Many norms and mores of Korean society are rooted in the tenets of Confucianism, a system of ethics developed in China around 500 B.C. and is named after the Chinese scholar Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Confucianism emphasizes devotion and respect towards elders, parents, family and people in positions of authority. Many Koreans attribute their country's remarkable success in recent decades to these values. In modern Korean society, Confucianism is most noticeable in relations between people. The Five Relationships prescribe behavior between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, old and young, and between friends. If you fall outside any of these relationships, it is said, you do not effectively exist. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Even though less than half a percent of the South Korean population identifies themselves as Confucian it has been argued that Korea is the most Confucian place on earth, even more so than China, where Confucianism originated but was suppressed under Communist rule. Although largely regarded as a philosophy and system of ethics more than a religion elsewhere, Confucianism is sometimes treated as religion in Korea. There are Confucian priests, and Confucian temples were offerings of rice cakes, pears and cow's head sare presented at altars. Korean Confucians wear hats that look like paper bags and perform rites at funerals.

In Korean Confucianism, there is distinction between the clergy and the laity. Some Confucians want to make Confucianism into a formal hierarchal religion with six classes lead by a supreme patriarch called a “Chongjon,: elected to a four year term by a college of electorates. Korean Confucians celebrate Confucius's birthday on May 10 and September 28. Weekly service are held on Sunday and incense ceremonies are conducted on the 1st and 15th day of every month. Confucian shrines known as Hyanggyo are centers of teaching and worship. Funding for temples come from the community.

Few Koreans identify themselves as Confucianist but many carry on at least some Confucian traditions and practices. Confucian was popular in the late 1990s, A book called “The Country Lives If Confucius Dies” was widely read. In a book on South Korea, Mark Clifford wrote: "Korea's success is often laid at the feet of Confucius, but Korea's is a twisted, perverted form of Confucianism...It has been transformed almost beyond recognition in the past hundred years. Much of what passes for consensus in Korea is actually coercion. There is little room in most factories and offices fore these classical Confucian ideals, except as decorative calligraphy on the wall."

Much commentary on contemporary Korea focuses on the Confucianism as a conservative philosophy that stresses tradition, veneration of a past golden age, careful attention to the performance of ritual, disdain for material goods, commerce, and the remaking of nature, combined with obedience to superiors and a preference for relatively frozen social hierarchies and how this impacted on the allegedly authoritarian and antidemocratic character of Korean society. Emphasis on the legacy of Confucianism, however, does not explain the extraordinary commercial bustle of South Korea, the materialism and conspicuous consumption of new elites, or the determined struggles for democratization by Korean workers and students. At the same time, one cannot assume that communist North Korea broke completely with the past. The legacy of Confucianism includes the country's family-based politics, the succession to rule of the leader's son, and the extraordinary veneration of Kim Il Sung. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In a book on South Korea, Mark Clifford wrote: "Korea's success is often laid at the feet of Confucius, but Korea's is a twisted, perverted form of Confucianism...It has been transformed almost beyond recognition in the past hundred years. Much of what passes for consensus in Korea is actually coercion. There is little room in most factories and offices fore these classical Confucian ideals, except as decorative calligraphy on the wall."


Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

According to a Library of Congress description: “Confucianism is not a religion, although some have tried to imbue it with rituals and religious qualities, but rather a philosophy and system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C. has guided China's society. Kong Fuzi (Confucius in Latinized form) is honored in China as a great sage of antiquity whose writings promoted peace and harmony and good morals in family life and society in general. Ritualized reverence for one's ancestors, sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, has been a tradition in China since at least the Shang Dynasty (1750 — -1040 B.C.). [Source: Library of Congress]

Confucianism mainly addresses humanist concerns rather than things like God, revelation and the afterlife. It emphasizes tradition, respect for the elderly, hierarchal social order and rule by a benevolent leader who is supposed to look out for the well being of his people. Named after a Chinese sage named Confucius, it contains elements of ancestor worship, which is partly why it is sometime regarded as a religion. Traditionally, Chinese who have sought a mystical philosophy or religion turned to Taoism or Buddhism. This means that it is possible and even likely that someone who is regarded as a Confucian is also a Buddhist or a Taoist or even a Christian.

Confucianism was a system of ideas developed by later philosophers out of Confucius's thoughts and its relationship to the original thoughts of the man himself is extremely debatable. The term Confucianism was coined by Westerners. In China, Confucians call themselves ju, a word of uncertain origin that refers to their beliefs as the “way of the sages” or “the way of the ancients." These beliefs are associated with the legendary founders and ancient sages of China and are thought to have existed from time immemorial. Confucius is regarded as the last of the great sages.

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “Confucianism is perhaps the most well-known of the textual traditions in China. The classical Confucian texts became key to the orthodox state ideology of the Chinese dynasties, and these texts, though they were mastered only by a scholarly elite, in fact penetrated society deeply. Through the interpretation of the scholar Dong Zhongshu, who lived during the Han dynasty from around 179-104 B.C., Confucianism became strongly linked to the cosmic framework of traditional Chinese thought, as the Confucian ideals of ritual and social hierarchy came to be elaborated in terms of cosmic principles such as yin and yang. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/^^^]

Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism in the Chosun Dynasty

Confucianism was the mandatory state religion for over 500 years under the Yi dynasty during the Chosun period (A.D. 1392-1910). The Yi dynasty, wrote Pico Iyer in Smithsonian magazine, "set up a new and more systematic brand of Confucianism. Previously, Buddhism had always been regarded as a compliment of to Confucianism, concentrating not on society but self, not on this world but the next. Yi's new Confucianism, however, saw Buddhism's notions of individualism and meditation as threats to social harmony. Monastery lands were confiscated, Buddhist cremations were replaced by Confucian ancestor worship and reverence for authority. By 1425 all but 18 of the country's Buddhist temples were shuttered."

Neo-Confucianism, the dominant value system of the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. One of neo-Confucianism's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of a properly ordered human community express the immutable principles or laws that govern the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve self-cultivation and a kind of spiritual unity with heaven (although this was rarely described in mystic or ecstatic terms). Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole, which, like the properly cultivated individual, mirrors the harmony of the natural order. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

During the Chosun Dynasty, Korean kings made the Neo-Confucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) their state ideology. Although it was a foreign philosophy, Korean neo-Confucian scholars, of whom the most important was Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), played a role in adapting Zhu Xi's teachings to Korean conditions. This was done without denying the cultural superiority of China as the homeland of civilized thought and forms of life.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea became quite rigid and conservative by the mid-sixteenth century. In practice, the doctrine emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control for the individual. The Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese), formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and subsequently sanctified by Zhu Xi and other neo-Confucianist metaphysicians, governed proper human relations: that "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals; the others were based on authority and subordination.


According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “Neo-Confucianism” is a general term used to refer to the renaissance of Confucianism during the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) following a long period in which Buddhism and Taoism had dominated the philosophical world of the Chinese and also to the various philosophical schools of thought that developed as a result of that renaissance... The revival of Confucianism in Song times was accomplished by teachers and scholar-officials who gave Confucian teachings new relevance. Scholar-officials of the Song such as Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) and Sima Guang (1019-1086) provided compelling examples of the man who put service to the state above his personal interest. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ^^^]

“As Neo-Confucianism developed, two trends of thought emerged out of the Southern Song philosopher and official Zhu Xi's synthesis of the “learning of Principle” and the “Learning of the Mind and Heart." Both trends agreed that all the myriad things of the universe are manifestations of a single “Principle” (li) and that this Principle is the essence of morality. By understanding the Principle that underlies the universe (just as Buddhists understood all things in the universe as manifestations of the single Buddha spirit), then, men may understand the moral principles that they must put into practice in order to achieve an ordered family, good government, and peace under heaven. The two trends of thought differed, however, on the way in which human beings are to understand Principle.”

The thinking surrounding the “Learning of the Mind and Heart” is most often identified with the Ming general and statesman Wang Yangming (1472-1529). Wang argued that inasmuch as every living thing is a manifestation of Principle, then one need not look outside oneself in order to understand Principle (and therefore morality): one should consult one's own heart (or mind), wherein Principle surely lay. Since Principle is the basis of human nature, then it follows that anyone who understands his or her true nature understands the Principle of the universe.

Wang Yangming wrote: “The key to understanding does not lie in the world outside the mind: People fail to realize that the highest good is in their minds and seek it outside. As they believe that every thing or every event has some specific aspect of principle, they search for the highest good in individual things. Consequently, the mind becomes fragmentary, isolated, broken into pieces; mixed and confused, it has no definite direction. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The outside world has no existence at all, independent of man's mind: The innate knowledge of man is the same as that of plants and trees, tiles and stones... Even Heaven and earth cannot exist without the innate knowledge that is inherent in man, for at bottom, Heaven, earth, the world of things, and man form one body. A friend pointed to flowering trees on a cliff and said, “You say there is nothing under heaven external to the mind. These flowering trees on the mountain blossom and drop their blossoms of 5 themselves; what have they to do with my mind?” The Teacher said, “Before you look at these flowers, they and your mind are in a state of silent vacuity. As you come to look at them, their colors at once appear clearly. From this you can know that the flowers are not external to your mind."

Neo-Confucian Reforms

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “From the beginning of the Chosun period onwards, Neo-Confucian reformers sought to encourage Koreans to undertake forms of ritual observance described in Confucian texts. These were often at odds with existing Korean practices. When it came to funeral customs, they encouraged Confucian memorialization while decrying forms of religious and social commemoration that had been common during the Koryo period. The Neo-Confucian reform agenda in its spread and enforcement over the course of the Chosun dynasty provides an example of a certain sort of social transformation: a top-down, textually — and ideologically — driven re-engineering of society. Excerpted here is a 1437 decree on funeral practices drawn from the royal annals. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

The royal edict to the Department of Punishments on the Reform of Funerary Practices in Sejong sillok reads [in 1437] reads as follows: The people of our country follow in their mortuary and ancestral rites the bad customs of Koryo. Although prohibitions were put into the Six Codes of Governance, the authorities areunable to investigate the violations, and the old practices are thus still observed. We are a long way from correcting them. Nowadays people of high and low social status commonly compete with each other in upholding wanton ceremonies; they respect and trust shamans and dissipatefortunes. [Source: translated by Martina Deuchler, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 558.

“Some mourners visit shaman houses where music is played and the spirit of the dead is feasted. Others go to Buddhist temples and have a service held for the repose of the soul. Still others serve wine and food on the burial day, and host and guests console each other. All strive to outdo one another in lavishness and extravagance. The rich are boastful; the poor make strenuous efforts. They call in guests and friends, and men and women mix freely. Only when the costs of entertainment are excessive do they rejoice in their hearts and get praise from their neighbors. Because this has become a custom, they do not restrain themselves. Once they have a bad harvest, they come close to starvation. This is indeed something to worry about, because the people’s livelihood consequently deteriorates, and the quality of the customs is bound up with this.

“From now on the playing of music, the gathering of guests, and the performance of wanton ceremonies for the spirits, as well as visits of mourners to shaman houses to feast the spirit of the dead, or the invitation of guests to pray for the soul’s repose, and the serving of wine on funeral days must be clearly and sternly prohibited by the censorial offices in the capital and by the local authorities in the province. If there are offenders, host and guests will be held equally responsible.”

Neo-Confucianist Hostility Toward Buddhism

Pak Ch'o, an Anti-Buddhist Memorial, goes: “I, His Majesty’s subject, have heard that it was after heaven and earth existed that the myriad things came into being; that it was after the myriad things existed that man and woman came into being; that it was after man and woman existed that husband and wife came into being; that it was after husband and wife existed that father and son came into being; that it was after father and son existed that king and minister came into being; that it was after king and minister existed that senior and junior came into being; and that it was after senior and junior existed that ritual and righteousness were established. This is the universal way of the world and the normal law of all times that cannot be disregarded even briefly. If it is abolished, heaven and earth will not tolerate its abandonment, the sun and moon will not shine, the ghosts and spirits will carry out executions jointly, and all the generations under heaven will concur with the joint beheading. [Source: translated by John Duncan, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 373-374]

“What kind of man is this Buddha who makes a son that should carry on the family line betray his father and sever the affection between father and son; who makes men resist the Son of Heaven and destroy the righteousness between lord and minister; who says that for men and women to live together is not the Way; who says that for men to plow and women to weave is not righteous, thus severing the way of generating life and blocking off the source of food and clothing; and who thinks that through his way he can transform all under heaven? If his way were really carried out, humanity would be finished in a hundred years. Heaven would carry on above and earth would bear below, but the only things to grow would be grasses and trees, birds and beasts, fishes and turtles, and dragons and snakes. How, finally, could the Way of the Three Bonds and the Five Relations endure?

“This Buddha was originally a barbarian whose language was not like that of China, whose dress was weird, whose mouth did not speak of the kingly way of old, and whose body did not wear the sacerdotal clothing of the kings of old. He gave false revelations of three unhappy ways (to the hell of fire, of blood, and to the asipattra hell of swords) and incorrectly propounded the six ways of sentient existence, ultimately leading the foolish and ignorant to seek senilely for merit, fearing not the norms and carelessly violating the basic law.

“Furthermore, although life and death and longevity and brevity originate in nature, although power and fortune and punishment and virtue are linked with the ruler of men, and although poverty and wealth and nobility and baseness derive from accumulated merit, foolish deceiving monks all attribute these things to Buddha, thus stealing the authority of the ruler of men, treating arbitrarily the power of creation, dimming the eyes and ears of the people, plunging all under heaven into corruption, living in intoxication and dying in a dream without ever realizing it. Thus they build palaces and halls, which they serve; they decorate them with stone,wood, copper, and iron which they form; and they shave off the hair of commoner men and women whom they make reside there. Even though the Buddhists’ palaces surpass the palaces and halls of Chieh of Hsia [trad. 2205.1766 B.C.], the beautiful palace and Deer Terrace of Chou of Shang [trad. 1766.1122 B.C.], the Chang.hua Terrace of King Ling of Ch’u [740.330 B.C.], and the Ap’ang palace of the First Emperor of Ch’in [221.209 B.C.], do they not all come from the resources of the people? How distressful! Who will correct this situation? It can only be set right after he who is above demonstrates propriety by cultivating himself with virtue and instructing those below and leads the people to know wherein the principle of heaven resides.”

Confucianism, Relationship and Loyalty to Friends and Organizations

Confucianism is based on the family and an ideal model of relations between family members. It generalizes this family model to the state and to an international system — the Chinese world order. The principle is hierarchy within a reciprocal web of duties and obligations: the son obeys the father by following the dictates of filial piety; the father provides for and educates the son. Daughters obey mothers and mothers-in-law; younger siblings follow older siblings; wives are subordinate to husbands. The superior prestige and privileges of older adults make longevity a prime virtue. In the past, transgressors of these rules were regarded as uncultured beings unfit to be members of society. When generalized to politics, the principle mean that a village followed the leadership of venerated elders and citizens revered a king or emperor, who was thought of as the father of the state. Generalized to international affairs, the Chinese emperor was the big brother of the Korean king. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Another sign of Confucianism's influence in modern Korean life is the bonding that goes on between schoolmates, and in school between teachers and students. Powerful loyalties bind classmates to each other, ties that remain in effect all through life. This means that fellow alumni help each other find jobs after graduation, encourage and help each other's children much like godparents, give each other advice, and help each other when there is trouble. Another kind of school tie is the lifelong relationship between students and their teachers, beginning with the extreme respect shown teachers in the classroom and continuing after graduation, as younger people continue to revere those who taught them, asking their advice and making sure they are properly honored as they grow older. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“A variation on the theme of loyalty in school is loyalty in an organization during a person's career. A bank trainee, for example, is taken in hand by a mentor and taught the business, and this relationship turns into a variant of the "older brother/younger brother" tie. A carpenter's apprentice, perhaps a boy without parents or education, is taught how to work with wood, and he becomes, in effect, the carpenter's son. The carpenter/teacher may actually take responsibility for finding the apprentice a wife from among his acquaintances' families. The obligation for a young worker to live up to the standards set by an employer is a serious one, and it often brings forth levels of commitment and productivity that amaze people in other countries.

“The loyalty of workers to their companies, their willingness to put in long hours, and their sacrificial teamwork all add up to what is sometimes called the "Confucian ethic," a kind of secret weapon that has enabled South Korea, along with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (the four "minidragons") to outproduce much wealthier societies and compete for top ranking in the list of world trading powers. Confucianism is even visible in hard times, as in 1997 — 98 when several of the "minidragons" suffered economic reverses. People took their inability to pay debts, or the economic miscalculations of their leaders, or the exposure of corruption in their systems, as collective problems or a kind of group shame, and they vowed together to work even harder to make up the lost ground.”

Confucian Obligations

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Confucius, taught that people are not created equal and do not become equal throughout their lives. Rather, when they are born they are weak and need parents. When they are in school they are bigger or smaller or older or younger by age than other students. When they marry, wives are subordinate. With friends they have mutual duties and obligations. And as citizens they are subject to the authority of the government, king, or emperor. Throughout a person's life, he or she is always defined in relation to everyone else. As time passes, the relationships change. Sometimes they even reverse, as in the case of grown-up children who end up taking care of their aged parents. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“But there always is an element of reciprocity — a set of mutual obligations. Parents protect and teach their children and children should learn and obey their elders. Older siblings should set good examples for younger children and younger children should follow. Friends should be able to depend on each other throughout life. Husbands should love and provide for their wives and wives should love and obey their husbands. And everyone should obey the king who protects the people and provides for them. These paradigms are often referred to as the Confucian "five relationships": ruler/subject, father/son, older/younger, husband/wife, and friend/friend. In all of them but one — the relationship between friend and friend, assuming the friends are of exactly the same age, gender, and social rank — the relationships are unequal and require that the weaker party voluntarily submit to the stronger while the stronger exercises nurture and protection over the weaker.

“Confucius taught that if individuals would be conscious of their own place in society and the nature of their relationships with others, all need for violence would vanish. People would accept what they have and not attack each other or steal. Rulers would be generous and just and there would be no need to rebel. The strong would lead by moral example and others would gladly follow them out of respect. Thus harmony would prevail whether on a societal level, as in the state, or on a familial level, in the home.

“In seeking to harmonize the relationships among people, Confucianism lays a heavy burden on individuals. First of all, an individual's selfish desires are not as important as what is good for the group as a whole. A person is expected to think first about what the group or family or community needs, and if his or her own needs conflict with what is good for the group, the group comes first. Second, Confucianism teaches children that they owe an unpayable debt to their parents. In Korea, the debt is called unhye, meaning "grace," referring to the gracious bestowal of life and nurture by parents. As an old proverb puts it, "Your debt to your parents is deeper than the ocean and higher than the mountains." This unhye exists before the child is even aware of it, when the parents clothe and feed and nurse and teach the infant who otherwise would die without their help, and the child can never escape it.

“Confucianism is a very old way of thinking but it is seen everywhere in China, Japan, Korea, and other societies that have been influenced over the years by Chinese ways of thought. In today's Korea, for example, children learn before the age of ten that their lives are not their own but belong to their families. It is very unusual for a young Korean to make an important choice alone, without taking into account what his parents and other important family members think he should do. Questions of what to study, where to go to college, and, above all, whom to marry, are all decisions that are made with the advice of parents. This is because education and marriage are family issues, affecting the young person's ability to earn and provide for aged parents and the next generation of the family lineage. The young person owes it to ancestors and parents not to make decisions selfishly or without taking their wishes into account.

Confucian Homogeneity and Submission to Authority

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in the capital to the humblest household in the countryside, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. In the context of the wider society, a welldefined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman," who seeks righteousness, and the "small man," who seeks only profit. This theme was central in the writings of both Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism and neo-Confucianism as political philosophies proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children. In the Chosun Dynasty, status and power inequalities, defined precisely within a vertical hierarchy, were generally considered both natural and good. The hierarchy extended from the household relationships of fathers and children through the intermediary relationships of ruler and ruled within the kingdom, to Korea's subordinate status as a tributary of China. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In all these cases, the key component is a mutual caring and responsibility, or, looking at it another way, submission and authority, learning and teaching, submitting and protecting. And, as any Westerner would note, a feature of the entire system is the limits that it places on the individual's freedom of action and rights to make decisions for oneself. Only when older and in a position of responsibility does a person acquire authority, only to find that the authority is limited by the responsibility to provide care and nurture for those who are younger and weaker. Leadership is an important part of social organization, and traditional Confucianism has always taught that leaders should be chosen for their moral qualities as well as for their ambition and ability to lead. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Since the inequalities between people are facts of life, there are naturally some who are more fit to lead than others. One of the Confucian texts puts it this way: "Some men are born to labor with their hands; others are born to labor with their minds." Finding good leaders is a key task for any society.

There is a danger, however, in overstressing the idea of Korea as a homogeneously Confucian society, even during the Chosun Dynasty. Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on the one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand, there is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism. The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrast sharply with the austere self-control idealized by Confucianists. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Chondogyo, an indigenous religion that arose in the nineteenth century and combined elements of Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, taught that every human being "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

Education and Confucianism in Korea

The glue holding the traditional nobility together was education, meaning socialization into Confucian norms and virtues that began in early childhood with the reading of the Confucian classics. The model figure was the so-called true gentleman, the virtuous and learned scholar-official who was equally adept at poetry and statecraft. In Korea education started very early because Korean students had to master the extraordinarily difficult classical Chinese language — tens of thousands of written ideographs and their many meanings typically learned through rote memorization. Throughout the Chosun Dynasty, all official records and formal education and most written discourse were in classical Chinese. With Chinese language and philosophy came a profound cultural penetration of Korea, such that most Chosun arts and literature came to use Chinese models. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In Confucian societies such as China and Korea, education was a prime qualification for leadership. This education was acquired at great effort and expense in village schools and in district schools under the stern discipline of learned teachers. In China, and also for almost a thousand years in Korea, the government staged examinations for students to test their mastery of the ideals they had studied in the Confucian classics. For most of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) there were lower examinations in the Confucian classics and in Chinese literary arts, the latter leading to a coveted chinsa ("presented scholar") degree. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Passers of the lower examinations next engaged in higher studies and took preliminary higher examinations in their respective provinces and then a capital examination in Seoul, at the end of which the top qualifiers were immediately appointed to government posts. The various civil examinations (munkwd) were held every three years and on additional occasions as needed. There were also military {mukwa) examinations. Passing the examinations, even at the lower or preliminary levels, was the chief qualification for membership in the aristocratic ruling class called the yangban.

“Any successful examination candidate was regarded with awe by family members and neighbors and enjoyed great social status, even if he did nothing more than reside in the ancestral village and teach in the local school, using his tuition income to buy land and maintain his family in comfort. Competitors for advancement in the higher levels of the examination system were objects of even more pride and celebration, with their yangban status rubbing off on relatives. Thus it was in everyone's interest to invest in education and success in the examinations. At the pinnacle of the system, official appointees were put into positions where they enjoyed substantial incomes from fees and gifts as well as their salaries, income that they typically reinvested in more land, increasing the basis of their family's wealth.

“The examination system was based on the Confucian idea that a society's most moral people should be its leaders, and that moral knowledge was best acquired through a study of philosophy, history, and literature. Becoming saturated with moral messages from the past was the best preparation for an uncertain future in which no one knew what would happen or what decisions would be required — except that in all things, the leaders would need to base their actions and decisions on sound moral judgment.

Confucianism and Abuses of Power in South Korea

Clark wrote: “The Confucian tradition had a name for this ideal kind of leader: the "princely man," one who was truly worthy to be respected and followed by others. Today, there remains a great reverence for highly educated people in Korea, even though their educations may be in such modern (and un-Confucian) fields as English literature, political science, medicine, and engineering. The idea that education connotes moral knowledge and the right to be respected and followed by others is deeply rooted in the Korean value system. These are ideals, of course — the way Confucianism is meant to operate as the ethical core. It must be added that, human nature being what it is, there are abuses. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“In fact, the abuses are quite common. However, the consensus among Koreans and others who adhere to Confucian norms is so universally understood that the abuses stand out as violations all the more clearly. For example, in modern times not all leaders have been moral people. In South Korea, leaders and presidents are supposed to be elected after submitting themselves for popular approval through the vote. When this pattern is abused or broken, the leader loses legitimacy and is not regarded as a proper ruler.

“An example is the way General Chun Doo-hwan seized power in 1979-80 in South Korea. He used units of the army to overthrow his own commanding officer and then, when the people marched in the streets to object to his tactics, he cracked down with military force on civilians, killing several hundred. Though people were terrorized into accepting him as president later in the year, he was never regarded as "legitimate" even though his government accomplished many positive things during his time in office. He remained in power only through his overwhelming military power — power wielded by other army officers who were loyal to him in a Confucian style, as "younger brothers" — all of whom, in the end, were swept out of power in a wave of public rage.

“General Chun was actually sentenced to death for his actions — though he was later pardoned to spare the country the agony of seeing an ex-president put to death. Confucianism, therefore, is a living system of values in Korea, and whether or not it is a "religion" is less important than the fact that Koreans understand its precepts as a guide for their own lives. Indeed, it fits well with other religions. Christian churches, for example, are run very much according to Confucian rules governing mutual expectations and obligations among members, and between members and their religious leaders.”

Confucian Rituals in Korea

Korean Confucians celebrate Confucius's birthday on May 10 and September 28. Weekly service are held on Sunday and incense ceremonies are conducted on the 1st and 15th day of every month. Confucian shrines known as Hyanggyo are centers of teaching and worship. Funding for temples come from the community.

Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Despite the strength of Christianity, most families in South Korea observe the Confucian practice of honoring their dead ancestors on the anniversaries of their death days, New Year's Day, and other holidays such as hansik (the 105th day after the winter solstice) and ch'usok (the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month). The people conduct rituals and ceremonies in honor of Confucius each spring and autumn at the Confucian shrines. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Many Koreans perform Confucian-style ceremonies to commemorate their ancestors on death dates and special holidays at home and/or grave sites. The National Confucian Academy in Seoul holds semi-monthly and semiannual ceremonies to honor Confucius, his disciples, and other Confucian sages. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Ancestor Worship

According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “In the eyes of the orthodox Confucians, ancestor veneration was considered to be essentially a secular rite without religious implications. Deemed to be nothing more than the “expression of human feelings," mourning and other ritual observances expressed love and respect for the dead and at the same time cultivated the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, and faithfulness. Ancestor veneration was a standard means of “honoring virtue and repaying merit” (chongde baogong), in the stock Chinese phrase. The Confucian gentleman sacrificed to his ancestors because it was the proper thing to do; lesser men did so to “serve the spirits." [Source: C. K. Yang in “Chinese Thought and Intuitions," ed. John K. Fairbank (Chicago, 1957), p. 276; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ^^^]

“This attitude was consistent with the general neo-Confucian tendency to encourage rational and secular interpretations of otherworldly phenomena. In neo-Confucian literature, for example, the popular religious terms gui and shen became expressly identified as the abstract forces of yin and yang. Official religion was justified at least in part as a means of motivating the masses to perform acts of Confucian piety. Sections on religion in local gazetteers often quoted the following commentary to the Yijing, attributed to Confucius himself: “The sages devised guidance in the name of the gods, and [the people of] the land became obedient." Even the employment of priests, geomancers, and other religious agents by elite households could be explained away as matters of habit, female indulgence, or a kind of filial insurance for ancestors in case the popular Buddhist version of the afterlife happened to be correct. [Ibid]

“But where did Confucian “rationalism” end and popular “superstition” begin? Although popular religion reflected the social landscape of its adherents, it was still in many ways “a variation of the same [elite] understanding of the world." The “Heaven” of the Chinese literati may have been remote and impersonal, but it could reward Confucian virtue and punish vice in the same spirit as the Jade Emperor and his agents; and the omens and avenging ghosts of popular vernacular literature had their supernatural counterparts in the official dynastic histories.

Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “ When a grandfather dies... his gravesite is chosen with great care, using ancient principles of geomancy and fortune-telling that take into account the hour of the man's birth and death, the signs of the zodiac, and the contours of the land around his fields. When the spot has been determined, a funeral is staged that allows friends and family to come together to express their grief publicly. A year after the funeral, the family gathers again for the ritual of the chesa — to remember the grandfather and to hold a feast, including a symbolic offering of food to the departed spirit. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]


Chesa is a family ceremony that honors the memory and spirits of departed ancestors usually performed on one of Korea's feast days, such as Lunar New Year's Day. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “No Confucian family ritual is more significant than the annual chesa or ceremony honoring the spirits of the most recently departed ancestors. “Someone may address the spirit in an attitude like prayer, the act that makes the chesa seem like ancestor worship to Westerners, even though it is more properly understood as a ceremony honoring the memory of an ancestor. The real purpose of the chesa ceremony is to remind everyone of the continuity of the family and of the debt that is still owed by younger generations to those who went before.

“Because of the stress on lineage in Korean culture, chesa has attracted much attention as a key element of family life. The "standard" chesa is a family ceremony that remembers one or two, or sometimes three, generations of ancestors in the father's lineage. Families honor their ancestors in chesa ceremonies on Lunar New Year's Day and Ch'usok, the Harvest Festival. They also honor specific ancestors on the anniversaries of their deaths, particularly if the person being honored has died within the past three years. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The ceremony is simple yet elegant and respectful. The men of the family gather in a hall or main room of the house of the eldest living male descendant, into which has been placed the "ancestral tablet" (shinju) of the deceased. The tablet is the object that symbolizes the spirit of the ancestor and, if the family has the means, is usually stored in a special shrine called a sadang. When it is brought into the house for the chesa, the tablet is treated like an extremely valuable and even holy object. Written on it is the name of the ancestor and his titles, if any, and the dates and hours of his birth and death, essential elements for determining his fortune. It is always kept in a polished lacquer case and the case is kept closed except during the actual ceremony, when it is opened enough to expose the tablet to view.

“Before the ceremony the women of the household — who until recent years never participated in the ancestral ceremony itself — will have arranged dishes containing assorted grains, meats, fruits, nuts, wine, and pastries or confections along with bowls of rice and soup with chopsticks and spoons as if for a feast. The eldest male relative is the master of ceremonies and leads the men in offering the food to the ancestral spirit. He does this by spooning cooked rice into the soup bowl set before the ancestral tablet. The ceremony varies by region and household but normally the other men take turns symbolically feeding the spirit and then together they do a deep ritual bow, the ultimate sign of respect. They get down on their knees, put their hands on the floor, and then touch their foreheads to their hands. The bow is done slowly and repeatedly, with the participant rising to his feet between each bow.

“The complete chesa consists of several rounds of this ritual serving and bowing. It may also involve statements addressed to the spirit that resemble prayers to the dead ancestor. It is this feature of the ceremony that has always caused friction between the Confucian tradition and Christianity in Korea, as elsewhere in East Asia, since Christians are supposed to reject spirits and worship only Jehovah, in keeping with the Ten Commandments. However, Christians, like all Koreans, strongly feel the need to memorialize their ancestors in one way or another. They have therefore found ways to turn the traditional ancestral ceremony into a memorial service instead of a feast that connotes communing with the dead.”

Royal Ancestral Rituals in Jongmyo Shrine

Royal Ancestral Rituals in Jongmyo Shrine and its Music were placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity List in 2008. Jongmyo Jerye is a national ceremony held for the kings and queens of the Chosun Period in Jongmyo Shrine where the ancestral tablets are preserved. The ritual is conducted by chief priests who dressed formally for the ritual and prepared food and achohol for the ancestors. The ritual service is considered as an important symbol which is the foundation of national survival and the spirit of Korean, demonstrating filial peity toward the deceased, one of the valued concept in confucianism and a sense of unity of the whole nation. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Jongmyo Jeryeak, Royal Ancestral Ritual Music, was performed when the royal family held a ceremony for the repose of their ancestors in the Shrine, simply named 'Jongmyoak.' Traditional Korean instruments are used following the order of the ritual. According to UNESCO: “The Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul is the setting for a Confucian ritual dedicated to the ancestors of the Joseon dynasty (14th to the 19th century) that encompasses song, dance and music. The ritual is practised once a year on the first Sunday in May and is organized by the descendants of the royal family. It offers a unique example of a Confucian ritual, which is no longer celebrated in China. The tradition is inspired by classical Chinese texts concerning the cult of ancestors and the notion of filial piety. It also includes a prayer for the eternal peace of the ancestors’ spirits in a shrine conceived as their spiritual resting place. The order of the ceremony was defined in the fifteenth century and most elements have remained unchanged until today. [Source: UNESCO]

“During the rite, the priests, dressed in ritual costume with a crown for the king and diadems for the others, make offerings of food and wine in ritual vessels. The Jongmyo Jerye is music played to accompany the rituals and is performed on traditional instruments, such as gongs, bells, lutes, zithers and flutes. The dances are performed by 64 dancers in 8 lines representing the opposing yet complementary forces of Yin and Yang as set out in the Confucian texts.The Munmu dance, accompanied by the harmonious and soothing Botaepyong music, is characterized by a first step to the left. While the Munmu dance symbolizes the force of the Yang, the Mumu dance, accompanied by Jeongdaeeop music and characterized by a movement to the right, represents the force of the Yin. The ancestral ritual is nowadays often considered to be devoid of meaning, especially in the context of the growing importance of Christianity. However, the ritual and its music are protected through the National List of Intangible Heritage and the 1982 Law for the Protection of Cultural Property.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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