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A common misunderstanding of Confucianism

By Mark Peterson

To many readers, this article may seem arcane, even more granular than necessary. But maybe it's of vital importance. Let's see what you think.

The core issue that has brought this topic to my attention is several "comments" on some of my recent YouTube videos. I've been documenting the differences in Confucianism before and after 1666. I'm writing somewhat "tongue-in-check" when I use an exact date. But there is method in my madness ― there was a major shift in Confucian practice in the late 17th century. The choice of the date 1666 is not entirely arbitrary ― that is the date of one of the more remarkably explicit documents that shows society was changing.

The thing that is frustrating for me is that I have been documenting that the change in society toward a completely orthodox Confucian society did not take place in the early Joseon period, but rather, egalitarian principles persisted until the late 17th century. But within the comments of some of my audience, have been the repetition of the old saw that "Goryeo systems died with the advent of the Joseon Kingdom."

It's as if when the Joseon Kingdom took over in 1392, everything up and down society changed. It did not. Noticeably, inheritances continued to be given to sons and daughters equally until the late 17th century ― for nearly 300 years of the 500-year dynasty. In fact, if you look at it that way, more of the Joseon dynasty was like the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) than it was the Joseon dynasty.

There is a persistent idea that the Joseon dynasty was radically different from the outset. Indeed, some things did change sooner than others. Political innovations showed Confucian influence and adoption of Chinese models at the beginning of the dynasty. But so many other facets of society took centuries to change.

On my YouTube channel I'm in the process of posting a series of seven videos, each featuring one of the "evidences" of the "Confucianization" process. The term "Confucianization" is admittedly inaccurate because society did not go from "pre-Confucian" to "Confucianized", but more accurately society moved from a Korean-style Confucianism to a Chinese-style Confucianism. The Korean-style Confucianism existed from the Three Kingdoms Period when Confucianism first came into Korea from China until the late 17th century. Thereafter Confucian society changed and Chinese features took over, such as relying on the eldest son for inheritance, the creation of the "keunjip" ("big house" ― the house of the eldest son of the eldest son for multiple generations).

I have outlined seven "evidences" that society changed, and that it did not change until the late 17th century.
1. Inheritances moved from equal for sons and daughters to primarily the eldest son.
2. Ancestor ceremonies changed from being hosted by all sons and daughters to hosting by the elder son.
3. Jokbo (genealogies) once recorded sons and daughters and their descendants equally, to featuring only the sons.
4. Adoption began to be "required" from within the jokbo for all men who did not have a son born to the family.
5. Son Preference becomes the dominant family goal; the necessity to have a son either biologically or by adoption.
6. Marriage practice was once balanced between living in the wife's village and living in the husband's village to solely living in the husband's village.
7. Creation of "single-surname villages" where everyone is a member of the same patrilineal family group, in Korean, "bugyesahoe."

It's quite clear that the "Korean-style Confucian society" persisted until the late 17th century. And then society changed, and practices including the seven items mentioned above take over.

It's interesting to note that philosophy or ideology or doctrine did not change. Social behavior changed but the doctrine stayed basically the same. Some people suspect that these social changes were inspired by the Neo-Confucian ideology that came into Korea from China. But I don't see it. Neo-Confucianism came in before the fall of the Goryeo Kingdom and was some of the inspiration to the change of dynasty, but I don't see any connection between the ideology and the social change. Rather, I think there were social forces ― population pressure was the primary force, but the fall of the Ming dynasty may have moved some to become the orthodox voice of Confucianism because the Qing dynasty was obviously not worthy. If there was an ideological motivation, it was the fact that after reading the Confucian texts for 1,200 years, and reading about the eldest son carrying out the ceremonies, people decided to start observing the advice.

So, while I have been documenting the facts that Confucianism took a right turn in the late 17th century, the folklore persists that Korea became miraculously "Confucian" at the beginning of the Joseon Kingdom in the late 14th century. How do you move the needle 300 years. It's not easy, apparently.


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


By Mark Peterson

To many readers, this article may seem arcane, even more granular than necessary. But maybe it's of vital importance. Let's see what you think.

The core issue that has brought this topic to my attention is several "comments" on some of my recent YouTube videos. I've been documenting the differences in Confucianism before and after 1666. I'm writing somewhat "tongue-in-check" when I use an exact date. But there is method in my madness ― there was a major shift in Confucian practice in the late 17th century. The choice of the date 1666 is not entirely arbitrary ― that is the date of one of the more remarkably explicit documents that shows society was changing.

The thing that is frustrating for me is that I have been documenting that the change in society toward a completely orthodox Confucian society did not take place in the early Joseon period, but rather, egalitarian principles persisted until the late 17th century. But within the comments of some of my audience, have been the repetition of the old saw that "Goryeo systems died with the advent of the Joseon Kingdom."

It's as if when the Joseon Kingdom took over in 1392, everything up and down society changed. It did not. Noticeably, inheritances continued to be given to sons and daughters equally until the late 17th century ― for nearly 300 years of the 500-year dynasty. In fact, if you look at it that way, more of the Joseon dynasty was like the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392) than it was the Joseon dynasty.

There is a persistent idea that the Joseon dynasty was radically different from the outset. Indeed, some things did change sooner than others. Political innovations showed Confucian influence and adoption of Chinese models at the beginning of the dynasty. But so many other facets of society took centuries to change.

On my YouTube channel I'm in the process of posting a series of seven videos, each featuring one of the "evidences" of the "Confucianization" process. The term "Confucianization" is admittedly inaccurate because society did not go from "pre-Confucian" to "Confucianized", but more accurately society moved from a Korean-style Confucianism to a Chinese-style Confucianism. The Korean-style Confucianism existed from the Three Kingdoms Period when Confucianism first came into Korea from China until the late 17th century. Thereafter Confucian society changed and Chinese features took over, such as relying on the eldest son for inheritance, the creation of the "keunjip" ("big house" ― the house of the eldest son of the eldest son for multiple generations).

I have outlined seven "evidences" that society changed, and that it did not change until the late 17th century.
1. Inheritances moved from equal for sons and daughters to primarily the eldest son.
2. Ancestor ceremonies changed from being hosted by all sons and daughters to hosting by the elder son.
3. Jokbo (genealogies) once recorded sons and daughters and their descendants equally, to featuring only the sons.
4. Adoption began to be "required" from within the jokbo for all men who did not have a son born to the family.
5. Son Preference becomes the dominant family goal; the necessity to have a son either biologically or by adoption.
6. Marriage practice was once balanced between living in the wife's village and living in the husband's village to solely living in the husband's village.
7. Creation of "single-surname villages" where everyone is a member of the same patrilineal family group, in Korean, "bugyesahoe."

It's quite clear that the "Korean-style Confucian society" persisted until the late 17th century. And then society changed, and practices including the seven items mentioned above take over.

It's interesting to note that philosophy or ideology or doctrine did not change. Social behavior changed but the doctrine stayed basically the same. Some people suspect that these social changes were inspired by the Neo-Confucian ideology that came into Korea from China. But I don't see it. Neo-Confucianism came in before the fall of the Goryeo Kingdom and was some of the inspiration to the change of dynasty, but I don't see any connection between the ideology and the social change. Rather, I think there were social forces ― population pressure was the primary force, but the fall of the Ming dynasty may have moved some to become the orthodox voice of Confucianism because the Qing dynasty was obviously not worthy. If there was an ideological motivation, it was the fact that after reading the Confucian texts for 1,200 years, and reading about the eldest son carrying out the ceremonies, people decided to start observing the advice.

So, while I have been documenting the facts that Confucianism took a right turn in the late 17th century, the folklore persists that Korea became miraculously "Confucian" at the beginning of the Joseon Kingdom in the late 14th century. How do you move the needle 300 years. It's not easy, apparently.


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.




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