Korea's Religious Places - 2.2 Seonggyungwan National Academy
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
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|1) Jongmyo Shrine (The Royal Ancestral Shrine)||2) Seonggyungwan National Academy||3) Hyanggyo (Local Confucian Schools)|
Seonggyungwan National Academy (Seoul)
The headquarters of Korean Confucianism, today and traditionally, is said to be the Seonggyungwan National Academy. Located in the northeast-central section of Seoul, it was not far from the palace complexes in the north-central section of the city. The Seonggyungwan National Academy was the place where, on the one hand, major ceremonies honoring Confucius, Chinese sages, and Korean sages were held; and on the other hand, the highest level of education took place to educate candidates for the all-important state examination. Let us first examine the ceremonies, and then address the educational system, at the apex of which stood the network of Confucian academies—hyanggyo (county schools) and seowon (private academies).
The major ceremonies at the Seonggyungwan National Academy took place twice a year: in the spring and in the autumn. This brings to mind the Confucian classic called the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), one of the most important Confucian texts. It is often translated as the Annals, or, roughly, the annual record of events during the time of Confucius. Indeed, the annals of the classic period of 600 BCE became the template for subsequent historical compilations in China and Korea.
In modern Korea, the spring celebration is featured more than that of the autumn, but both are still held. In addition to those major ceremonies, a smaller ceremony is held twice a month, on the full moon and the new moon.
The recipient of the ceremonial offerings is primarily Confucius, and with him, his four disciples, the sixteen Chinese sages, and the eighteen Korean sages. The process of recognizing a sage was complicated, and resulted in the scholar so honored being enshrined in the Seonggyungwan National Academy and in every hyanggyo in the country. Enshrinement means that a spirit tablet, a wooden plaque with the honored sage’s name written on it, is placed in each shrine. Each tablet sits on its own chair, a chair that looks much like a child’s highchair in the West. Each chair and tablet sit in a prescribed order in each shrine around the country. Each tablet is covered with a box-like covering that is lifted off to expose the wooden tablet with the name of the sage, only on the occasion of a ceremony. Lifting off the cover invites the spirit to come and partake of the food offerings, which is the heart of the ceremony.
The Seonggyungwan National Academy serves a dual purpose: ritual and education. There are two primary buildings, one for each purpose, and then ancillary buildings around the courtyards to support each activity. In front of each of the two major buildings there is a courtyard—one supporting ritual and one supporting education. Surrounding the courtyard for the ceremonies are buildings where officials can change into ceremonial robes, and buildings that store vessels of bronze to hold the various foodstuffs for the offerings. The entrance to the first courtyard, which is for ceremonies, is marked by a three-door gate. The three-door gate is always found at places of ritual and the doors have symbolic and ritual usage. The right door is for mortals to enter, the left door is for mortals to exit, and the center door is called the spirit door, which is only opened to welcome the spirits during the ceremonies.
Inside the ceremonial courtyard, we see the building for the rituals. It has a signboard that says “Hall of the Great Accomplishment” (Daeseongjeon Shrine). This is, of course, a reference to Confucius. Inside that building are the spirit tablets to honor Confucius, his four disciples, the sixteen Chinese sages, and the eighteen Korean sages. On each side of the courtyard is a pair of gingko trees. At all Confucian shrines, traditionally and without exception, there are two gingko trees—two because gingko trees are either male or female, and there must be a male tree for the female tree to bear fruit. It is said that Confucius loved gingko trees; and thus, every shrine has a pair of gingko trees.
At the Seonggyungwan National Academy, there are two pairs of gingko trees. Inside the inner courtyard, there is a second pair. The inner courtyard, behind the building for ritual, is the courtyard for education. At the north end of the courtyard is the building for lectures and teaching, the “Hall for Elucidating Morality” (Myeongnyundang Lecture Hall). This building, though not imposing or grand in size, is important enough that it is found on the face of the KRW 1,000 currency today.
To the sides of the courtyard are dormitories for students. Each room, in a long row, is a living space inside the wall of the courtyard. Each room has a window to the courtyard and a door on the outside of the structure. Beyond the courtyard of the education building to the east is a set of buildings that include a dining hall and kitchen facilities, including quarters for servants who were owned by the academy. There is an interesting record kept at the Seonggyungwan National Academy indicating that roll call was held in the dining facility, which is how they knew students were present and in attendance at lectures.