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Sungkyun, “Learning to be a Better Person”

Have you heard of the word “Sungkyun”? Let’s explore what “Sungkyun” is and why “Sungkyun” is an adaptive innovation in Korean philosophy.
Sungkyun, traditional or innovative? If you first heard of the word “Sungkyun” from the Korean drama “Sungkyunkwan Scandal,” you may recall a budding love story between two young lovers, similar to the romance stories of today. For many Koreans, however, the word “Sungkyun” may sound old-fashioned and traditional rather than innovative. Hearing this word will perhaps remind people of a traditional method of teaching and learning. In Korea, “Sungkyun” is a well-known name for the higher educational institution that has survived for more than 700 years What is the secret to this name’s longevity? By tracing the genealogy of this name, you will be able to understand the subtle kind of adaptive innovation that the Korean intellectual history has achieved.
Though “Sungkyun” was originally adopted from the Confucian tradition, Koreans adapted the term as their own, as a way to express the unique identity of the Korean educational ideal, and it continues to hold that meaning today. The word “Sungkyun” is found in ancient Confucian texts, but the meaning of “Sungkyun” has been long forgotten in China and it has completely lost its currency in the modern Chinese vocabulary. Ironically, however, the adopted name “Sungkyun” has endured in Korea to this day. Sungkyun, “Attaining Balance as an Educational Ideal” But what exactly does “Sungkyun” mean? Its literal meaning is “Attaining Balance”, a musical metaphor used to symbolize well-tuned musical performances.
It was used in ancient Confucian classics to describe the ideal way to educate the Son of Heaven, the Emperor of China. However, the word gradually lost relevancy over time. By using the word “Sungkyun” as the name of an educational institution, it incorporated the meaning of “attaining balance” into the education ideal, such as cultivating the ability to balance unbalanced situations, and teaching to settle discord by adjusting for either side. The first time this name was adopted, it was as the name of a royal academy in the Goryeo kingdom under the pressure of the Yuan Empire. The stronger Yuan Empire forced the Goryeo Kingdom to change the names of their government offices to lower-ranking names that fit the Yuan imperial rules.
Intriguingly, the Goryeo people adopted the once highly acclaimed word “Sungkyun” as one of their institutional names instead. This is a real mystery. How did the Goryeo people uncover the then little-known name “Sungkyun” from the Confucian classics? How did the Goryeo kingdom survive the Yuan Imperial pressure and keep this rebellious name, which used to describe the highest form of the educational ideal in Ancient China? We do not know the answer yet. What we do know is, since then, Koreans have never stopped appreciating this name. The name endured for approximately 500 years throughout the Joseon dynasty as the name of a royal educational institution, “Sungkyunkwan”. And this word “Sungkyun” has survived till now as the name of a modern university.
Sungkyun, “Learning to be a better person” When the word “Sungkyun” was first adopted, it was an innovative choice. However, through continued adaptation, Koreans began to see the term as traditional. Through this we can see an example of how traditional Korean culture is the result of continued adaptation upon innovation. This pattern is repeated in Korean history, which shows an interesting, two-faceted devotion to innovation and commitment to tradition.
From the case of “Sungkyun,” we can see that Korean identity was formed by juggling universality and particularity at cultural boundaries, in the sense that Koreans adopted an idea from the “universal” Confucian teachings, but instead of absorbing it at face value, they revived this word through an educational institute which brought this ideal to the real world. By redefining this lofty ancient Confucian ideal into something tangible, Koreans created their particularity. The core meaning of Sungkyun, which calls for a balanced person in education beyond competency or wit, will resonate well into the future. I think it is quite beautiful that this educational ideal was not only to learn to be smart, but to learn to be a better person.

Have you heard of the word “Sungkyun”?

Some of you may have heard of this word in the name of “Sungkyunkwan University”, the institution which provides this course. Otherwise, if you are a big fan of Korean dramas, you may recall a famous Korean drama, “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”.

In fact, “Sungkyun” is a name for a Confucian ideal, and “Kwan” means institution. In this video, we will explore the meaning of “Sungkyun”. Moreover, I will explain why the use of “Sungkyun” is an adaptive innovation in Korean philosophy.

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Introduction to Korean Philosophy

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