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Humanity - Asian Thought - The Spread Of Confucianism

university press korea confucians

Although Wang's school was widely influential, Zhu's tradition became the state orthodoxy in China, and it was also imported to Korea and Japan. By the fourth century C.E., Confucianism was well-established in Korea, and during the Koryu dynasty (918–1392) a number of Confucian academies were built. Although Buddhism was the official state ideology, the government instituted a system of civil examinations that followed the Chinese Confucian model.

During the Yi dynasty (1392–1910), Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the state ideology, and Zhu Xi's school became dominant. Korean Confucians generally emphasized the study of human nature and principle (songnihak) and "learning of the way" (tohak). Following Zhu's lead, Korean Confucians focused on the concepts of principle, vital energy, and heart/mind. The most influential Korean Neo-Confucian, T'oegye (the literary name of Yi Hwang, 1501–1570), was primarily concerned with practical questions of how Confucian ideas should be manifested in human activity.

After Confucianism became the state ideology, the main emphasis of the tradition was textual study, which over time became mostly arid and unoriginal. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a new school arose in Korea, which came to be known as the "Practical Learning" (Silhak). Its proponents criticized the scholastic Confucians for focusing on words and ignoring practical concerns. Chung Mong-ju (1337–1392), the founder of the movement, stated that "the way of Confucianism lies in the ordinary affairs of daily life. Even in sexual relations and in eating and drinking there is a meaningful principle." The main focus of this school was on how to improve society and directly help the people, and its adherents characterized traditional Confucians as being overly concerned with empty academic study that had no practical use.

The Yi dynasty ended with the Japanese invasion and annexation of Korea in 1911. During the occupation, Confucianism declined due to lack of state support, and when the Japanese were expelled after World War II, the new government decided not to support Confucian institutions, which continued their decline. In the early twenty-first century most of the remaining Confucian academies are museums, but there is still one Confucian university, the Songgyun'gwan in Seoul, and a few traditional scholars (mostly elderly) who continue to uphold the tradition. Their numbers are dwindling, however, and there are few young Koreans who are interested in undertaking the extensive training required of traditional Confucians.

Despite its modern travails, Confucianism continues to be widely influential in East Asia, and its philosophies and moral codes are a core element of the culture of China, Korea, and Japan. In the early 2000s the Confucian educational system that once dominated the intellectual life of East Asia is a thing of the past, and the great Confucian academies are merely historical monuments, but Confucian ideas about human nature, morality, and good governance still influence the way people in the region see themselves and their societies.

See also Confucianism; Daoism.


Ames, Roger T., ed. Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mark, and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, and JaHyun Kim Haboush, eds. The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Ko, Dorothy. Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Daoist Tradition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Mann, Susa, and Yu-Yin Cheng, ed. Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1985.

Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

John Powers

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