Kim Tae-gyun, head of the Confucian Academy of Byeongsanseowon, and Jeong Bong-ho (right) review “yuwonrok,” a diary of participants from previous years as they participate in the annual memorial tribute fall in honor of Ryu Seong-ryong, Chief State Councilor of the Joseon Dynasty in 1592. Photo © 2021 Hyungwon Kang
Korean culture and history have been deeply shaped by various religions and philosophies, but none has had such a lasting impact as Confucianism.
Confucianism before the Common Era and Neo-Confucianism after the 12th century largely shaped the landscape of the ruling class of the Korean kingdoms.
During the Goryeo Empire, well-educated and good-character scholars were called “seonbi”. The proper name seonbi is now synonymous with scholar and virtuous intellectual.
An oracle bone found in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province, is on display at the National Museum of Korea. Korean Confucian traditions date back to the days when no written words were available and oracle bones were used to make decisions. Photo © 2020 Hyungwon Kang
While civil service exams are a pathway for upward mobility for all Koreans today, such egalitarian opportunities were only available to Koreans in the 20th century.
While the guageo exams were used to select candidates for state bureaucracy, Korean intellectuals called seonbi, entrenched themselves in national educational institutions called “seowon”.
The name Confucius was given by Jesuit missionaries at the end of the 16th century. His name is Kong Qiu, read as Gongja in Korean.
There is no worship of a single deity in Confucianism, but the tradition of Confucianism is full of rituals, mainly surrounding the four human events: coming of age, marriage, funerals and ancestral rites called “jesa” .
Confucianism is a pragmatic philosophy of life solutions. Confucianism practices ancestor worship as a virtue. In Korean culture, Confucius is revered and considered a sage.
Calligraphy of Myeongjong of Joseon, the 13th king of the Joseon Dynasty, who named Sosuseowon in 1550. Photo © 2021 Hyungwon Kang
Korean ancestor worship rituals are designed to commemorate and revere the spirits of deceased ancestors on annual Remembrance Day and public holidays. The Confucian notion of filial piety comes into play, and people remember ancestors as if they still lived in the same household.
In fact, it was quite common for people to celebrate ancestral remembrance rituals up to four generations before them. “The belief was that it takes about 120 years, four generations, for the spirit to leave loved ones,” said Korean philosopher Kim Young-oak.
Education and relentless lifelong learning define the Korean Seonbi tradition. Seonbi is an intellectual whose sense of purpose comes from his belief in his virtues. Therefore, seonbi is also often referred to as a righteous scholar and referred to as a “teacher” after their death.
Byeongsanseowon Confucian Academy is lit up early in the morning. Photo © 2021 Hyungwon Kang
The annual fall ceremony which lasted two days this year was attended only by elderly men and no women.
“Confucianism is often wrongly associated with discrimination against women. Men and women have different roles, ”said Kim Tae-gyun, 89, chief of Byeongsanseowon.
Kim Tae-gyun (right), director of the Confucian Academy of Byeongsanseowon, and Jeong Bong-ho (second from right) and other academy members, participate in the annual memorial tribute to fall in honor of Ryu Seong-ryong, Chief State Councilor of the Joseon Dynasty in 1592. Photo © 2021 Hyungwon Kang
Understanding Koreans and why they do what they do is understanding their adherence to their values.
The value system of the Korean people in the 21st century has a foundation in the teachings of Confucianism, more specifically in Neo-Confucianism.
One of the main characteristics of neo-Confucianism is its emphasis on “blind adherence to the principle,” Yoo Pil-hwa, professor at the Graduate School of Business at Sungkyunkwan University, told the Cultural Summit of Yeongju this week.
The aim of Korean traditional value system is to become a seonbi, a wise scholar, an intellectual with knowledge, wisdom and character.
Seonbi, the intellectual elite of the Joseon dynasty, who made up the yangban ruling class, were all educated in public academies called seowon.
Sosuseowon, Korea’s oldest seowon, was established during the Joseon Dynasty in Yeongju City, North Gyeongsang Province.
Members of the Confucian Academy of Byeongsanseowon bid farewell after attending an annual two-day autumn commemorative tribute in honor of Ryu Seong-ryong, the Chief State Councilor of the Joseon Dynasty in 1592 . Photo © 2021 Hyungwon Kang
Seowon across the country has become a magnet for the production of scholarly intellectuals and politicians whose endless political rivalry over the 500-year period of the Joseon Dynasty has repeatedly turned bloody.
When King Sejo (1417-1468), son of King Sejong the Great, became the 17th King of Joseon in 1455 after the overthrow of his nephew Danjong, the fallout from this coup led to the death order. of Danjong in 1457 It occurred after a massacre of hundreds of Danjong followers in Sosuseowon in 1453.
Danjong was the only King Joseon who did not have a proper funeral when he was killed by poison in exile.
Adhering to the Korean Confucian tradition of honoring the dead, Danjong received a full royal funeral in May 2007, 550 years after his death.
By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])
Korean-American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. – Ed.
By Korea Herald ([email protected])