Educational System

Portrait of Confucius, Wikipedia

Appreciating a Painting, Kim Hongdo, 18th century,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Written by Hur Joon, Sogang University
and Paik Jae Hyun

Korea is known for its emphasis on education. Today, many Korean students spend up to twelve hours a day at school and academies studying for the college entrance exam, a grueling nine-hour test. While students today focus most of their attention on subjects like math, biology, physics, languages, and social studies, the tradition of studying began long before these were common subjects in the general curriculum.

For hundreds of years Koreans have adopted a ruling ideology that focuses on education of Confucianism. From its beginnings, Confucianism has always emphasized education. During the Chosŏn Kingdom, Confucianism affected the educational system more than ever. Students generally attended five different types of schools during the Chosŏn period: Sŏdang, Hakdang, Hyanggyo, Sŏwŏn, and Sŏnggyun’gwan. All of these schools had the same goal of disseminating Neo-Confucianism, a new style Confucianism that incorporated Buddhist and Daoist elements into traditional Confucian philosophy.

Sodang

Sŏdang, Kim Hong-do, 18th century,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Sŏdang

Education started well before a child was even born. While pregnant, Korean women were very meticulous about their food and the surroundings. They believed that what they saw, heard, and said affected their child’s potential for success. The Chosŏn people even published a book instructing women on pre-natal education. During a child’s early years, his mother or grandmother typically educated the children in basic customs and basic Chinese characters. 

The first formal education a child received began after they were five years old at the Sŏdang. While some girls did receive education at the Sŏdang, they were typically educated in the home. At Sŏdang male students learned how to read and write. Their main textbooks were the One Thousand Characters (Chŏnjamun), and The Children’s First Learning (Tongmong Sŏnsŭp). Both of these books emphasized basic literary skills. At Sŏdang students also learned calligraphy and were required to memorize large passages.

Sŏdang were locally sponsored and became nationally popular around the late fourteenth century. Most wealthy yangban students attended Sŏdang with the hope of passing government examinations, but other students attended the school to learn how to read and write. After attending the Sŏdang schools, students who wanted to become civil servants entered Hyanggyo or attended Hakdang.

Hakdang

Students from the city (Hanyang) entered Hakdang after Sŏdang. Hakdang consisted of four educational institutions; east, south, west and center. Unlike Sŏdang, only one hundred yangban class’ sons were chosen to attend these four schools. Students continued their education in Elementary Learning and the Confucian Classics, calligraphy, and literature. Scholars with superb academic performances and over fifteen years of age advanced on to the Sŏnggyun’gwan.

Hyanggyo

Hyanggyo was a nationwide public high educational institution with the goal of educating those with talent and popularizing Confucian ideology. First introduced in early thirteenth century, Hyanggyo were located all over the country to teach Confucian values to all people. Students in Hyanggyo included yangban and commoners. However, they were assigned to different classes within the school. These institutions strived to produce civil government officials. Its core curriculum consisted of literature and Confucian classical studies. The focus on these works prepared candidates to pass the state examination system (kwagŏ). For those students interested in military education pursuing a military position in government, courses in military skills were required in addition to the core curriculum.

During the beginning of the Chosŏn Kingdom, the government dispatched teachers who taught and administered Hyanggyo, but as the education system deteriorated, the government discontinued the support. Therefore, even though Hyanggyo was a national public high school, each districts’ retired yangban families managed the schools.

Hyanggyo not only served to educate children on Confucian values, but also served as a shrine. Throughout the year, various ceremonies were held there in remembrance of the Confucian saints. People of all classes and ages were invited to participate in these ceremonies, thus Hyanggyo had played a very important role in confucianizing the whole Chosŏn society. It was this particular role that allowed Hyanggyo to last until the very end of the Chosŏn Kingdom.

Portrait of Confucius, Wikipedia

Sŏwŏn
Courtesey of Cultural Heritage Administration

Sŏwŏn

Sŏwŏn was the last of the educational institutions to develop in Korea, but they were perhaps the strongest advocates of Confucianism. Even today Sŏwŏn still teach and spread Confucianism. Neo-Confucian scholars began forming Sŏwŏn as early as the sixteenth century to honor their deceased masters and teach students. The government gave grants of land, books, and slaves to scholars to establish Sǒwǒn. Local scholars taught Confucianism and performed ancestral rites at these schools. Eventually hundreds of Sŏwŏn were established throughout Korea and were powerful political and social institutions.

Unlike Sŏnggyun’gwan’s obligatory and systematic structure, Sŏwŏn’s educational system centered on moral learning and the relationships among scholars. Students read a wide array of books including: Great Learning, Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, The Classic of Poetry, Yi Ching, and The Spring and Autumn Annals. Students learned to read extensively and thoroughly, recite from memory, and meditate. The correspondence between their attained knowledge and their practical actions was immensely vital. Sŏwŏn’s traditional teaching method was kang, which was the capability to read aloud previously learned materials and answer questions during private sessions with one’s tutor.

Sŏwŏn’s popularity extended as Hyanggyo’s educational system declined and preparation for the civil service examination weakened. Sŏwŏn’s student acceptance rate varied depending on the time period, region and the school, but it was generally not too hard to get into. The school consisted of both yangban class and those of non-aristocratic ones who came to serve for the masters and/or attended as servants for memorial services. Many bought their way into the school for military immunity despite various governmental restrictions. The non-aristocratic ones were allowed to attend sŏwŏn, so it was a way of popularizing the Confucian values.

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Sŏnggyun’gwan
Courtesey of Cultural Heritage Administration

Sŏnggyun’gwan

The Sŏnggyun’gwan was the top educational institution in Chosŏn Korea and helped prepare students for the higher civil service examination. Many formalities and tests were required in order to attend Sŏnggyun’gwan. Students at Sŏnggyun’gwan studied the Four Books and Five Confucian Classics in the following order: Great Learning, Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Doctrine of the Mean, The Classic of Rites, Spring and Autumn Annals, The Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, and Yi Ching. In addition to study, students must perform ancestor veneration ceremonies for sages at the Confucius shrine (Munmyo).

Kings visited the Sŏnggyun’gwan every three years to administer ancestor veneration ceremonies for the Confucian saints. This showed Sŏnggyun’gwan’s prestige and significant role in displaying the ideology of the nation’s administration both internally and externally. The country treated the Confucian scholars including students at Sŏnggyun’gwan with great respect and gave them the rights to criticize and/or denounce if the government’s policy contradicted the Confucian ideology. Sŏnggyun’gwan had a profound effect on society because of its prestige.