The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 18)

Neo-Confucian Education and State Examination System

With the establishment and spread of Neo-Confucianism, the state examination system, with was put into effect in Koryo as a way of recruiting government officials, took on a more central role in the Choson dynasty. The Neo-Confucian literati had great socio-political might in the entire society. They devised a system of administrative law infused with ethic-political ideals of Confucianism. They constituted yangban, the privileged two orders of civil and military officials. The term yangban distinguishes them from other social classes. Given the fact that marriage between yangban and lower classed was prohibited, the yangban state became exclusively heredity in this Confucian society. As a result, social classes of literati and commoners were strictly separated according to birth and lineage. For example, occupational distinctions maintained a hierarchical order with the yangban class occupying the highest place. Rights and duties were prescribed for each group by law. Although the elite class enjoyed political, social, and cultural privileges, its men became government officials through civil-service examination or by the merit of their ancestors to the state. We may designate this Confucian society as an elite, yangban-dominant society.

One of the most fascinating facts about the entire Confucian tradition in East Asia is Korea as the most thoroughly Confucianised state during the five centuries of the Choson dynasty. From the easy fifteenth century, Choson society accepted Neo-Confucianism; by the eighteenth century, almost all levels of the whole society became transformed into what JaHyun Kim Haboush calls a Confucian normative society. As the conscious attempt of the yangban elite to Confucianise the whole society became stronger, many power struggle. Indeed, one can argue that Neo-Confucianism played a powerful intellectual and ethico-political role that engendered an elite yangban society, on the one hand, and a conservative bureaucratic tradition, on the other. This has been the most popular area in current scholarship in traditional Korean history, society, and politics, one that need not be rehearsed here.

To protect common interests of the whole yangban class, the early Choson dynasty found it wise to put primary emphasis on state examinations. From the early fifteenth century, then, Confucian education thus became a primary gateway to personal and family success. However, note that, although any commoner of free-born status theoretically was allowed to write examinations, the yangban quickly monopolised the state examination system, partly because financial and educational opportunities to attend Confucian academies and, thus, to prepare for the examinations were available almost exclusively to the sons of the yangban class.

These examinations were conducted at two levels: lower examinations (sokwa) and higher examinations (taekwa). The former included the classics licentiate examination (saengwon si) on the Five Classics and the Four Books and the literary licentiate examination (chins si) on skill in composing such Chinese literary works as poetry, documentary prose, and problem essays. The texts used in the examinations also included Neo-Confucian commentaries, histories, and other books. the most important ones among the Neo-Confucian texts were the Hsing-li ta-chuan (Great Compendium on Human Nature and Principle), Chu Hsi’s Hsiao-hsueh (Elementary Learning) and Chin-ssu lu (Reflections on Things at Hand), and the Ssu-shu chang-chu chichi (Collected Commentaries on the Words and Phrases of the Four Books). The first three were especially important to the extent that, in the early fifteenth century, many copies of these texts were regularly brought from Ming China. Hence, the government continued to develop its public academies, which was, in fact, significant for Neo-Confucian scholar-officials to establish a thoroughly Confucian society on the basis of the state examination and education systems. However, as they began to accumulate more political power throughout the whole country, this soon led to the serve purges of Neo-Confucian literati.

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