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Confucian seowon schools: Korea’s little-known marvels

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) is proposing that nine seowon, or traditional Korean Confucian academies, be included on UNESCO’s list of world heritage items in 2015. The nine proposed schools are: the Sosu Seowon in Yeongju; the Namgye Seowon in Hamyang; the Oksan Seowon in Gyeongju; the Dosan Seowon in Andong; the Pilam Seowon in Jangseong; the Dodong Seowon in Dalseong; the Byeongsan Seowon in Andong; the Donam Seowon in Nonsan; and the Museong Seowon in Jeongeup.

In contrast to this promotion, however, many modern-day Koreans would find it hard to explain just what is or was a seowon. The question is complicated by the similarity in names between a seowon and a seodang. Moreover, in many places across the country we also find the remains of schools known as hyanggyo. How can we distinguish between them all?

The main difference, in the case of the hyanggyo, is that they were established by the government or local authorities to be public institutions, while the others were private foundations established either by individuals or by groups and clans. hyanggyo were already in existence during the Goryeo period (918- 1392) but they were never very popular. In the Joseon era (1392-1910), far better teachers could be found in the seodang and seowon.

Hyanggyo and seodang were essentially schools, of varying sizes, designed to prepare the sons of the ruling elite, the yangban, to take the initial stages of the government service exams. The seodang might have been very small, with a single teacher instructing the boys of a rural village in the fundamentals of Chinese characters and the classics.

The seowon was also a school, but it always also contained a shrine dedicated to Confucius, and many other celebrated sages, including celebrated Korean scholars, sometimes those responsible for founding the seowon in question. The seowon combined education and Confucian rituals and often served as a rallying point for scholars belonging to a particular school or faction. They usually contained dormitories and housing for resident students and scholars.

Dosan Seowon founded by renowned Confucius scholar Yi Hwang (photo: Yonhap News)

Dosan Seowon founded by renowned Confucius scholar Yi Hwang (photo: Yonhap News)


Currently, the remains of hundreds of academies still exist in Korea, and the nine amongst them now being submitted to UNESCO are those reckoned to be in the best condition. What strikes the visitor to such seowon, with their many buildings, is the very considerable difference in the details of their design. Although generally the shrine for rituals is found at the back of the complex, to the north, behind the buildings for classes and study, this is not always the case. Like Buddhist temples, the seowon always took account of the natural site on which it was built, and other factors.

The Sosu Seowon is the oldest private Neo-Confucian academy in Korea. It was founded by Ju Sebung (1495-1554) and its shrine is dedicated to An Hyang (1243-1306), the local scholar who introduced Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century. Its layout is unusual, with the shrine hall on the left-hand, or western, side of the main compound, instead of at the back, to the north, as was to become the standard design. It seems this is because the Sosu seowon was founded on the site of a Goryeo Buddhist temple.

A little later, Toegye Yi Hwang (1501-1570), the preeminent Neo-Confucian philosopher of Korea, became magistrate of the county and obtained a royal charter guaranteeing the independence of the seowon. This prepared the way for the foundation of other similar academies. There were far more young men belonging to the yangban class than there were government positions available. Unemployed yangban eagerly installed themselves in the dozens of private academies that soon sprouted across the countryside. Unemployment was less their problem than idleness, for the majority of yangban possessed hereditary estates.

Every seowon contains a similar set of buildings. In addition to the shrine, where offerings were made, there is a main lecture hall, a library, usually containing a set of woodblocks for printing copies of the Confucian classics, dormitories for the students and lodging for the teaching scholars. Usually, there are also pavilions. Visitors to Andong are especially fortunate in being able to visit several of the most celebrated seowon: the Byeongsan Seowon was founded in 1563; the Dosan Seowon was founded by Toegye Yi Hwang; and the Gosan Seowon was founded in 1789. In the hills outside Daegu, the Dodong Seowon was built in 1568. Its extensive buildings, in a secluded setting, are a fine example of what a wonderful place a Joseon-era seowon could be.

Brother Anthony

Brother Anthony


The Dosan Seowon is the most famous of all the Confucian academies in Korea. The first buildings on the site were established in 1561 by Toegye as the “Dosan Seodang.” Four years after his death in 1570, his disciples expanded it into the larger academy we see today. The academy served two functions: it housed the memorial shrine to Yi Hwang, where his disciples performed ceremonies in his honor; and, it was a place where the teachings of Yi Hwang were faithfully transmitted. These seowon are wonderful examples of the Joseon ideal of beauty, combining stately wooden buildings, lovely gardens and extraordinary natural settings. They were usually located away from towns and played a quasi-religious role, as well as offered spaces for intellectual activity. Alas, small differences in Neo-Confucian doctrine soon divided society into warring camps, a factionalism that plagued the Joseon Dynasty. The end of the seowon came in 1871, when the Daewongun, regent of Korea from 1863 to 1873, ordered the closure of almost all private academies. Their land was confiscated and the students driven out.

Fortunately, some survived, and the buildings were maintained by the families associated with them. During the Japanese period, most of the hyanggyo and seodang located in towns were transformed into modern schools and their traditional buildings destroyed. The seowon were mostly far from centers of population and so survived. They now, of course, no longer serve any vital educational or intellectual function, but they, along with royal palaces and Buddhist temples, are the last places where the architecture of old Korea survives and can be admired.

Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)
President, RAS Korea

Discover Korea with the RAS
[The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, founded in 1900, is an association of people, Koreans and non-Koreans alike, who wish to deepen their knowledge of Korean life, culture and history, and share that knowledge with others in English. http://www.raskb.com/ ]


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