Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions. Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty - James B. Palais

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up on the prospect of an official career and chose to spend the rest of his life in
scholarly contemplation and writing.
Yu's work is especially valuable for our understanding of the late Choson period
because he was living through the beginnings of the changes described above,
and he wrote with great clarity and detail on what he perceived to be the major
problems facing the country. Yu has been portrayed by contemporary historians
as one of the first, if not the foremost, of a new school of scholars of Practical
Learning (Sirhak) who turned thcir attention away from earlier concerns with
Confucian ethics and metaphysics to the problems of statecraft. The first scholar
to study Yu's work afterliberation in 1945 was Ch'on K wan 'u, who even regarded
Yu's work and the Sirhak movement as a whole as reflecting the trend toward
modernity and nationalism that characterized the late Choson period. lOne of
the tasks of this book will be to revise that interpretation, but its ultimate goal
will be to transccnd the interpretation of Confucian statecraft in isolation from
surrounding historical circumstance. I will discuss the nature of the major changes
taking place in Korean society throughout the Choson dynasty from 1392 to the
conclusion of the Kanghwa Treaty in 1876 to assess thc rclationship between
scholarly statecraft thought and historical reality and the influence that each had
on the other.


The Choson dynasty has been generally known as the age of Confucianism in
Korean history, not because Confucian thought was not important in Korea prior
to I392, but because Confucianism played a secondary role to Buddhism and
native modes of social and family organization. After 1392 the Nco-Confucian
thought of Sung dynasty China as epitomized in the writings of Chu Hsi in the
twelfth century became the basis not only of the educational curriculum and
the civil service examination system, but also of ritual practice, family organi-
zation, and ethical values for an increasing percentage of Korean society. Neo-
Confucian heliefs, norms, and practices may have taken two to threc hundred
years to permeate the lowest levels of village life, although during that time other
beliefs like Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, and geomancy were preserved, espe-
cially among the uneducated peasants. Eventually the Neo-Confucians domi-
nated Korean society and thought even though they may not have been able to
convert everyone to all their beliefs and practices.
The Neo-Confucian ideologues who participated in the founding of the
Choson dynasty in 1392 played an important role in carrying many features of
the Confucian statecraft program into effect. Since a number of institutions were
introduced or strengthened at their insistence, it was clear that the early Choson
period represented the zenith of the influence of Confucian statecraft ideas on
practical administration. A strange development ensued thereafter, however. The
influence ofConfueian statecraft scholars outside the bureaucracy on public pol-

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