Book review: Land of Scholars (Kang Jae-eun)

by Philip Gowman on 24 October, 2011

in Book Reviews, Books on traditional culture, Confucianism, History Books, Joseon Dynasty

Land of Scholars coverThe Land of Scholars:
Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism

by Kang Jae-eun (translated from Japanese to Korean by Ha Woo-bong, then from Korean into English by Suzanne Lee)
Homa & Sekey Books 2006; original Japanese version published in 2003. 515 pp
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Students of Korean history, and particularly of the Joseon dynasty, will inevitably at some stage have to tangle with Confucianism, with which the politics of the dynasty are inextricably intertwined. What is it about the central tenets of Confucianism that made people think it suitable to base a system of government on them? Understanding Korean history, and maybe understanding Koreans today, seems to require some understanding of Confucian doctrine, which goes far beyond knowing your place within a male-centric hierarchical structure.

This is the first book to which I have turned to in an attempt to fill the gap. The author describes his motives in embarking on the book as “to attempt to organise … Confucian history grounded on what the Confucians searched for and how they responded to the historical tasks they confronted in each period.” That encouraged me: an examination of how Confucians responded to the challenges of history would surely illuminate in what way Confucianism is relevant to the real, practical world.

At the bottom of the first page of the first chapter we get a helpful introduction to Confucianism:

Generally, Confucianism is called the study of “governing others after self-cultivation.” In other words, Confucianism contains two aspects that are simultaneously and indivisibly connected: “Self-cultivation” (or ethics) and “governing others” (or politics). Further, Confucianism can be said to be a system of thought that integrates politics and ethics insofar as a scholar should attain “self-cultivation” to later “govern others.” (p1-2)

This brief summary is useful in articulating the state of affairs in China and Korea whereby scholars of the Confucian Classics were thought to be uniquely qualified for government. But what this book lacks is an explanation of what precisely in Confucian philosophy meant that it could be regarded as an official state “religion”. Why, after all, should the writings of a scholar from the sixth century BCE1 be thought relevant to the practical craft of statesmanship nearly two and a half millennia later?

If my question about why Confucianism is relevant for running a country isn’t really answered by this book, maybe there’s a reason: history is written by the victors, and in Korean Confucianism the Sarim school – to the extent that a faction which has so many squabbling sub-factions can be thought of as a coherent school of thought – are the victors. And to the extent that it is possible to attribute a guiding principle to the Sarim faction, they advocated a back-to-basics study of the Confucian Classics as interpreted by Chinese scholar Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi (朱熹), 1130 – 1200), to the exclusion of practical learning such as agriculture, astronomy and medicine, and possibly the most practical art of all, that of defending yourselves against invaders. Yulgok Yi I, a leading scholar of the Seoin subfaction of the Sarims, was a lone voice in 1583 in advocating the training of a decent army of 100,000 troops. He was shouted down, and 9 years later Korea’s land-based defences against the Japanese invasion were pitiful.

Those who know about the yangban system will know that there is meant to be equal weight placed on the military structure as the civil magistrates. But that balance was rarely respected in Korea. To be fair to the Sarims, the rot started in the Goryeo dynasty, for example with the discontinuation of the Military Examination as an integral part of the civil service exams in 1133. And subsequent attempts at reinvigorating the standing of the Military seemed to be doomed by a certain snobbishness on the part of the scholars who didn’t think it appropriate that the unrefined soldier types should have equal status. Things reached a low point during the reign of Uijong (r 1146-1170), when military officials were forced to wrestle each other to provide entertainment for scholars on a poetry picnic.

372 CE was a landmark year in Korean cultural history: it was the year that King Sosurim of Goguryeo established the National Confucian Academy, and also the year when Monk Sundo arrived from China bearing Buddhist scriptures and images into the peninsula for the first time. From there the two religions2 spread to Baekje and Silla, and from Baekje ultimately Japan. For a millennium or so the two religions lived more or less in harmony. It was not until a century into the Joseon dynasty that Confucianism got the upper hand.

Two key questions seem to confront Korean Confucianism in the millennium after the foundation of King Sosurim’s Academy: whether to coexist with or try to suppress Buddhism, and how broadly or narrowly to define the range of acceptable subjects for respectable Confucian scholarship. By the end of the fifteenth century these questions were well on their way to being settled in favour of intolerance. Kang lays the blame squarely with the Sarim faction for espousing an impractical philosophy, and effectively being responsible for the Joseon dynasty’s hermit-like introspection and lack of development. It is therefore surprising that we get very little explanation of how they achieved their ascendancy. What is seemingly a landmark event – the arrival on the political scene of Kim Jong-jik in 1476 – is noted but not adequately explained:

As of the seventh year of the reign of Seongjong (1476) when Seongjong began to personally govern, however, a leader of the Sarim Faction by the name of Kim Jong-jik was appointed to restrain the Hungu Faction with marriage ties to the king, and the policy to oppress Buddhism was pursued to revive Confucian politics (p 256)

This seems to be the first real setback for the Hungu faction, who pragmatically supported the new Joseon dynasty when the Goryeo dynasty lost its vigour, and who were at the centre of influence during the amazing flowering of cultural and scientific achievements during the reign of King Sejong (r 1418-1450). Who appointed him and why? Was it Kim Jong-ik, the mysterious person or persons who appointed him, or the king himself, who determined the policy of suppressing Buddhism and why? We are never told.

This was not the end of the Hungu faction, because the Sarims seemed to be the main losers in the literati purges of the first half of the 16th century, but in another strange omission from Kang’s narrative we don’t really get a sense of how the Hungus met their eventual demise.

As a result of these purges, Sarim scholars for a while withdrew from public life and retired to their rural retreats, where they had the leisure to fret over matters metaphysical such as the relative importance of the Principle (i, li, 理) and the Material Force (gi, qi, 氣). Such questions gave rise to even more abstruse arguments such as the four-seven debate. Imagine the range of possible views around mind / body dualism and throw in the inherent complexities of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and you’re probably getting half way towards understanding the nature of the debate. Here’s a flavour of the amount of scholarly ink that was spent, from the collected works of Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584):

The original meaning when Zhu Xi said “(the Four Beginnings) issue forth from the principle and (the Seven Emotions) issue forth from material force” … is nothing more than that “the Four Beginnings refer to the principle only and the Seven Emotions include materal force as well,” and it is not thought that he meant to say “the Four Beginnings issue forth first from the principle and the Seven Emotions issue forth first from material force.” Toegye argues based on this (doctrine of Zhu Xi) by stating that “the Four Beginnings issue forth from the principle and material force follows it, and the Seven Emotions issue forth from material force and the principle rides on it.” It is correct to say that “the Seven Emotions issue forth from material force and the principle rides on it.” This is not limited to the Seven Emotions in particular, but rather, the Four Beginnings also issue forth from material force and the principle rides on it. (p 291)

Zhu Xi

Zhu Xi (1130—1200), the fount of all neo-Confucianism

Maybe it’s too much to expect a user-friendly exposition of Confucian philosophy in a book of this nature. As if to compensate, Kang displays plenty of passion in his writing, and launches into a full-blooded assault on Song Si-yeol (1607-1689) as the prime villain in enforcing a strict orthodoxy in Confucian scholarship, treating any deviation from the texts of Zhu Xi (朱熹) as heresy.

The chilling and dismal trend of monotheistic thought in which the Learning of Master Zhu was the only scholarship and regarded anyone who deviated from its thought as “one who disturbs and behaves contrary to Confucian tenets” started from Song Si-yeol. (p363)

While it is refreshing to get some passion into the dry world of Confucian scholarship it would be nice to have the orthodox view presented as well.

On the subject of factionalism, as someone who has read a little Korean history and been baffled by the in-fighting between the different scholarly factions, I can sympathise with the following outburst from Kang:

In short, it would be best to delete these 65 years of ignominious history full of slander, abuse, intrigues and executions, confusion in politics and factional disputes one by one from the Confucian history of Korea, if possible. (p368)

This is the period of strife from 1659 to 1724 (the reigns of Hyeonjong, Sukjong and Gyeongjong) between the Seoin faction (led by Song Si-yeol) and the Namin faction, where much of the blood spilled seems to have derived from differences of opinion as to the proper period of mourning on the death of a king who was not the first son. But this passion is somewhat surprising in a scholarly work, and one would have preferred an analysis of why at the time the period of mourning was thought to be so important.

This is a very difficult book to rate. While I have derived much value from it, that value was not commensurate with the effort I had to put in to get through it. Part of the problem is the translation, where Suzanne Lee is burdened with having to translate into English a Korean text which itself is a translation (who knows how idiomatic?) of the original Japanese. The resulting English takes a certain amount of getting used to, as evidenced by the extracts quoted above, and I estimate this added up to 20% to my reading time. More objectively, it doesn’t really deliver on its promises. Much of the first half of the book gets bogged down in the interminable dynastic change and barbarian invasions with which early Chinese and Korean history is mired. In this respect the book reads more like a conventional Korean history than a history of Korean Confucianism. It takes a certain amount of patience and an aggressive filter to get grains of value out of this part.

So I’m still waiting for the ideal book on Korean Confucianism, and if anyone can recommend one, please do so. But I will be very sceptical of any recommendation where the book is not written or translated by someone who has English as a first language. That’s not to denigrate the quality of scholarship in books written by non English speakers. But contemporary moral philosophy and metaphysics are quite difficult enough to understand in your own language. Two thousand year old moral philosophy and metaphysics from an alien land the other side of the world presents a real challenge, and needs interpreters and translators of an even higher standard than that available to King James when he commissioned the Authorised Version of the Bible.

Historical Figures: ,
  1. Confucius (literally, “Master Kong”) lived 551-479 BCE []
  2. I use the word loosely in respect of Confucianism []

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