A Brief History of Confucianism in Korea

Not too long ago I posted and article about Neo-Confucianism in Edo Period Japan (1600-1868). Very exciting stuff, I assure you. πŸ˜‰

This article is to balance things out with a look at the same time period in Korea and how things evolved differently. While Japan adapted Confucianism to fit its martial society (and made a few compromises in the process), around the same time Korea under the Joseon Dynasty sought to return to orthodoxy.


Similar to China and Japan, Buddhism was originally the state religion of Korea, but as Professor Yao explains in his book, An Introduction to Confucianism, the clergy became corrupted as they became more and more involved in politics. Meanwhile, Confucianism in all 3 countries underwent a revival with the Neo-Confucian movement which absorbed some elements of Buddhism (e.g. emphasis on practice, importance of the mind, exploration of cosmology, etc) and gained favor with the government while being a watch-dog against the Buddhist establishment.

In the case of Korea, this happened at the very end of the Goryeo Dynasty, but even more so under the Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism became a secondary religion and suffered a slow persecution over centuries that it has never fully recovered from.

Life Under the Joseon Dynasty

The early Joseon Dynasty saw a brilliant flowering of culture under the early kings and their army of Confucian scholars and bureaucrats. This class of Confucian scholars was called sarim (ε£«ζž— 사림 “forest of scholars”). Administration was cleaned up, society benefitted (e.g. The advent of a common writing system Hangeul) and Confucian learning and debate reached a high point.

Two of the most famous Korean Confucian scholars from this era are Yi Hwang (ζŽζ»‰ 이황, 1501-1570) who is better known by his pen-name Toegye (ι€€ζΊͺ, ν‡˜κ³„). The other was Yi I (李η₯, 이이 1536-1584) who went by the pen-name Yulgok (ζ —θ°·, 율곑).

Toegye, whom you can see on the 1,000 won bill, in particular is seen in Korean history as the consummate Confucian scholar for his interpretations and debates on Neo-Confucian thought, his poetry and the strength of disciples. According to Professor Yao, one student, Gang Hang (ε§œζ²†, κ°•ν•­ 1567-1618) was taken as a war-prisoner when the armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea and was brought back to Japan. Fortunately he was treated well and became a teacher for Fujiwara Seika, which as we saw from the post about Japanese Confucianism, was an important early figure in the Tokugawa Era.

But while early Korean Neo-Confucianism had many accomplishments it also had many problems, political problems. Like its Buddhist predecessors, the Confucian scholars soon became entangled in politics and sometimes were severely punished for it in a series of purges. The so-called literati purges or sa-hwa (士禍 사화) happened regularly during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In each case, the cause was the same: the Joseon court had a power-struggle with the noble families and the Sarim scholars and sometimes both were executed. Other times, just the scholars were executed. This happened twice during the tumultuous reign of King Yeonsungan but happened a total of five times over 100 years.


In the later Joseon Dynasty the purges stopped but by this time the Confucian had become fully entrenched and went from being reformers to the conservative orthodoxy. As Korea faced pressure from Western powers and Japan, this class of scholars resisted reforms and tried to assert more orthodoxy.

During this period some scholars grew frustrated and tried to revive Confucian ethics and learning from the outside. This was called the silhak (ε―¦ε­Έ μ‹€ν•™) or “Practical Learning” movement. It was a “back to the basics” movement that was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with an emphasis on Confucian teachings that improved government and social conditions. The most notable example was Jeong Yak-Yong (丁θ‹₯鏞 μ •μ•½μš©, 1762-1836) who also went by the name Dasan (茢山 λ‹€μ‚°). He totally rejected all Confucian teachers and teachings that came after Confucius and went back to source.

But this fizzled out after a while, and a different Confucian movement gained popularity. Because Joseon Dynasty Confucianism became increasingly conservative and orthodox, it reacted to increasing pressure from the West by creating a new movement called donghak (東學 동학) or “Eastern Learning”, started by Choe Je-u (ε΄”ζΏŸζ„š 졜제우, 1824-1864). As Professor Yao explains, Choe Je-u argued that the purpose of Confucianism was on self-cultivation and that the “Way of Heaven was not far from Humans”, so by improving one’s own nature, they become closer to “Heaven”. According to Wikipedia, Choe try to improve society and restore stability, and even took Confucian teachings and put them to music so illiterate peasants could learn them more easily.

However, under the third “patriarch” of Donghak, Son Byeong-hui (孫秉熙 손병희, 1861-1922) the Donghak became a new religious movement called Cheondogyo (倩道教 μ²œλ„κ΅) or “Cheondoism” which is still practiced in Korea today, both North and South. This is the official Korean website; there is no website in English. English language information on Cheondoism is quite limited, and frequently inaccurate because Confucian terms are mistranslated in a Christian context (e.g. Heaven in Confucianism has little resemblance to the Western notion of God/Heaven). I hope to do more on the subject later.

Anyhow, Professor Yao explains that Cheondoism even today rejects the idea of an afterlife, and focuses on building an ideal world here through self-cultivation, ethical conduct, mutual respect, etc. It’s interesting to see the transition from Confucianism, the teaching on ethics and self-improvement, to a religious movement. Today Cheondoism is a minority religion in Korea, but still has a sizeable presence, and is often identified with Korean nativism. In my limited understanding, Cheondoism somewhat occupies the same role that Shinto has in Japanese culture. The two religions have almost nothing common, but they are both deeply rooted in a particular culture and this-worldly benefits.

Confucianism Today

Confucianism underwent many challenges as Korea went through a tumultuous modernization period, colonization by Japan, war, etc. However, it still remains firmly rooted in Korean culture today, crossing religious lines: both Korean Christians and Buddhists for example revere Confucius. Confucianism still plays an important role in weddings and funerals too.

Confucian ceremonies are still held during important public functions too. For example, when the famous Uigwe books were returned to Korea, a Confucian ceremony was held honoring their return.

Of course, many cultural arts in Korea today have influence from Confucianism as well, as Confucius had encouraged the “soft arts” as much as possible.


It’s interesting to see how different countries can take the same teaching and apply them in various ways. This was a brief post to cover the history of Confucianism in Korea, hope you enjoyed. πŸ™‚


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Confucianism in Korea”

  1. Very interesting! I’d be interested in learning more about Cheondogyo, since this is the first I’ve ever heard of it. Since there’s a large Korean population in the US, I wonder if there are temples that cater to them.

    I’ve only been to one large “Koreatown.” It’s Annandale, VA, a city with a HUGE Korean population. The only religious buildings I saw were various Christian churches that catered almost exclusively to the Korean population (IE: Most services are done in Korean). Annandale is a is a sweet place. There’s even a Super H Mart there!


    1. Hm good question. To be honest, it’s doubtful Cheondogyo has a presence outside Korea much. Then again their temples are styled like Christian churches so who knows?


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