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Byeongsan Seowon Academy - 병산서원 (屛山書院) (1572 onward)

Byeongsan Seowon was founded in 1563 near the village of Pungsanhyeon and given the name Pungak Seodang. However, there were difficulties with the site and the academy was moved to Andong and its name changed to Byeongsan Seowon, which means "Academy of the Mountains [that are shaped like] Folding Screens". The move took place in 1572 during the fifth year of King Seonjo (r. 1567-1608). Like most academies, Byeongsan Seowon was established by local scholars and supported by sympathetic members of the local community. The seowon was largely autonomous from the government, and students who studied there were excempt from conscription, taxation, and corvee labor duties.

The academy flourished in its early years and was enlarged in 1614 during the sixth year of King Gwanghaegun (r. 1608-1623) when a shrine was added to commemorate Yu Seongnyong (1542-1607), an exemplary scholar-official. This followed the custom at private academies of enshrining departed Confucian scholars whose lives were worthy of emulation.

Yu was a local figure of the Pungsan Yu family. His life is typical of a Neo-Confucian scholar serving in the government. After passing the state examination he served as the King's chief secretary, the minister of foreign affairs, vice prime minister and later foreign minister. He took responsibility for safeguarding the king during the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598 and also served as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. There he oversaw the development of effective weapons, the fortification of defense posts, and the creation of military reinforcements.

However, his career was cut short when his rivals secured his impeachment in 1598, the 31st year of Seonjo's rule. In his twilight years Yu authored numerous books including Jingbirok (Regretful Reminiscences on the War), which the Korean government preserves as a national treasure. Despite his impeachment, Yu was placed on the role of meritorious public servants in 1604 and given the title Pungwon Buwon-gun.

Background on the private academies and Neo-Confucianism:

On a fateful day in 1392, Yi Seonggye camped on an island in the Amnok (Yalu) river, ignored his orders to attack Ming China and instead turned back and marched into the Goryeo (Kory�) capital of Gaeseong (Kaes�ng, in modern-day North Korea). In a matter of hours the General occupied the city and took control of key government buildings. As his troops fanned out across the city, it quickly became clear that the five-hundred year rule of the Goryeo dynasty had come to an end. For the next 500 years Korea was to be called the "Joseon (Chos�n) Dynasty".

Although General Yi's actions are widely known, debate still rages in scholarly circles about the nature of the Goryeo-Joseon transition. There are two competing schools of thought:

The mainstream idea:

Yi Seonggye had not risen to power by the strength of his army alone. Before the coup he had quietly courted allies from as much of the civilian bureaucracy as he could manage. He did not have to look far, for discontent was everywhere. Throughout Goryeo, the country seethed with anger at the ruling aristocracy�a small group of elites who controlled the majority of the kingdom's wealth. Protected by their ties to the Mongol Yuan empire in China, the Goryeo aristocracy grew fat on the profits of thousands of acres of fields, manned by hundreds of slaves on each estate. Particularly resentful of the aristocracy were smaller scale landholders known as the Neo-Confucian literati, who despised the monopoly on government appointments that the aristocracy maintained. Though government positions were theoretically open to anyone with a literary background who could pass an examination, in practice the aristocracy manipulated the examination system to their own advantage. With no recourse but rebellion, the Neo-Confucian literati were among Yi's most ardent supporters.

When it became clear that Yi's coup had succeeded, the Neo-Confucian Literati quickly took advantage of their ties to King Taejo (Yi Seonggye) to promulgate a series of reforms. First, they convinced Taejo to announce that Neo-Confucianism was the state ideology of the Joseon dynasty. Next, they had Taejo promulgate a series of decrees that addressed specific complaints, such as the unfairness of the examination system. Finally, they worked with Taejo to confiscate the landholdings of the Goryeo aristocracy, undermining their economic position. The land taken over by the state was quickly parceled out among Taejo and his Neo-Confucian supporters, ensuring their economic well-being for years to come.

Taejo was no great admirer of Neo-Confucianism, but he was willing to accept it as the price of his rise to power. It offered him a palatable alternative to Buddhism, which had been discredited during the Goryeo period. Perhaps more importantly, Taejo saw Neo-Confucianism as a way to legitimize his shaky rule. Taejo was from an undistinguished family and was by no means part of the aristocracy. To establish legitimacy he latched onto the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven," an old Confucian concept used to justify rebellion against a corrupt dynasty. Taejo saw himself as the man appointed by Heaven to take decisive action in overthrowing Goryeo. His supporters could only agree, since his legitimacy reinforced their own position.

The alternative view:

The alternative view, presented by the historian John Duncan, addresses problems with the mainstream view. Duncan's analysis of the key players in the transition era shows that there was broad continuity between the ruling families of the Goryeo and those of Joseon. His argument undermines the case that a new class of scholar-officials replaced the ruling elite in the dynastic change. Duncan instead suggests that the Goryeo-Joseon transition was the culmination of a long struggle between the yangban elite and the King. According to this theory, the Goryeo dynasty was based on the support of local strongmen in league with the King. In an effort to assert monarchical power, the King imported the Chinese civil-service examination system in 958. Thereafter, a number of the local elite roses to prominence in the central government, creating a new class of scholar-officials who came to own vast tracts of lands and large numbers of slaves. This elite group of civil servants constituted a new class that came to be known as yangban. However, instead of strengthening monarchical power, the tax-exempt privileges of the new class undermined the power of the king, who was forced to ally himself with the remaining local elites (hyangni), who occupied lower positions in the countryside.

The ruling yangban supported Buddhism and benefitted from the Mongol domination, since their Mongols used the yangban's influence to keep the Goryeo kingdom weak and submissive. Naturally, when the Yuan dynasty collapsed and gave way to the Ming, the yangban were in a precarious situation. Sensing the opportunity to restore dynastic power, King Gongmin in the 1360s allied himself with a number of local strongmen and brought in eunuchs, foreign advisors, and Buddhist monks to counterbalance yangban domination. He nearly succeeded�so much so that the yangban decided to put their faith in the relative newcomer Yi Songgye, the commander of a powerful northeastern army, to overthrow the dynasty and replace it with one in their favor. These reform-minded yangban succeeded, creating the Neo-Confucian centered Joseon dynasty. The ethical foundations of the new dynasty institutionalized the de-facto yangban class that had existed since late Goryeo. It also offered the wealthy the chance to enter government service through an examination system that only men of leisure could prepare for.

Regardless of who came to power, the Neo-Confucian reformers were no fools. They realized that the changes they proposed would take generations to accomplish, particularly in the restructuring of family relationships. To ensure the continuation of their own way of thinking and their ideological unity, they established a nationwide system of schools. At these hyanggyo, as they were called, young yangban aristocrats were indoctrinated with Neo-Confucian ideals. As the first generation of educated yangban grew to maturity, the entire generation came to regard Neo-Confucianism as the foundation of civil society.

The state schools primarily trained aristocratic yangban for the civil service examinations, the key to government jobs. In the early years of the dynasty, when the population of the aristocracy was rather small, there were plenty of jobs for men of ambition. As the ranks of yangban swelled in the latter half of the 16th century, more and more yangban clamored for a fixed number of government posts. It became difficult even for the highly educated to obtain government appointments.

Concurrent with these demographic developments were social changes of equally profound significance. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, Neo-Confucianism gradually affected the revolutionary changes that the dynastic founders envisioned. Buddhism lost its importance as Neo-Confucianism reached the ears of even the common man. As disagreement about the merit of Neo-Confucianism vanished, it became a matter of course that the man next door shared a common ideology. The yangban had so mastered Neo-Confucianism that it became possible to debate abstract points of detail - something that the largely unemployed yangban sons argued endlessly about.

As jobs grew scarcer, practical Neo-Confucianism of the sort taught in the state schools became less and less important. Students were more interested in abstract philosophy, debating fine points long into the night after the dull seminars on practical scholarship had drawn to a close. Finally, a county magistrate bowed to the trend and established the first private academy in the country. Called Sosu Seowon, the academy was organized as a private retreat, where students could argue abstract Neo-Confucianism in seclusion, without even aspiring to a government job. The quasi-religious nature of Neo-Confucianism was greatly enhanced at Sosu Seowon by enshrining departed Neo-Confucian scholars, whose lives the students sought to emulate.

Unemployed yangban eagerly installed themselves in the dozens of private academies that soon sprouted like mushrooms across the countryside. Unemployment was less to be feared than idleness, for the majority of yangban possessed hereditary estates that they managed in absentia. As the state schools fell into greater and greater disrepair, the private academies grew ever more numerous. By their peak in the late 18th century, there were nearly 800 of them.

In the early years the private academies were little more than schools. As the centuries wore on, they began to assume an economic position disproportionate to their original goals. Seowons came to own vast tracts of land and many slaves. Worse still, minute differences in doctrine divided seowon into warring ideological camps, spawning endless factionalism that plagued Korean society for the remainder of the dynasty. Divisive factionalism, driven by the economic muscle of the private academies, shattered the efficiency of Korean government in the late Joseon dynasty. Society stagnated, and important matters lay unaddressed.

In a desperate attempt to correct Korea's problems, the Daeweon-gun, or father of the king, ordered the closure of all but a handful of private academies in 1871. Land was confiscated and students were forced out the gates. The Daeweon-gun's actions did little, however, but destroy priceless examples of traditional Korean architecture. Although a number of the academies that were forced to close were not actually destroyed, a number of them were cleared or burned. Today, a number of them have been restored, but not all those that were built.

The private academies are a unique part of the architectural heritage of Korea. Built in response to specific needs in the Joseon dynasty, they stand today as monuments to Neo-Confucianism, a philosophy still very much alive in Korea even today.

According to GPS readings collected by the author, the site sits at (WGS 84 map datum). .

(Designated Historic Site #260).


According to GPS readings collected by the author, the site sits at 36 32.25586' N, 128 33.27667' E (WGS 84 map datum). Address: 경북 안동시 풍천면 병산리 30.

Plan view

Image largely redrawn and adapted following Seowon: The Architecture of Korea's Private Academies by Lee, Sang-hae.

Plan of Byeongsan Seowon


All images copyright 1998-2007 Timothy M. Ciccone and Abraham C. Ahn

ATA Laboratory, Daejeon, Korea, led by professor Han Pilwon.

Bary, Wm. Theodore; and Haboush, JaHyun Kim (editors) . The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea
  Columbia University Press, 1985. New York

Chun, Shin-yong (general editor). Upper Class Culture in Yi Dynasty Korea
  Sisayongosa Publishers, 1982. Korea

Duncan, John. The Origins of the Choson Dynasty
  University of Washington Press, 2000. Seattle

Kim, Hyo-hyeong. Dapsa Yeohaengui Giljabi 10: Gyeongbuk Bukbu (Travel Survey Guidebook 10: Northern Gyeongbuk)
  Dolbegae Publishers, 1997. Korea

Inaji, Toshiro. The Garden as Architecture
  Kodansha International, 1990. New York

Kim, Bong-ryeol. I Ddang-e Saegyeojin Jeongsin (The Spirit Etched on this Land).
  Ju Isang Geonchuk, 1999. Seoul

Kim, Un-jung. Hanguk ui seowon konchuk (The Architecture of Seowon Korea)
  Munundang, 1995. Seoul

Lee, Ki-baik A New History of Korea
  Cambridge, 1995. Seoul

Korean Office of Cultural Properties

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Sang Kim posted on Sun Mar 27, 2011 9:02 am:

The article is not pertinent for the description of Byungsan Seowon. Please change it with a proper article.