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The Confucian ruler as pupil

Published on 18 June 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Confucius is the “usual suspect” when it comes to what’s good or bad about Asia’s past, present, and future. I’ve often felt that this ancient philosopher is being made to carry too much weight.

I have just come across a instance of Confucianism as process, rather than as content, and this reading has made me think again about China’s Great Sage (and his followers).


(A Tang Dynasty drawing of Confucius by Wu Daozi)

The Joseon Dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 until 1910. It was a self-consciously “Neo-Confucian” regime, where temples were erected in Kong’s honor, and the educational system was built on his writings and those of his school. The examination system for entering the bureaucracy tested the candidates’ knowledge of his teachings.

So far, there is nothing much different from the Neo-Confucianism of the Song in China,(1) or its expression under the Ming.(2) But there is a twist to it all: the ruler himself is schooled in Confucianism, from his first steps as a child, to the end of his public life.

More specifically, one identifies three phases:

• Education before becoming a crown prince (literacy and gymnastics);
• Education upon appointment to crown prince (knowledge and virtues required of a king – under the auspices of the Office of Royal Lectures);
• Education for a king – gyeongyeon – to help the king practice Confucian political norms. Lectures were scheduled thrice a day, or more. King Yeongjo attended over 3’000 lectures during his fifty-two year reign.(3)

This was relentless teaching. The king ruled and was ruled in turn by his teachers, whom he respected. We are close to a system of collective responsibility and collegiality, while outwardly maintaining the fiction of the benevolent autocrat. Not surprisingly, the image of the king does not appear in celebratory public paintings (only portraits of kings are extant). The empty chair, or a special screen, signifies the presence of the ruler (possibly also his ethereal role).

Confucianism has suffered from a consistently bad press in other areas as well. (4) One of the recurrent tropes is the discrimination of women. Indeed, at least among the elite, women were kept apart, and ranked as inferior.

Some women – I’d call them power women – nevertheless played a distinctive, even crucial role in the destiny of Korea’s Joseon dynasty. According to Confucian principles, dynastic succession was strictly tied to primogeniture. There were instances, however, where there was no heir, or where no consensus could be achieved on a candidate. When such dynastic singularities accrued, the Queen Mother or the Dowager (Elder) Queen came into their own. They chose the next king. A stark example was Queen Mother Sinjeong, who brought in a distant royal connection, to become King Gojong.(5)

It is cliché to state that “men establish the rules, women produce the exceptions.” It would seem, however, that the Confucian system recognized and allowed for this unique, if hidden role, of women. Given their very nature, exceptions go unrecorded, or mutate into “new” traditions. Studying historical singularities may help us grasp for patterns behind the stereotypes clouding our understanding of the past.

(1) See e.g. Dieter KUHN (2009): The age of Confucian rule. The Song transformation of China. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.
(2) See e.g. Timothy BROOK (1998): The confusions of pleasure. Commerce and culture in Ming China. University of California Press, Berkeley.
(3) See Hyonjeong KIM HAN (2013): In grand style. Celebrations in Korean art during the Joseon dynasty. Asian Art Museum San Francisco.
(4) See e.g. Rana MITTER (2004): A bitter revolution. China’s struggle with the modern world. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
(5) See Hyonjeong KIM HAN (2013): In grand style. Celebrations in Korean art during the Joseon dynasty. Asian Art Museum San Francisco, pg. 138.

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