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I have researched more information about the Sosu Seowon than any other post I have written (or not written). My reasons are not really from any deep desire to uncover the mysteries of Confucianism, nor are they based on extra enthusiasm for this subject. The reason I have read so much is partly because I don’t understand it, but mostly because of a constantly nagging suspicion about Korea, if I was in any way scientific I would even call it a theory. I don’t want to use inverted commas for theory, so I will call it my idea.

Entrance to the Shrine

My idea is that despite Korea’s futuristic aesthetics, fast internet connections, huge shiny skyscrapers and an entire generation plugged into their smart phones, I believe that you can find something timeless underneath. The neon flashing modernity that lights up the huge construction projects of modern Korea easily distracts you from several truths. These truths, rules of behaviour, and manifestations of culture reach back deep into history, a history which goes back way beyond most nation states of the early 21st Century. It’s true, many civilizations stretch back even further than Korea, many have never been conquered, colonized or generally abused by the other cultures jostling around it. However, I believe that Korea has managed to preserve many of its “intangible cultural assets” through persistence, resistance and centuries of isolation. The longer I stay in Korea the more echoes of neolithic life I find, perhaps neolithic is an exaggeration but there are many historical precedents to be found which account for the modern behaviour we see today. One aspect in which I have found a constant thread is the dedication to study.

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One of the most notable features of Korea is the dedication to studying and the breadth of the various spheres of education. Korea has the highest tertiary gross enrollment ratio of any country in the world (UNESCO 2010). There is a strong deference to teachers or leader figures whether it be the hastily prepared power point presentation for the boss, or the middle school students hunched over their books in after school academies. The word Seonsaengnim is used for people of higher status but roughly translates as Master. You might argue that the deference is not being subject to the person of higher status but rather the undeniable truth that education is the most powerful tool to get ahead in this most competitive of countries. This deeply entrenched philosophy of working hard and studying harder is not some modern concept, it’s not playing catch up with the West because of the hard times in the first half of the last Century. The philosophy, or even religion, of hard work and diligent studying is something you can see throughout the history of Korea, especially during the last dynasty – the Joseon Dynasty.

New Cherry Blossom

Buddhism found a natural home in Korea, especially during the Shilla Dynasty. The various tribes and clans of the peninsula always found a neat way to co-opt their local shamanistic beliefs into their branch of Buddhism. I have even seen discrete shrines to mountain gods tucked behind some temples. Despite the Buddhist influence, by the time the Joseon dynasty kicked off they were getting tired of the old ways. Buddhism was associated with the debauchery and excess of the elite, the elite who were often propped up by the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in China. In many cases the Kings had Mongol wives and many of the rulers were part Mongol or at least put in place by the Mongols. The Joseon Dynasty started to shed the centuries of superstition and metaphysics of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Taoism. What came in its place was a Korean version of Neo-Confucianism. One of the great advantages of the previous Goryeo Dynasty was the access officials had to Chinese culture and in particular literature. These ideas filtered into Korea through the various scholars (still venerated to this day) and became the corner-stone of the new Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism and the temples of Buddhism were increasingly marginalised – which is why if you visit Korea you will find many temples way out of the cities and perched halfway up high mountains. Many of the original temples were converted into use as private educational institutions – seowons.

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When I first read about seowons (서원) they reminded me of the endless Hagwons you see in modern Korea. These days most of the school students study maths, science, and of course English in these private academies. In the past they would have studied the Chinese classics which were essential to pass the state exams to enter government service. The modern equivalent is perhaps the dreaded entrance exam which permits entry into the exclusive Universities – once you have a degree from the better Universities you are more or less guaranteed a position in one of Korea’s top firms. The name of a top University is seen as being more important than experience, potential or personality. There are many more parallels between modern Korea and the original use of seowons, but the underlying theme is that to get on in a Neo-Confucian society you need to study. Social mobility came and went with various monarchs but rich or poor you would have to study to get anywhere near the top. The seowons served this purpose, and the Sosu Seowon was the first.

The Scholars

This private Neo-Confucian academy was founded by the magistrate of Punggi County Ju Sebung (주세붕/周世鵬 1495–1554), during the reignof King Jungjong. It’s located near Suksusa Temple, in Sunheung-myeon, about 30 minutes from Yeongju. Aside from being the first of its kind, it is also unique for many other reasons. It was the only seowon that survived from the Seowon Abolishment  Act in 1871. Ju Se-bung was criticized for founding a school because of other more pressing matters of the time – especially famine and drought.  Being a scholar himself he was able to use reason and wisdom to defend his actions

“Education is the cardinal virtue of man, and ought to be promoted above all else.”

Other seowons enjoyed a fruitful period but Sosu Seowon was the first thus it became one of the richest. Sosu Seowon also enjoyed more attention because it enshrined An Hyang (1243 -1306). An Hyang is a name you see many times in the history books; he was a Confucian scholar who brought Neo-Confucianism to Korea from China in the 13th century.The academy gained even more prestige when Toegye  (another big name in the list or Confucian greats) became magistrate of the county. He asked King Myeongjong to grant the academy a royal charter and the King responded with a hand signed “Sosu Seowon”, and a supply of books. Many seowons and temples before them had a mixed relationship with the Monarchy, similar to some of the more powerful monastic orders in Europe. In this case the annals of the king specify that the local magistrate cannot interfere in the affairs of the academy, nor disturb the Confucian scholars. Sosu Seowon as an institution and as a physical place, was free from interference from the monarchy. Its location, even in our times, underlines this fact.

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The institute is spread over the hills and the various complexes would have accommodated about 4,000 scholars. There is also a shrine for  An Hyang, An Bo, An Chuk and Ju Se-bung, where a memorial services take place on the first day of the third and ninth months of the lunar calendar every year. The study facilities have been placed in the east and the shrine placed in the west. Outside the entrance to  Sosu Seowon is the Okgyesu stream of the Nakdong River. This stream comes down from the impressive Mt. Sobaek. Although I made my quest to reach this place I would definitely recommend stopping by on the end of a Sobaek hike.

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I took a very local bus from Yeongju but the easiest and quickest way to get there is by taking a train to Punggi and then taking the bus I mentioned up the valley. At the time of writing the road was being widened so I expect it will be a much easier journey in the future. The train i from Cheongyangni  (Seoul’s eastern terminus) is exceptional. You can pass through some mountain scenery and the pleasant town of Danyang on the way. If you plan on sticking around there is an Azalea festival and some other Temples scattered around Mt. Sobaek.

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Korail Timetable

Punggi Korail Timetable

You can take bus number 27 from Punggi Station – check it’s not going to Yeongju. For the bus times coming back check in the tourist office at the Sosu Carpark (their timetable is different from the one at the bus stop.

Extra links:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=264147

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SH/SH_EN_7_2.jsp?cid=1820847