Korea’s Confucian academies join Unesco list: Seowon served as hubs of education and tradition during the Joseon Dynasty

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Korea’s Confucian academies join Unesco list: Seowon served as hubs of education and tradition during the Joseon Dynasty


Left: Chung Jae-suk, left, cheers after the United Nations committee announced that seowon, neo-Confucian academy buildings, joined the Unesco’s World Heritage List. Right: Nine seowon, including Oksan Seowon in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, were included. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Seowon, which includes nine buildings that were used as Korean neo-Confucian academies during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), joined Unesco’s list of world heritage sites on Saturday. The decision was announced at the 43rd Unesco Intergovernmental Committee, which is currently being held in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The United Nations (UN) committee said that it decided to add the buildings for their “outstanding universal value.”

It was Korea’s second attempt to get the nine seowon on Unesco’s list of world treasures after it decided to withdraw its application in 2016. At the time, Unesco’s International Council on Monuments and Sites, which screens and recommends the items to be listed, pointed out that there was a lack of a commonality among the nine seowon.

Seowon were a type of educational facility during the Joseon Dynasty that also acted as Confucian shrines. Young Koreans were educated here and these buildings also were key places for discussing social and state affairs among local aristocrats during the Joseon Dynasty.

The nine recommended academies are Sosu Seowon in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang; Namgye Seowon in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang; Oksan Seowon in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang; Dosan and Byeongsan Seowon in Andong, North Gyeongsang; Dodong Seowon in Daegu; Pilam Seowon in Jangseong, South Jeolla; Museong Seowon in Jeongeup, North Jeolla; and Donam Seowon in Nonsan, South Chungcheong.

According to the Cultural Heritage Administration, the nine seowon are said to be the only well-preserved remaining neo-Confucian academies in Korea.

“Most buildings were destroyed in the 18th century due to political reform plans,” said an official from the administration.

The administration added that the latest inscription is especially significant as Korean seowon finally were “acknowledged internationally that they are different to similar Confucian buildings in China and Japan.”

It is true that Korean seowon were initially established by “benchmarking the Chinese Confucian halls,” explained the Cultural Heritage Administration, “however it developed to be uniquely different.”

According to experts, the main purpose of Chinese seowon was to train government officials. Korean seowon served as a place where scholars gathered together to polish and express their ideas in writing, enshrine ancestors’ tablets and also hold ancestral rites.

Therefore, unlike Sungkyunkwan, where education was its purpose, or hyanggyo, a Confucian temple and school to teach local students in the Joseon Dynasty, “Korean seowon was a place where Confucian scholars were trained by deeply understanding the way and mind of the ancestors whose spirits are enshrined there.”

With the addition of seowon, Korea now has a total of 14 items listed on the Unesco’s World Heritage List.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]
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