Scene: Korea…Take 2! Part 5
The philosophy of “Confucianism” or “vanilla” Confucianism had been around in China for about 2 millennia at the time the Koryo dynasty fell. The region of what is now known as Korea was introduced to its philosophical teachings quite some time before the fall. However, “Neo- Confucianism”, which was a further evolution of “vanilla” Confucianism, was somewhat new. By new I mean less than a millennia old at the time. In many ways, “vanilla” Confucianism was limited being just a personal or a political philosophy. Neo- Confucianism, on the other hand, extended the philosophy’s reach to the wider society and even to how the world was viewed. Everything that existed or didn’t exist were organized in a strict conceptual and metaphysical hierarchy with a huge emphasis on status based morality systems.
☺ “Sounds a lot like Medieval Christianity?”
In many ways, Neo- Confucianism elevated a philosophy to the level of a semi-religion. Many debate whether Neo- Confucianism is a religion or not. But, it acts in a similar manner. So, who cares about strict classification? And where there is religion, there are the fundamentalist radicals.
☺ “See where I’m going with this?”
The fall of Koryo dynasty and the birth of the Joseon dynasty can be viewed as a radical semi-religious movement spear headed by Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars.
☺ “I said it! Your local college philosophy professors overthrew the government”
This needs some explanations. In the later periods of the Koryo dynasty, Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars started to be recruited as central government bureaucrats. At the end of the dynasty, these Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars composed a significant portion of the overall bureaucracy serving the
nobles. However, they couldn’t have overthrown the dynasty alone. So, they joined forces with an up and coming military general, just think of him as a Julius Caesar, and the did was done. This general became the new King of a new dynasty.
☺ “Long live the king!”
What made these Korean Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars special is that they stretched Neo- Confucianism to its limits. Neo- Confucianism is based on the heavenly mandate in which the order of the world goes heaven, king, scholars, warriors, farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and slaves. It was a pyramid class system with the king at the top. These Korean scholars had the smart idea of ultimately removing the king from the equation by neutering his powers and uplifting themselves, the scholars, just below the heaven. The alliance with the new king who came from warrior stock was more like a stepping stone to creating a Neo- Confucianist utopia where the king is just the first among Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars.
☺ “The king was to be lowered from absolute ruler to the dean of your local liberal arts college”
Even though the military coup was successful, the wider social shift not did not come off without a hitch. There were bumps along the road and resistance from the new royal family. The early process of this is shown in the Korean movie “Empire of Lust” (2015) starring actor Shin Ha‑kyun. It is not shown well but the movie does covers this time period.
Ultimately these scholars got what they wanted or more accurately what was possible in reality. Society was restructured into a strict hierarchical society with a large newly minted slave class, a slowly enlarging upper class made up of scholars feeding off the lower classes. “Large” scale commerce and industry were prohibited and the whole country’s economy was shifted towards slave based agriculture. I put quotation marks around the word “large” as, during the 14th century, the economy was pretty basic even for the global standards of the time.
The feudal system was replaced with a more centralized government packed with mostly Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholars and a much weakened warrior class. The kings were not totally neutered but ended up empowered just enough to create a mess if they went on a tantrum like in “The Treacherous” (2015) starring actress Lim Ji‑yeon but not empowered enough to actually do much as seen in “The Fatal Encounter” (2014) starring actor Hyun Bin. The most could be said about a king’s reign was that things did not totally go to hell.
☺ “What does this look like?”
The modern equivalent to the Joseon dynasty could be said to be Afghanistan under the Taliban.
☺ “Things do not really change much over the centuries…”
Korean Movie References
“The Fatal Encounter” (2014)
“Empire of Lust” (2015)
“The Treacherous” (2015)