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Confucianism and Political Evolution in Korea

Confucianism as Hurdle Towards the Political Evolution in Korea During the Yi Dynasty

Development of the political institutions in Korea during the period of Yi dynasty was influenced by such factors as political system and religion. For the sake of the deeper understanding the reasons why the political institutions developed in a certain way during this period, it is important to know about factors that had an impact on their development.

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The period of Yi dynasty governing the country faced various issues and changes. The beginning of the period was marked by the change of the religiously –philosophical doctrine. This king’s decision that was initiated with the only goal, to build a better society, had a drastic effect on all aspects of life and the king himself. This work gives a breath description of the historical features that an impact on the political institutions and analyzes the latter.

Korea is an ancient country with thousands of years of the recorded history with rich and extraordinary cultural traditions. Nowadays the country is divided into two parts; however, it was not always like that. Korea was considered one of the oldest countries in the world that was continuously unified. The development of its architecture, literature, music, art, etiquette was influenced by China and Japan. Korea also borrowed the most of their ideas about government and politics from China. Consequently, a kind of a feudal system was one of them. Under this political system were developed several political institutions that were influenced by such civilization doctrines as Confucianism, and Neo-Confucianism. These doctrines had a significant effect on not only the development of politics and its institutions but also culture, economy, and society in the country during the period of Yi dynasty. Despite the expected positive effect of Neo-Confucianism, these political institutions being developed under the feudal system were rather ineffective and even distractive. Confucianism and neo-Confucianism had positive ideas, but its major problem was the fact that it trusted the monarchs and did not take into account the fact that in particular situations, checks were necessary. This paper aims to prove that Neo-Confucianism and Confucianism, applied by the Yi dynasty turned to be the hurdles towards the process of transformation and gradual political evolution.

Neo-Confucianism. The rise of Yi dynasty established the absolute power of Neo-Confucianism. It is the religiously philosophical doctrine that influenced every aspect of life in the country. The main concept of this doctrine was based on the humanity and harmony in all kinds of the relationship. The central of Confucianism that explains the entire doctrine is “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Chung 24). Nevertheless, it did not bring the significant ideological changes because Neo-Confucianism started gaining its followers during the end of reigning the previous dynasty Koryo. It took a long time for the Korean society to adapt the profound changes of the doctrine. Gradually, the Korean society under Neo-Confucianism doctrine faces the significant changes of the family institution, particularly the role of a woman. At the heart of Neo-Confucianism lies the belief that social order depends on hierarchy. The family is the fundamental social unit and is divided into arranged roles, each with certain duties and privileges in accordance with the hierarchy. Likewise, society is ordered into distinct statuses, each of them has its own prerogatives and obligations. According to Walter Slote and George De Vos, the woman’s legal rights during the period of Yi dynasty were reduced drastically (195).


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Confucian morality requires the subordination of the self- relies heavily on the self- control of each individual. “Confucius believed in the power of moral virtue rather than in the power of military force.” The proper functioning of this Confucian concept (“Explaining the tribute system, power, Confucianism, and war in medieval East Asia.”) depends on the loyal obedience of inferiors to superiors in the social order and the carrying out of role-defined duties.

While discussing the issue of Neo—Confucianism, it is necessary to assume that it assisted to conduct the theoretical and rationalistic formulation of Confucian precepts. Neo-Confucian thoughts and perceptions seriously affected the evolution of political institutions. It brought the dominance and influenced the process of modernizations and influenced and shaped the Korean national identity.

The Korean version of Feudalism. Korean society was increasingly stratified due to its impact by the Confucian feudal order. Many historians argue whether Korea was a feudal country. Nevertheless, some historical evidence proves that it was. This political system formed in the period of Koryo kingdom when the ruling classes pushed for the increasing of production and expanding the farming land (Choy). They strived to achieve these purposes by keeping the economic authority in king’s hands and giving the production to the local magnates (Choy). The result of such distribution of power was formed highly centralized feudalism (Choy). It is evident that Korean feudalism was very different to its classical definition because the land belonged to the state, which can be explained by fear of the more powerful neighbors so that nobody could sell or give the land away. Nevertheless, this kind of feudalism carried the same determinant elements of the classical feudalism, which are “dependent tenants and hierarchy, thriving in a highly centralized superstructure” (Choy). In other words, the power was in hands of one class. Feudalism in Korea turned to be the essential constituent of gradual development. The country had to go through it in order to manage to create the liberal view.

James Palais confirms the fact that the ruling authorities used Confucianism in order to justify the existing social culture. The society was composed in the stepladder manner, and the ruling power manifested that it was the symbolic embodiment of Confucianism. It allowed the government to resist the attacks on privileged position. The society simply could not contradict towards the existing order as it was perceived as attempt to destroy the moral order, which prevailed in Korea at that time.

The Characteristics of the Political Institutions. The governing of Yi dynasty is considered to be the longest in the history of Korea. It started in 1392 and lasted until 1910 (Palais 3). The country was ruled by a centralized bureaucratic monarchy. The head of the state was a king with a few bureaucratic institutions under him. The social structure of the society was hierarchical. It was controlled by the powerful aristocracy, so called yongban (Palais 3). The social status of yongban was mostly inherited or based on the land, degree, and office holding (Palais 3). During this period, there was not a significant power to challenge the sovereignty of the powerful bureaucrats. It was due to the fact that the economy was mostly based on the agriculture (Palais 3). One of the main characteristics of that historical period was relatively weak monarch and centralized authority. It was caused by bureaucratic and aristocratic restrains of the monarch power. Confucianism seriously influenced the establishment of political and social institutions in Korea. The institutions supported loyalty to kings, obedience of women to men, and leadership by moral example.

Confucianism was applied for the erection of governmental institutions in Korea. The institutions, which were created on the principles of this philosophy were versatile and selective, and often opposed towards the sociopolitical system and condoned the un-Confucian actions. Confucianism supported the rise of the bureaucracy within the institutions, and it manifested the moralistic priorities. It equipped the governmental institutions and state officials with administrative and didactic functions and it allowed them to act as both a symbol and source of state legitimacy.

The Issue of Bureaucratic Factionalism. One of the results of the monarch’s relatively weak power was the continuous struggle between the king and the bureaucratic institutions that resulted in the appearance of the bureaucratic factionalism. “Factionalism is a concept in political anthropology that is used to describe groups of people formed around a leader who rejects the status quo and actively work against established authority within a society, such as state institutions, political parties, or economic interests” (Hill). Even tough, its negative effect was obvious it helped to understand better special characteristics of Yi dynasty’s politic (Kang 131). In other words, in the case of Korea, it was the constant fight between the different groups of the bureaucratic elite for power and resources, and the continuous king’s fight for his authority. It should be noted that bureaucratic factionalism manifested the reoccurring political development. It was marked by gathering the groups around the patrons. It affected the economy of the country, as bureaucracy was lobbied secretly and bribes were applied in order to get the influence. Bureaucratic factionalism affected the cohesive-capitalist characteristics. It assists to grasp the role of state and its relations towards the economic state.

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Censorate as a Political Institution. One of the most important political institutions during the period of reigning Yi dynasty was Censorate. It does not have the analog in the history of the Western institutions. It consisted of four institutions: Office of Inspector – General, Censor – General, and the Office of Special Advisors (Seth 133). The first institution had only six members and dealt with public morals, official conduct, and the various political issues (Seth 133). The second institution was involved in inspection and criticizing the king (Seth 133). The third served a purpose of advising the king and also maintaining books in the king’s library (Seth 133). The last institution was called the Classics Mat. It was created to guide the king and promote Neo-Confucianism (Seth 134). These institutions played a role of the moral police in Korea. Censorate had an access and rights to investigate and check the behavior of the general public as well as anybody who was appointed to office to make sure that they were morally suitable and had the proper aristocratic background for their position (Seth 133). They were allowed to review and question the decisions and actions of any officials and even the king on to find out whether they are done in accordance with the moral principles of Confucianism. At times the Censorate was used as a base for power by ambitious individuals and factions. The most of the officials who served as censors were well educated in the Neo-Confucian doctrine, and were its strict followers. These political organizations acted as one of the institutional basis for the undertaking of making Korea the perfect Confucian society.

Analyze of the Korean Political Institutions

The attempt to apply Neo-Confucians humanism to a feudal system of the elite clan during Yi dynasty can be compared to attempt to mix oil with water. Feudalism in Korea developed in a different way to the European one. The peasant in the Korean version of feudalism had no rights. Even though they could not be sold, they remained the property of government or private. Such position was completely contrary to the concepts of Neo-Confucianism that teach to treat others with respect and compassion. The government of the new dynasty wanted to make an impression upon people that they were interested in solving the slavery problem. The perfect example of such behavior can be the fact that when the government closed down the majority of the Buddhist monasteries, instead of setting the confiscated slaves free, they made eighty thousands of them governmental slaves (Palais 217). Despite being influenced by Neo-Confucianism, it is obvious that this political system of Korea was wrong because it was against human rights. The problem of Confucianism was the fact that it included the provisions for the political development of the country, but it provided great power to rulers. In Korean case, the rulers were not interested in development of the society-positive political order.

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During the period of the Yi Dynasty, the competitions for the position became increasingly fierce as the number of royal relations with the presumptive right to the office kept growing. Unlike, in the classical feudal societies, where income and titles were sustained until challenged military, in the Korean version of feudalism favors were regularly extended and withdrawn by the royal patriarch. The majority of the Korean society could not get the access to the proper education for the sake of getting higher positions in the society. The bureaucratic aristocracy trough the political institutions was protecting its power from any kind of encroachment. Once again, such attitude is far from being humane. Seems like the Neo-Confucian concept that each individual should strive to pursue a virtuous life could be applied only to the chosen elite. Yi Dynasty applied the Confucianism in order to enforce their ideology. The main purpose of Confucianism was harmonic transformation. However, the harmony in this situation depends on the rulers.

Korean kings failed to control human and material resources, which lead to uncontrollable wealth growth of the certain individual and unequal distribution of the resources. The ruling elite’s continuously increased greed and the desire to get more power was tearing the country apart. They formed several groups or clans with a leader. Each of those had supports and followers among the lower class aristocracy. These groups fought with each other for the power and authority causing factionalism in the sociality. Perhaps, if all these bureaucratic clans united together instead and used their power and energy to serve the state, Korea very likely could be a different country today.

It is obvious that fighting for the power within the government and ruling parties takes away their attention from the various economic and social problems of a nation. It weakens a country and makes it an easy target for the foreign invaders. Consequently, such concept may destroy the economy of any country. It weakens a country and turns it into an easy target for enemies. Moreover, people are getting tired of the continuous fight for power between various governmental institutions and the ruling elite. They are also getting tired of being ignored and as a result rebel. Such outcome can be seen throughout the history of many countries including Korea.

In the Confucian ideal, the king was a political patriarch who was required to articulate a personal vision of morality. Aristocrats attempted to keep him from wielding power against their interests. To see that in practice he reigned through the moral example rather than the active participation in the polity. Nevertheless, duty was owed to the king as a status superior, and failure to obey was interpreted as nothing less than betrayal. Such politic made a king powerless.

The yangban served as the officials, both civil and military in the royal bureaucracy. They were schooled in the Confucian classes and were appointed and promoted on their successful performance in a meritorious examination system. Scholarly achievements gave them the right to an official status and income from a small landholding. The right to sit for the examination was limited to yangban descendants, who were heirs of the elite clan. This small group of the privileged people institutionalized its power by sitting on political council, military boards, and the Censorate. They even managed to avoid some taxes by putting pressure on some kings (Rees 48). Regionally based yangban elites, acting as guardians of Confucian principles of virtue and privilege, were bold and barely restrained accusers.

Analyzing the bureaucratic institution of Korea one can notice the similarity with the Communistic political institution. Censorate, as well as Russian KGB, had an access not only to a social aspect of individuals’ lives but also to a private one. The obedient followers of Confucianism, as well as Communism, did not see the difference between the public and private conduct and that is why both groups became a subject to the detailed examination. The both Office of Inspector – General and Censor – General political institutions that were supposed to protect the public from the abuse of the royal power became the source of abuse and corruption. These political institutions were terrorizing the Korean society. Censorate could inspect anybody but nobody could check its work. Such things often happen if one grope of people or political institution gets too much power.

People need freedom of thinking, making decisions, and be in control of their lives. Obviously, freedom has to be limited by the certain moral rules regulated by the government. However, people should take an active part in the administrating a country. People should be able to say their opinions, vote, and chose the government they want. The perfect example of such political system is the democracy that, unlike Korean feudalism, protects human rights (Beetham 8). Only in a democratic society, a human can reach its full potential and be useful for his or her country.

The question arises as to what kind of role Neo-Confucianism played in the Korean bureaucratic system. Adopting Confucian principles to govern the people and using the ideology to gain the political power are completely different issues. In the beginning of reigning Yi dynasty, it was mostly the philosophical doctrine that was used by the government. Thus, it was quite flexible and adjustable. As a result, the bureaucratic elite used it for its benefits. Consequently, Confucianism became some kind of propaganda that they used to manipulate people and even king but did not apply to themselves. Such implementation of the philosophical doctrine explains the high level of bribery and corruption in that period. Only towards the end of the reign of the dynasty, the influence of Confucianism brought some positive changes that were applied to the yangban, literature, and art into the life Thus, the main reformation of the society was accomplished not through the acceptance of Confucian practice but through the change of the political institutions.

Confucianism played the groundbreaking role for this country, as Confucianism became the way of life and not just a philosophy. It its essence lied the ideas of anthropocentrism, humanism, and equality of human beings. It was marked by the democratic ideology. Korea experienced the negative effects of this philosophy due to the fact that it failed to develop the vital democratic institution in the sense of government, which could be “of” people, “by” people, and “for” people (Min, 15). It perceived that government for people was the best option, and neglected the possibilities of government by people and of people. It trusted the rulers, and it was its biggest problem. It allowed the ruling class to obtain the control over the society. It put an emphasis on human perfectibility and failed to work out special institution that could provide checks and balances, which could prevent corruption and overwhelming in wealth.


The epoch of Yi dynasty governing was a difficult period in the Korean history. Coming to power the first king of Yi dynasty was marked by turning to the Neo-Confucian doctrine. Despite the fact that it had positive essence, this doctrine provided the monarch the extensive power. Confucianims presupposes trusting the rulers. It considers that rulers will work “for” people. In case of Yi dynasty, the situation turned to be opposite. Confucianism allowed dictatorship. This political move had a significant effect on the state. The elite clan of the bureaucrats had the undivided power over the almost all aspects of life, which led to diminishing the royal influence. Due to the desire of the privileged class to increase its wealth and power, it created the problem of the factionalism, which affected the lower classes of people most of all. The political institutions of Korea being formed out of the bureaucrats elite brought chaos into the social and political life of the society. Using Neo-Confucianism as a powerful tool, Censorate was able to manipulate not only officials but the king as well. It is obvious that these institutions brought unhappiness and disappointment into Korean society. Consequently, Neo-Confucianism did not bring into Korean society the expected harmony and order. It exacerbated the situation and seriously hindered the country to obtain the political progress and evolution.


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