Korean Confucianism

Korean Confucianism is the form of Confucianism that emerged and developed in Korea. One of the most substantial influences in Korean intellectual history was the introduction of Confucian thought as part of the cultural influence 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, and is the basis for much of the legal system. Confucianism in Korea is sometimes considered a pragmatic way of holding a nation together without the civil wars and internal dissent that were inherited from the Goryeo dynasty.

Korean Confucianism-Chugyedaeje-01
Chugyedaeje, a Confucian ritual ceremony in autumn in Jeju, South Korea.

Origins of Confucian thought

Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, lit. "Master Kong") is generally thought to have been born in 551 BCE and raised by his mother following the death of his father when Confucius was three years old. The Latinized name "Confucius" by which most Westerners recognize him is derived from "Kong Fuzi", probably first coined by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries to China. The Analects, or Lunyu (論語; lit."Selected Sayings"), a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher and his contemporaries, is believed to have been written by Confucius' followers during the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC), achieving its final form during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Confucius was born into the class of shi (士), between the aristocracy and the common people. His public life included marriage at the age of 19 that produced a son and a variety of occupations as a farm worker, clerk and book-keeper. In his private life he studied and reflected on righteousness, proper conduct and the nature of government such that by the age of 50 he had established a reputation. This regard, however was insufficient for his success in advocating for a strong central government and the use of diplomacy over warfare as the ideal for international relationships. He is said to have spent his last years teaching an ardent group of followers of the values to be appreciated in a collection of ancient writings loosely identified as the Five Classics. Confucius is thought to have died in 479 BCE.

Under the succeeding Han dynasty and Tang dynasty, Confucian ideas gained even more widespread prominence. During the Song dynasty, the scholar Zhu Xi (AD 1130–1200) added ideas from Taoism and Buddhism into Confucianism. In his life, Zhu Xi was largely ignored, but not long after his death his ideas became the new orthodox view of what Confucian texts actually meant. Modern historians view Zhu Xi as having created something rather different, and call his way of thinking Neo-Confucianism.[1] Neo-Confucianism held sway in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam until the 19th century.

Early developments towards Confucianism in Korea

Before Goryeo

The nature of early Korean political and cultural organization centered on the clan and the tribe rather than cities and states. A Chinese record of the Gojoseon Kingdom (1000 BC – 300 BC) labeled the inhabitants of the peninsula as DONG-I or "eastern barbarians" or "eastern bowmen". Though the Shang dynasty (1600 BC – 1040 BC) is recognized chiefly for its metallurgical accomplishments, its organizational accomplishments included the invocation of authority through one's ancestors. When the Shang Dynasty was overtaken by the Western Zhou (1122 BC – 771 BC), the Zhou modified the Shang belief in ancestors belief to invoke the "Mandate of Heaven" as a way of identifying the divine right to rule. The Mandate of Heaven was based on rules of good governance and the emperor was granted the right to rule by heaven as long as those rules of good governance were obeyed. The scattered rule of many semi-autonomous holdings were increasingly brought under the rule of a central government as a Zongfa or "kinship network" though as time went on the territory ruled was far too large for all vassals to be actual blood relatives. Vassals to the king enjoyed hereditary titles and were expected to provide labor and fighting forces as circumstances merited. In these many ways, the Gojoseon kingdom would have been “validated” by their “big brother” to the south, and while the Gojoseon king would still rule, the “Mandate of Heaven” lay obligations on him to rule justly and fairly and for the benefit of his people and not just his favorites or relatives. As the Western Zhou declined, China entered into a period known as the Spring and Autumn period (771 BC – 471BC) and the "kinship network" also declined. Control of many feudal holdings fell to feudal lords and knights, or "fighting gentlemen", (C. SHI). Unbound by family relationships, these men were free to attack their neighbors and accrue holdings. It was into this period, then, that Confucius was born and spent his entire life seeming to strive for the construction of a governmental ideal in the nature of the Zhou centralized government. However, in 109 BC the Han Emperor, Wu-Ti overwhelmed Gojoseon by both land and sea and established four bases, or "commanderies", Four Commanderies of Han in the region as a way to stabilize the area for trade. The subsequent introduction of four separate administrations to oversee the region only served to prolong the divided nature of the Korean peninsula and hamper an adoption of the Confucian model.

As the Three Kingdoms Period emerged from the Four Commanderies, each Kingdom sought ideologies under which their populations could be consolidated and authority could be validated.[2] From its introduction to the kingdom of Baekje in 338 AD, Korean Buddhism spread rapidly to all of the states of the Three Kingdoms Period.[3] Though Korean Shamanism had been an integral part of Korean culture extending back to earliest time, Buddhism was able to strike a balance between the people and their administration by arbitrating the responsibilities of one to the other.

Goryeo period

By the time of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) the position, influence, and status of Buddhism far exceeded its role as a mere religious faith. Buddhist temples, originally established as acts of faith had grown into influential landholdings replete with extensive infra-structure, cadre, tenants, slaves and commercial ventures. The state observed a number of Buddhist holidays during the year where the prosperity and security of the nation were inextricably tied to practices and rites that often mixed Buddhist and indigenous Korean beliefs.[1] As in China, Buddhism divided into the more urban faith rooted religious texts and the more contemplative faith of the rural areas. This emphasis on texts and learning produced a "monk examination" wherein the Buddhist clergy could vie with Confucian scholars for positions in the local and national government. During this time, Confucian thought remained in the shadow of its Buddhist rival, vying for the hearts and minds of Korean culture, but with growing antagonism.[1]

With the fall of Goryeo, the position of the landed aristocracy crumbled to be replaced by the growing power of the Korean illiterati who advocated strenuously for land reform. Interest in Chinese literature during the Goryeo Dynasty had encouraged the spread of Neo-Confucianism, in which the older teachings of Confucius had been melded to Taoism and Buddhism. Neo-Confucian adherents could now offer the new Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) an alternative to the influence of Buddhism. In Goryeo, King Gwangjong (949–975) had created the national civil service examinations, and King Seongjong (1083–1094) was a key advocate for Confucianism by establishing the Gukjagam, the highest educational institution of the Goryeo dynasty. This was enhanced, in 1398, by the Sunggyungwan – an academy with a Neo-Confucian curriculum – and the building of an altar at the palace, where the king would worship his ancestors. Neo-Confucian thought, with its emphasis on Ethics and the government's moral authority provided considerable rationale for land reform and redistribution of wealth. Rather than attack Buddhism outright, Neo-Confucian critics simply continued to criticize the system of Temples and the excesses of the clergy.

Neo-Confucianism in the Joseon dynasty

Cho Kwang-jo in 1750
Portrait of Jo Gwang-jo

By the time of King Sejong (ruled 1418–1450), all branches of learning were rooted in Confucian thought. Korean Confucian schools were firmly established, most with foreign educated scholars, large libraries, patronage of artisans and artists, and a curriculum of 13 to 15 major Confucian works. Branches of Buddhism in Korea were still tolerated outside of the major political centers. In Ming China (1368–1644), Neo-Confucianism had been adopted as the state ideology. The new Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910)[4] followed suit and also adopted Neo-Confucianism as the primary belief system among scholars and administrators. Jo Gwangjo's efforts to promulgate Neo-Confucianism among the populace had been followed by appearance of Korea's two most prominent Confucian scholars, Yi Hwang (1501–1570) and Yi I (1536–1584), who are often referred to by their pen names Toe gye and Yul gok. Having supplanted all other models for the Korean nation-state, by the start of the 17th century, Neo-Confucian thought experienced first a split between Westerners and Easterners and again, between Southerners and Northerners. Central to these divisions was the question of succession in the Korean monarchy and the manner in which opposing factions should be dealt. A growing number of Neo-Confucian scholars had also begun to question particular metaphysical beliefs and practices. A movement known as Silhak (lit. "practical learning") posited that Neo-Confucian thought ought be founded more in reform than in maintaining the status quo. Differences among various Confucian and Neo-Confucian schools of thought grew to conflicts as Western countries sought to force open Korean, Chinese and Japanese societies to Western trade, Western technologies and Western institutions. Of particular concern were the growing number of Catholic and Protestant missionary schools which not only taught a Western pedagogy but also Christian religious beliefs. In 1894, Korean Conservatives, nationalists and Neo-Confucians rebelled at what they viewed as the loss of Korean Society and Culture to alien influences by the abandonment of the Chinese classics and Confucian rites.[5] The Donghak Rebellion—also called the 1894 Peasant War (Nongmin Jeonjaeng)—expanded on the actions of the small groups of the Donghak (lit. Eastern Learning) movement begun in 1892. Uniting into a single peasant guerrilla army (Donghak Peasant Army) the rebels armed themselves, raided government offices and killed rich landlords, traders and foreigners. The defeat of the Dong Hak rebels drove ardent Neo-Confucians out of the cities and into the rural and isolated areas of the country. However, the rebellion had pulled China into the conflict and in direct contention with Japan (First Sino-Japanese War). With the subsequent defeat of Qing China, Korea was wrested from Chinese influence concerning its administration and development. In 1904, the Japanese defeated Russia (Russo-Japanese War) ending Russian influence in Korea as well. As a result, Japan annexed Korea as a protectorate in 1910, ending the Joseon kingdom and producing a thirty-year occupation (Korea under Japanese rule) which sought to substitute Japanese culture for that of Korea. During this period, a Japanese administration imposed Japanese language, Japanese education, Japanese practices and even Japanese surnames on the Korean population predominantly in the large cities and surrounding suburban areas.[6] However, in the isolated areas of Korea, and well into Manchuria, Korean nationals continued to wage a guerrilla war against the Japanese and found sympathy for Neo-Confucian goals of reform and economic parity among the growing Communist movement. With the end of the Japanese occupation, Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought continued to experience neglect if not willful repression during the Korean War as well as the repressive dictatorships which followed.[7]

Contemporary society and Confucianism

With the fall of the Joseon Dynasty in 1910, Neo-Confucianism lost a lot of its influence.[4][8] In contemporary South Korea, very few people identify themselves as being Confucian when asked for their religious affiliation.[9][10] The statistical studies done on this subject can be misleading, however. Confucianism there is not an organized religion, making it hard to easily define a person as Confucian or not.[10][11] Though its prominence as the dominant ideology has faded, there are a lot of Confucian ideas and practices that still saturate South Korean culture and daily life.[12][13][14]

The traditional Confucian respect for education remains a vital part of South Korean culture.[15] The civil service examinations were the gateway to prestige and power for a follower of Confucianism in the Joseon Dynasty. Today, exams continue to be an important aspect of South Korean life. The content of what is studied has changed over the years. Confucian teachings were replaced by other topics, such as foreign languages, modern history, economics, science, and mathematics. Like Confucianism from the past, a lot of emphasis is placed on the ability to study and memorize.[16] Since exams are so important for gaining admission to better schools and jobs, a typical student’s entire life is oriented toward preparing to pass the necessary exams.[17]

Perhaps some of the strongest evidences of continuing Confucian influence can be found in South Korean family life. It is seen not just in South Korea’s emphasis on family and group-oriented ways of living, but also in the Confucian rituals that are still commonly performed today, the ancestor memorial services. It is a way of showing respect for deceased parents, grandparents, and ancestors, and is a way of showing Confucian filial piety.[4][18] In some cases, the memorial services have been changed to fit with religious views. This is an example of how Confucianism has melded with religion in South Korea, rather than competing against it.[5]

In 1980, the “Guideline for Family Rituals” was made law. It declared that ancestral ceremonies can only be held for one’s parents and grandparents, simplified the funeral ceremonies, and reduced the allowed mourning period. The law is not strictly enforced, and no one has been charged for violating it.[18]

In more recent years, there has been a move away from the traditional Confucian idea of complete respect for and submission to parental authority. It can be seen in how marriage has become less of a family decision, and more of an individual’s choice.[19]

The Confucian emphasis on the importance of the family and the group over the individual has been extended to South Korean business, as well. Employees are expected to regard the workplace as a family, with the head of the company as the patriarch who enjoys exclusive privileges while the workers are expected to work harder. The businesses tend to operate on Confucian ethics, such as the importance of harmonious relations among the employees and loyalty to the company. Importance is placed on attributes such as differences in age, kinship status, sex, and sociopolitical status.[20][21]

Confucian ethical rhetoric is still used in contemporary South Korea. Other religions will incorporate it into discussions on proper human behavior. It can be found in the government and in the business world being used to encourage people to put the needs of the group above their own individual needs.[4][21][22]

Neo-Confucian philosophy going back to the 15th Century had relegated Korean women to little more than extensions of male dominance and producers of requisite progeny. This traditional view of the social role of women is fading away.[15] There is an increasing number of women students holding good positions in universities and the work force, as well as in politics.[23] The former president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is female.

The arts still maintain major traditions: Korean Pottery, the Korean Tea Ceremony, Korean Gardens, and Korean flower arrangement follow Confucian principles and a Confucian aesthetic. Scholarly calligraphy and poetry also 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.

With Neo-Confucianism taken out of the school curricula and removed from its prominence in the daily life of Koreans, the sense that something essential to Korean history is missing led to a rebirth of Confucianism in South Korea in the late 1990s.[8][13]

It is difficult to find accurate information regarding Confucianism in North Korean religion or practices.[7] However, the Juche ideology does encourage the Confucian virtues of loyalty, reverence, and obedience.[24]

Korean Confucian art

Korean Confucian art and philosophy had great and deep effects on the Korean culture.

See also

References and further reading

  1. ^ a b c Baker, Donald (June 2008). Dimensions of Asian Spirituality: Korean Spirituality. University of Hawaii Press.
  2. ^ Joe, Wanne J. (June 1972). Traditional Korea a Cultural History. Seoul, Korea: Chung'ang University Press. pp. 46–86.
  3. ^ Joe, Wanne J. (June 1972). Traditional Korea A Cultural History. Seoul, Korea: Chung'ang University Press. pp. 112–127.
  4. ^ a b c d Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008). p 53
  5. ^ a b Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008). p 138
  6. ^ Joe, Wanne J. (June 1972). Traditional Korea a Cultural History. Seoul, Korea: Chung'ang University Press. pp. 356–378.
  7. ^ a b Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008). p 145
  8. ^ a b Koh, Byong-ik. “Confucianism in Contemporary Korea,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 193
  9. ^ Baker, Donald. “The Transformation of Confucianism in 20th-century Korea: How it has lost most of its metaphysical underpinnings and survives today primarily as ethical rhetoric and heritage rituals” Unpublished paper. p 1
  10. ^ a b Koh, Byong-ik. “Confucianism in Contemporary Korea,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 192
  11. ^ Kim, Kwang-ok. “The Reproduction of Confucian Culture in Contemporary Korea: An Anthropological Study,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 226
  12. ^ Kim, Kwang-ok. “The Reproduction of Confucian Culture in Contemporary Korea: An Anthropological Study,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 204
  13. ^ a b Kim, Kwang-ok. “The Reproduction of Confucian Culture in Contemporary Korea: An Anthropological Study,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 225
  14. ^ Koh, Byong-ik. “Confucianism in Contemporary Korea,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 199
  15. ^ a b Baker, Donald. “The Transformation of Confucianism in 20th-century Korea: How it has lost most of its metaphysical underpinnings and survives today primarily as ethical rhetoric and heritage rituals” Unpublished paper. p 4
  16. ^ Vogel, Ezra. The Four Little Dragons (Harvard University Press, 1991) p 96
  17. ^ Vogel, Ezra. The Four Little Dragons (Harvard University Press, 1991) p 97
  18. ^ a b Koh, Byong-ik. “Confucianism in Contemporary Korea,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 195
  19. ^ Baker, Donald. “The Transformation of Confucianism in 20th-century Korea: How it has lost most of its metaphysical underpinnings and survives today primarily as ethical rhetoric and heritage rituals” Unpublished paper. p 5
  20. ^ Kim, Kwang-ok. “The Reproduction of Confucian Culture in Contemporary Korea: An Anthropological Study,” In Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity, edited by Tu Wei-ming, (Harvard University Press, 1996) p 220
  21. ^ a b Kim, Andrew Eungi & Gil-sung Park. “Nationalism, Confucianism, work ethic and industrialization in South Korea,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 33:1 (2003) p 44. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00472330380000041#.UqhOpPRDvh4
  22. ^ Baker, Donald. “The Transformation of Confucianism in 20th-century Korea: How it has lost most of its metaphysical underpinnings and survives today primarily as ethical rhetoric and heritage rituals” Unpublished paper. p 7
  23. ^ Baker, Donald. “The Transformation of Confucianism in 20th-century Korea: How it has lost most of its metaphysical underpinnings and survives today primarily as ethical rhetoric and heritage rituals” Unpublished paper. p 6
  24. ^ Baker, Don. Korean Spirituality (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008). p 150
  • Handbook of Korea; Korean Overseas Information Service, 2003; pgs
  • Lee, Ki-baik; A New History of Korea; Harvard University Press,1984; pgs 130–135
  • Lee, Ki-baik; A New History of Korea; Harvard University Press,1984; pgs 163–166
  • MacArthur, Meher; Confucius: A Throneless King; Pegasus Books, 2011; pgs 163–165
  • Kimm, He-young; Philosophy of Masters; Andrew Jackson College Press, 2001; pgs 52–58
  • Palais, James B.; Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions; University of Washington Press, 1995

External links

Education in the Joseon dynasty

Education in the Joseon Dynasty of Korea was largely aimed at preparing students for government service. The ultimate goal of most students was successful passage of the state examinations, known as gwageo.

Educational institutions were extremely widespread in the country, and can be divided into public and private. The highest public institution was the Seonggyungwan, located in Seoul. Below this were the Sahak (사부학당), four schools providing technical training, and the hyanggyo, schools supported by each of the Eight Provinces. [1] The hyanggyo soon fell into neglect, and for most of the Joseon period education was dominated by two types of private schools, seowon (preparatory schools mostly for the aristocracy) and seodang (private village schools providing elementary education).


Gyorin (lit. "neighborly relations") was a neo-Confucian term developed in Joseon Korea. The term was intended to identify and characterize a diplomatic policy which establishes and maintains amicable relations with neighboring states. It was construed and understood in tandem with a corollary term, which was the sadae or "serving the great" policy towards Imperial China.Confucian learning contributed in the formation of gyorin and sadae as ritual, conceptual and normative frameworks for construing interactions and political decision-making.

Han Myeonghoe

Han Myeonghoe (Korean: 한명회, Hanja: 韓明澮, 26 November 1415 – 28 November 1487) was a Korean politician and soldier during the Joseon Dynasty. He was Prime Minister or Chief State Councillor from October 1466 to April 1467 and again from January 1469 to August 1469, during the reigns of King Sejo of Joseon and King Yejong of Joseon. His nicknames were "Apgujeong" (압구정, 狎鷗亭), "Apgu" (압구, 狎鷗), and "Saudang" (사우당, 四友堂). He was a tactician and trusted adviser of King Sejo of Joseon and he advised the latter to produce a coup d'état.

Im Sahong

Im Sahong (Hangul: 임사홍; Hanja: 任士洪; 1445–1506) was a member of the Korean Joseon Dynastys royal family. His courtesy name was Iui(이의).


Jesa (제사, 祭祀) is a ceremony commonly practiced in Korea. Jesa functions as a memorial to the ancestors of the participants. Jesa are usually held on the anniversary of the ancestor's death. The majority of Catholics, Buddhists and nonbelievers practice ancestral rites, although Protestants do not. The Catholic ban on ancestral rituals was lifted in 1939, when the Pope Pius XII of the Catholic Church formally recognized ancestral rites as a civil practice (see Chinese Rites controversy). Many Korean American Christians, particularly Protestants, no longer practice this rite.


Jongmyo is a Confucian shrine dedicated to the perpetuation of memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). According to UNESCO, the shrine is the oldest royal Confucian shrine preserved and the ritual ceremonies continue a tradition established in the 14th century. Such shrines existed during the Three Kingdoms of Korea period (57-668), but these have not survived. The Jongmyo Shrine was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995.

Jongmyo is adjacent to Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung in the south. They used to be connected in the Joseon period, but were separated by a road built by Japanese colonialists. Nowadays there is a construction plan to recover the original structure of the shrine.

The main buildings of Jongmyo was constructed in October, 1394 when Taejo, first king of Joseon Dynasty, moved the capital to Seoul. It was destroyed by fire in the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98), then rebuilt in 1608.

Korean flower arrangement

Korean flower arrangement is being revived as an indoor art, and most often uses simple Joseon dynasty whiteware to highlight Korean flowers and tree branches in elegant and unforced natural arrangements. Im Wha-Kong of Ewha Woman's University in Seoul, who also makes her own ceramic wares, is the greatest living exponent of this art, and hosts quarterly displays of flower arrangements keeping this tradition alive. There are at least a dozen schools of traditional flower arrangements.

List of Confucianists

This is a partial list of people who follow Confucianism, selected for their influence on that belief, or for their fame in other areas.


Munmyo (more specifically Seoul Munmyo or Seonggyungwan Munmyo) is Korea's primary temple of Confucius ("munmyo" is also the general Korean term for a temple of Confucius). Munmyo baehyang (Hangul: 문묘배향, hanja: 文廟配享) was the highest honor a scholar could achieve during the Joseon. Only eighteen people were granted this honor; they are called the "Eighteen Sages of Korea" or the "Eighteen Confucian Scholars of the East" (Hangul: 동방18현, hanja: 東方18賢). It is located in central Seoul, South Korea, at 53 Myeongnyun-dong 3(sam)-ga, Jongno District, on the campus of Sungkyunkwan University.

Munmyo houses a shrine to Confucius known as Daeseongjeon, or "Hall of Great Achievement." The main gate leading to the shrine Sinsammun, literally "Spirit Three Gate", is open only on special occasions such as Seokjeon Daeje. The central gate is reserved for the spirit of Confucius and his disciple, and no one else may enter through this gate. Past this gate is the central path that leads to Daeseongjeon, and visitors may not cross this path, especially during a ceremony when the gates are open. The courtyard is used for the Seokjeon Daeje ceremony. Munmyo also contains two other halls (Dongmu and Seomu, east and west hall), two dormitories (Dongjae and Seojae, east and west dormitories), a Confucian lecture hall called Myeongnyundang, a library called Cheonggyeongdang, and Jinsasikdang which is the dining hall.


Neo-Confucianism (Chinese: 宋明理學; pinyin: Sòng-Míng lǐxué, often shortened to lixue 理學) is a moral, ethical, and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, and originated with Han Yu and Li Ao (772–841) in the Tang Dynasty, and became prominent during the Song and Ming dynasties.

Neo-Confucianism could have been an attempt to create a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism by rejecting superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism that had influenced Confucianism during and after the Han Dynasty. Although the neo-Confucianists were critical of Taoism and Buddhism, the two did have an influence on the philosophy, and the neo-Confucianists borrowed terms and concepts. However, unlike the Buddhists and Taoists, who saw metaphysics as a catalyst for spiritual development, religious enlightenment, and immortality, the neo-Confucanists used metaphysics as a guide for developing a rationalist ethical philosophy.

Politics of the Joseon dynasty

The politics of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897, were governed by the reigning ideology of Korean Confucianism, a form of Neo-Confucianism. Political struggles were common between different factions of the scholar-officials. Purges frequently resulted in leading political figures being sent into exile or condemned to death.

The political system of this period was dominated by a Confucianist bureaucracy. The government officials were ranked in 18 levels, ranging from senior first rank (jeong-il-pum, Hangul: 정1품, Hanja: 正一品) down to junior ninth rank (jong-gu-pum, 종9품, 從九品) based on seniority and promotion, which was achieved through the royal decree based on examinations and recommendations.

The power of the bureaucrats often eclipsed that of the central authorities, including the monarch. For much of the dynasty, a complex system of checks and balances prevented any one section of the government from gaining overwhelming power until the 19th century when political power became concentrated in a certain family or individual.

Religion in Korea

Religion in Korea refers the various religious traditions practiced on the Korean peninsula. The oldest indigenous religion of Korea is Korean shamanism, which has been passed down from prehistory to the present. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China during the Three Kingdoms era in the 4th century, and the religion flourished until the Joseon Dynasty, when Korean Confucianism became the state religion. During the Late Joseon Dynasty, in the 19th century, Christianity began to gain a foothold in Korea. While both Christianity and Buddhism would play important roles in the resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, only about 4% of Koreans were members of a religious organization in 1940.Since the division of Korea into two sovereign states in 1945—North Korea and South Korea—religious life in the two countries has diverged, shaped by different political structures. Religion in South Korea has been characterized by a rise of Christianity and a revival of Buddhism, though the majority of South Koreans have no religious affiliation. Religion in North Korea is characterized by state atheism in which freedom of religion is nonexistent. Juche ideology, which promotes the North Korean cult of personality, is regarded by experts as the national religion.


The Sajikdan is a Korean Neo-Confucian altar located in Seoul, South Korea used to perform the national soil and grain ceremonies during the Joseon Dynasty.

Sarye pyeollam

Sarye pyeollam is a kind of practical guide written by Korean scholar Yi Jae (李縡 1680 ∼ 1746) of the Joseon Dynasty, which that records and describes important rites and ceremonies based on Neo-Confucianism. The title is translated into "Easy Manual of the Four Rites" or "Convenient Reference to the Four Rites". It consists of 8 volumes in 4 books and was published in 1844 by his descendant, Yi Gwang-jeong (李光正).


Seonbi were virtuous scholars during the Goryeo and Joseon periods of Korea who served the public without a government position, choosing to pass up positions of wealth and power to lead lives of study and integrity. Those who chose to serve the government were obliged to assist the king in governing the nation properly, and once out of office, lead a quiet life in the countryside, teaching and leading the people in the right direction. Today, Seonbi is a figurative word for a learned man who does not covet wealth but values righteousness and principles. It is also used as a metaphor for a well-behaved and gloomy person. Also, to modern-day Koreans who do not have a high opinion of Joseon Dynasty and Confucianism use the word Seonbi synonymous to 'geezer'.


Silhak was a Korean Confucian social reform movement in late Joseon Dynasty. Sil means "actual" or "practical," and hak means "studies" or "learning." It developed in response to the increasingly metaphysical nature of Neo-Confucianism (성리학) that seemed disconnected from the rapid agricultural, industrial, and political changes occurring in Korea between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. Silhak was designed to counter the "uncritical" following of Confucian teachings and the strict adherence to "formalism" and "ritual" by neo-Confucians. Most of the Silhak scholars were from factions excluded from power and other disaffected scholars calling for reform. They advocated an empirical Confucianism deeply concerned with human society at the practical level.Its proponents generally argued for reforming the rigid Confucian social structure, land reforms to relieve the plight of peasant farmers, promoting Korea's own national identity and culture, encouraging the study of science, and advocating technology exchange with foreign countries. Silhak scholars wanted to use realistic and experimental approaches to social problems with the consideration of the welfare of the people. Silhak scholars encouraged human equality and moved toward a more Korean-centric view of Korean history. The Silhak school is credited with helping to create a modern Korea.

Sin Sukju

Sin Suk-ju (Korean: 신숙주, hanja: 申叔舟; August 2, 1417 – July 23, 1475) was a Korean politician during the Joseon Dynasty. He served as Prime Minister from 1461 to 1466 and again from 1471 to 1475.

Shin was an accomplished polyglot, and was particularly well educated in the Chinese language. He served as a personal linguistic expert to King Sejong, and was intimately involved in the creation and application of the Korean alphabet known in modern times as Hangul. Sin used the newly created hangul system to create an accurate transcription of spoken Mandarin Chinese in 15th century Ming dynasty China.

These transcriptions haven proven accurate and reliable, and his transcriptions are now "an invaluable source of information on the pronunciations of Ming-era [Mandarin]."


The Songgyungwan was the highest educational institution established during the Koryo and Choson Dynasties. It opened in 992. The institution consists of the Taesong Temple, Myongnyun Hall and 20 other buildings, including one of the largest wooden buildings to still exist in the DPRK.Songgyungwan is located two kilometers to the northeast of the center of the city of Kaesong. Since 1987, it houses the Koryo Museum.


Wongudan Altar, located in Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea, was built in 1897 to serve as a site for the performance of the rite of heaven. The site was also known by other names, such as Hwangudan (환구단, 圜丘壇), Jecheondan (제천단, 祭天壇) and Wondan (원단, 圜壇). Wongudan was designated South Korea's Historic Site No. 157 on July 15, 1967.

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