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“Oryun haengsilto”: A Guide to Confucian Values from Korea’s Choson Dynasty (1392-1910)

(The following is a post by Sonya Lee, Korea reference specialist, Asian Division.)

Image 1: “Oryun haengsilto,” 1859 edition. 5 books in 4 volumes. Korean rare books collection, Asian Division.

An 1859 edition of the well-known Confucian work, “Oryun haengsilto” 五倫行實圖  (“Illustrated guide to the five relationships”), is one of some 3,500 volumes held in the Korean rare books collection in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress. This work exemplifies the formative role that Confucian values have played on society in Korean history.

“Oryun haengsilto” expounds on the ethical obligations found in Confucianism, a body of thought concerned with philosophy, ethics, and statecraft and rooted in the teachings of the ancient Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE). Confucian ideas have had a profound influence in shaping the worldviews of societies across East Asia, not just in China and Taiwan but also in Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and ethnic Chinese communities across Asia. In Korean history, the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) is particularly well-known for embracing Confucian ideals and incorporating them into its governing ideology.

Images 2 and 3: “Oryun haengsilto” consists of one picture per story accompanied by explanatory text in Chinese together with a Korean translation in Hangul script. The image and text seen here relay the story of Tomi and his wife. From “Oryun haengsilto,” 1859 edition, Korean rare books collection, Asian Division.

Images 2 and 3: “Oryun haengsilto” consists of one picture per story accompanied by explanatory text in Chinese together with a Korean translation in Hangul script. The image and text seen here relay the story of Tomi and his wife. From “Oryun haengsilto,” 1859 edition, Korean rare books collection, Asian Division.

In 1797, King Chongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd ruler of the Choson dynasty ordered his prime minister Lee Pyong-mo and other civil ministers to combine two earlier works, “Samgang haengsilto” 三綱行實圖 (“Illustrated guide to the three relationships”) and “Iryun haengsilto” 二倫行實圖 (“Illustrated guide to the two relationships”). Compiled in 1432 on the order of King Sejong (1397-1450), “Samgang haengsilto” consists of illustrated biographical sketches of persons noted for their exemplification of virtues in three of the five main relationships in Confucian philosophy. These include the filial piety demonstrated by sons to fathers, the loyalty rendered by subjects to monarchs, and the chastity upheld by wives to husbands. “Iryun haengsilto,” which was compiled in 1518 with the command of King Chungjong (1488-1544), highlighted virtues in the other two relationships, namely, the fraternity between older and younger brothers and the trust between friends. The work also details two additional relationships, those among members of the same clan and those between teachers and pupils.

Image 4: This illustration depicts a scene from the story “Nu-baek Catches the Tiger.” From “Oryun haengsilto,” 1859 edition, Korean rare books collection, Asian Division.

During his reign in the latter half of the 18th century, King Chongjo made various reforms and improvements notably by establishing the Kyujanggak, a royal library. The primary purpose of Kyujanggak was to enhance the cultural prestige of the Choson dynasty and to recruit gifted officials to help run the nation. The king spearheaded bold new social initiatives, including opening government positions to those who were previously barred because of their social status, as well as promoting cultural and literary production by people in the middle classes.

In particular, King Chongjo was known for his promotion of Confucian virtues. For example, it is stated in “Oryun haengsilto” that the king created this book to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday, reflecting his filial piety. A further demonstration of Chongjo’s filial piety was the transfer of his father’s tomb to Suwon Castle in the province of Kyonggi-do, located in the northwest of present-day South Korea. The planned city around the tomb known as Hwasong, or “Flowery City,” not only showed great respect for his father, but it also reflected his efforts to make Suwon into the future capital of the country by building it into a major economic and military center.

During the 19th century, “Oryun haengsilto” was used to promote Confucian ethics among the general public. It included pictures to help those who could not read understand the stories more easily. Each story featured one picture and was accompanied by explanatory text in Chinese, the original language of the text, together with a Korean translation in Hangul script, in order to make the contents accessible to those without a formal education.

“Oryun haengsilto” contains 105 biographies that describe exemplars of Confucian virtues. Most are Chinese, but a total of 17 Korean biographies are featured as well. The story “Tomi’s Wife,” which is set in the ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche, exemplifies the virtue of a wife’s chastity. Tomi was a common but righteous man with a beautiful and faithful wife. Her devotion to her husband was so renowned that even the monarch, King Kaeru, learned of it and attempted to seduce her. However, the devoted and clever wife managed to escape the king and his ruses and even rescued her husband, who had been blinded by the ruthless king.

Another story, “Nu-baek Catches the Tiger,” illustrates the virtue of filial piety. In this tale the father of a 15-year-old boy named Ch’oe Nu-baek is attacked and eaten by a tiger. Against his mother’s pleading, Nu-baek tracks, captures, and kills the tiger, and then retrieves his father’s remains from the tiger’s stomach and conducts a proper burial.

These stories illustrate the traditional values that shaped the way citizens related to each other in Choson Korea. Although they come from a time and place that is distant from our own, we can still draw inspiration from the lives and virtues they portray.

While the 1859 edition of “Oryun haengsilto” is part of the Korean rare books collection, there are several other editions of this work in the general Korean collection, such as a 1990 reprint of the 1797 Kyujanggak library edition and a 2006 comprehensive annotated translation. Please contact Korean reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to ask questions about the collection or to schedule an appointment to view rare materials in the Asian Reading Room.

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