Governance System, Social Order, and Religion - Confucianism of Korea

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Confucianism places great value in the virtue of benevolence (仁) and argues that this is the basis of human ethical norms. Although it does not accept the concept of god(s) or heaven, it can be considered a religion as it is a teaching founded on humans’ original ethical values and devotion to sages who demonstrated such values.

It is uncertain exactly when Confucianism, which originated in China, was introduced to Gojoseon Korea. However, according to the legend of Gija, it may have been introduced sometime around the fall of Shang China (around 1046 BC). Chinese civilization and documents in Chinese characters were introduced from this early time. However, Confucianism began to be adopted to a greater degree as a means for central government administration during the later Three Kingdoms period. During Unified Silla and Goryeo, Confucian education institutions were established for the education of government administrators and ritual offerings to Confucius were a national event. However, rather than that of a religion, Confucianism was a means of governance by the elites. The realm of religion was dominated by Buddhism during this period.

However, with the establishment of the Joseon dynasty in 1392, Confucianism (became not only the official governance ideology of the elites, but was also made a part of the everyday lives of ordinary people. Public Confucian schools (hyanggyo) were established in every village. In addition to teaching Confucian classics in lecture halls, these schools held offering rituals for Confucius and other sages in order to instill a respect for their teachings in the people. In the middle period of Joseon, private Confucian academies (seowon) also began to be established in honor of renowned Confucian scholars of the local area to hold ritual offerings for them and continue their teachings. Measures to ensure the common people followed Confucian rites and customs were also implemented. By doing this, discipline over national governance was maintained for over 500 years.

Among the many Korean scholars of this period, Yi Hwang (李滉, 1502-1571) and Yi I are most renowned (李珥, 1537-1584). Both featured on Korean Won banknotes, these Neo-Confucian scholars put forth differing arguments on the nature of benevolence.

Today, many Confucian shrines, schools, and academies can be found around the country preserved as cultural heritages. Despite this, almost no Koreans today would consider their religion to be Confucianism. As the social class system was dissolved and new ways of measuring social achievement were introduced, Confucianism lost its hold as a means of governance. That being said, Confucianism plays both a conscious and subconscious in the societal norms of Koreans today. Confucian ideals influence the relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, older and younger siblings and students, etc. Most Koreans still hold offering rituals for their deceased ancestors on holidays and anniversaries of death.

[Dosanseowon Confucian Academy with the Dignity of Confucian Scholars of the Joseon Dynasty (K-HERITAGE)]

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