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Neo-Confucianisms Influence in South Koreas Three Bonds and Five Moral Rules in Relationship By Jee Hee (Kathy) Yoon1

Introduction Neo-Confucianism is a mixture of Confucius, Mencius, Daoism, and Buddhism that is an expression of the immutable principles or laws that govern the movements of the cosmos. Through correct social practice, individuals can achieve a kind of spiritual unity with heaven. This ideology defines formal social relations on all levels of society. The goal is harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole that mirrors the harmony of the natural order. In South Korea, Neo-Confucianism was first introduced during the closing years of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). The rulers of Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted NeoConfucianism as their state ideology. There are many great neo-Confucian scholars in South Korea, but the most practical and influential scholar was Chong Yak-Yong (1762-1836), who I will discuss throughout this paper. This paper discusses the background and development of Neo-Confucianism in South Korea, Chong Yak-Yong and his Neo-Confucian philosophy, especially the idea of jen, and Neo-Confucianisms influence on Three Bonds and Five Moral Rules in Relationships (Samgang ORyun) and modern Koreans view of human relationships. Background on Neo-Confucianism in South Korea and its Development The early formation of Korean Neo-Confucianism began with Yuan Confucians, who chiefly occupied themselves with practical matters and shunned metaphysical speculations.2 Some major themes addressed by Hsu Heng and others were reflected in the thinking of early Korean students of Neo-Confucianism.3 At the center of early Korean Neo-Confucianism, the revitalization of the education system stood as a pre-condition for spreading the teachings of the Cheng-Chu school in Korea.4

I would like to personally thank Professor Emeritus Yong-ho Choe at University of Hawaii for helping me to gather valuable information and sources to complete this project. 2 Martina Deuchler, The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), 20 3 Ibid., 21 4 Ibid., 22

However, the tone of Neo-Confucians changed under King Kongmin (1351-1374).5 With waning Mongol domination and interference, and the arrival of an opportunity for national reassertion, Neo-Confucians began to clamor for a reform program for beyond the reconstruction of the school system.6 A key role in this transformatory process was accorded to rites and rituals.7 Rites are correct acts in the outer realm that exert a profound impact on the inner disposition of man. The Neo-Confucians of early Choson recognized the significance of rites as a device for ordering society; and for formulating their social policies; they heavily relied on the ritual literature of ancient China transmitted by the Sung Neo-Confucians.8 With the advent of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, an ideology emerged that was addressing itself in a comprehensive and compelling way to social problems. It stimulated an unprecedented political discourse on man and society. Neo-Confucianism contained clear precepts of sociopolitical renovation and anchored the guarantee of their workability in the exemplary world of the sage-kings of Chinese antiquity. Moreover, the reformatory thrust of Neo-Confucianism turned its practitioners into activists and demanded their full commitment to its program of social change.9 After the 1600s, during the second half of the Choson Dynasty, there was an expansion of the range of scholarly interest with scholars not only continuing to discuss Neo-Confucian philosophy and ritual, but also turning their attention to Korean history, geography, society, economics, and culture.10 The collected writings of prominent scholars during this time, almost always included essays and letters dealing with philosophical and ethical issues in addition to essays on literature and Korean history, proposals for political, economic, and social reform, and sometimes even discussions of Catholicism and technology. During this period, there were two issues that motivated philosophical discourse: how best to explain the world in morally meaningful terms, and how best to live in accordance with the principles highlighted by that moral metaphysics?

5 6

Ibid., 23 Ibid. 7 Ibid., 24 8 Ibid., 25 9 Ibid., 27 10 Yong-ho Choe and others, eds. Introduction, in Sources of Korean Tradition: Volume II: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), 10-11

The Horak controversy arose in the early decades of the eighteenth century among scholars belonging to Yi Is school of thought.11 Its chief protagonists were Han Wonjin (16821750) and Yi Kan (1677-1727). The Horak debate is famous as is the dispute over whether and how human nature is distinct from that of other creatures.12 As differentiated by different degrees of purity or turbidity in their psychological component, creatures are certainly quite different.13 But on the level of the original nature, principle (i) was considered as not admixed with ki. The doctrine of i as ultimately unitary though differentiated through ki seemed to point in this direction.14 The debate, however, revealed ambiguities and difficulties in this central tenet of Neo-Confucian metaphysics.15 The Horak debates within the Yi I camp were not the only debates among Korean NeoConfucians in the last centuries of the Chosun dynasty. In fact, arguments between followers of Yi I and those of Yi Hwang not only continued, the differences between those opposing philosophical schools grew and in some cases hardened.16 Each generation of followers of Yi Hwang produced a few individuals who pushed the emphasis on principle at the expense of material force even further. Similarly, among Yi Is followers, in every generation there were some who put even more emphasis on material force at the expense of principle than their predecessors had. The result was a widening gap between the principle-oriented school of Yi Hwangs followers and the material-force-oriented school of Yi Is followers. Chong Yak-Yong was a member of the faction that traced its political and philosophical ancestry to Yi Hwang. Chong, however, did not adopt a hardened factional stance but tried to evaluate arguments on their own merits, no matter what their factional origin.17 His evenhanded approach is evident in the discussion of the contentious debate over the exact nature of the relationship between principle and material force, on the one hand, and emotions and virtuous instincts on the other. Chong Yak-Yong and his Neo-Confucian Philosophy


Michael Kalton and Donald Baker, Neo-Confucian Philosophy, in Sources of Korean Tradition: Volume II: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, ed. Yong-ho Choe and others (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), 195 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid., 200 17 Ibid.

Chong Yak-Yong (pen name: Tasan) was a representative Sirhak scholar of the nineteenth century.18 He was a scholar, philosopher, and official, born near Seoul, the son of a provincial governor.19 His family stemmed from the province of Cholla in southwestern Korea.20 Son of a scholar-official family, Tasan was privately tutored on literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, economics, and the calendar.21 His tutoring took place within the family circle, and was stamped with the strong views that the circle held on to both philosophy and politics both, since the one was inseparably connected with the other in the scholar-official tradition of the Yiperiod.22 Since the end of the fifteenth century, the Korean court and governing bureaucracy had been riven by factions. Both the cause and the history of these factions are complex, but for sometime before Tasans birth the chief conflict was between two groups known as the Noron (northerners) and the Namin (southerners).23 The families of both Tasans father and mother were prominent members of the Namin faction.24 In earlier periods, the Namin held the power in the state; but in 1694 the Noron faction completely defeated it, cast its members into retirement, and bestowed on their descendants a legacy of opposition that lasted until the end of the dynasty.25 Tasan, coming from a great family, came under the influence of the writings of one of the great opposition leaders the great philosopher Yi Ik (Song-ho), one of the founders in Korea of a great Sino-Korean philosophic movement associated in the Ching with the School of Han Learning.26 There were two political events that influenced Tasans later career27; the first was when the Korean King Chongjo (1777-1800), broke with the post-1694 Yi tradition proscribing the elevation to high position of Namin adherents and gave official advancement to a Namin leader, Chae Che-gong. Tasan was promoted to the highest position and was brought into the government under the Kings protection and other Namin members. Another influence was by Yojo, Tasans teacher and potent influences on his life came from Yi family. From the time of

Henderson, Gregory, Chong Ta-san: A Study in Koreas Intellectual History, The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 16, no. 3 (May 1957): 377-386, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2941232 (accessed on September 15, 2008) , pg.377 19 Ibid., 378 20 Ibid. 21 Ibid. 22 Ibid. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid., 378-379 27 Ibid., 379

Che-gongs rise on, a constant search for pretexts to overthrow him was going on among his enemies. Even before Tasans time, the Namin were accused of unorthodox and possibly even non-Confucian intellectual influences. In 1789, during the reign of Chongjo, Tasan passed the civil examinations with great honor; the King was impressed by the young mans original interpretations of the great Korean philosophers.28 In 1792, he was assigned to the Confucian Academy and, in the winter of that year, submitted, at the Kings order, the construction plans for the walls and palaces of the emergency capital at Suwon.29 Since then, he was promoted into various high positions. However, in the Yi atmosphere of jealous surveillance over intellectual life and the printed word, Tasan fell into a trap constructed by his enemies.30 While he was still young and controlling the court, Tasans rise had even sharpened the envy of the Noron faction.31 The champions of the ecumenical Confucian orthodoxy of the Sung philosopher, Chu Hsi, who had been the pillar of the Yi regime since the middle of the 16th century, this faction highly regarded the practical scientific ideas of Tasan.32 Tasans ideas and accomplishments appeared to show some Western and Christian influence, he was certainly a Neo-Confucian in a far deeper sense than he was a Christian.33 Tasan came in for sharp criticisms for playing with non-Confucian thought and Western influence.34 The Noron faction, in its long search for a pretext to discredit Tasan, had its weapon.35 Tasan was accused by persistent rumor of harboring Christian germs, of perhaps secretly plotting to overthrow the regime itself.36 To afford opportunity for further investigation, King Chongjo sent Tasan as magistrate to the minor district of Kum-jong, whose inhabitants were among those influenced by Christianity.37 There, Tasan was successful in admonishing people to return to their traditional ways.38 Within the year, he was recalled to Seoul as a Vice Chief Secretary of the Kings

28 29

Ibid. Ibid. 30 Ibid., 380 31 Ibid. 32 Ibid. 33 Ibid., 381 34 Ibid. 35 Ibid., 382 36 Ibid. 37 Ibid. 38 Ibid.

Secretariat.39 Then he went back to Koksan once more as a magistrate, and was again recalled to Seoul in 1796 and became Councilor of the Board of Punishments.40 In 1799, however, the great Namin official Chae Che-gong died, followed the next year by King Chongjo.41 Tasan lost those who would support him. The Noron worked to establish itself with the next king, Sunjo, and Tasans position rapidly became untenable. He submitted his resignation and returned to Sochon, where he taught and studied the Classics.42 In 1801, with the Noron in complete and vindictive control, charges were brought against him and he was imprisoned twice. He appealed both times, but the appeals were unsuccessful. For the remaining years of his long life, he read, wrote, and traveled, and died in 1836.43 On Confucian classics, Tasan wrote two hundred and thirty books: on politics some seventy-eight, on phonetics some fifty, one geography forty-two; there are eighteen books of poetry and some twenty others on medicine and other subjects.44 Mongming Simso (A guide to Governing the People) is one of the most famous written works by Tasan. His ideas are outstanding and is probably to be accounted the most commanding and original thinker in Koreas intellectual history.45 In the case of classical Confucianism, the idea of practicality is reflected in two major themes, pertaining respectively to the moral cultivation of the individual and the well-being of the society, which can, in the broadest possible terms, be described as moral practicality and social utility.46 These two aspects are interrelated in a passage of the Spring and Autumn Annals defining the concerns of government as abundant provision for the needs of the people and the profitable use of resources, within the dictates of the rectification of virtue.47 This formula delineating the dual responsibility of the Sage became a defining characteristic of the structure of Confucian thought. Neo-Confucian orthodoxy had compromised the pristine Confucian spirit of practicality that added momentum to a very diverse group of Korean thinkers now commonly referred to as
39 40

Ibid. Ibid. 41 Ibid. 42 Ibid. 43 Ibid. 44 Ibid., 383 45 Ibid. 46 Setton, Mark, Tasans Practical Learning, Philosophy of East and West 39 (1989), 377-392, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0031-8221%28198910%2939%3A4%3C377%3AT%22L%3E2.0.CO%3B2-G (accessed April 1, 2008) pg. 377 47 Ibid.

the proponents of Sirhak, or practical learning.48 Tasan took this critical trend a step further by challenging essential Neo-Confucian assumptions about the cosmos and human nature and attempting to reconstruct Neo-Confucian philosophy.49 Instead of rejecting metaphysics as irrelevant to the practical goals he envisaged, he redefined the concept of human nature, and even Heaven itself, to provide deontological justification for these goals.50 Tasan is widely regarded by Korean historians as the chipdaesongga of Sirhak thought, a term also used to describe the role of Chu Hsi in brining the various trends of Neo-Confucianism thought to philosophical fruition.51 Tasans concept of human nature provided the psychological basis for his outward-looking theory of self-cultivation.52 In Tasans time it was of course the Neo-Confucian idea of dual natures, the original nature and the physical nature, developed by Chu Hsi, which was predominant. Whereas Chu Hsi interpreted nature in ontological terms as principle embodied in man, Tasan transferred nature from the metaphysical to the psychological sphere.53 He was convinced that both the classics and common usage of the term referred to it as meaning innate tendencies. He saw mans nature as being characterized by two kinds of propensity: the physical propensities he is equipped with for his survival, such as the desire for food and sex, which he shares with the animals, and the spiritual propensities with which he is uniquely endowed, exemplified by his love of virtue and shame of depravity.54 Human nature itself is neither good nor evil in the strictest sense of the terms. It is only potentially good, the substantiation of goodness involving the triumph of mans moral nature over his physical inclinations, contingent on the exercise of free will.55 This ability to make moral choices, and consequently to shape his own moral destiny, places man in an entirely different category from the animals.56 A more fundamental reason why Tasan rejected the Cheng-chu conception of human nature as principle was because of its implications for the method of cultivation itself.57 Tasans theory of tendencies identified human nature with the affective capacities, and specifically, the
48 49

Ibid. Ibid., 378 50 Ibid. 51 Ibid. 52 Ibid., 379 53 Ibid. 54 Ibid., 380 55 Ibid. 56 Ibid. 57 Ibid., 381

original nature with the moral tendencies. He portrayed the feelings that characterized the moral tendencies as being themselves normative, insofar as they represented a spontaneous but appropriate response to situations.58 Tasans identification of human nature with the affections laid the groundwork for a concept of virtue diametrically opposed to Chu Hsis view.59 He held that the definitive characteristic of virtue is that it cannot be dissociated from the Five Relations.60 There was also a philosophical reason why Tasan rejected the concept of innate virtue. He argued that virtuous nature is associated with the moral nature, mans proclivity for the good.61 Its aroused state is the good heart, which corresponds to the upright heart. Tasan, in discussing the Five Moral Relationships, refers to the idea of jen:
Jen is symbol for the number two: Jen is the association of two people. Treating ones elder brother with fraternal respect is jen. Elder brother and younger brother are two people. Serving ones king with loyalty is jen. King and minister are two people. Ruling the people with compassion is jen. Ruler and citizen are two people. The fulfillment of respective duties in relationships between all pairs of people, including spouses and friends, is jen. Tasan regarded the jen of Confucius and Mencius to be a generic term for the virtues, claiming that Jen is the illustrious virtue of human relations, the collective name for filial piety (hyo), fraternal respect (che), and compassion (cha). 62

For Tasan, filial piety symbolized the conduct required of inferiors towards superiors, fraternal respect the mutual relationships between siblings and equals, and compassion the conduct of superiors towards inferiors.63 An indication of the essential role he ascribed to the Three Virtues is the fact the he equated them with the Five Relations the archetypal ethical principles of pre-Chin Confucianism and used these two terms interchangeably.64 Tasans advocacy of the extension of family ethics, particularly compassion, to the sphere of government begs the question of whether he simply intended to draw attention to the ethical basis of benevolent monarchy originally suggested by Mencius. But behind Tasans call for a return to practical ethics lay the conviction that any attempt to promote concrete reforms under prevailing system of government would prove fruitless without an accompanying change in attitudes on the part of the leadership.65
58 59

Ibid. Ibid., 382 60 Ibid. 61 Ibid., 386 62 Ibid. 63 Ibid., 387 64 Ibid. 65 Ibid., 388

The Three Bonds and the Five Moral Rules in Human Relations (Samgang ORyun) The traditional Confucian hierarchical society, the Three Bonds and the Five Relations were constantly preached and upheld in Confucian society, and the inculcation of social virtues to the unlettered masses was a perennial concern of the government.66 The examples of filial children or chaste wives were customarily marked as a measure to encourage virtuous behavior.67 Despite such efforts on the part of the establishment, rapacious and corrupt officials at all levels disrupted the moral and social order.68 Essentially, the Three Bonds and Five Moral Rules in Human Relationships are much influenced by Tasan, Neo-Confucianism, and ideas of rituals and rites. These rules of human relationships are deeply embedded in South Korea and are widely practiced by Koreans until today. The Three Bonds are as follows: a son must respect his own father; ministers (citizens) must respect their King; and wife must respect her husband.69 The Three Bonds are bonds of hierarchy through respect. Regardless of who one is, in Korean culture and society, one expects to be respected by others, and it is considered as wrong if one disrespects another. These ideas are rooted in the Confucius teaching of relationships. This also marks the beginning of the creation of the Five Moral Relationships in Korea. Five Moral Relationships, however, incorporated the idea from the Three Bonds. The Five Moral Rules in Human Relationships are: between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between old and young there should be a proper order; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; and between friends there should be faithfulness.70 The relationship between father and son is the basic bond and relationship of the society. It also represents hierarchal societal relationships in Korea. In Korea, a son cannot disobey his father; betraying and disobeying his father is seen as a wrong act and one often was exiled from home. It is very important and definitely foundational to every relationship that is explained here. It symbolizes that Korean society is patriarchal, yet this relationship is perpendicular rather than horizontal.

Peter H. Lee, Versions of the Self, in The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary and JaHyun Kim Haboush (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1985), 484 67 Ibid. 68 Ibid. 69 Jinhong Kim and Wm. Theodore de Bary, Education, in Sources of Korean Tradition: Volume II: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, ed. Yong-ho Choe and others (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000), 37-43 70 Ibid., 39-43

The relationship between King and minister, in a larger context, is a broader perspective and picture of father and son relationship, but is more public. It is also a perpendicular relationship. The relationship between elder and younger is one of the most important and has been preserved the longest time in Korea. Younger generations are always taught that they should respect elders because they are wise and lived longer lives; thus they should be treated with respect. Younger generations show the respect to the elders by bowing, polite speech, and even giving up seats on the bus or subway cars. This is also a bigger picture of the father and son relationship, representing social relationship between people of different ages and it is perpendicular relationship. The relationship between husband and wife is a horizontal relationship. They must respect each others duty. The relationship between friends is a horizontal relationship. In Primer for Youth (Tongmong Sonsup) by the Royal Preface of King Yongjo, further discusses five moral rules in human relationships and how it should be applied to everyday life.71 Tasan believed in the practicality of Confucianism and mostly focused on human nature and their relationships. Tasans concepts of human nature provided a new way for Korean society to accept and practice human relationships. His concepts ultimately led to three bonds and five relationships, and self-cultivation. Tasan attempted to bridge the gap between the personal and interpersonal, to redefine the idea of self-cultivation in terms of social involvement through moral practice. Also, his interpretation of jen was the turning point in understanding self-cultivation and ones relationship with others. He referred to jen as a symbol of two, and one can easily recognize this idea in three bonds and five relationships. Filial Piety Today The concept of filial piety contains important rules that children should follow regarding how they treat their parents and take care of them. It has played a crucial role in Korean society through the influence of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. As the interpretation of traditional Confucian and Neo-Confucian thoughts has changed over time, so have the implications of filial piety changed in the context of modern Korean life. Some scholars have found that filial piety entails some harmful effects on personal growth and interpersonal relationships.72 Other research also indicated that filial piety resulted in
71 72

Ibid. Kuang-Hui Yeh, The Beneficial and Harmful effects of Filial Piety: An Integrative Analysis, in Progress in Asian Social Psychology: Conceptual and Empirical Contributions, eds. Kuo-Shu Yang and others (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003), 67


an uncreative character, poor cognitive development, and a negative personality orientation. However, some scholars claim that filial piety has a beneficial effect on personal growth and interpersonal relationships. Findings in empirical studies support the idea that the values embodied in filial piety support warmth, love, harmony, and close family ties, all of which facilitate intergenerational relationship. In addition, filial piety correlates with some positive aspects of personality, makes children feel more obligated to support their elderly parents and more responsible for caring for them, and reduces parent-child conflicts. Filial piety definitely has an essential influence on many aspects of human development, including personality, interaction, socialization, and the parent-child relationship. Kuang-Hui Yeh studied the historical development of filial piety and maintains that in earlier periods in China, filial piety was considered the basis for all relationships in the society. However, the authors argues that in modern times, the concept of filial piety has changed and also been modified in the way it is implemented in society by younger generations. This is also true in Korean society as well today. Many modern South Koreans still practice filial piety as well as the Five Moral Relationships, yet the ideology has become more westernized. For example, when younger and elder is on the bus, because of the Five Moral Relationship, elders expects younger to give up the seat. However, younger person would not give up his or her seats because he or she is tired or simply just do not want to. The youngers attitude can be seen as a selfish act and often elders criticizes younger that they are not following the Five Moral Relationships. Younger generation, however, argues that they still believe in the Five Moral Relationships; yet, they admit that sometimes their attitudes can be selfish and individuated. Even though South Koreans practice of the Five Moral Relationships have decreased and peoples attitude became more westernized, the society still holds Tasans Neo-Confucian teachings, especially three bonds, five moral relationships, and human nature. Until today, these ideas about relationships that emphasize hierarchy in human relations and self-control on the individual level still exist in South Korea and have a great influence in South Korean society.


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