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Confucianism in Korea


     Confucianism traces its origin to the teachings of the Chinese philosopher, K'ung-fu-tzu (Anglicized as Confucius) who lived about 551-479 BCE.  Confucius taught principles to reform individuals and society and criticized the misuse of political power.  He looked back to legendary sage-kings, such as Yao and Shun (prior to 2200 BCE), and other virtuous and wise people as examples of the benevolent way to organize society and govern for the benefit of all people.  Meng-tzu (Mencius, 372-289 BCE) was the second greatly influential teacher in this tradition.  He severely criticized corrupt governance and promoted a Royal Path of virtue.  
      During the Han dynasty of China (206 BCE-8 CE), Confucianism was adopted as the state ideology.  Over the centuries it spread throughout East and Southeast Asia to have a tremendous impact on institutions of government and education as well as social ethics and family life.  Confucianism especially promotes the ideal of the scholar, who cultivates virtue in oneself and shares it through service in government, teaching, and daily life to benefit all people in rippling effects from family to the wider society to the world.  Confucianism also influenced the development of meditation, martial arts, and herbal and acupuncture systems designed to promote health through moral cultivation and balanced life energy (ch'i).
     The photos in this section are from my research travels in Korea.  Confucianism has strongly influenced Korean culture for about 2000 years.  During the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), Neo-Confucianism was the state ideology.  The photos illustrate ceremonies, study centers, shrines, and burial places that commemorate great scholars, kings, and generals. This reflects the Confucian appreciation for heritage and wise teachers and public servants.  For example, Great King Sejong (r. 1418-50) organized many efforts to benefit social welfare through technological inventions, creation of the Korean alphabet to promote literacy, and renovation of music and arts.  Jo Gwang-Jo (16th century) was a scholar who advocated that government should exist for the welfare of people rather than aggrandizement of rulers.  He was forced to drink lethal poison by the king due to false accusations by slanderous rivals.  His last words, as inscribed on a memorial stone near his grave, were:

I loved the king as my father.

I worried about the country as my home.

The white sun descended on this land

And shown brightly on my red heart.

      You will also find here a wide range of other Confucian themes, such as appreciation for the ginkgo tree (Confucius liked to teach under its branches) and honoring the virtue of filial piety (that is, respecting parents, elders, and ancestors).