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Confucianism in Korea

Although Confucianism was introduced to Korea before Buddhism, its ideological flowering occurred later through the introduction of Neo-Confucianism during the late-Koryo and early-Choson periods. For this reason, we will look at five Confucian thinkers from the Choson period.

Chong To-jon (1342-1398), styled Sambong, was a thinker who played a central role in overthrowing the Koryo Dynasty and establishing the new Choson Dynasty on the basis of Neo-Confucianism. In his teachings, he elucidated Confucian orthodoxy, claiming that Buddhism and Taoism stood outside of the Confucianism orthodoxy and were thereby heterodox. According to Chong, li (principle) was the basic concept of Confucianism, ki (material force) the basic concept of Taoism and mind, that of Buddhism. Since ki and mind only operated based on li, they could not be used as a basis for philosophy. Chong thus claimed that Taoism and Buddhism were one-sided and incomplete heterodoxies which should be abolished and replaced with orthodox Confucianism. In works such as Choson kyonggukchon, Chong advocated a reordering of society to accord with the times. As a reformer, he advocated social change based on enlightened government and Confucian orthodoxy. Through his efforts, Neo-Confucianism was established as the ideology of the newly formed Choson Dynasty.


Kwon Kun (1352-1409, styled Yang-ch'on) was a scholar who, along with Chong To-jon, established the Confucian tradition of the Choson Dynasty. He translated the "Four Books and Three Classics" of the Confucian canon from the standpoint of Neo-Confucianism, bringing classical studies to a new height. In his diagram Ch'oninshimsong habiljido, he clarified the concepts of Heaven, man, mind and human nature, laying the foundation for Choson Neo-Confucian thought. Through his research on the classics, he developed Confucian orthodoxy and through his theoretical studies, he prepared the philosophical basis of Neo-Confucianism. In this sense, he served as a prominent leader of Confucian studies of the period.


Yi Hwang (1501-1570), styled T'oegye, is the scholar who brought Choson Neo-Confucianism into full bloom. In songhak shipto (Ten Diagrams of Sagely Learning) and numerous other writings, he propounded his doctrine that li and ki arise in mutual correspondence. This theory touched off a vigorous debate among Choson Neo-Confucian scholars, which in the end led to extraordinary developments in the school's doctrines. In terms of theory, T'oegye propounded the view that li was dominant. However, instead of stopping at mere theory, he developed a practical teaching method aimed at personal cultivation. Neo-Confucianism is often called, simply, the "study of the Way." With a teaching that encompassed both theoretical reflections as well as practical cultivation, T'oegye can be said to have perfected this teaching. His Neo-Confucian thought gathers the brilliant practical ideals lying within each theory and puts them together to form a whole. In a sense, his theoretical doctrines form the starting point of the study of the Way, while his doctrine of practical cultivation represents its culmination. Thus, T'oegye was not a fundamentalist or a dogmatist, but was rather an intelligent advocate of piety who devoutly sought the practical realization of his ideals.

Yi I (1536-1584, styled Yulgok), along with T'oegye, was one of the two great masters of Choson Confucianism. Although Yulgok praised T'oegye's philosophy, he criticized many of its theoretical aspects. His numerous written works, including songhak chibyo (Compilation of the Essentials of Sagely Learning), indicate diverse and extensive scholarly interests.

In Yulgok's thought, that which manifests is ki and that by which it is manifested is li. He thus emphasized that li and ki were an inseparable entity. According to his theory, when ki becomes active, li ascends it so as to become a unity. The fact that Yulgok was able to apply this doctrine to the diverse aspects of his teaching while maintaining logical consistency demonstrates his brilliance as a thinker. His general theory is also related to his theory of government, in which he sets forth numerous programs for social reform. He is remembered as an outstanding intellectual of his time who worked to realize an ideal Confucian society.

The last figure we will look at is Chong Yak-yong (1762-1836). Styled Tasan, he is a representative Sirhak scholar of the late 19th century. Sirhak (Practical Learning) is an ideology that sought to reform the institutionalized Neo-Confucianism of the Choson period, and thus represents a liberal movement within the Confucian tradition. In order to put an end to the doctrinal disputes that had plagued Neo-Confucianism during the previous two centuries, Tasan felt that it was necessary to elucidate the central teaching of Confucianism. Thus, Tasan began a radical reinterpretation of the vast corpus of Confucian classics. Based on this work, Tasan penned an extensive collection of treatises on government, including his famous work Mongmin shimso (On Leading the People). His theory of government focuses on assuring the livelihood of the people and the nation's legal system. For this reason, his practical philosophy rejected the Neo-Confucian obsession with metaphysics. Instead, it sought to resolve issues affecting the livelihood of the people while encouraging good government capable of helping people during times of crisis. In this sense, Tasan was a forward-looking thinker who sought to reform tradition in response to the needs of the times.

The five Confucian thinkers discussed above all created monumental works that helped define the history of Korean Confucianism. As can be seen, Choson-era Confucian scholars placed great importance on a pious fidelity to their tradition. For this reason, they had a very exclusive attitudes towards other religions. In this light, they certainly appear to be self-righteous. Yet if we reach a more comprehensive understanding of these five thinkers, we discover something quite different. Instead of clinging to Neo-Confucian dogma, they sought to elucidate the ideals of Neo-Confucianism according to their historical circumstances and reform the societies in which they lived. Understood within this context, they must not be seen as exclusive dogmatist, but as creative intellectuals.

In Korea, the representative Buddhist and Confucian thinkers were not interested in theory for its own sake. Instead, they utilized their independent intellectual abilities to elucidate religious ideals within the context of their unique historical reality. This intellectual attitude has formed the basis of Korea's ancient classical culture. From the Three Kingdoms through the Choson period, countless Buddhist and Confucian thinkers have left their legacy of refined philosophical works as well as beautiful, practical examples of their search for human ideals. For this reason, Korea, even more than China or Japan, has been able to preserve Confucianism and Buddhism in their classical forms.


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