Illustrated Conduct of The Three Bonds

three bonds

The Three Bonds & Five Relationships,
Courtesy of the National Folk Museum

Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society

At the outset of the Chosŏn Kingdom, Neo-Confucian scholar-officials worked tirelessly to spread Confucian values throughout the kingdom. The scholar-officials’ tireless efforts, from establishing schools to enacting new laws, gradually confucianized the Chosŏn society. In order to help educate the populace about these Confucian values, King Sejong and his scholars published The Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds, a book of pictures and stories about heroic Confucian deeds.

King Sejong the Great

Confucianism has always emphasized the importance of the written word. For Confucians during the Chosŏn period, this meant that books, especially the Confucian classics, were the ultimate source of knowledge and understanding. To this end, the Chosŏn government and scholars went to extravagant lengths to print and disseminate Confucian literature. King Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450 CE), the most beloved of the Korean kings, used the literature to educate his people in Confucian values and practical knowledge. Among the dozens of publications that King Sejong commissioned or wrote, one of his most famous books was the Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds (Samgang Haengsildo).

During the early Chosŏn period, typically only yangban men were literate. Because of the difficulty of Chinese characters and because of the unwillingness of the upper classes to teach commoners or women, most people did not know how to read and write. This widespread illiteracy was quite disconcerting to King Sejong. He felt that, as king, he should not only set a good example for his subjects, but should also provide them opportunities for learning. He believed that teaching Confucian values to his people would help them live happier lives.

To accomplish this, King Sejong commissioned an elite group of scholars, Chiphyŏnjŏn (The Hall of Worthies), to collect stories of model Confucian behavior from China and Korea and put those stories into an illustrated book. He also instructed the scholars to write explanations for each story. The scholars took special attention to look for stories that showed the importance of the Three Bonds (the relations between husband and wife; father and son; and ruler and subject) and emphasized the values of chastity, filial piety, and loyalty. In explaining this King Sejong wrote:

There were many, however, with outstanding behavior and great integrity… I wish to have the most prominent ones selected, their pictures drawn, and their stories compiled and distributed inside and outside the capital so that all the ignorant husbands and wives, by looking at them with sympathy, may be easily stimulated to proper behavior. 1

After compiling their list, the scholars published the book as The Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds.

Following the first publication of The Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds, King Sejong focused his efforts on the invention a new alphabet, Han’gŭl, to promote literacy within his realm. Because Koreans wrote using Classical Chinese, only the elite could learn to read and write. This new simpler alphabet matched spoken Korean and was easy to learn. King Sejong’s successors would incorporate Han’gŭl into new additions of The Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds, thus furthering King Sejong’s work in striving to educate men and women.

The following are examples and translated texts from the 1514 edition of The Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds.

Threebonds 01

Kŭmchi Defeats the Tiger.

Kŭmchi is a daughter of the people of Chinju. When she was twelve years old, she went with her mother to work in the fields on the side of the mountain. A tiger appeared and took hold of her mother. She grasped her mother by one hand and then smashed the tiger with a hoe in her other hand. The tiger dragged them one hundred feet and finally let go of the mother’s dead body. Kŭmchi took her mother’s body home and cried all night long. She sold some of her clothing to buy a coffin to bury her mother. After this story was reported to the royal court by province government office, the government ordered that a special gate built to commemorate Kŭmchi, a filial daughter. 2

Threebonds 02

Mrs. Yak Keeps Her Chastity.

Mrs. Yak lived in Sŏnsan and was the wife of Cho Ŭlsaeng. 3 One day Japanese raiders kidnapped Ŭlsaeng. No one knew if he was alive or dead. Mrs. Yak stopped eating meat and garlic to show that she was in mourning. She never took off her clothes when sleeping to honor the memory of her husband. When her parents tried to force her to marry another man, she swore that she would die before marrying another. Eight years after the kidnapping, her husband returned and they become a husband and a wife again. 4

Threebonds 03

Chupyŏng Feeds Deer to His Mother.

Chupyŏng lived in Muyang, He served his ill mother, Mrs. Cho, and was filial in cold or in heat, from morning to night. He carefully observed the proper etiquette and never went amiss. When his mother’s illness worsened, Chupyŏng became very sad and prayed to heaven to make him sick instead of his mother. One day his mother wanted to eat deer meat. Chupyŏng traveled far and wide to find a deer, but try as he might, he could not find one. Chupyŏng’s sadness worsened. But just at that moment of despair, a deer wandered into his yard. Chupyŏng captured the deer and fed it to his mother. She quickly recovered. When the local government office reported this story to the royal court, the royal court commissioned a special gate built to honor the filial piety of Chupyŏng. 5

Threebonds 04

Hach’ung Falls among Thieves.

Hach’ung lived in Kangnŭng. He passed a civil service examination and became a royal inspector. He was a benevolent person and the government promoted him to another position in Kyoji in Chiju. He worked virtuously and followed the correct procedures. The people followed him willingly. While he was in office there was a rebel group that attacked Kyoji. Because the generals knew that Hach’ung was talented, wise, and brave they sent him to gather soldiers to fight off the rebels. On his way back to the fortress a band of thieves captured Kyoji. He would not give into the thieves’ demands and scolded the thieves for their immoral behavior. The thieves murdered Kyoji because he would not yield. When this story was reported to the royal court they honored Kyoji’s loyalty by building a special gate and naming him “Ch’ungjŏl,” meaning “loyal subject. 6