Confucian Korea
Samurai Japan

Confucian Korea
Koryo (918-1392) & Early Choson (1392-16th Century)
The Koryo Dynasty was founded in 918 with a rebellion led by Wang Kon, a man from a locally powerful northwestern Korean mercantile and naval family. ... Wang Kon’s (King T’aejo’s) rebellion, which established the Koryo Dynasty, was explicitly justified with reference to Chinese Mandate of Heaven theory and the revered Chinese historical example of the eleventh-century BCE Zhou conquest of the Shang. Political, legal, and economic institutions in Koryo also continued to be structured after the now vanished Tang Chinese imperial model. But, at the same time, Korea also achieved greater distance from China during this period and, in a sense, became more Korean. ... Rather than a highly centralized Chinese-style imperial bureaucracy, local administration under Koryo was initially left largely in the hands of local lords. These lords often controlled their own private armies, and the central government merely recognized the fact of their preexisting local authority by conferring official titles on them. ... In tension with this native Korean aristocratic system, however, in 958 Koryo also implemented Chinese-style civil service examinations, with the assistance of an advisor who had come from the last of the northern Five Dynasties in post-Tang China. Although the examinations began on a small scale, in the long run most Korean officials came to be selected through such testing. Even this did not eliminate aristocratic dominance in Korea, but it did give the Korean aristocracy a more bureaucratic and Confucian orientation. (HEA, 149-51)
Under the Yuan Dynasty, the city that is today called Beijing was the capital of a vast transcontinental Mongol Empire. It was more than just a Chinese city. At the same time, nonetheless, it was also still a largely Chinese city. In Beijing, visiting Koreans encountered Neo-Confucianism. In 1313, one Korean king, after spending much of his five-year reign living in Beijing, retired there and founded a Sino-Korean-Mongol Neo-Confucian salon called the “Hall of Ten Thousand Volumes.” Meanwhile, in Korea the academy was rebuilt and the Korean national shrine to Confucius restored. Leading Confucian scholars were appointed as teachers in the academy, and they gathered dedicated followings, spurning the old-style textual studies for more stimulating discussions of the true meaning of the classics. ... The first Neo-Confucian private academy (sowon) in Korea was founded in 1543. By the end of the eighteenth century, 823 had been established. The result was what is now often regarded as “traditional” Korean society: patrilineal families sharing surnames and ancestral seats, claiming descent from and venerating a common male ancestor, and with the main line of descent carried through the first-born son of the primary wife. By about the eighteenth century, Korea had become a thoroughly Confucian society. These Confucian ideals were understood as universal truths, however, rather than necessarily as Chinese influences. In fact, late Choson Koreans even came to feel that they were better custodians of proper Confucian civilization than the degenerate Chinese, who had fallen under foreign Manchu rule. (HEA, 152-4)
“Traditional” Korea
Through their study of the Chinese Classics, zealous Korean Neo-Confucians came to adopt ancient China as an idealized model. Choson Korea went further than anywhere else in East Asia, including China, in actually attempting to recreate the golden age of Chinese antiquity, as they understood it from the classics. The Choson reforms, which were literally written into a series of legal codes, included an attempt to legislate a restructuring of the Korean family according to the supposedly universal Confucian moral order of patrilineal descent, ancestor veneration, and fixed mourning obligations. A 1390 law, for example, required Korean officials to perform ancestral sacrifices in each season.
       As late as Koryo times, family descent in Korea had still been traced through both male and female lines, but in the fifteenth century, mourning requirements for matrilineal relatives were downgraded. Women gradually lost their inheritance rights, and after 1402, women were legally forbidden to ride horses. The principle of primogeniture was increasingly promoted, tracing inheritance from eldest son to eldest son by the sole legal wife, and reducing the status of secondary sons and of all daughters. Sons born to secondary wives (concubines) eventually became ineligible to take the civil service examinations. Intermarriage between persons with the same family name was banned. Although the implementation and enforcement of all these measures was gradual, at least among the yangban elite Chinese-style marriage and family patterns eventually became pervasive. (HEA, 153-4)
Article 809 of the Korean Civil Code (Korean: 민법 제 809조) was the codification of a traditional rule prohibiting marriage between men and women who have the same surname and ancestral home (bon-gwan). On 16 July 1997, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled the article unconstitutional. The National Assembly of South Korea passed an amendment to the Article in March 2002, which came into force on 31 March 2005, and prohibited marriage only between men and women who are closely related. (Wikipedia/Article 809)

The Age of the Samurai

Who Was in Charge
@ Nara & Heian

Emperors or combinations of nobles
Fujiwara nobles
Retired emperors
Military house of Taira 

The Tale of the Heike recounts the rise of the Taira (a.k.a. Heike) clan, led by Taira no Kiyomori, and their subsequent defeat at the hands of the Minamoto (a.k.a. Genji) clan, led by Minamoto no Yoritomo and his brother Yoshitsune. The conflict culminated in the complete annihilation of the Heike during the Gempei War (1180-1185). Yoritomo’s victory in the Gempei War ushered in a new era of “military” rule in Japanese history, where the real power shifted from the imperial court in Kyoto to a “military government” (bakufu) led by powerful generals known as Shogun, who set up a separate government (under the theoretical sovereignty of the emperor) at Kamakura; this period is consequently known as the Kamakura era. The following passages are two examples of the shifting martial ethic that distinguished the more aristocratic Taira from the ultimately victorious Minamoto:
Sanemori Describes the Minamoto
“Sanemori, in the eight eastern provinces [i.e. those dominated by the Minamoto] are there many men who are as mighty archers as you are?”
       “Do you then consider me a mighty archer?” asked Sanemori with a scornful smile. “I can only draw an arrow thirteen handbreadths long. In the eastern provinces there are any number of warriors who can do so. There is one famed archer who never draws a shaft less than fifteen handbreadths long. So mighty is his bow that four or five ordinary men must pull together to bend it. When he shoots, his arrow can easily pierce two or three suits of armor at once. Even a warrior from a small estate has at least five hundred soldiers. They are bold horsemen who never fall, nor do they let their horses stumble on the roughest road. When they fight, they do not care if even their parents or children are killed; they ride on over their bodies and continue the battle.
“The warriors of the western province [i.e. those allied with the Taira] are quite different. If their parents are killed, they retire from the battle and perform Buddhist rites to console the souls of the dead. Only after the mourning is over will they fight again. If their children are slain, their grief is so deep that they cease fighting altogether. When their rations have given out, they plant rice in the fields and go out to fight only after reaping it. They dislike the heat of summer. They grumble at the severe cold of winter. This is not the way of the soldiers of the eastern provinces.”
       The Taira soldiers “heard his words and trembled.” (The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, 36-7)
  • What does this passage tell us about the evolution of the warrior ethic during this period?
  • With which side — the Taira (Heike) or the Minamoto (Genji) — do you think our sympathies are supposed to lie?
The Death of Atsumori
When the Heike [i.e. the Taira] were routed at Ichi no tani, and their nobles and courtiers were fleeing to the shore to escape in their ships, Kumagai Naozane came riding along a narrow path onto the beach, with the intention of intercepting one of their great captains. Just then his eye fell on a single horseman who was attempting to reach one of the ships in the offing. The horse he rode was dappled-gray, and its saddle glittered with gold mounting. Not doubting that he was one of the chief captains, Kumagai beckoned to him with his war fan, crying out: “Shameful! To show an enemy your back. Return! Return!”
       The warrior turned his horse and rode back to the beach, where Kumagai at once engaged him in mortal combat. Quickly hurling him to the ground, he sprang upon him and tore off his helmet to cut off his head, when he beheld the face of a youth of sixteen or seventeen, delicately powdered and with blackened teeth, just about the age of his own son and with features of great beauty. “Who are you?” he asked. “Tell me your name, for I would spare your life.”
       “Nay, first say who you are,” replied the young man.
       “I am Kumagai Naozane of Musashi, a person of no particular importance.”
       “Then you have made a good capture,” said the youth. “Take my head and show it to some of my side, and they will tell you who I am.”
       “Though he is one of their leaders,” mused Kumagai, “if I slay him it will not turn victory into defeat, and if I spare him, it will not turn defeat into victory. When my son Kojiro was but slightly wounded at Ichi no tani this morning, did it not pain me? How this young man’s father would grieve to hear that he had been killed!  I will spare him.”
Just then, looking behind him, he saw Doi and Kajiwara coming up with fifty horsemen. “Alas! Look there,” he exclaimed, the tears running down his face, “though I would spare your life, the whole countryside swarms with our men, and you cannot escape them. If you must die, let it be by my hand, and I will see that prayers are said for your rebirth in Paradise.”
       “Indeed it must be so,” said the young warrior. “Cut off my head at once.”
       Kumagai was so overcome by compassion that he could scarcely wield his blade. His eyes swam and he hardly knew what he did. But there was no help for it; weeping bitterly he cut off the boys head. “Alas!” he cried, “what life is so hard as that of a soldier? Only because I was born of a warrior family must I suffer this affliction! How lamentable it is to do such cruel deeds!” He pressed his face to the sleeve of his armor and wept bitterly. Then, wrapping up the head, he was stripping off the young man’s armor when he discovered a flute in a brocade bag. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “it was this youth and his friends who were amusing themselves with music within the walls this morning. Among all our men of the Eastern Provinces [i.e. those allied with the Minamoto] I doubt if there is any one of them who has brought a flute with him. How gentle the ways of these courtiers!”

When he brought the flute to the Commander, all who saw it were moved to tears; he discovered then that the youth was Atsumori, the youngest son of Tsunemori, aged sixteen years. From this time the mind of Kumagai was turned toward the religious life. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 179-81)
  • Are we supposed to be sympathetic to the more courtly Taira/Heike or the more martial Minamoto/Genji?


The devastation caused by the Gempei War led not only to the development of a new political system (the bakufu or “military government”), but also to a deeper appreciation for the Buddhist notion of “suffering.” The combination of a strong warrior ethic and a profound appreciation for the suffering that it produced led to the development of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic principle that would eventually be called mono no aware, which may be loosely translated as sensitivity to (the sadness of) things.”
One might conjecture that this aesthetic principle allowed the Japanese to find meaning in a world dominated by violence — a world in which a young warrior must be prepared to die in battle at a moments notice, like Atsumori in the preceding passage. The notion that there is great beauty to be found in the midst of suffering is aptly symbolized by the cherry blossom (sakura), which attains the height of its beauty precisely when it falls from the tree (i.e. when it dies).
This “sensitivity to (the sadness of) things” is well expressed in the opening section of Kamo no Chomeis “An Account of My Hut” one of the most famous passages in the history of Japanese literature:
The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings. It might be imagined that the houses, great and small, which vie roof against proud roof in the capital remain unchanged from one generation to the next, but when we examine whether this is true, how few are the houses that were there of old. Some were burnt last year and only since rebuilt; great houses have crumbled into hovels and those who dwell in them have fallen no less. The city is the same, the people are as numerous as ever, but of those I used to know, a bare of one or two in twenty remain. They die in the morning, they are born in the evening, like foam on the water.
       Whence does he come, where does he go, man that is born and dies? We know not. For whose benefit does he torment himself in building houses that last but a moment, for what reason is his eye delighted by them? This too we do not know. Which will be first to go, the master or his dwelling? One might just as well ask this of the dew on the morning-glory. The dew may fall and the flower remain—remain, only to be withered by the morning sun. The flower may fade before the dew evaporates, but though it does not evaporate, it waits not the evening. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 197-8)
  • How does this passage express mono no aware?
  • What are the ‘bubbles’ and how are they related to the ‘houses’?
Kamo goes on to recount a series of natural disasters that hit the capital (Kyoto):
The Great Fire
In the forty and more years that have passed since first I became aware of the meaning of things, I have witnessed many terrible sights. It was, I believe, the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month of 1177, on a night when the wind blew fiercely without a moment of calm, that a fire broke out toward nine o’clock in the southeast of the capital and spread northwest. It finally reached the gates and buildings of the palace, and within the space of a single night all was reduced to ashes. ... Several thousand men and women lost their lives, as well as countless horses and oxen. Of all the follies of human endeavor, none is more pointless than expending treasures and spirit to build houses in so dangerous a place as the capital. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 198-9)
The Whirlwind
Again, on the twenty-ninth day of the fourth moon of 1180, a great whirlwind sprang up in the northeast of the capital and violently raged as far south as the Sixth Ward. Every house, great or small, was destroyed within the area engulfed by the wind. ... People said in wonder, “We have whirlwinds all the time, but never one like this. It is no common case — it must be a presage of terrible things to come.” (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 199)
The Famine
Again, about 1181 — it is so long ago that I cannot remember for certain — there was a famine in the country which lasted two years, a most terrible thing. ... The number of those who died of starvation outside the gates or along the roads may not be reckoned. There being no one even to dispose of the bodies, a stench filled the whole world, and there were many sights of decomposing bodies too horrible to behold. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 202)
The Earthquake 
Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before….It is needless to speak of the damage throughout the capital—not a single mansion, pagoda, or shrine was left whole. ... The intense quaking stopped after a time, but the after-tremors continued for some while. Not a day passed without twenty or thirty tremors of a severity which would ordinarily have frightened people. ... After-tremors continued for three months. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 203-204)
  • What is the significance of these four natural disasters?  What do they symbolize for Kamo?
Kamo was not immune to the effects of these disasters; after losing his hereditary position as the Shinto priest of the Kamo shrine he built a small cottage (a tenth the size of his previous home) where he lived a simple life for many years. He finally became a Buddhist priest at the age of 50 and then built an even smaller hut — an aesthetic masterpiece of rustic simplicity that ultimately served as the model for the kind of tea hut that would be used for the Japanese tea ceremony:
The Ten Foot Square Hut
Now that I have reached the age of sixty, and my life seems about to evaporate like the dew, I have fashioned a lodging for the last leaves of my years. It is a hut where, perhaps, a traveler might spend a single night; it is like the cocoon spun by an aged silkworm. This hut is not even a hundredth the size of the cottage where I spent my middle years. ...
       Since first I hid my traces here in the heart of Mount Hino, I have added a lean-to on the south and a porch of bamboo. On the west I have built a shelf for holy water, and inside the hut, along the west wall, I have installed an image of Amida. The light of the setting sun shines between its eyebrows. On the doors of the reliquary I have hung pictures of Fugen and Fudo. Above the sliding door that faces north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and a lute.

Along the east wall I have spread long fern fronds and mats of straw which serve as my bed for the night. I have cut open a window in the eastern wall, and beneath it have made a desk. Near my pillow is a square brazier in which I burn brushwood. To the north of the hut I have staked out a small plot of land which I have enclosed with a rough fence and made into a garden. I grow many species of herbs there. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 206-7)
  • How would you compare Kamo’s hut with the “Great Houses” of Kyoto?
  • Which would you prefer?  Why does Kamo prefer his tiny hut?

Despite the simplicity of the hut, however, Kamo still chides himself for his sense of attachment (which is regarded as the cause of suffering in Buddhism):

Now the moon of my life sinks in the sky and is close to the edge of the mountain. Soon I must head into the darkness of the Three Ways: why should I thus drone on about myself? The essence of the Buddha’s teaching to man is that we must not have attachment for any object. It is a sin for me now to love my little hut, and my attachment to its solitude may also be a hindrance to salvation. Why should I waste more precious time in relating such trifling pleasures?
       One calm dawning, as I thought over the reasons for this weakness of mine, I told myself that I had fled the world to live in a mountain forest in order to discipline my mind and practice the Way. “And yet, in spite of your monk’s appearance, your heart is stained with impurity. Your hut may take after Jomyo’s, but you preserve the Law even worse than Handoku. If your low estate is a retribution for the sins of a previous existence, is it right that you afflict yourself over it? Or should you permit delusion to come and disturb you?” To these questions my mind could offer no reply. All I could do was to use my tongue to recite two or three times the nembutsu, however unacceptable from a defiled heart.
       It is now the end of the third moon of 1212, and I am writing this at the hut on Toyama. (Anthology of Japanese Literature, 211-2)
  • What is the underlying message of An Account of My Hut?
  • How would you compare An Account of My Hut with The Tale of the Heike?  How are they similar? How do they differ?
Essays in Idleness: 82 (silk scroll), 137 (moon)