Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

Did Confucian tradition spread beyond China?

Confucian themes pervade the cultures of both Korea and Japan. Temples dedicated to Confucius have never been nearly as numerous in either country as Buddhist temples or Shinto shrines, for example, and today very few active ones remain. But the influence of the Master is still discernible everywhere. Much of that influence is due to a long history of cultural and diplomatic relations between China and Korea. As early as the seventh century, Korean rulers welcomed Confucian thought as a master plan for political administration. Under the Koryo dynasty (918-1392 C.E.), Confucianism took its place alongside divination and Buddhism as the third in a triad of essential traditional teachings. Korean Confucianism reached its zenith during the long-lived Yi dynasty (1392-1910). There was a time, Koreans occasionally point out, when even the Chinese confessed that their Korean neighbors had outdone them in devotion to Confucius. In Seoul, a Confucian university called Sungkyunkwan remains an important symbol of the tradition’s impact on Korea. Confucian tradition came to Japan via Korea around 400 C.E., a century and a half before Buddhism. Early Confucian scholars brought Chinese ideas to the Japanese imperial court, diffusing concepts that would go on to become an integral part of Japanese culture. Today the once-elegant Confucian temple in downtown Tokyo has few visitors and is badly in need of repair. But Confucian ideals of family and social relationships are still part of the cultural air the Japanese people breathe.


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