Experiments in Confucian Local Government:

the Hyang’yak of the Joseon Dynasty


The Joseon Dynasty was Korea’s attempt to put into practice the ideals of the Confucian tradition. Most historians typically examine the structure of the central government, focusing on the King, the royal families, and the government scholar-officials of the royal court. The central political concern of Confucianism, however, remains the well-being of the people. In addition to the magistrates selected by the civil service examination, one tool for rectifying the people was the hyang’yak, a village compact that resolved disputes, encouraged good morals, and provided for times of hardship. Although the exact rules varied for each hyang’yak, they faced similar problems and instituted with similar solutions.


I. Background

Philosophical Confucianism

Confucianism is best understood as a philosophical tradition whose scholarly line begins at Confucius. As the founding teacher, Confucius taught students who would carry on his teachings. Eventually, his scholastic lineage would write down his ideas and thoughts into sources such as The Analects, and would insert his commentary into other literary works used in the Confucian literature. In the long history of the Confucian tradition of scholarship, a number of philosophers would obtain prominence. Mencius, supposedly taught by Confucius’ grandson, was the first of these highly renowned Confucians. Others would include Xunzi, a Confucian that was derided by the onset of neo-Confucianism, and Zhu Xi, one of the great developers of the neo-Confucian movement. Each Confucian scholar would add to the growing body of scholarship, building upon the principles that Confucius set forth thousands of years ago. As with any developing body of scholarship, later scholars would intentionally or unintentionally disagree with contemporaries or previous scholars, sometimes implicitly disagreeing with Confucius himself.

A scholar intent on reforming the social and political world around him, Confucius turned to two sources for his idealism. One was a highly idealized source of history about former dynasties and their legendary founders, who served as models of exemplary virtue for Confucius. The second was the humanities, which included books of poetry, ritual and rites, and philosophical divination (the I Ching). Together, these sources would be later known as the “five classics” of Confucianism.[1] Although Confucius probably thought himself as a reformer restoring the traditional way of life, his thoughts and beliefs established a great tradition onto itself.

Confucius was concerned with rectifying the proper relations between persons, whether father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, minister and king, teacher and student, aristocrat and commoner, or between two friends. Virtue, for Confucius, necessarily extended beyond the individual context, and had to manifest in relationships. In fact, the many virtuous characteristics in Confucianism can be narrowed down to two virtues: ren and li, concepts that can be best translated as “humane benevolence” and “ritual propriety.” Tellingly, both ren and li are directed towards a person other than the self, and in fact, propriety could not exist in the absence of benevolence.

Like many Confucian virtues and ideals, ren and li do not translate directly into modern English. Ren is perhaps easier to understand than li, because of our culture’s innate understanding of warmth, love, and human compassion – all of which are tied up in ren.  Ren also includes the idea of “humanity at its best” and implies that all human hearts are fundamentally the same, such that one person can understand another by understanding his own heart.

Li, in contrast, appears foreign and almost alien to the modern Westerner. Perhaps the closest analogue in Western lexicon is “etiquette” with the idea of “natural order” in the background, but to translate it as such would be inaccurate as it is confusing. Harder still for the modern Westerner to grasp is how amorphous the definition of li is – yet what separates Confucianism from any other ethical systems may come down its emphasis on li. Li is the proper expression of one’s heart-and-mind, the relationships between two persons, and moral principles, with particular attention to aesthetics. In a sense, li governs the expression of one’s ren beyond the heart-and-mind and into the external world. In Western terms, a sloppy handshake violates li, as does asking “how are you” in passing when the asker has no actual intention of discussing how the person really is today. In the first instance, a sloppy handshake is bad form: either the person is insincere; or if he is indeed sincere, a sloppy handshake is no way to communicate that sincerity. In the second instance, the real meaning of the words “how are you” is spoiled, and what is said does not correspond with the intention of the speaker, which is to merely greet someone in passing. Thus, in the Analects, an entire book is devoted to the physical details of how Confucius walked to honored places such as the royal court or the temple, how he enters his carriage, how he greets others, and so forth. Confucius also once emphatically declared that the “rectification of words” would be his highest priority if he were to find opportunity to govern.

Confucius considered himself a failure after having traveled the many kingdoms of his day, searching fruitlessly for an opportunity to put his philosophy into practice. After settling back home in Lu to teach, he died in his seventies. The influence that his teaching had, however, after his passing must have surpassed even his most ambitious dreams. For over two millennia, Confucian scholars would expound, expand, debate, and die for his ideals.

Almost a thousand years later, after the same areas influenced by Confucianism engaged in Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, a new school of thought emerged: neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism is usually understood as both a response against and integration of the beliefs of Buddhism and Taoism. Although classical Confucianism contains ethico-spiritual dimensions, Confucianism itself contains little if any theology, and lacks a metaphysical framework.


Historical Background

After centuries of the Koryo dynasty, from which the modern name of “Korea” derives its name, the Joseon dynasty established itself in the last decade of the 14th century as a kingdom that intended to replace Buddhist political corruption with the proper righteousness of Confucianism.  The reality, however, was far more muddled. For example, Confucian thinking had already permeated the politics of Koryo, who actually held civil service examinations beginning in the tenth century. And whereas the examinations where in theory open to commoners, the reality was that only mostly the yangban (Korean aristocracy) could adequately prepare for the examinations in the first place. Additionally, although most of the property of the Buddhist temples was confiscated (including land and slaves), the commoners of the state still adhered to the comforts of Buddhist, Taoist, and indigenous shamanistic theologies. Without a true theological framework, Confucianism would not be able to directly displace these beliefs, no matter how persuasive it might be in the realm of ethics, or how spiritual its rituals might be. Perhaps most disappointingly, the politics amongst the scholars were prone to frequent infighting and could often turn bloody. Frictions between the King and the scholar-aristocracy could be intense. Although the intention was a balance of powers between the scholar-officials and the King, (for example, the King could not refuse the regular “royal lectures” from his scholars[2]), Joseon history is rife with stories of executed scholar-politicians.

One major concern of the Confucians, however, remained the rectification of the common people. The Joseon Dynasty continued the civil service examination system based the Confucian canon, used magistrates to administer to its provinces, who in turn answered to the King and his court and were checked up on by the censorates. Despite all the centralization of power, however, Confucians favored feudalism, believing that the eras of harmony and prosperity of the same dynasties that Confucius himself admired were fundamentally feudal in nature. This combined with their distrust of litigation, Confucians recognized the need for healthy local communities to be able to resolve disputes and promote harmony on their own. One of the solutions was the hyang’yak, the village compact that would incorporate Confucian principles with everyday village life.

The history regarding the hyang’yak is unsettled. Some historians claim that the hyang’yak was mostly a concept that never really left paper. Others find evidence that, although these blueprints were not necessarily integrated, a Confucian-influenced and Confucian-led village life did in fact exist, and found ways to settle local disputes. The degree to which the Crown condoned or discouraged such local self-rule is also unsettled; at times Kings and scholars agree that these village compacts should be instituted but only after economic conditions have gotten better as to not unduly bear upon the people, whereas other evidence suggests that the state was wary of local corruption oppressing the commoners or of competition for authority over the populace.


II. Principles of the Hyang’yak

As local institutions, every village community would have variations of its own rules. Never in Joseon history was a standard model of the hyang’yak imposed throughout the country. Whether they existed merely on paper or were implemented in real life, however, each village compact had certain features in common.


Confucian Principles

A Confucian institution, the Hyang’yak was expressly based on promoting Confucian values and principles. Cho Kwang’jo, for example, used the five fundamental relationships as the foundation for his: parent-child, master-servant, husband-wife, elder-junior, and friends (Yang and Henderson, 264). As an extension of the principles of reciprocity and benevolent behavior, villagers were to support each other during times of misfortune. Local granaries, which had existed before the establishment of the dynasty, were continued to be managed in anticipation of famines. In case of thefts or robberies, villagers were required to chase down the offenders or to recompense the victims. When commoners died, members were to help provide for the funerals. This could be understood as putting ren (humane benevolence) into practice.

Li (ritual propriety) was also implemented. Some local yangban instituted archery and wine-drinking rites into their village compacts. In accordance with the idea of putting principles into proper practice, these ceremonies would express and reinforce morality. The archery rites were not simply demonstrations of skill – they were “conducted as a means for rectifying the will,” one of the steps of self-cultivation as described in the Confucian treatise “the Great Learning.” The wine-drinking rites were conducted to respect and deference to people based on their “age, virtue, and moral talents.” Indigenous rituals were either transformed or regulated, including funerals and ancestral memorial rites. A number of village compacts expressly forbade the practice of Buddhist or shamanistic rituals as well. (Palais 742).

In line with encouraging virtue rather than simply incentivizing against bad behavior, some hyang’yaks also recorded good deeds in addition to bad ones.

Confucian principles failed to be implemented in its purity, however. Much of the enforcement of morality came in the form of legalistic punishments for misdoings, although some village compacts simply expelled unrepentant members. Confucians heeded Confucius’ skepticism regarding the use of punishments and realized that punishments were no way to encourage truly virtuous behavior, and that the punishments could serve to make the punished only hard-hearted. Furthermore, as will be discussed below, a number of Confucian scholars were uncomfortable with the degree of class discrimination found in the unequal punishments based on inherited status.


Hierarchy of Government Authorities

Similar to the appellate system of courts, the village compact system could push up unresolved disputes. Attempts at resolving disputes would first be the director(s) of the hyang’yak. If that failed, the case would be sent to a group of local yangban scholars. Failing that, the director had the authority to send a case to the district magistrate, and then the case would be in the state’s hands. Thus, as Kim argues, “the hyangyak officials played the role of a gatekeeper for lawsuits, exerting the power to impose community-level justice in the villages.”

When local yangban scholars weighed in, and a disputant refused to accept their decision, the disputant would be charged with a misdemeanor and recorded in a demerit register. If the issue was serious, he might be punished.

Depending on the reign of different kings, such local decision-making could either be encouraged or outright banned. Sometimes the central government would be afraid that the local aristocrats would be imposing improper and oppressive burdens on the locals, thereby enriching their financial interests. Another concern was that with the village compacts inherently “interfered with the judicial tasks of the Ministry of Punishments and the Seoul magistracy by punishing lawbreakers on their own” (713), implying that Joseon did not believe in punishing twice for the same offense. There were also instances where the local yangban would criticize the local magistrate or governor, resulting in official remonstrations or legal curtailing of their powers. The history of the King’s acceptance of local decision-making swung back and forth. In fact, during the reign of Joseon’s most honored king Sejong the Great, policies regarding the yuhyangso (an early version of the village compact before the term hyang’yak was used) changed three times in his reign alone.


Righteousness, not rights

The hyang’yak did not simply act as a Western court to determine guilt and remedy, but also existed to promote virtue and harmony. Offenders who repented were subjected to lighter punishments than those had refused to repent. Cases would be resolved based on a person’s righteousness, rather than the contours of the law, or a notion of individual “rights.” In an article comparing the development of French law with Korean law, Kim argues that this resulted in an absence of civil or private law.

The absence of legal professionals meant that courtroom contests were based not on legal reasoning, but on rival claims of righteousness. The main concern of the litigants was to show that they were decent people, unjustly harmed and above all morally superior to their opponents. They flocked to the court to prove that they were “right,” not by resorting to established legal principles that regulated private relations but by appealing to the judge’s sense of justice and moral indignation. A typical civil complaint pleaded that the opponent be charged with a criminal offense… (527-528)

The absence of an institutional framework for resolving private disputes according to fixed legal principles and concepts hindered people’s assertion of their “rights” through formal adjudicative methods. The domination of village life by local yangban did not foster an affirmation of the communal spirit of the local village or provincial liberties. The purpose of moral exhortation was to propagate the state Neo-Confucian values in the villages. The elite’s adoption of a strict application of Confucian morality allowed little opportunity for private life. The element of popular consent was largely absent in the making of Korean hyangyak. “Agreement” or private contract was an elusive notion in pre-modern East Asian legal culture. The ideals of self transformation and moral rejuvenation as the basis of the polity represent a distinct direction of managing and improving human conditions. But its push for moral uniformity and concern for the mutual needs of the local community rather than individual rights or property rights prevented, or at least delayed, the development of private law. Without institutional machinery to delineate the boundaries of individual rights, Korean customs did not develop into private law. (537)


Kim may have been wrong, however, in her assertion that the hyang’yak associations did not encourage local participation. Although most compacts did not adopt outright democracy[3], there were mechanisms that involved popular participation. A number of compacts semi-elected their leaders, though there were some restrictions. Sometimes the commoners could chose only amongst the yangban (Palais 730). In another compact, they could nominate men of virtuous reputation for the compact heads, but once chosen, the compact head was not accountable to the compact members (Palais 738). The positions of secretaries and assistants would rotate amongst the members of the compacts, and sometimes they were reserved for non-yangban classes.

The inhabitants of the Joseon Dynasty certainly did not think in terms of individual rights, clearly demonstrated by the existence of rules that could not be enforced without a level of ambiguity a modern Westerner would be uncomfortable with. Yi Yulgok, one of Korea’s most honored Confucian scholars, designed a village compact that punished pursuit of “excessive profit without showing compassion for the interests of others,” and even went as far to punish “laziness or lack of attention to one’s work.” Whether or not someone was being overly avaricious or indolent or inattentive is an inquiry that heavily relies upon a person’s reputation and personal history, rather than a framework of rights or laws that allow certain forms of private behavior.[4]

Thus, the hyang’yak provides incentives to cultivate a reputation for moral behavior. Villagers could not ascertain any individual “rights” (a discourse that probably did not exist in the Joseon dynasty), nor could they argue that they were on the right side of the law. Instead, they had to rely upon their moral reputation in order establish their righteousness, an effort aided by the fact that villagers’ good and bad deeds were recorded on registers. Rising in prominence in the hyang’yak leadership also meant that a person had to have a reputation for virtue. Because winning disputes and gaining prominence relied on moral reputations, the hyang’yak could be seen as a force encouraging the rectification of the villagers.


Maintaining Hierarchy

Of course, history is never so simple. Whatever encouragements and incentives the hyang’yak managed to use to cultivate the people, no feature must have been so demoralizing to that end than the unequal treatment of different class members.

In the village context, three classes effectively existed. At the top were the yangban, the Korean aristocracy. Although yangban status did not necessarily denote a scholarly mastery of the Confucian classics, enough yangban males were educated during the Joseon dynasty that separating the idea of scholars from the yangban was difficult. Presumably, this resulted from the civil service examination being the gateway to holding government office. In the middle were the commoners, and at the bottom were the “inferior” peoples (hain). The hain would include, but was not restricted to, slaves or serfs.[5]

Punishments differed, sometimes very vastly, by which social class the offender belonged to. One compact written by Yulgok delineated five degrees of punishment. But depending on the class status, age status, or gender of the offender, the punishment could go up or down up to two degrees. The rules discriminated even based on whether a person was the child of a wife or concubine. Differing punishments was not at all atypical for village compacts, and historians have not yet found an exception to the rule.

Many Confucian scholars were remiss about this discriminatory treatment, and with good reason. For one, Confucius himself was not of aristocratic birth – he was the son of a concubine of a low ranking military officer, raised in poverty in a social class that was not quite commoner but not quite aristocrat. Indeed, his status outside of nobility became a great hindrance in his ambition to becoming influential in politics.

More directly, the Confucian canon is replete with emphases of judging a man based on his personal virtue over his birthright. In fact, the term Confucius used for the virtuous person (chun-tzu or junzi) actually comes his attempt to reclaim the same word used to denote the aristocracy of his time (chun-tzu literally means ‘the son of a lord’). An honest Confucian, therefore, could not blindly condone blatant class discrimination, such as giving unequal punishments for the same crime when committed by members of different social classes.

So why where these rules, written by prominent scholars themselves, discriminating upon the basis of social class? One answer might be that these scholars, active in politics, were trying to be practical and compromise with reality. A number of these scholars wished sincerely for the entire institution of slavery to be abolished, but understood that their wishes were not realistic. Likewise, permitting slaves the same dignities as commoners, or commoners the same privileges as yangban, might have been too unrealistic for them to implement. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, kings who would have otherwise agreed to implement a nationwide model of hyang’yak refused on the basis that economic conditions had to improve, otherwise such a cultural shift would be unduly burdensome. The best that could be done, these scholars may have concluded, was to admonish the masters of these slaves to treat them with propriety and humaneness.

Of course, the Confucians were not proponents of equality-as-homogeneity. They believed in a kind of natural order, where some persons would naturally have authority and rank above others, and that all relationships outside of friendship would be based on heterogeneous reciprocity. For example, the father has authority and rank over the son, and what the father owes to the son (affection, moral example or instruction) is different than what the son owes to the father (filiality, obedience). Similarly, the scholar has something to teach the commoner, and the commoner owes the scholar respect. These class distinctions were not always respected throughout the Joseon dynasty, however. Regarding one scholar’s hyang’yak rules, Palais writes that “because in recent years the lower persons had become used to ‘lording it over’ the yangban and even attacking them physically, these violations had to be punished by beatings, and in severe cases reported by the magistrate” (730). In order to establish and maintain respect for authority, the Confucians may have ultimately supported class distinctions in the dimension of punishment as a way to maintain class distinctions in other dimensions of life.


III. Conclusion

As a local organization, the hyang’yak differed by location and scholastic author. Despite this, many village compacts had similar features, and attempted to deal with the same problems. They institutionalized core Confucian values, resolved disputes, encouraged the building of good reputations, and struggled with the questions of social hierarchy, sharing authority with the central government, and dealing with corruption of local yangban.

In terms of their success, it’s not clear what they could have done better to realistically achieve Confucian goals. Some of these problems appear simply endemic to any human society – questions of class stratification, different levels of government, and general political corruption. Although many Confucians desired to get rid of institutions such as slavery, or at least ameliorate the unequal treatment by social class, they considered it a hard fact of reality that these institutions would continue.

We face similar problems in modern American society. Although most Americans agree that the disparities in wealth have gone beyond acceptability, few are able to envision a way to restructure society such that wealth is better distributed, without serious problems undermining the entirety of society. Perhaps it is with this sense of futility that Joseon Confucians viewed the unfairness of their class structure. And although we have, in theory, a federalist government that respects both state and federal rule, the balance between the two powers has changed drastically throughout history, similar to how the central government opinion on the legitimacy of the hyang’yak ebbed and flowed. Lastly, political corruption and infighting is nothing new, and our society certainly has plenty of examples to spare.

The Confucian experiment in the hyang’yak appears to have set up a framework in which to encourage morality and provide a fluid mechanism in which the educated could attempt to resolve disputes before involving the state. Though some problems prevented the institution from fully manifesting Confucian idealism, the hyang’yak provided a means of promoting peace and harmony that our own modern culture might benefit from.

[1] The Five Classics were studied with the “Four Books” of Confucianism, which were philosophical texts that discussed explicitly the principles of the tradition. The Five Classics include the Book of Songs (poetry), The Book of Rites (rituals), the Book of Documents (political speeches and documents), the I Ching, and the Spring and Autumn Annals (history of Confucius’ home state of Lu). The Four Books included the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and the Mencius (listed in order that Zhu Xi recommended their teaching).

[2] http://www.koreafocus.or.kr/design2/layout/content_print.asp?group_id=103723

[3] Full-blown democracy, however, may be antithetical to the Confucian tradition. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of education to an individual’s moral cultivation. Thus, it would be absurd to have a scholar’s opinion placed on equal weight with a commoner who is not even literate, nor has had the time nor intellectual ability to contemplate the words of the ancients. As for the possibility of persuading others before the vote, the bulk of commoners might be wise enough to understand the reasoning for certain decisions or policies, be sensitive to the subtleties of morality itself.

Yet another reason Confucianism would not be accommodating to democracy is the idea of structured authority. The role of a father is to raise his children, such that children do not have to raise themselves. The role of teachers is to teach their students, such that students are not left to teach themselves. The role of government is to govern its people, such that people do not have to govern themselves. A Confucian might see democratic self-rule to be akin to children raising themselves, or students teaching themselves – an unfortunate condition likely to end in misfortune. Ultimately, modern democracy assumes an equality that most Confucians would reject.

[4] A framework of individualistic rights might be alien to the Confucian framework, if not outrightly hostile to it. As discussed above, a Confucian understanding of morality is inherently relational. In contrast, much of what we consider to be individual rights assumes that something can be morally acceptable as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. According to the rights framework, I can hoard as much as I want so long as I do not steal, and I can be as lazy and inattentive as I want as long my indolence does not harm anyone (such as negligently assembling an automobile). The Confucian framework asks instead what obligations I owe to the other person, and whether if I am sincere in my fulfillment of those obligations. Because I owe my neighbors charity and benevolence, I ought to share my wealth or give them fair deals in the first place. Because I owe my parents respect and gratitude and my wife and children support, I should try my best to do good work and bring reputation to my family name and wealth to my family finances.

[5] Whether or not these people should be categorized within the English word “slave” is a question of hot debate among historians of Korean history, especially given the legacy of American slavery. For the purposes of this paper, however, I will use the term while acknowledging this controversy, and with the recognition that systems of slavery varied widely by society throughout history.