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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Kimchi
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
SUMMER 1987 Vol.1 No.2
  Heritage
  Sunggyun-gwan, Sanctuary of Confucianism in Korea
  An Byung-ju
Professor, Sung Kyun Kwan University
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Some Western scholars may say that Confucianism is dead, that it vanished with the fall of the old aristocratic society. However, they are mistaken. Confucianism still enjoys popularity among a sizeable minority of Koreans. The 1985 census revealed that 2.8 percent of Korea's religious population is Confucian.
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Twice every year in the second and eighth lunar months a ceremony called Sokchon is held at a shrine on the premises of Sung Kyun Kwan University to honor Confucius and some of his greatest Chinese and Korean disciples. Korea is the only place where the Sochon ritual is preserved in the original form.
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When you enter the gate to the university in downtown Seoul, you will find a cluster of ancient buildings to the right side. They were called Munmyo from early times. One of the buildings is the shrine called "Taesongjon" where the sacred tablets of Confucius and other sages are housed. The Sokchon ritual takes place in the courtyard of the shrine.
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When all the participating officers, musicians, and dancers take their positions, the ceremony starts. Confucian rituals put more emphasis on the ceremony than on music and dance. Every time an officer takes his turn to make offerings, eight rows of eight students dance rhythmically bowing left, right and center. In the first part they hold a flute in one hand and a dragon-headed stick in the other. In the second half they beat wooden hammers on wooden shields. Musicians play extraordinary antique musical instruments like graded rows of jadeite stone gongs, and bronze bells to provide an accompaniment for the reverent slow motion bowing, the ritualized incantation of poems and the libations of "divine wine."
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The Munmyo Confucian academy and shrine, designated a national treasure, was constructed in 1398, the seventh year of King T'aejo, (r. 1392-1398) of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910). It was renamed Songgyun-gwan* in the early 14th century. The name was borrowed from the Book of Decorum, one of 13 Confucian Classics. The origin of the Confucian academy can be traced back to the early days of the Shilla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D.935) and the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 608) but Sung Kyun Kwan University claims 1398 as the year of its official founding.
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Despite various ups and downs, Songgyun-gwan basically taught Confucian teachings to students between 1398 and 1894. From 1895 it was transformed into a modern university teaching a wide range of subjects.
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The major buildings located on the grounds of Mumnyo are Taesongjon (main hall), Tongmu (east hall), Somu (west hall), Myongnyundang (lecture hall), Tongjae (east dormitory), Sojae (west dormitory), Chonggyongdang (library), and Chinsashiktang (dining hall). (* Songgyum-gwan is the correct McCune-Reischauer Romanization or the name or the Confucian academy, but the university spells its name Sung Kyun Kwan. They are both the same Korean word.)
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When Confucianism was at its prime, the sacred tablets of Confucius and 132 Chinese and Korean disciples were housed in the main hall, east hall and west hall, but later 94 of them were withdrawn. Today the tablets of Confucius and 38 China and Korean disciples are enshrined in the main hall. The east and west halls are empty.
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After the collapse of the Choson Kingdom, Songgyun-gwan which had played a vital role in national, education and culture was degraded into a private institute under the Japanese colonial policy of obliterating Korean culture. When Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945, Confucians all over the country consolidated the properties of 231 hyanggyo (local Confucian academies) and established the present Sung Kyun Kwan University to carry on the educational tradition of the Songgyungwan.
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Confucianism is deeply rooted in the Korean psyche. It is very difficult to tell what in life is truly Confucian and what is not. People do not think of themselves as Confucians, though the natural Korean way of doing things is largely Confucian. This is reflected in social life, in the relations between family members, between seniors and juniors, between men and women, and between friends, in the respect for the elderly, in the desire for education, and much more.
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Critics say Confucianism is a system of subordinations: of the son to the father, of the younger brother to the elder, of the wife to the husband, and of the subject to the throne. They claim the concept has failed to keep pace with the modernization of Korea. Confucianism, however, embraces a moral and ethical system, a philosophy of life and interpersonal relations, a code of conduct, and a method of government, all viable enough to have taken the place of more orthodox religious beliefs in China for thousands of years, and the same held true in Korea.
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Confucianism entered Korea at nearly the same time as Buddhism, and had a strong influence on social and government institutions. It was not until the establishment of the Choson Kingdom and its ousting of Buddhism from political influence in the late 14th century that Confucianism was elevated to the status of 11 state cult, a position left vacant by the disestablishment of Buddhism.
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Education in the Chinese Classics, and particularly the ethical and philosophical books of Confucius, became the sole basis of education; and erudition was the only path to social and political success. State examinations, which many failed and took over and over again for years while their families supported them, determined the criteria for advancement of the scholar-official, the only career which a man of talent and breeding could honorably pursue.
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Confucianism at best insured stability and security within the system, but was deplorably inadequate to meet challenges from outside, whether military, political or social. Korea thus became the "Hermit Kingdom" and remained so until the painful period late in the 19th century when the old system was eroded by overwhelming incursions from Japan and the Western powers.
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It is quite encouraging to note that some Western scholars are studying the Confucian values still alive in the Chinese Classics and seriously considering the introduction of Confucian philosophy to the modern world whose ethics and morals have been shattered by individualism. At the same time, Korean Confucians are studying ways to make Confucian values more relevant to modern life, emphasizing harmony and discarding the system of subordination.
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The writer is a professor at Sung Kyun Kwan University
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Translated by Seo In-kyo
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