Korea's Religious Places - 2.4 Seowon (Private Confucian Academies)
|Understanding Korea Series No.6|
|← Previous||Korea's Religious Places||Next →|
|* Gyeongju Hyanggyo (Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do)||4) Seowon (Private Confucian Academies)||* Imgo Seowon (Yeongcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do)|
Beginning in 1542, the Joseon period saw a movement that eventually doubled the number of schools in Korea. The hyanggyo were administered by the state, by the local county government, but the seowon were administered by local committees composed of descendants of prominent scholars—descendants both genealogically and intellectually. Indeed, each seowon was dedicated to the memory of one man.
The first seowon was called the Sosu Seowon and was founded by Ju Se-bung (1495–1554), who had traveled to China and saw the school that Zhu Xi (1130–1200) had founded. Zhu Xi’s school was called the “White Deer Seowon” and Ju Se-bung originally called his academy the Baegundong Seowon (White Cloud Seowon), but later the name changed to Sosu Seowon, the “Continue the Polishing” academy. The academy was dedicated to the memory of An Hyang (1243–1306), who is credited with bringing the books of Zhu Xi to Korea and introducing Neo-Confucianism to Korea in the late Goryeo period. Zhu Xi had lived nearly 200 years earlier, in the time of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), but his philosophy had spread throughout China and Koreans were starting to hear about it. Although it took nearly 200 years for the ideas to spread to Korea, once they did, they took over the intellectual scene in Korea. The Joseon Dynasty, which was founded within a century of An Hyang’s time, was founded on the basis of Neo-Confucian principles. Although it took time, through the first century of the Joseon period, the fifteenth century, Neo-Confucianism came to take over. By the next century, debate on the finer points of Neo-Confucian ideology became the intellectual lifeblood of the dynasty. The two greatest scholars of Korean history, and perhaps the two greatest cultural icons of Korea, Yi Hwang and Yi I, lived in the next century, the sixteenth. The impact of Neo-Confucianism on Korea is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that it is these two scholars who are on the common denominations of money in Korea today, together with King Sejong, who is on the KRW 10,000 note.
Once Neo-Confucianism got its hold on Korea in the early Joseon period, it did not let go throughout the full 500-year history of the dynasty. Another symbol of that deepening interest in the intellectual stimulation of Neo-Confucianism is the spread of the seowon movement. After the founding of the Baegundong Seowon (Sosu Seowon) in 1542, seowon were founded all over the peninsula.