Thursday, February 24, 2011

Confucianism and Korea - Part III: Confucianism in Pre-Modern Korea

[Series Index]

In previous parts of this series, we took a look at the core concepts of Confucianism. How did these Confucian concepts affect Korea, and how are they affecting Korea now? The rest of the series will deal with the answers to those questions. This part will discuss Korea's historical interaction with Confucianism.

Confucianism reached Korea as early as the 4th century, and has always been a major part of Korean traditional philosophy. But it was hardly the only part, or even the most dominant part. Shamanism and more indigenous beliefs (which were sometimes co-opted into other philosophies, including Confucianism) have been a major part as well. Buddhism was the most dominant part of Korean traditional philosophy for more than a millennium.

This would change in the 14th century, when Joseon Dynasty replaced Goryeo Dynasty. This change in dynasties -- really, a revolution -- is very significant in the history of Confucianism in Korea. Joseon Dynasty was explicitly based on Confucianism and rejected Buddhism, which was the official religion/philosophy of Goryeo Dynasty. The revolutionaries of the late Goryeo Dynasty believed that Buddhism contained the core of everything that ailed Goryeo Dynasty, and decided that Confucianism (more specifically, the newer version of Confucianism espoused by Zhu Xi) would be the more suitable ideology by which a kingdom would be run. In other words, Joseon was the first Korean dynasty that was explicitly a Confucian state. We will proceed by examining three different aspects of the way in which Confucianism was used in Joseon, the Confucian state: as a governing philosophy, a tool for deeper and more raw political power struggle, and a system for social order.

Confucianism as a Governing Philosophy

From the very beginning, Joseon Dynasty made clear that Confucianism justified its birth. Shortly after the first king of Joseon ascended to the throne, he declared:
하늘이 백성을 낳고 임금을 세운 것은 임금으로 하여금 백성을 길러 서로 살게 하고 백성을 다스려 서로 편안하게 하도록 하기 위함이다. 그러므로 군도에는 득실이 있고 인심에는 복종과 배반함이 있으니, 천명이 떠나가고 머물러 있음은 여기에 달려있다.
That the heaven gave birth to the people and established a king is for the king to raise the people such that they live together, and to govern the people such that they comfort each other. Therefore, the king's way has gains and losses and the people's heart has obedience and betrayal; the departure and presence of the heaven's mandate depends on this.
This statement is very important toward understanding how Confucianism works as a governing philosophy, as it explicitly connects the people's heart to the heaven's mandate. If the people's hearts do not obey, it means that the heaven's mandate has left the king. Because such king no longer deserves to be a king, a revolution is necessary to establish a new king.

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

All this is directly based on Mencius's teaching. Mencius said:
天不言, 以行與事 示之而已矣
Heaven does not speak; it merely shows its will through its actions.
Then Mencius follows up with a story. When Emperor Yao, the most revered Chinese emperor, passed away, his chief minister Shun left the palace and away from Yao's son. But the lords of China went to Shun, not to Yao's son, to pay their respects; litigants went to Shun, not Yao's son, to settle their dispute; persons who sang about virtue sang about Shun, not about Yao's son. Finally, Shun returned to the palace and succeeded Yao as the new emperor. Mencius notes that if Shun persecuted Yao's son, Shun would be acting in usurpation and would not be following the heaven's mandate. Mencius concludes the story with this aphorism:
Heaven sees through
what we the people see
Heaven hears through
what we the people hear.
This is quite striking for people who are accustomed to think "king = absolute power", like the way Louis XIV declared, "I am the State." That is not so for Confucian kings. Of course, Confucian obligation is by no means a democracy as we understand the term "democracy" today. But this much is highly worth noting: in a Confucian state, the king has the obligation to his people, because the people's obedience indicates the heaven's mandate. In order to retain the heaven's mandate -- i.e. retain his position as the king -- the Confucian king must rule in accordance with the heaven's way, which inspires obedience from his people.

Then what is the heaven's way of ruling? Heaven's way of ruling is through personal morality. Recall from the previous part of this series that the ultimate goal of Confucianism is achieving in - the ultimate moral self that follows the way things are meant to be. Once the moral self is achieved, everything else falls into place. Therefore, Jo Gwang-Jo, a prominent Confucian scholar and politician of early Joseon era, wrote to his king:
나라를 다스리는 방법은 도뿐이고, 도라는 것은 본성을 따르는 것입니다. 대개 성이 있지 않은 것이 없기 때문에 도가 있지 않은 것이 없습니다. 크게는 예악, 형정과 작게는 제도, 문물이 사람의 힘을 빌리지 않았으며 각각 당연한 이치가 있지 않는 것이 없습니다. 이것이 곧 고금의 제왕들이 함께 실천하며 정치를 하던 것으로 하늘과 땅에 가득차고 옛날과 지금을 관통하는 것입니다. 그러나 사실은 일찍이 내 마음에서 벗어나지 않습니다. 이것을 따르면 나라가 다스려지고 이것을 잃으면 나라가 어지러워지기 때문에 잠깐 사이라도 떠날 수 없습니다.

The Way is the only method by which a country can be ruled, and the Way is to follow the innate Nature. There is nothing that lacks Nature; thus, there is nothing that lacks the Way. From things as large as rituals, music, justice system and politics, to things as small as policies and culture, there is nothing that does not borrow from man's power and nothing that each lacks the Nature of course. This is the principle by which the emperors and kings of the past and the present together implemented and governed; this principle fills the heaven and earth and penetrates the past and the present. But in fact, it does not deviate from one's own heart. Following it gives order to the country; losing it leads the country to chaos. Therefore, the Way cannot be deviated from even for a moment.
This focus on personal morality as demonstrated above is probably the greatest difference between Confucian theory of governance and the Western democratic theory of governance. Compare the above paragraph with this paragraph from The Federalist Papers No. 51:
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
In a way, a Confucian and a Western democrat agree on one point: If men were angels, no government would be necessary. The difference, for a Confucian, is this: men CAN be angels by achieving in. And indeed, once men are angels, the society would govern itself. A Confucian, in turn, would critique James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that trying to control the society by law does not lead to a truly orderly society. A Confucian could point to the words of Confucius himself:
Master said:
道之以政 齊之以刑 民免而無恥
If led by the law and enforced by punishment,
people attempt to escape and do not feel ashamed.
道之以德 齊之以禮 有恥且格
If lead by virtue and enforced by rituals,
people grow a sense of shame and become good.
Jo Gwang-Jo emphasized the same:
조정의 기강을 형벌로 세워서는 안됩니다. 조정이 이미 바르게 되면 아랫사람들은 자연히 마음으로 복종합니다. 형벌과 법은 비록 폐지할 수는 없으나 다만 정치를 돕는 보조 수단일 뿐이지 정치의 근본이 되어서는 안 됩니다.
The royal court's discipline cannot be established by punishment. Once the court gets right first, the lower people naturally obey with their heart. Punishments and the laws cannot be abolished, but they are but the means to assist governance. They cannot be the foundation of governance.
As an aside, think about how this works in American democracy, which uses the law as the foundation of governance. Obviously American democracy is currently the greatest system in the world, as it has withstood the challenges of many other rivaling governance systems. But American democracy has its share of weaknesses, and the Confucian critique of those weaknesses can be devastating. Americans' emphasis on the law as the primary tool for governance can lead to confusing legality with morality, and technical compliance with doing the right thing.

For example, much of what the Wall Street banks were doing previous to the financial crisis was all completely legal. They hired an army of lawyers to make sure that what they were doing was legal. One can make an effort to punish them through the law somehow, but the banks' technical compliance with the law makes it nearly impossible. (As a result, not a single major corporation/financial institution is held liable under the law for anything that happened.) That's the shortcoming of the rule of law that a Confucian would point out -- people will attempt to get around it somehow, and would not feel ashamed in doing so. What if the banks had focused more on the moral consequences of their actions rather than the legal ones? This question does not even occur to the Western Democrat, who will continue to tinker with the law which will be surely overcome by the next wave of creative lawyering.

Confucianism as a Tool for Political Power Struggle

An important point to clarify here. A "Confucian state" means that the country's activities -- be they political, economic, social -- are framed in Confucian terms. As discussed above, Confucianism was the governing philosophy of Joseon Dynasty. But that does not mean that Confucianism was the only motivation for Joseon people's activities, or even the most dominant motivation depending on the circumstances.

For a similar example, the Thirty Years' War in Europe can be easily framed in Christian terms, like: "Thirty Years' War began when Ferdinand of Styria, a staunch Catholic, became the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This caused the Protestant portion of the Holy Roman Empire to revolt, and the revolt spread to become a European-wide war." This explanation for Thirty Years' War is not wrong. But it is also very incomplete, because it seems to imply that the religious conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism was the only cause for a massive war, disregarding other real and significant factors for the war.

The same with the relationship between Confucianism and Joseon -- the fact that Joseon could be considered a "Confucian state" does not mean Joseon kingdom or its people did everything because of Confucianism. Rather, it means that Joseon constantly attempted to explain its actions in Confucian terms and concepts. This use of Confucianism was particularly apparent in political power struggle, in which each political faction would espouse a version of Confucianism, and equate the truthfulness of that version with their political power.

A particularly interesting example is the controversy over the queen's funeral garb. In 1659, King Hyojong passed away. King Hyojong was the second son of King Injo, Hyojong's father. King Injo in fact had several wives, and his first wife was Queen Ja'eui. Injo and Queen Ja'eui did have a son (who was King Injo's first son,) but that son died under mysterious circumstances and the heirs were very young. Therefore, Hyojong, the second son of Injo born from Injo's second wife, became the king. Now, when Hyojong died, Queen Ja'eui was still alive. The queen had to wear a funeral garb for her stepson. The question is -- what kind? Under certain Confucian rules, parents must wear a funeral garb for three years for the passing of the first born, and for one year for the passing of any other child.

The debate raged. One group of scholars, led by Song Shi-Yeol, argued that one year was appropriate because technically Hyojong was not the first son. Another group, led by Yoon Hyu, argued that three year was appropriate because the fact that Hyojong succeeded Injo ipso facto meant Hyojong was the primogenitural heir. This debate sounds silly, but has a very significant political implication -- that is, how legitimate was Hyojong as the king? Under the one-year theory, Hyojong cannot get away from the fact that he was never the firstborn, which in turn threatens the legitimacy of the next king. Under the three-year theory, Hyojong is the legitimate king and any leftover claim by the young heirs of Injo's firstborn is totally extinguished. The group that argued for one-year theory prevailed at first, and the group that argued for three-year theory became politically buried.

Again, the real debate here was not how long the queen must wear certain clothes. The real debate was the legitimacy of King Hyojong given the circumstances in which his older brother died in mysterious terms -- but this debate was expressed in Confucian terms.

Confucianism as a System for Social Order

For pre-modern Korea, Confucianism was much more than a philosophy. It was the system that served as the origin for all relevant rules of life, from as grand as governing system to as minor as how to eat.

It is easy to associate Confucianism with stuffy, inflexible hierarchical social order. But as a governing system (related to, but different from, the governing philosophy described above,) Confucianism gave traditional Korea a surprising degree of latitude and down-up communication. Recall that Joseon Dynasty rested on the Confucian premise that the king needs to listen to his people, who delivers to him the mandate of heaven. Therefore, Confucianism requires a system that allows the king's subjects to speak freely to the king.

The vibrancy of this system cannot be underestimated. For example, the above-discussed Jo Gwang-Jo made himself famous when, merely two days after earning an official position in the royal court, petitioned that the top two royal advisors be relieved from their position. Jo pointed out that the top two royal advisors, in the process of consolidating their political power, exiled their opponents for petitioning the king. Only two days later, the royal advisors were indeed replaced. In other words, Confucianism -- which is a value greater than even the king -- allowed a fresh-faced newcomer to replace the top officials to the king.

Confucianism also allowed for a (quasi-)meritocratic system of governance. Confucianism calls for a rule by virtue, and the way to attain that virtue is through constant studying. This means that people who studied their hardest deserve to rule. Therefore, Korea implemented a yearly civil service exam so that the learned men in the kingdom may display their learning and by extension their fitness to govern. Of course, the civil service exam was not truly meritocratic because only the noblemen (yangban) could take the exam. But it is still notable that Confucianism required Korea to give the task of governance to the best and the brightest (relatively speaking,) and not purely to those who won the lucky draw.

On a more mundane level, Koreans lived their everyday lives under the Confucian mannerisms. The most important Confucian book in this context is 소학 (小學, "sohak"), "The Book of Small Learning." In fact, pretty much all of what is considered traditional Korean manners (e.g. not eating until the oldest takes the first bite) comes from sohak. The level of detail required by sohak sometimes defies belief. For example, here is an example of what a son must do to serve his parents in the morning:
When a son serves his parents: when the rooster first crows, all must wash their face, brush teeth, comb hair, cover the hair with black silk, put hairpin, tie the hair with silk to decorate the topknot, straighten all stray hair, wear a hat and tie the strap, wear dark clothes, wear an overcoat, wear a large belt, put on the belt decoration, wear the things to be used for the day on the belt, wear leggings, wear the shoes and tie the shoes.
It cannot be denied that all these minute little rules slowly led to the ossification of Joseon Dynasty. As early as mid-16th century, some Confucian scholars of Korea deplored that a certain version of Confucian orthodoxy has come to dominate the scholarship, and killed off the possibility of studying other significant philosophies such as Buddhism or Taoism. Fundamentalism develops as the rules become more emphasized than the spirit that animates those rules. In its later years, Joseon Dynasty would devolve into Confucian fundamentalism, which contributed to its ultimate demise.

Next series will finally address how Confucianism affects modern Korea. A trivia for the readers who made it this far -- wanna know if modern Koreans still take Confucianism seriously? If you have any doubt, pull out your KRW 1000 and 5000 bills. The two men on those bills are Yi Hwang and Yi Yi, the two most significant Confucian philosophers of the Joseon era.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. A fascinating series - thanks for a few posts that I'll need to re-read over and over again.

    The only thing I feel confident in asking is this: where do we go from here? The young generation of Koreans (and I would argue yours as well) is growing up with a duality of systems - one, old-fashioned, presented by relatives and older folks; the other, coming in on TV as an 'I come first' mentality.

    The Confucian 'family first' and the Western 'me first' attitude are in conflict - and something's gotta give. Is there a way to compromise, or at what point do people begin 'rebelling' against the hundreds of years of tradition?

    It's also hard to ignore the people who are either marginalized (women) or simply not in power. I don't recall the percentage of slaves in the Joseon Dynasty, but that society couldn't have existed without them.

  2. Thanks Chris. Pretty fair to say that Korea is still trying to figure out exactly how those two values will mesh. In some ways, they are meshing -- both in good ways and in bad ways.

    Also very valid point about how Confucianism marginalizes certain groups of people. The Korean is a huge, HUGE fan of Confucianism, but Confucianism's disenfranchisement of certain groups of people is its original sin that needs to be overcome in order for Confucianism to survive as a modern philosophy.

  3. When it comes to "where do we go from here?", that is pretty much always going to be a question. Eventually it will settle down, and then circumstances changes along with the generations. Rebellions against past excesses, will lead to a new norm that itself will have new excesses, that will be rebelled against later. Even Confucianism was once the new thing.

    I might say the legalism vs virtue is not so much of a clear cut thing, than a tendency. Many in the US realized that people who cared about maintaining proper virtue was important to the success of the nation, and governments under a heavy influence of Confucianism did have their legal system. As time went on that tendency might have really began to show itself.

    I suppose people may end up rebelling against hundreds of years of tradition, but a good chance it will just lead to a rediscovery of it in the not too distant future.

  4. Wow. I must get my hands on 소학, to see what other common Korean habits it explains.

    In my experience, Koreans are nearly religious about washing their faces in the morning ([본인], 세수했어?), a habit probably pushed down from the passage you quoted.

    Is the Korean aware that face-washing is seen as less necessary in the West? I would guess that among those who don't shower in the mornings, face-washing is probably done less often than make-up.

    Then again, the three families I speak of are only one or two generations removed from a very traditional family dynamic, and the westerners I know may be slovenly.

    The United States has in the past used laws that were quite broad in order to simulate morality. The classic example for this is the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), but this tends to force the courts to determine applicability of the law, which makes further applications more difficult. The danger in such laws, of course, is that they risk being so broad that they will be overturned or mis-applied.

    I would love to see a post about the Korean legal system, and am particularly curious about whether "modernization" laws (on copyright, discrimination, etc) have significantly changed life in Korea recently.

  5. Very interesting post. I've always learned about Chinese Confucianism in school - the Mandate of Heaven, civil service examinations, etc. - and it's interesting to see how similar Chinese and Korean systems of government were (probably because of the Tang/Silla relationships, right? I remember reading how Korea implemented the examinations for nobles after the Tang set up their tributary relationship with Korea.)

  6. Thanks for this series on Confucianism. Although I know The Korean dislikes Korean dramas, I thought it was worth mentioning Sungkyunkwan Scandal. It's a historical drama/ romantic comedy set at a school for future civil servants, during the Joseon dynasty. The characters speak explicitly and at length about the impact of Confucianism on their principles and actions. At first, I was bemused by the thought of philosopher-governors, since I'm familiar with my intensely practical U.S. approach to government. However, there's a scene midway through the series where two students are on a trial, and are defended by the most principled and lofty student. He uses the concept of in, and the relational nature of in, as part of his argument.

    At that point, I understood these were not philosopher-governors, but lawyer-governors, whose legal system was codified in Confucianism. This is very similar to the U.S. in that most politicians have a law background. Of course, I have a limited understanding of Confucianism, and historical and modern Korean society (and this is all a TV show, after all), but it seems to fit nicely with your blog posts.

    An aside to the person who thinks face washing isn't important in the West: I would say, as an American, that it is indeed important to wash your face every morning(with or without a shower).

    - The Lemoneater

  7. I have a question. I have been watching this series where men came from Joseon Era and had gone to the present. My question is, why is it that they are very reluctant to have their hair cut? One of the characters even said that if they go back to Joseon they'd be stoned to death.

    1. During the Joseon era, your entire body was considered as a gift from your parents. This includes hair, meaning that if you were to cut your hair, you are being disrespectful to your parents.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...