Dr. Martin Gehlmann

A Confucian Future for the Country East of the Sea

©RUB, Marquard

The second half of the 19th century brought enormous changes and new challenges to the Korean peninsula. The Chosŏn state, already beset by numerous domestic issues, faced encroachment by Western imperialist powers and under Japanese pressure was forced to reevaluate its relationship with the Qing empire. Korean Confucian thinkers instinctively looked to the past for solutions on how to deal with the looming problems. However, their understanding of that ideal Confucian past reflected current events and discourse. So, by the end of the 19th century, well-established Confucian concepts and ideas were reinterpreted as values and thought fit to build a modern Confucian nation, able to deal with the challenges of an imperialist world.

One example of such an attempt to shape a Korean-centered Confucian tradition for the development of a Korean Confucian nation state can be found in the Continued Elementary Learning of East of the Sea, edited by Pak Chaehyŏng (1838–1900) in 1884. Pak’s work provides valuable insights into the understanding of Confucianism and Korea’s place in its tradition in the late 19th century, as well as a quite particular and never realized concept for a Korean Confucian future. This research project analyzes the historical context of Confucianism in Korea and its evolution over time, and it will contribute to ongoing discussions of the present and future of Confucianism in Korea by looking at its historical potential to adapt to modern challenges.