Confucian influences in Korea Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Sunday, 24 August 2008 16:39

The other day I was commenting on the apparent freedom that Koreans enjoy because of their sense of community. My friend, Cha Yun-kyung, a professor in the area of sociology of education at Hanyang University, Seoul, said that the tenets of Confucianism also play into the sense of propriety and responsibility that helps maintain order in this densely populated country.

This past weekend the Chas and I drove to Gyeungjong, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty. We traveled along part of the north-south spine of the country, a series of low, but quite steep granite mountains that rise about 2000 feet from the road. The small valleys we passed occasionally were intensely farmed, creating a patchwork of rice, corn, sesame, garlic, eggplant, ginseng, and a variety of fruit trees.

The city is dotted with ancient tombs of the Silla kings and queens. They date from the mid 8th century A.D. and are rounded hills ranging in height from about 15 feet to over 100 feet. The royal corpse was laid to rest in a wooden chanber that was covered with as much as 15-20 feet of rocks, a relatively thin layer of clay a a foot or so thick, and then that was buried under soil.

On the trip back we stopped at a Confucian school outside Andong, a city about three to four hours northwest of Pusan. Dosanseodang would have housed about thirty students at a time. Founded in 1561 by Yi Hwang, a well-known neo-Confucian scholar who also went by the name of Toegye, it has a variety of interesting structures, like a double library raised above the damp ground to protect the delicate handwritten parchments, a printing room, several classrooms, as well as small cells for Confucian scholars and students. In a small museum adjacent to the school, some of Yi Hwang’s basic principles for living are described. They sound very much like some things St. Paul says: be patient, observe your surroundings carefully; don’t be deceitful, love others, do not kill, don’t even entertain vicious thoughts. I wonder how the Gospel was preached by the early Korean missionaries, and how much resonance their listeners would have heard in St. Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians or Philippians?

I know next to nothing about Confucianism, although it seems that Yi Hwang at least thought that knowledge should lead to right actions in order to truly be called knowledge. It also sought order in one’s personal life and in society. Neo-Confucian scholars were important figures in the Joseon dynasty in Korea, and the good Korean king would have been expected to govern according to neo-Confucian principles. In fact, Yi Hwang served in nearly 30 different administrative posts under for Joseon dynasty kings, and was known for his impeccable character and dedication to truth. Whether he and other scholars were more successful in influencing the behavior of Korean politicians than Catholic religious leaders were regarding the behavior of European kings, I do not know.