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Expectations vs. Reality: Chosŏn Confucian Scholars Advocating for War

When you hear “Confucian scholar”, what comes to mind? You’re probably thinking of an older, kind-looking Asian man adorned with long robes and a scroll in hand. Maybe he studies in a tranquil garden while sipping tea, allowing nature to be his muse. He upholds the Confucian ideals of having good character, respect for moral autonomy, being righteous, maintaining filial piety, and practicing benevolence. He would probably do anything to preserve the peace in his country. Naturally, he would advise his leaders against war as much as possible, pushing for diplomacy and negotiations rather than mindless bloodshed. This, however, wasn’t always the case. Ironically, Confucian scholars in the Chosŏn era of Korea (1392–1910) were the biggest advocates for war. However, they did not seek out mindless violence. They wanted the country’s military to fight to uphold their idea of pure Confucianism.

This idea of “correct” Confucianism was based on the Confucian practices passed on to Korean Chosŏn scholars from Chinese Ming diplomats. The leaders of the Chosŏn revered the Ming and believed the Ming emperor had been given the divine right to rule with a mandate from Heaven. The Chosŏn king, in turn, was believed to have been given the authority to rule Chosŏn by the Ming emperor. The Chosŏn would dispatch diplomatic missions to the Ming empire around three times a year, and in return they received the Ming calendar, the confirmation of the Chosŏn king’s right to rule, and autonomy as a state under the Ming empire (Bohnet 2). They were treated fairly well by the Ming, hence why they were so loyal to them. During this time period, “Chosŏn elites also internalized … Chinese/Confucian traditions” (Bohnet 2). As Adam Bohnet explains in his book Turning toward Edification. the desire to sustain the cultural traditions of Chinese antiquity and follow the model of the Ming empire was chunghwa ideology; Chosŏn people believed that upholding Chunghwa meant carrying on Ming practices, including their way of practicing Confucianism, in order to be proper heirs to the empire, even after the Ming dynasty was destroyed in 1644.

 The Chosŏn court identified the Ming as a model of civilization, and saw the quickly-expanding Manchu Empire as barbaric in comparison. During the Second Manchu Invasion in 1636, Chosŏn did its best to resist Manchu forces as they were determined to stay loyal to both the Ming Empire and their ideals. Na Mangap (1592–1642), a scholar himself, kept a diary called The Diary of 1636 the Second Manchu Invasion of Korea, detailing events from this war from his perspective. He describes how Confucian scholars argued so passionately for military force. He includes an excerpt from a letter from the Manchu emperor demanding surrender from Chosŏn, which states, “Those who argue for war in your honorable country are Confucian officials, but can they wield their brushes and fend me off?” (6-7) The emperor made an excellent point— what could a bunch of scholars who had never seen a day of battle in their life do against him? Furthermore, it is ironic that those who wanted war so badly were those who would never see the front lines. Although the scholars themselves would not have lasted in a physical fight against him, it was the thought that counted. The scholars would not draw swords against the Manchu, but they would resist in any way they could. Mangap goes on to write that plans were made to send the prime minister with a diplomatic envoy, “but the argument for war still dominated” (7). However, the insistence on war from Confucian scholars was not without reason. For these scholars, the war was not just about territory or pride. They wanted to preserve the very essence of Chosŏn Korea: their Confucian beliefs and their sense of moral obligation toward the Ming empire. In order to defend these beliefs, they thought that war was the only option. 

Following the Second Manchu Invasion, the “barbaric” Manchu, who established the Qing Dynasty, obtained Chosŏn as a vassal state. The Chosŏn saw themselves as the rightful heirs to the Ming Empire and would continue to secretly defy the Qing empire in order to  demonstrate their loyalty to the Ming. According to Bohnet, they would date domestic documents according to the Ming Calendar, refer to the Qing with hostile language, and most importantly, held the belief that “with the fall of the Ming, proper Confucian rites could be found nowhere outside of Chosŏn itself” (105-106). The scholars of this period continued wearing Ming-style clothing and hairdos, and practiced Confucianism according to what they had been taught. It should be noted that the Qing were also Confucian, but because they practiced differently from the Ming, the Chosŏn did not acknowledge it as being valid. Although they had lost the war, they were determined to stay true to the Ming legacy.

Ultimately, the Confucian scholars of Chosŏn Korea believed that they had to uphold the "civilized" practices of the Ming. They saw it as the only correct way to practice Confucianism and wanted to protect that lifestyle at any cost. This meant that, as contradictory as it sounds, they believed that Chosŏn had to go to war to preserve the peaceful Confucian lifestyle that they practiced. Of course, they were not bloodthirsty. They did not want to start fights solely for the fun of it. They wanted to fight for what they believed was morally correct: the Confucian ideals left behind by the Ming Empire that only the Chosŏn could properly uphold.



Toni Enriquez (Asian Humanities, UCLA '23), “Expectations vs. Reality: Chosŏn Confucian Scholars Advocating for War,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed December 1, 2023,