Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The core of Confucianism is humanism, the belief that human beings are teachable and that we can reach the harmony in a peaceful way. Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics.
Confucianism was introduced to Koguryo (고구려) in the fourth century by China. Quickly a national academy for Confucian studies, known as Taehak (태학) emerged in
372. This academy was followed by local schools called Kyongdang. Koguryo refused however to be totally sinized and therefore the impact of Confucianism was highly limited. Confucianism entered Shilla much later than in Paekche (백제) and Koguryo. The establishment of a government office in charge of Confucianism studies and the National Academy (Kukhak) in 628 marked the beginning of Confucian Studies. We should mention that it produced a quite important number of Confucian scholars. Approximately one hundred years later, in 717, portraits of Confucius and many of his disciples were brought from China and installed at the National Academy where Confucian and Chinese history were taught. We may also remark that it is not known if Paekche established really a Confucian school. Nevertheless it has to be note the Chinese-style Sŏgi (書記/서기/ “Documentary Records”) of Paekche was produced in the fourth century.
The Neo-Confucianism is a branch of Confucianism which is quite different. This new philosophy was more intolerant in comparison to Confucianism. Each Neo-Confucian has to observe five ethical principles in human relations. Neo-Confucianism also emphasized the kingly authority and the absolute loyalty of the subjects to the ruler. We should add that the rise of Neo-Confucianism led to the sudden decline of Buddhism in Korea. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the King Taejong (태종대왕) inaugurated a clearly anti-Buddhist policy by reducing the number of monasteries and temples. One of his followers, the tolerant King Saejong (세종대왕) tolerated Buddhism i.e. ordering the construction of the Buddhist Wongak temple in Seoul. In the sixteenth century, Buddhism became the religion of uneducated and rural population.
Neo-Confucianism was the dominant value system of the Choson (조선) Dynasty (1392-1910). It combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (공자, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (맹자, 372-289 B.C.). One of key Neo-Confucianism’s ideas was that the institutions and practices of an ordered human community express the principles that govern the cosmos. Therefore Neo-Confucianism defines social relations not in terms of satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole which present the harmony of the natural order. The doctrine emphasized hierarchy in human relations. The Five Relationships formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and by Zhu Xi (주희, 1130-1200) and other Neo-Confucian 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.
During the Choson Dynasty, Korean kings made the Neo-Confucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi their state ideology. Although it was a foreign philosophy, Korean Neo-Confucian scholars played a role in adapting Zhu Xi’s teachings to Korean conditions. This had to be realized without denying the cultural superiority of China as the homeland of civilization. Looking at the history, we can remark that traditional ties between Korea and China are deeply rooted in the Korean history. That’s why the tradition of relatively fraternal ties between China and North Korea are so strong. It’s not the topic of this article, but I want to add that North Korea is not a Confucian society.
Why? To be continued…