The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 6)

The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in the Koryo Period

On the whole, there is not enough evidence to argue that Confucianism was important to everyone in the Three Kingdom and Unified Silla periods, It played a subordinate role to the traditional ideas and institutions maintained by noble families and hereditary aristocrats, as well as by the buddhist tradition. Not until the rise of Neo-Confucianism in the late thirteenth century did the Confucian tradition begin to exert a profound impact on Korean thought, religion, socio-political systems, and ways of life.

Confucian Academies
and State Examinations

In the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), there was a serious blow to high officials of aristocratic origin. Ko=ing Kwangjong (949-975), following the model of Tang China, appointed many Confucian scholars who had passed the state examination (kwago) to official government positions. The civil service examination system consisted of three major sections: the composition examination (chesul kwa), the classics examination (myonggyong kwa), and the miscellaneous examination (chap kwa). All members of aristocratic families and the freeborn pea ants were allowed to sit for the examinations, but the low-born slaves and the children of Buddhist monks were ineligible. During the unified Silla period, the criteria for selecting government officials tended to privilege the members of hereditary aristocratic families. However, the Koryo people of local elite groups had their opportunities to advance into the central bureaucracy. It was possible for more young men to become government officials in the Koryo period.

While relying on the views of Confucian scholars, Songjong (r. 981-997), the sixth king of Koryo, instituted a reform of the local government structure and laid the new foundation of Koryo’s aristocratic order. He liked Confucianism and was well versed in Confucian classics. In the second year of his region (982), a portrait of Confucius, the tableware used in Confucian ceremonies, and the texts regarding the achievements of the “Seventy-two Worthies” (Confucius’ disciples) were brought to Koryo Korea from Sung China. In fact, these stimulated the observance of Confucian ceremonies for the veneration of the Confucian sages throughout the country.

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