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Confucianism and Chinese Culture: Selective Adoption in Chosŏn Korea

The Chosŏn Dynasty (1392--1910) has long been characterized as a loyal adherent of Confucianism. It has even been described as a "blind follower" of Chinese culture for adopting Confucian traditions that originated in China. However, just because Confucian traditions were practiced in Chosŏn did not mean the Chosŏn court identified with all the political and cultural practices in China or that they simply copied everything. Chosŏn Koreans adopted Confucian culture selectively to its own context, which was distinct between the two countries. Moreover, adopting Chinese-originated Confucianism did not mean that Chosŏn was, at all times, a friendly subject of Chinese imperial dynasties. For example, the transition from Ming Dynasty to Qing Dynasty in China exposed ideological conflicts between Chosŏn's ruling elite and Chinese literati, which led the Chosŏn court to see itself as the only legitimate heir to Confucian civilization after the Ming Dynasty fell. Through exploring the changing diplomatic relationships between Chosŏn and China, as well as the differences on political and legal practices between the two countries, this essay refutes the aforementioned misconceptions that suggest a complete replication of Chinese Confucianism by the Chosŏn court, but rather sheds light on the Chosŏn court's selective adoption and reception of Confucianism.

In the case of statecraft, Chinese-originated Confucian ideologies cannot explain Chosŏn's political and legal system, as their actual practices revealed some differences between Chosŏn and China at the time. Official, state-sanctioned historical records such as the Veritable Records of the Kings of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn wangjo sillok) contained many cases in which Chosŏn people filed petitions and appealed to local state authorities for diverse matters regardless of their gender and social status. For instance, "in the second month of the year Kyŏngo, a female slave named Malgum filed a plaint with a magistrate against Sungun, her husband's male relative" regarding the ownership of her deceased husband's land property.1 The fact that Malgum, as a woman and a member of a lower social status group had the ability to file such a plaint against a male individual suggests that legal prerogatives were not exclusive to the higher classes or the dominant gender in the Chosŏn society. That even people in minority groups possessed this legacy capacity can be surprising given the common impression of Chosŏn society as patriarchally oriented, rigidly stratified, and strictly hierarchical.

So why did Chosŏn authorities allow such latitude in the legal realm? Indeed, the simple and the most fundamental reason was still to protect and secure the existing hierarchy, rather than genuine concern for people's desires. Many of the appeals to the authority involved expressions of wŏn, a "sense of being wronged"2 and a type of emotion that signified one's justice being ignored. According to Jisoo Kim, author of The Emotions of Justice: Gender, Status, and Legal Performance in Chosŏn Korea, "if subjects continuously internalized the feelings of wŏn, this would cause moral and ritual impropriety that would disrupt the social, legal, and cosmic harmony, ultimately destroying equilibrium."3 In other words, it was the state's need to relieve wŏn that led to such legal freedom, which could then continuously maintain the harmonious coexistence between society and the state. The rationale here stemmed from the Chosŏn court's desire to project itself as the holder of the "Mandate of Heaven," the Confucian notion of political legitimacy. According to Confucian doctrines, to possess "Mandate of Heaven," the state ought to be "listening to the people" and recognizing "'people as the basis of the state' (minbon)."4

While Confucian ideologies could be partially responsible for "minbon"-oriented legal practices in Chosŏn, Chosŏn did not simply replicate legal practices from China, Confucianism's country of origin. While Malgŭm was able to file the plaint to argue for land property despite the absence of her husband, but during the Ming period, "women in China had to employ a male proxy" in order to enter the court.5 Such differences points to how Confucianism circulated in East Asia, suggesting that when integrating Confucianism in its ruling practices, the Chosŏn court adapted Confucian ideologies based on the need of Chosŏn's own political context and applying its own interpretations.

Chosŏn Korea's context-dependent reception of Confucianism also prepared it for its later encounter with the Qing Dynasty, when Chosŏn and Qing laid competing claims of legitimacy over Confucian legacies. Chosŏn saw itself as a capable and appropriate heir of Confucian culture and even affirmed its ideological disconnection from and cultural superiority over the Qing Dynasty.. Following the 1685 border accident in the Changbaishan region, the Qing court wished to jointly survey the region with the Chosŏn side in order to ascertain the availability of ginseng in the region and demarcate the boundary between Qing and Chosŏn. However, such requests were not welcomed by the Chosŏn court, as "the Koreans did not completely accept Manchu supremacy even though they fulfilled all of their obligations as a vassal state to the Qing court."6 Chosŏn did not recognize the Qing because of the two states' different connection to Confucianism. The Qing court was ruled by Manchus, whom Chosŏn considered "barbarians." For this reason, "the Koreans believed that the (Confucian) civilization had been lost or greatly compromised in China," and thus "[the] civilization should be protected from barbarians and transmitted to Korea."7 Chosŏn also asserted cultural supremacy over the Manchus by viewing itself as the true heir of Confucian culture8 The Chosŏn court adopted the term "Sojunghwa" (literally "Little China"), which they used to identify itself as the center of Confucian civilization after the fall of Ming China to the Manchus. Moreover, by performing ritual commemorations for Ming emperors and continuing Ming traditions,9 Chosŏn also claimed to claimed a close cultural connection with the already-fallen Ming Dynasty, even though it performed diplomatic submission to the Qing court on the surface.

Whether in its legal system or fluid diplomatic relationship with Ming and Qing China, the Chosŏn court developed its own ways of understanding and applying Confucianism which originated not in Chosŏn but ancient China,to its own context. The development of Confucianism in Chosŏn thus illustrates the distinction between a philosophical ideology from its actual application, which depends on the context in which the ideology is realized.

1 Jisoo M. Kim. "Introduction" in The Emotions of Justice: Gender, Status, and Legal Performance in Chosŏn Korea. (Seattle:University of Washington Press, 2015), 3.
2 Kim, "The Confucian State, Law, and Emotions," 25.
3 Ibid., 32.
4 Kim, "The Confucian State, Law, and Emotions," 26.
5 Ibid., 26.
6 Seonmin Kim. "Ginseng and Border Trespassing Between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea," Late Imperial China 28 (2007): 51.
7 Ibid., 51.
8 Adam Bohnet. "Introduction" in Turning Toward Edification: Foreigners in Chosŏn Korea. (Honolulu:University of Hawai'i Press, 2020), 3.
9 Ibid., 21.


Wenqian Guo (Applied Linguistics & Asian Humanities '21), “Confucianism and Chinese Culture: Selective Adoption in Chosŏn Korea,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed December 1, 2023,