Friday, March 20, 2015

Sungkyunkwan University Steeped in Confucianism

In 1398, the 7th year of the reign of King Taejo, Sungkyunkwan seowon (Confucian school) was transferred from Gaesong to Hanyang, now Seoul. The university as we know it today traces its history back to this date; however, Sungkyunkwan University did not exist as a university back in 1398 but rather as a Confucian school for the elite. And for nearly 400 years it functioned as an elitist school open only to a tiny crumb of the population who were both wealthy, well-connected and of proper descent, meaning no sons of concubines no matter how highly positioned the father might be. Namely, only the sons morally connected through hierarchical social structuring - firm values of Confucianism - could attend the Confucian school.

In 1895, the seowon educational criteria was expanded upon and a variety of courses in history, geography and mathematics was launched, thus, the beginning of a myeongryung. It is my understanding that the myeongryung courses were not offered in the seowon but in the large space adjacent. At this time because of the missionaries entering Korea and the concepts of Western education being introduced, a new style of education became desirable, that is, the focus on science and mathematics and social development. Therefore, a new form of entrance exam, determined semester requirements, and how lectures would be conducted in more modern education but still adhering the principles of Confucianism shaped the myeongryung.

During the Japanese colonial period, education of the masses pretty much came to a standstill. For the few who were given higher education or "elite" education, those scholars then had to travel to Japan and attend Japanese-operated universities and educational facilities there. However, after the Japanese colonial period, Kim Chang-suk had educational dreams for Korea and as an educational visionary reopened the myeongryung after the liberation of Japan and restructuring it into a modern-day university. Kim Chang-suk became the first president of what is now Sungkyunkwan University. The university is proud of this educational history and claims the full 600-year history as part of the history of Sungkyunkwan University itself, making it the oldest educational center in Korea. With this history in mind and with on-going respect given to Kim Chang-suk for founding the modern-day learning center, a statue has been erected in front of the Central Library (#08). The statue is on a hill that overlooks the campus to the south - the Millennium Building and onward to the Sungkyunkwan seowon itself.

Kim Chang-suk (1879-1962), styled name Simsan, was a scion for Confucianism and patriotism. His entire life was devoted to the annihilation of the Japanese colonial rule. He posted a letter to the Paris Peace Conference (1919) signed by 137 Confucianists leaders; he raised funds from wealthy Confucians to operate a military against Japanese colonial rule; he  was eventually arrested by the Japanese and tortured until crippled. With the demise of colonialism, he ardently pursued education with the values he upheld to be righteous, Confucianism. Even under Korean rule, the rule of Rhee Syngman, he criticized the autocratic government and was imprisoned several times. He died penniless in 1962, yet he was mourned by the whole nation and given a public funeral.

Because of the Confucian Sungkyunkwan seowon from which it took its name and because of the fierce leadership of Kim Chang-suk, the university was established on Confucian principles. In fact, with its uniqueness as a university stemming from a Confucian seowon, a course in Confucianism was mandatory and set as a core class for all students. Only until around 2000 was this core class dropped from the program and offered merely as an elective to students.

With Sungkyunkwan University's rich history being intimately entwined with the socio-political structuring of Confucianism, three of the central buildings and some of the iconography around campus either allude to Confucian principles or to great Confucian scholars or principle social players.

Sungkyunkwan University campus map with Sungkyunkwan seowon (in low right)
tap to enlarge
In a salute to the early principles of which the university stems, three of the central buildings are named after famous Confucians:

  • Toegye Hall of Humanities (#12) is named after Yi Hwang (1501-1570), a child prodigy who later wrote poetry and philosophy. He immersed himself in the study of Neo-confucianism, graduated from Sungkyunkwan seowon and later became daesaseong (head instructor) of Sungkyunkwan seowon in 1552. 
  • Dasan Hall of Economics (#11) is named after Jeong Yak-yong (1792-1830), pen name Dasan, meaning "mountain of tea". Dasan was considered one of the greatest thinkers of his time. He attended Sungkyunkwan, wrote highly influential books, held significant administrative positions, and was noted as a poet. His philosophical position is often linked with the Silhak (practical learning school).
  • Hoam Hall (#13) derives its name from Lee Byung-cheol (1910-1987), founder of the Samsung Group and one of Korea's most successful businessmen. Hoam basically is 'ho' lake and 'am' large rock. Lee Byung-cheol took Hoam as his art or pen name as the name literally means "filling up space with clear water as lakes do, and being unshakable as a large rock". 

The Millennium Building (#07) otherwise known as the 600th Anniversary Building (built in 1999) is to commemorate the founding philosophy of the university. This building houses the president's office and the main core of the administration. In the basement is a university museum which has court music instruments, aged documents, among other artifacts as well as a gallery of early pictures of Korea by Japanese Fujita Ryosaku, an archaeologist who took pictures of ancient stone constructions, including Seokguram, in the Koreas. Several of his pictures excavating Seokguram and other sites are in the museum photo gallery.

This new logo was fashioned around 2005 when many of the universities in Seoul suddenly refashioned their logo/school emblem. The previous logo was also of a gingko leaf but much less stylized and only dual-colored. Overnight the university shuttle buses were painted with the new logo, all etch-glassed doors were replaced (imagine a lot of doors!). Classroom signs had logos as did classroom podiums; these were replaced last but within a couple of weeks, the old logos were simply a thing of the past!

The logo of Sungkyunkwan University also reflects the principles of Confucianism. The curve of the "S" standing for Sungkyunkwan (University) is part of the gingko leaf that symbolizes the spirit of the university. This gingko leaf plays a uniquely significant part in Confucian history as Confucius is said to have taught his students under a gingko tree, and gingko trees were planted in all Confucius shrines and schools of Korea. Even in the Sungkyunkwan seowon, there are two very large and very old gingko trees, one about 500 years old. They are of massive size and the only remaining feature of the original seowon, which was destroyed by fire. Sungkyunkwan was in fact destroyed by fire twice, one time during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, and the trees do in fact show residual evidence of having been damaged by fire in some time past.

One of the two trees, both male as only males could enter and attend a seowon and the same evidently applied to tree gender, is believed to have been planted by Yun Tak, the daesaseong, around 1519 in the 14th year of King Jungjong. Together the trees have been designated as Natural Monument No. 59. Even during Japanese occupation, they were appreciated for their great age and similarly appointed as natural monuments by the Japanese.

Layout of Sungkyunkwan seowon

Sungkyunkwan has dual purpose although they - Sungkyunkwan University and Sungkyunkwan seowon - are not really affiliated. Sungkyunkwan University focuses on education while Sungkyunkwan seowon focused on education and the ceremonial; the ceremonial is the primary function of the seowon at present.

Three buildings at the Sungkyunkwan seowon are of special note to the above map and play an important part in the ceremonies currently held. 

Bicheondang - Built in 1664, the name of Bicheondang implies "enlightening the great way" as cited from the famous Confucianist Chu Xi. This building, as well as Myeongnyundang, was a site for the state examination. The present building was reconstructed in 1988 on the site of the original, which burned down during the Korean War (1950-1953).

Myeongnyundang - The lecture hall was the setting for lessons about Confucianism to students. It was established in 1398 but was destroyed during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592. In the 39th year of the Syeon Dynasty (1606), it was reestablihed. Myeongnyundang was used as the place to carry out the test for the students of Confucianism.

On the W1000 bill is the famed Confucian lecture hall, the Myeongnyundan
Daeseongjeon - Memorial tablets of Confucius and his followers are enshrined in Daeseongjeon. The calligraphy on the board over the gate is the work of Seokbong Han Ho, one of the greatest calligraphers during the Joseon Dynasty period. Originally built in 1398, this building burned down during the invasion of 1592 and was rebuilt in 1602. The shrine, also known as Munmyo Shrine, is an excellent example of the architecture of the time. (Treasure no. 141)

Notice the "spirit walk" on which humans are not to trod but is reserved for the entering and exiting of spirits
 during Confucian rites and ceremonies for welcoming and venerating the spirits.
Jongyeounggak - although not numbered on the map, this building is recognized as Korea's oldest library. The building no longer contains books because of the humidity not being regulated within the building; nevertheless, this building still ranks highly as historically important.

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