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What the heck is Neo-Confucianism?

Mr Sean Maguire

Years ago, when studying the pattern histories for the gup gradings, I encountered certain terms that were unfamiliar to me, and unexplained in the grading itself. For example Won-Hyo introduced Buddhism(?) to the Silla Dynasty; Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye, who were noted respectively as the "Confucius" of Korea and as an authority on "neo-Confucianism". The Condensed Encyclopaedia gives an outline of the systems of Oriental religious and moral thought, quoting ideas from Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and others, to demonstrate the background that so strongly influenced the moral philosophy of Taekwon-Do, but without going into detail what each believed. (Would it indeed have been at all relevant to do so? I dare say not, as the intent was to impress the general scene of Oriental philosophy to a Westerner.) However I thought it interesting to find out a little more about the different people and beliefs, despite realising that in the end identifying its relevance to practical Taekwon-Do demands a fair stretch of the imagination.

Risking gross oversimplification, here goes...

The moral culture of Taekwon-Do is strongly influenced by the moral culture of Oriental philosophy. The three main influences of this philosophy were Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Classical Confucianism contained the teachings of Confucius and Mencius; later, in the Han Dynasty (ca. first century AD) it became a state supported imperial orthodoxy. In T’ang China (about the time of the Unified Silla in Korea which was also the "golden age" of Buddhism) Confucianism fell into decline. There was later a revival, led, in China, by Chu-Hsi, into what we Westerners call neo-Confucianism. This attempted to give a rational explanation of the world using Confucianist principles. It also spread from China into neighbouring Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

Briefly, the main teachings of Confucius (c. 552-479 BC) emphasised the practise of moral virtues exemplified by the moral person. Mencius (372-289 BC) elaborated the importance of individual morality, namely that human nature is basically good, with the potential to realise at least four virtues: humanity, righteousness, propriety and wisdom. (Gen. Choi also names trust). My understanding is that the practise of virtue was vital to distinguish the civilised human from the animal; indeed without the practise of virtue there was no difference between the human and animal.

The sources of the "Confucius canon" are the Five Classics, traditionally attributed to Confucius himself, and the Four Books, attributed to his disciples. The main teachings of the Confucian doctrine are summarised in one of the Four Books, the Analects. They described the five so-called most important personal and social relationships of human life, notably father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger sibling, ruler and subject and friend and friend. Moral virtue was to be expressed within these ethical relations. For example the son (or subject) should defer to the father (or ruler) but the latter should act in a manner worthy of respect. Capability and virtue, rather than lineage, distinguished the good ruler from the bad - at that time this idea was revolutionary. Ideally, the principle relations of the family, where everybody had a place yet everyone played their part, would then be extended toward society, for just as the son shows piety to his father, the subject should show loyalty to his ruler. To Confucius the key to social harmony lay within society itself.

In the Condensed Encyclopaedia, the section on moral culture describes how one becomes an exemplary person. To recap, one must first identify or find oneself and in doing so become a person who is readily able, if called upon, to contribute to the building of an ideal society, as described by Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu is traditionally regarded as the author of the Taoist school and the author of the Tao Te Ching. This book advised rulers to keep rule to a minimum and let things take their natural course, under the assumption that if left to themselves individuals and society will follow the Tao - a principle which lies behind all nature. To Lao Tzu the key to harmony lay in following nature rather than society; notably it was a reaction against the orthodox Confucianism.

As for Buddhism (this is still irrelevant to Taekwon-Do but...) the original revelation of the Buddha concerned Four Noble Truths. First, all existence is suffering; second, the cause of suffering is craving; the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate craving; the way to achieve this is the Eightfold Path. Buddhism has been called the Middle Way since it involves neither starvation/extreme persecution of one’s flesh to achieve a higher consciousness, but nor does it involve extreme indulgence.

The form of Buddhism that Won-Hyo (617-686AD) took to Silla was the Pure Land School, born out of Mahayana Buddhism . Won-Hyo was noted as much for his rather unorthodox life as a monk frequenting wine shops, eating meat, living life as a beggar monk, marrying a Silla princess and fathering a son as for being a serious philosopher and scholar of Buddhist theory and history. One of his concerns was to consolidate all forms of Buddhism into a single system. His rather unorthodox lifestyle was an expression against the established sectarian Buddhism, and his belief that all teachings of Buddhism are part of a single comprehensive path to enlightenment. Won-Hyo’s evangelical efforts brought about the conversion to Buddhism of eighty percent or more of the Silla population.

After the T’ang dynasty in China, with the decline in the popularity of Buddhism, there was a neo-Confucianist revival (end of eleventh century to the start of the twentieth). This involved taking some of the teachings from Confucianism and adding a metaphysical element to explain the origin of all things. The Chinese philosopher Chu-Hsi (1130-1200 AD) was one of the main representatives of this movement. He attempted to give a rational explanation of the universe:

"A central concept of this movement was that of li (Kor. i), or principle. Every entity has its own li, the form which makes it what it is, and all members of a species were formed by and have the same li. What distinguishes individuals from each other are their unique ch’i (Kor. ki) or vital energy. Chu-Hsi derived an ethic from it. Man has his characteristic li, the same for all individuals, and like the other great principles informing the world it is part of the Great Ultimate. But individuals differ in their worth and wisdom and this is due to differences in their ch’i. If one’s ch’i is cloudy or muddy, then one’s actions and character will be inferior. ... since Chu-Hsi held that it is human desire that is the most important factor in making the ch’i obscure the li, he considered it vital that one should gain knowledge of the workings of desire. Through knowledge it would be tamed. This fitted with his general and typically Confucian view that through the investigation of things and fact one gains an enlightened and moral outlook, rather than on intuitive experience".

This brings us to the two Korean philosophers Yi I and Yi Hwang. Often paired, they were however involved on opposite sides of a debate as to whether the principle (i) or material force (ki) was the more important in the genesis of the cosmos. This in itself does not seem very important but, due to the role of neo-Confucian orthodoxy in the Choson period, the debates were heavily politicised, and to a degree mirrored contemporary factional political differences.

Yi Hwang, also known as Korea’s Chu-Hsi, stressed the primacy of the i. He elaborated on Chu-Hsi, further defining the role of i in the human psyche, and established a position that gave emphasis to personal experience and moral self-cultivation as the essence of learning. His thought strongly influenced Japanese Confucian scholarship eventually constituting one of the main streams in Japanese Confucian thought.

Yi I was famed not only as a philosopher but for the many reform proposals he put forward in regard to government, the economy and national defence. Anyhow, he stressed the importance of the ki. He saw i as nothing but the laws of motion or activity inherent in ki. His advocates also attached importance to the search for moral principles , but their approach emphasised looking outward rather than inward, intellectual rather than spiritual perception, and so they valued external experience and breadth of learning.

How does this relate to Taekwon-Do? All it does it attempt to explain (if only to myself) some minor terms related in the pattern histories. I would have liked space to fully investigate other subjects: the legend of Tangun/Dangun as the specifically Korean "foundation myth"; or features of other venerated and fiercely loyal members of Korean society: the fact that there is a government shine to General Yi Sun Sin (since, with his fleet of "Turtle Ships", he single-handedly defended Korea’s waters from the Japanese!!). However, the pattern histories themselves have been covered in depth elsewhere. The point is that, to me at least, in trying to gain more knowledge of how Taekwon-Do projects itself as a Korean art, and further understanding the background Oriental philosophy with its effects on Taekwon-Do philosophy, makes both the patterns and the art itself more personal.


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