The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 5)

Historical Background:
Korean Neo-Confucianism

Confucianism was the most common intellectual, moral and cultural heritage of East Asia. Korea had a long and rich tradition of Confucianism since the early period. Particularly in the Choson dynasty, it affected Korean philosophy, religion, social and political systems, and ways of life. For many centuries in Korea, it has been a code of family and social ethics and an intellectual discourse, as well as a political ideology. It also maintained some religious dimension in terms of its spiritual teaching and practice and its ritualistic tradition. And yet, it differs from other religious or philosophical traditions because it tends to integrate most aspects of human life and culture, including learning, moral and spiritual self-cultivation, family regulation, social harmony, political order, and cultural identity.

In the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.C-668 C.E.), Confucianism. Taoism, and Buddhism were all officially accepted by the ruling class and later spread to the commoners. In fact, each of three kingdoms supported Confucianism not only as an important part of Chinese learning, but also as an institutional means of maintaining its aristocratic power and its socio-political order. In addition, Confucian ritualism was embodied in official court ceremonies, including the veneration of decreased kings and other leaders. The people of Silla, for example, learned Confucian ethics and put it into practice in their daily life. The impact of Confucianism on Silla society indicates that even some Buddhist monks tried to incorporated certain Confucian rite system. Another good example of Confucian influence is Silla’s Hwarangdo (way of the flower youth), a quasi-religious and military academy for aristocratic sons, which promoted the Confucian way of learning and self-cultication. This academy was particularly important in welding together Silla Korean society. The Confucian virtue of loyalty, its cohesive force, facilitated Silla not only to maintain the authority of the throne, but also to unify two neighbouring kingdoms.

In the United Silla period (668-935), Confucianism began to rival Buddhism. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many Korean students were sent to Tang China and studied Confucianism at its national academy. Still, Confucianism was studied mainly in Buddhist temples and Monasteries, the academic and religious centres of United Silla. Meanwhile, Confucian scholars promoted Confucianism as an alternative system of learning, self-cultivation, and political ideology for building a bureaucratic state in which they and their followers could prosper under state patronage. The establishment of the state examination system clearly reflects United Silla’s decision to promote Confucian learning, rather than noble lineage, as the basis of selecting government officials.

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