The politics, religion, and culture of any society has a profound impact on its attitudes and actions toward libraries. Joseon Korea, like most of the rest of Eastern Asia at the time, was a Confucian society, with a strong belief in intellectual and moral self-improvement for the benefit of society. This belief manifested in a focus on the study of Confucian Classics and the emergence of a “scholar-official” class called the Yangban.
However, Kim Sungmoon, in “Trouble with Korean Confucianism: Scholar-Official Between Ideal and Reality” argues that “the ideal of the Confucian scholar whose foremost life-aim consists of the self’s moral perfection and the ideal of the official dedicated to statecraft of the common good,” were in conflict. In fact, Kim builds the case that the only reason a Confucian scholar would enter politics or even aspire to become King is to test his Confucian morality, proving or disproving himself a sage-king, with his desire to do so being an indication of his inadequacy as a Confucian scholar. Not only was the Yangban class allowed to check the King’s power based on their evaluation of the Confucian morality evident in his actions, but the King was expected to continue to pursue Confucian scholarly purity.
The amount of importance any one King placed on these pursuits varied from ruler to ruler. King Sejong the Great took the admonition so seriously that he created the Hall of Worthies, an institution he then tasked with creating the Hangul alphabet for the express purpose of improving literacy among the lower classes. He also commissioned the writing of manuals on farming practices that were distributed throughout the country.
However, Jahyun Kim Haboush argues in “Confucian Rhetoric and Ritual as Techniques of Political Dominance: Yöngjo’s Use of the Royal Lecture,” that many kings simply went through the motions, playing the part of a scholar simply to retain whatever power the Yangban might allow them to have. The more convincingly he played the part, the more power the king was allowed to have. Or, in Yongjo’s instance, the adherence to scholarly pursuits could be manipulated to subjugate the Yangban and achieve political dominance over them. Haboush describes Yongjo’s evolution from student to instructor throughout the article, and provides an appendix that illustrates differing views toward scholarly pursuits from administration to administration by listing the books studied in the Royal Lectures of both Yongo’s and his father Sukchong’s reigns as King. Here, I have transcribed Haboush’s appendix from a comparative list to a visual chart.
Haboush, J. K. “Confucian Rhetoric and Ritual as Techniques of Political Dominance: Yŏngjo’s Use of the Royal Lecture.” Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 5 no. 1, 1984, pp. 39-62. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jks.1984.0009
Kim, S. M. “Trouble with Korean Confucianism: Scholar-Official Between Ideal and Reality.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, vol. 8 no. 1, 2009, pp. 29-48. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11712-009-9105-1