Before Chosŏn was established, Koryŏ (918-1392) ruled the Korean peninsula with a Buddhist national ideology. Internal strife and Mongol invasions weakened Koryŏ, making it possible for a powerful general, Yi Sŏnggye, to overthrow Koryŏ and establish Chosŏn as its first king. Confucianism was important to the Koryŏ state, but it did not become the dominant social ideology until the founding of the Chosŏn kingdom in 1392. This change in the establishment was driven by a vision for a new social and political order based on Confucianism. Historian Michael Seth in his A Concise History of Premodern Korea states that the dynastic transition “was more than a change of dynasties; it was a long-term attempt to create a society in conformity to Confucian values and beliefs” (Seth 135). Confucian philosophy is therefore perceived as the end-all and be-all value system behind life in premodern Korea during the Chosŏn era. But even if Confucianism dominated the peninsula for centuries, it was not the only factor influencing Chosŏn’s state politics or religious practices.
In the book Turning Toward Edification, the author Adam Bohnet argues that Confucianism did not dictate all of Korean politics. For example, policies towards foreign migrants were aimed at reinforcing existing social hierarchies rather than observing Confucian ideals. When it comes to foreigners in Korea, they were expected to follow Confucian rules for mourning people, clothing etiquette, how to marry, and how live ‘morally,’ but the state did not require them to change their language or cultural practices to fit the Confucian model (Bohnet 193). This means that there was room for values to develop outside of Confucian thought in how to handle the question of ethnic difference. Chosŏn treated Ming China as the center for all Confucian morality. When they fell the Qing Dynasty rose, and Chosŏn Korea believed itself to be the rightful representative of Chunghwa (embodiment of Chinese civilization through a Confucian view) ideology. However, this did not lead to any privilege for Ming people living in Korea until the 18th century. Before this time, all outsiders were grouped under the same category of status of hyanghwain: “whether for those of Chinese, Jurchen, or Japanese origin,” this special status “provided protection, but not prestige” (124). They could live under Chosŏn protection but were not allowed any special rights. This distinction is important because it shows Chosŏn cared more about maintaining the Korean status system than allow Chinese migrants to be treated as superior because of their Ming origin.
Another example where Confucian influence reached its limit is the re-emergence of Buddhism in the 17th century. Buddhism lost its preeminent position as a state-sponsored religion in Chosŏn, but the religion found a way to survive. It eventually reappeared in a way that affected the social-political culture of Chosŏn. According to Sung Eun-Kim, “it was inevitable that the abolishment of Buddhism’s traditional relationship with the state would give rise to efforts by Buddhism to become independent, and to search for wealthy sponsors to take the place of the state” (Kim “The Re-emergence" 236). Evidence for Buddhist resurgence is visible in the sudden increase in stele erections organized by Chosŏn elites. Even though Korea was ruled by Confucian philosophy, members of the royal family and elites continually engaged in Buddhist practices. One of these effects Buddhism had on Chosŏn people was seen in the creation and production of different art forms. Elite and scholar paintings were more formal and represented ordinary life while folk paintings were brightly colored, showed spontaneity and contained symbols from Buddhism and shamanism (Seth 220).
Moreover, the exchange of poetry between Chosŏn scholar-officials and Buddhist monks lasted from pre-Chosŏn to the end of the Dynasty. According to Seung Eun-Kim,
… the relationship that was maintained between the monks and the scholar-officials and the literati emerged in specific forms of literary works. Particularly from the beginning of the seventeenth century, introductions to collected works of eminent monks and the texts of the steles for eminent monks were written by famous scholar-officials and literati. Furthermore, the shared literary works between the two traditions, including exchanged letters and poems, show that monks were part of the greater literary world, and even held membership in poetry societies. (299)
This crossover of religious doctrines is not widely talked about when referencing Korea’s secularism in the 14-18th centuries. The Chosŏn kingdom was created on the foundation of Confucian philosophy, but it is important to note that Buddhist influence remained even among the ruling elite class.
The focus of this paper is to call attention to the ways Confucianism's impact was combined with and even conflicted with outside agents of change. There were aspects of Korean society that remained outside of strictly Confucian values and influences such as the social ranking system, the treatment of foreigners, and the support for the reintroduction of Buddhism in Chosŏn. It’s important to know that these forces existed so that we can get a more complete picture of different facets of Korea’s socio-political culture. As much as Chosŏn scholars might have wanted to hide the influence Buddhism still had on the people, scholars today are shedding more light on the reach of Buddhism and Confucianism throughout the Chosŏn period into modern-day Korea. When reading Chosŏn era history it can be easy to assume Confucianism consumes all. Knowing the arguments against this view can help get a better understanding of the reality of what happened in the kingdom’s past.