.

Under the Unified Silla (668935), Confucianism found a more fertile environment. Government examinations were instituted at the Royal Academy in 788 and close relations with Tang China led late in the dynasty to the rise of a group of scholars who were steeped in Confucian learning there, and who returned to Korea with a Confucian vision of government and a resolve to restore the deteriorating social order. An example is Ch'oe Ch'iwŏn (b. 857), who passed the Tang government examinations but returned hoping to end anarchic conditions in the provinces. Disillusioned, he died a recluse.

From the inception of the Koryŏ dynasty (9181392) an expanded role for Confucian doctrine was envisioned. In the celebrated "Ten Injunctions" addressed to his descendants by the dynastic founder, Wang Kŏn (r. 918943), Buddhism was chosen to govern spiritual matters, geomancy was to be used for prophecy and prognostication, and Confucianism was chosen as the guiding principle in the sociopolitical sphere. Two of the injunctions are direct restatements of traditional Confucian precepts. One declares that the people's livelihood and welfare should be the foremost concern of government while another admonishes the occupant of the throne to heed ministerial advice in fulfilling this task.

In the late tenth century the government was reorganized into a centralized bureaucratic structure. Local officials were appointed by the central government. Among the long-term results were the emergence of the civil and military bureaucracy as a social force and the transformation of the Koryŏ polity into an aristocratic-bureaucratic state in which the power of the ruling elite derived from government position rather than an ancestral seat. This change reflected the Confucian rhetoric of government; it conformed to the hierarchical order at whose summit reigned the sovereign as paterfamilias of the state with corresponding responsibilities to and respect from his subject-children.

Under this Confucian system, civil officials served in the capital, where the mode of life included the pursuit of scholarly and literary activities. Educational institutions such as the National Academy, established in 992, and twelve private academies, the first founded by Ch'oe Ch'ung (9841068) in the eleventh century, arose to serve this group. This early Koryŏ civil elite is often characterized as having been more interested in the literary rather than the philosophical aspect of Confucian studies. This group seems to have accepted the Confucian precepts of civilization with its moral and political implications. The Samguk sagi (Historical record of the Three Kingdoms), the first extant dynastic history in Korea, written by the twelfth-century Confucian scholar Kim Pu-sik, expresses this outlook. The work is an attempt to place Korean history in the context of Confucian civilization. Moral appraisal is the foremost criterion for evaluating the legitimacy of historical states or depicting events or persons.

The military coup of 1170 disrupted this Confucian social order. The Mongols, who invaded Korea in 1231, were instrumental in bringing about the end of military rule in 1259. Koryŏ kings, married to Mongol princesses and devoid of power, spent a great deal of time prior to their accession and after their retirement in the cosmopolitan Yuan capital. Establishments such as that of the scholar-king Ch'ungsŏn (r. 1289, 13081313) served as meeting places for Chinese and Korean scholars, and Korean scholars for the first time had firsthand exposure to Song dynasty (9601279) neo-Confucian scholarship, particularly that of the Zheng-Zhu school, so-called for its putative founders, Zheng Yi (10331108) and Zhu Xi (11301200). The result was an impressive array of scholars beginning with An Hyang (12431306) and Paek Ijŏng (fl. 1300), commonly regarded as having introduced neo-Confucianism to Korea, and including, by the mid-fourteenth century, such scholars as Yi Saek (13281396), Chŏng Mongju (13371392), and Yi Sungin (13471392). They succeeded in including the neo-Confucian textsthe Four Books and Five Classicsin the civil service examination and in the curriculum at the Royal College and in reinstituting the royal lecture, complete with neo-Confucian texts and teacher-officials who lectured to the king-student.

Founding of the Yi Neo-Confucian Polity

Neo-Confucianism was posited on a holistic vision of the moral universe in which a unifying moral principle operated in the phenomenal as well as the nonphenomenal world, particularly in the human world. Society should be organized to conform to this moral order and an individual should try to live in accordance with its principles. Commitment to neo-Confucianism rendered it impossible for its practitioners to concede the religious realm to Buddhism. The founding of the Yi dynasty was, in this sense, not merely a change in political power. Its founders were all confirmed neo-Confucians and they sought to create a new sociopolitical order based on their moral vision. Chŏng Tojŏn (13421398), the leader of this group, campaigned to discredit Buddhism. Motivated by the neo-Confucian belief in the centrality of man, Chŏng challenged the Buddhist view that this world, the phenomenal world, was illusion, terming such a view invalid and harmful. His theoretical attack was accompanied by institutional sanctions against the Buddhist establishment, which undermined its special position. Chŏng articulated the new political ideology in the coronation edict he composed for Yi T'aejo (r. 13921398). The raison d'être of the government was the attainment and maintenance of a Confucian moral order. Thus, it should be staffed with people who understood Confucian moral principles. The legitimacy of the Yi monarchy was based on the claim that it had received from Heaven a mandate to carry out this task.

Beginning with changes in the political structure, the Yi government launched a massive transformation of Korean society that was not fully realized for several centuries. The most conspicuous changes were the adoption of a new system of education, a restructuring of social organization along patrilineal groups, the adoption of Confucian ritual, and the propagation of Confucian ethics through local associations. In order to disseminate Confucian values more widely to the educated class, the Yi government sought to establish a nationwide public school system. Four schools in the capital and one school in each county supposedly would make primary education widely available, while the Royal College in the capital would provide advanced education for qualified students. This departed from Koryŏ practice, in which education was limited to a small elite. Private schools and academies began to appear in the mid-fifteenth century; although government-supported, they became alternatives to government service for renowned scholars. Thus, the relationship between the private academies and the state became ambivalentmutually supportive but competitive for influence and the opportunity to define orthodoxy.

The civil service examination became the accepted channel of entry to an official career. Almost all high officials passed the munkwa, the final stage of the civil service examinations; of the two preliminary examinations, the one in the exposition of classics became more important than the one in literary composition. Nonetheless, the rigid class structure of Korean society precluded the development of the strict meritocracy envisioned by the Yi founders and power still remained confined to a relatively small elite. But the examinations did have the effect of confucianizing the governing elite; by the mid-sixteenth century, Confucian ideology was no longer just a means by which the governing class ruled but rather the system of values by which they were measured. From the king down to the lowest officials, all had to justify their actions and intentions in the context of Confucian rhetoric and ideals. This Confucianization of the official class was paralleled by an attempt to disseminate Confucian normative values among the peasantry.

The Development of Confucian Scholarship

By the sixteenth century, Korean scholars turned to the more purely intellectual and speculative aspects of Confucian learning, looking directly to the Zheng-Zhu school. Despite close ties with Ming dynasty (13681644) scholarship, Korean Neo-Confucianism developed independently of contemporary scholarship there. While Korean scholars accepted the authority of the Zheng-Zhu school, they defined issues in their own way, adding insights and interpretations. The scholars Pak Yŏng (14711540), Sŏ Kyŏngdŏk (14891546), and Yi Ŏnjŏk (14911553) reflect the diversity and independence of the Korean school. Pak devoted himself to the question of ihak (Chin., lixue, "learning of principle"), one of the main themes of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Based on his study of the Daxue (Great Learning), he asserted that principle and knowledge should be sought entirely within one's self. Later scholars found in this assertion a resemblance to the works of the Ming-dynasty thinker Wang Yangming (14721529) and for this reason found his thinking heterodox. Sŏ Kyŏngdŏk, on the other hand, turned to Zhang Zai's (10201077) t'aehŏ (Chin., taixu, "great void"). Speculating on the cosmology of creation, it was natural that he should grant primacy to the role of ki (Chin., chi, "material force"). Primarily interested in observing natural phenomena and unconcerned with the moral implications of the role of principle, he parted from Zhu Xi. Unlike So, who lived as a recluse and shunned bookish learning, Yi Ŏnjŏk had a long official career and left copious writings. His erudition, his interests in a broad range of topics, and his laborious textual studies set new standards for scholars of future generations.

It was Yi Hwang (15011570), better known by his pen name, T'oegye, who brought Korean neo-Confucianism to maturity. Working at a time when Wang Yangming's thought seemed to be gaining influence in the Korean scholarly community, he devoted himself to defining orthodoxy, to distinguishing "right learning" from deviant thought. The definition of a Korean orthodoxy within the tradition of the Zheng-Zhu school, one that excluded the ideas of the Wang Yangming school, is often attributed to his efforts. T'oegye accepted Zhu Xi's dual theory of principle and material force and the relationship between them. While Zhu Xi acknowledged that principle and material force cannot exist in isolation, he held that principle is prior and material force posterior. The superiority of principle was a defining feature of his philosophy: principle was identified with the Way (dao ) and the nature (xing ), which are permanent and unchanging, while material force was identified with physical entities, which constantly change. But Zhu Xi's position proved somewhat ambiguous. One could ask whether the priority of principle was existential or evaluative, that is, did it exist first or did it just have a superior moral value? Further, in what sense did principle exist prior to material force if it could not manifest itself without material force? Much of T'oegye's work was devoted to this question. He concluded that the priority of principle applied in the realm of ethical values, and that principle exerted a positive ethical influence. He wrote, for instance, that "Good occurs if principle manifests itself and material force follows, while evil occurs if material force veils principle and principle recedes."

Like the Song neo-Confucians, Korean scholars including T'oegye were deeply concerned with the problem of human evil. If man's original nature was good, then how can one explain evil? T'oegye again accepted Zhu Xi's concept of human nature based on his dual theory of principle and material force. Principle is immanent in everything in the universe. What individuates one thing from another is material force. Since principle is good, what determines the moral quality of an entity is its material force. Man has an original nature and a physical nature and only when he returns to original nature does he act in accordance with moral principle. What determines the morality of human action is mind. The mind possesses innate knowledge of moral principle and has the cognitive capacity to discern it. Yet, this capacity of mind can be prevented from functioning when it becomes clouded by selfish desire. T'oegye used the terms tosim (Chin., daoxin, "moral mind") and insim (Chin., renxin, "human mind") to describe the two aspects of mind. The term moral mind described a mind rectified and discerning of moral principle while human mind referred to a mind containing seeds of selfish desire and prone to error. Moral cultivation was necessary to develop mind into a moral state.

Korean scholars seized upon this question of mind and the result was one of the characteristic themes of Korean neo-Confucian thought. The debate centered around the sadan (Chin., siduan, "four beginnings") and the ch'ilchŏng (Chin., qiqing, "seven emotions"). The Four Beginnings, which appear in Mengzi (Mencius ), are the moral qualities of man that give rise to the original goodness of human nature. The Seven Emotions, mentioned in the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the mean), are human feelings. The questions debated were whether both the Four and the Seven were feelings, how they were related to the moral mind and the human mind, and their relationship to principle and material force. T'oegye took Chŏng Chiun's (15091561) position that the Four issued from principle and therefore must be good while the Seven issued from material force and therefore could be either good or evil. The Four were the basis of the moral mind and the Seven the basis of the human mind. Challenged by Ki Taesŭng (15271572) in their famous "Four-Seven" debate, T'oegye acknowledged that both involved principle and material force and that both were feelings, but he insisted that their origins were different. The Four are initiated by principle and material force follows them while the Seven are initiated by material force and principle rides on them. In order to posit that the four are initiated by principle, T'oegye had to endow principle with a generative power. Principle does not merely constitute human nature; it guides the mind toward the realization of goodness.

T'oegye later used the same theory to take issue with Wang Yangming's theory of the unity of knowledge and action. In his emphasis on innate knowledge, Wang dismissed the need for acquiring knowledge through examination and inquiry. T'oegye argued that this was applicable to the emotional activity of the mind but not to rational thought.

While Yi T'oegye chose to limit himself to what was explicit in Zhu Xi, Yi I (15361584), known by his pen name, Yulgok, preferred a more independent and creative approach to scholarship. Taking the formula "obtain truth through one's own effort" as his credo, he regarded adhering too rigidly to previous masters' positions as contrary to the spirit of neo-Confucian learning. He accepted Zhu Xi's authority, but he was willing to differ with him on specific issues. Yulgok is regarded as having established the school of Material Force in Korea. Yulgok conceded that, at least logically, principle and material force were distinct. What is referred to as the primacy of material force in Yulgok is his theory of the inseparability of principle and material force in both function and manifestation. As principle cannot be expressed without material force and material force has no root without principle, they are interrelated. Thus, to him it was illogical to conceive of them as prior and posterior and he denied that principle has its own generative power. Principle is passive and material force is active and they always manifest themselves together. His belief in their inseparability led him to object to the notion that principle is unchanging and always in a pure state. Departing from Zhu Xi, he held that principle was not a unified entity but that the principle in each thing was distinct, conditioned, and determined by its material force. Hence an individuating principle in a thing is always changing and in varying states of purity.

Yulgok's ideas of the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions were also developed along these lines. In a celebrated debate with Sŏng Hon (15351598) on the subject, he denied that the Four are associated with principle and the Seven with material force. They both are manifestations of material force that contains principle. The difference is that the Four are "good" manifestations of material force or, more specifically, the Seven themselves manifested as good. Likewise, the "moral mind" and the "human mind" do not rise from different origins but are rather purely descriptive terms referring to different states. In positing that an entitythe Four Beginningscould be a good manifestation of material force, Yulgok was challenging the dichotomy that made material force the source of evil and principle the source of good.

Yi T'oegye and Yi Yulgok are regarded as the founders respectively of the school of Principle and the school of Material Force. T'oegye's philosophy was developed by the Yŏngnam school while Yulgok's was developed by the Kiho school, which emerged as political as well as scholarly rivals. Continuing refinements in the study of principle and material force and new interpretations of the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions constituted the mainstream of Korean neo-Confucian scholarship. The scholars of the school of Principle emphasized the generative power of principle that T'oegye proposed. Yi Hyŏnil (16271704), Yi Sangjong (17101781), and Yi Chinsang (18111878) assigned ever greater roles to principle, endowing it with priority in existential sequence and in function as well. This tendency culminated in Yi Hangno (17921868) who identified principle with creative force, divinity, and mind.

The scholars of the school of Material Force correspondingly attributed even greater function to material force. Song Siyŏl (16071689), for example, posited that mind, which acts, is material force and the nature, which does not move, is principle. Han Wŏnjin (16821750) refined this theory, but Im Sŏngju (17111788) went one step further. He declared that since mind and the nature are one then the latter should also be material force. He denied that principle could exist at all without material force. Hence man could not be good because of principle but must be good because his material force is good. This flies in the face of the Zheng-Zhu school dictum that the (original) nature, being perfectly good, is principle.

As T'oegye emphasized the universality of principle and Yulgok spoke of individuating principle, their successors pushed to extremes in developing these opposing views. Ultimately, this led to the eighteenth-century debate concerning man's relationship to the cosmos. If principle is universal and omnipresent then man is connected to other things through principle sharing the nature. If, however, principle is completely determined by material force then man, who possesses different material force than other things, would not share the same nature. The debate, known as the Nak-Ho debate, began between Yi Kan (16771727) and Han Wŏnjin. Yi took the position that men share their natures with other things in the universe while Han maintained that man was separated from other things with respect to original nature. This debate generated an intense discussion, which eventually came to involve much of the Korean scholarly community of the time.

Both the school of Principle and that of Material Force, despite their differing interpretations, were viewed both by themselves and by others as firmly within Zheng-Zhu orthodoxy, this, even though both schools had views that sometimes departed from the original Zheng-Zhu teachings. Reinterpreting specific issues within the tradition was one thing, but a direct challenge to orthodoxy was another. Pak Sedang (16291703) was termed a heterodox thinker for his work Sabyŏnnok, in which he directly opposed Zhu Xi's scholarship and offered his own views. As a result of the fall of the Chinese Ming dynasty to the "barbarian" Qing dynasty (16441911), seventeenth century Korean intellectuals became concerned with orthodoxy in an attempt to redefine Korea's role in the Confucian world. Perhaps the conflict between Song Siyŏl and Yun Hyu (16171680) indicates this process. Song Siyŏl's position can be characterized by his desire to maintain Zhu Xi orthodoxy intact in Korea. As a follower of Yulgok, his philosophy differed somewhat from that of Zhu Xi, but he maintained an unswerving loyalty and commitment to the supremacy of the Zheng-Zhu school. Yun Hyu, on the other hand, preferred a wider definition of orthodoxy. He regarded Zhu Xi as a great scholar, but felt that measuring one's scholarship by him or, for that matter, even by Confucius, was too confining and harmful. He wrote his own commentaries on several of the Four Books, for which he was ostracized by Song and his followers as heterodox.

The intellectual scene in the eighteenth century was somewhat freer and more diverse. Chŏng Chedu (16491736), who received high honors from King Yŏngjo (r. 17241776), openly espoused ideas of Wang Yangming which had long been suppressed in Korea. This period also witnessed the flowering of the Sirhak ("practical learning") school. Centuries of factional struggle and growing competition for office had left many scholars outside the mainstream of political power. Practical Learning scholars were disaffected intellectuals who wrote treatises on social and economic reform. They fall largely into two groups. Yu Hyŏng-wŏn (16221673) and Yi Ik (16811763) accepted the Confucian vision of an agrarian society presided over by the rule of virtue and urged social improvement through land reform and moral rule. Pak Chi-wŏn (17371805), Hong Taeyong (17311783), and Pak Chega (b. 1750), on the other hand, searched for alternatives. They addressed themselves to such issues as commerce, trade, and technology. Pak Chi-wŏn's biting satire of the class system, Hong Taeyong's interest in science as it was expressed in his notion of the moving earth, and Pak Chega's belief in technology founded on a startling theory of a consumer economy clearly departed from the conventional mode of thinking. Chŏng Yagyong (17621836), often considered the greatest Practical Learning scholar, encompassed both trends in his reform ideas. His attention to the improvement of local government is well known. While these scholars worked within the Confucian political and value system, they are regarded as precursors of modernization for their critique of contemporary society and their innovative proposals for reform.

In the late nineteenth century as Korea came under increasing pressure from the major powers and the Confucian value system itself came under attack, Confucian thinking turned defensive. Confucian scholars committed to preserving the orthodox tradition became conservatives who opposed treaties and modernizing measures. Seeing themselves as the defenders of the only true civilization, they put up real resistance. Ch'oe Ikhyŏn (18331906) was a representative scholar of this generation. His fearless memorials objecting to the government's domestic and diplomatic policies resulted in frequent banishment. When Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1905, he organized what is known as the Righteous Army and fought against Japanese and Korean royal troops. Arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned in Tsushima Island, he died of starvation, considering it unprincipled to accept food from the enemy. The role of Confucianism in Korea's modernization process, however, remains to be examined.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Korea; Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi; Chinese Religion; Chŏng Yagyong; Korean Religion; Sŏ Kyŏngdŏk; Wang Yangming; Yi T'oegye; Yi Yulgok; Zhang Zai; Zhu Xi.


Works in Korean

For an overview of the history of Korean Confucianism, see Youn Sa-soon's Han'guk yuhak yŏn'gu (Seoul, 1980). Works by the major thinkers include: Ch'oe Ikhyŏn's Myŏnamjip (Seoul, 1906); Chŏng Tojŏn's Sambongjip (reprint, Seoul, 1961); Chŏng Yagyong's Chŏng Tasan chŏnsŏ, 3 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 19601961); Hong Taeyong's Tamhŏnsŏ, 2 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 1969); Ki Taesŭng's Kobong munjip (reprint, Seoul, 1976); Pak Chega's Pukhagŭi (Seoul, 1971); Pak Chiwŏn's Yŏnamchip (1932; reprint, Seoul, 1966); Pak Sedang's Sabyŏnnok (Seoul, 1703); Song Siyŏl's Songja taejŏn, 7 vols. (1929; reprint, Seoul, 1971); Yi T'oegye's T'oegye chŏnsŏ, 2 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 1958); Yi Yulgok's Yulgok chŏnsŏ, 2 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 1961); Yi Ik's Sŏngho saesŏl, 2 vols. (reprint, Seoul, 1967); Yi Ŏnjŏk's Hoejae chŏnsŏ (reprint, Seoul, 1973); Yu Hyŏngwŏn's Pan'gye surok (reprint, Seoul, 1958); and Yun Hyu's Paekho chŏnsŏ, 3 vols. (Taegu, 1974).

Works in English

Articles in English include Martina Deuchler's "The Tradition: Women during the Yi Dynasty," in Virtues in Conflict, edited by Sandra Matielli (Seoul, 1977), pp. 147; Park Chong-hong's "Historical Review of Korean Confucianism," Korea Journal 3 (September 1963): 511; and Key P. Yang and Gregory Henderson's "An Outline History of Korean Confucianism," Journal of Asian Studies 18 (November 1958 and February 1959): 81101 and 259276. The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and me (New York, 1985), contains a number of important essays. See Julia Ching's "Yi Yulgok on the 'Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions"' (pp. 303322); Chai-sik Chung's "Chŏng Tojŏn: 'Architect' of Yi Dynasty Government and Ideology" (pp. 5988); Martina Deuchler's "Reject the False and Uphold the Straight: Attitudes toward Heterodox Thought in Early Yi Korea" (pp. 375410); Tomoeda Ryūtarō's "Yi T'oegye and Zhu Xi: Differences in Their Theories of Principle and Material Force" (pp. 243260); and Tu Wei-ming's "Yi T'oegye's Perception of Human Nature: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Four-Seven Debate in Korean Neo-Confucianism" (pp. 261282).

New Sources

Chong, C.-s. A Korean Confucian Encounter with the Modern World: Yi Hang-no and the West. Berkeley, 1995.

Chung, E.Y.J. The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi T'oegye and Yi Yulgok: A Reappraisal of the "Four-Seven Thesis" and Its Practical Implications for Self-Cultivation. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Haboush, J. K. The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yongjo and the Politics of Sagacity. New York, 2001.

Haboush, J. K., and M. Deuchler. Culture and the State in Late Choson Korea. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

Kim, Y.-G. Karl Barth's Reception in Korea: Focusing on Ecclesiology in Relation to Korean Christian Thought. New York, 2003.

Ko, D., J. K. Haboush, and J. R. Piggott. Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan. Berkeley, 2003.

Kum, C.-t.a. Confucianism and Korean Thoughts. Seoul, 2000.

Palais, J. B. Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty. Seattle, 1996.

Jahyun Kim Haboush (1987)

Revised Bibliography