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

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standards in statecraft. in which perfection was located only in antiquity, the period
of the sage emperors through the end of the Chou dynasty in 220 B.C. There-
after, the chance for perfection in China, or rather, the world, was destroyed by
the obli teration of a number of crucial institutions necessary to sage government.
The record of Chinese history from the Han dynasty on was one of imper-
fection and failure, marked by a number of noble attempts to restore the essence
of ancient institutions even within the centralized bureaucratic context. The his-
tory of China was valuable to Yu for providing him information about those
attempts and the more astute plans and suggestions of the brightest lights in Chi-
nese history and statecraft thought.
Yu had no particular commitment to demonstrating or advertising the unique-
ness or value, let alone superiority, of Korean culture because he judged Korean
dynasties the same way that he judged Chinese dynasties: how well did they
match up with the sage institutions of ancient China? On that score. he found
that in Korea few attempts had been made to adopt ancient institutions until the
eighth century, and even then it was a proto-examination system copied from
an institution invented in the Sui dynasty in 606 and can'ied over into the T'ang
that the government of Silla adopted to improve the training of a few officials.
Since he learned from his Chinese sources that the examination system itself
was flawed, he was not particularly proud either of the formal adoption of the
civil-service examinations in the Koryo dynasty in 958, nor the intensification
of their use as a means of recruitment after the founding of the Chason dynasty
in 1392.
Furthermore, he was all too painfully aware of the problems created in Korea
by the power of inherited status throughout society. In his view, the yangban,
whom he perceived as fully blown hereditary aristocrats, monopolized educa-
tion, the examinations, and access to office to the exclusion of men of talent
condemned to obscurity by the accident of birth. Not only had the civil-service
examinations failed to open the door to office to commoners, let alone merchants,
artisans, or slaves, but the official school system had also failed to provide the
opportunity for education to the general public. In fact, the official schools were
virtually moribund, and private academies were run by yangban factions. The
conclusions he had drawn about the evil consequences of a hereditary aristoc-
racy in his own society were only reinforced by his research into the Chinese
experience in the Northern and Southern dynasties, when an aristocracy had taken
over control of society. Unfortunately, the Chinese solution to the problem of
aristocratic society, the creation of the examination system under centralized
bureaucratic management, was as bad as hereditary aristocracy because it failed
both to eliminate that aristocracy and to train men in moral standards. His own
Chason dynasty had, therefore, blindly adopted a system that had been fully
condemned by some of the greatest thinkers in T'ang and Sung times. The only
solution was to reject both the examination system and excessively centralized
bureaucratic control in favor of a far better system of education and recruitment,
the ancient system of official schools and recommendation.

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