Ancient Korean school that taught Chinese classics sees tourism boom after becoming Unesco heritage site

Park Chan-kyong

An ancient school older than Harvard University has become a booming tourist attraction in South Korea, after the United Nations’ heritage body designated it as a World Heritage Site earlier this year.

Sosu Seowon, built some 500 years ago during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), was Korea’s first private Confucian academy, or seowon, focused on educating aspiring civil servants and cultivating students with Chinese classics and teachings by Chinese philosopher Confucius.

The institute, along with eight other seowons in the country, earned Unesco’s heritage distinction in July.

“The property exhibits an outstanding testimony to thriving Neo-Confucian academies that promoted learning of Neo-Confucianism, which was introduced from China and became fundamental to every aspect of Korea,” Unesco said.

The design of Sosu Seowon allowed students to enjoy the natural surroundings of the area. Photo: Handout

Sosu Seowon’s new status has led to a surge in tourist interest. As of December 2019, the number of visitors to the school rose to 330,000, up 40 per cent from the previous year, according to figures from the tourism authorities. About 99 per cent of visitors are domestic.

The school, located at Sunheung Village in the southeastern city of Yeongju, was built in 1543, says tour guide Lee Dong-hee, making it 93 years older than Harvard University, the United States’ oldest institute of higher learning.

Sosu Seowon, meaning “continuous cultivation of the self”, was first known as Baikwundong Seowon (White Cloud Academy), as a nod to China’s 12th-century Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi’s own famous Bailundong Shuyuan (White Deer Grotto Academy). It was renamed by King Myeongjong in 1550 after a request by a scholar to grant the academy with government subsidies and an official blessing.

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At the school site, a cluster of buildings huddle together in a walled-in compound, and visitors are greeted with the sight of traditional Korean architecture consisting of wood, clay, rocks, and panels papered with sturdy Hanji paper that serve both as doors and windows. The roofs of the buildings roofs are covered with dark clay tiles with gently curving eaves.

According to tour guide Lee, the academy’s design allowed students to gaze afar and enjoy the natural environment, such as the hills and streams, and “cultivate themselves and focus on studying undisturbed”.

Villagers or curious passers-by outside were unable to peep into the school as it was located on slightly elevated land and separated by walls and an artificial pond, Lee said.

“To put it simply, [the design] represents the duality of openness and closeness,” Lee said.

Ganghakdang, the main lecture hall of Sosu Seowon. Photo: Handout

At the centre of the compound stands Ganghakdang, a one-storey building that was the main lecture hall. Measuring seven metres by five metres, the hall has Ondol stone flooring, an underfloor heating system unique to Hanoks (traditional Korean houses), and a wooden parquet flooring called Daecheong, which is cool in summer.

Just outside the school’s entrance, next to a stream, lies the open-air Gyeongryeom Jeong pavilion, with dark clay roof tiles and eight unpainted pillars, where students could take in the environment, compose poems and engage in academic discussions.

Tucked away in the corner of the compound is a shrine dedicated to Anhyang, a 12th-century Korean Confucian scholar who introduced the Neo-Confucianism from China to the country that later spread to every aspect of Korean culture.

Also on the school site are buildings that served as a dormitory and a library.

A shrine in Sosu Seowon dedicated to Korean Neo-Confucian master Anhyang. Photo: Handout

Education during the Joseon dynasty was mainly focused on nurturing virtues among the literati and preparing aspiring government officials for their administrative jobs.

Students had to learn a host of Chinese classics by heart, including the Four Books and Five Classics, regarded as the most authoritative books on Confucianism, and works by Mencius, regarded as the second-greatest Chinese sage after Confucius.

Sosu Seowon is among 47 academies that survived a ban in the late 19th century that saw nearly all such schools closed.

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Lee Cheol-woo, the governor of North Gyeongsang Province, where five of the nine World Heritage Site-listed seowons are located, said the province offered tourists a chance to see “things that are really Korean within Korea”.

The area is also home to the ancient capital of Shilla Kingdom (57BC-935AD).

“We are proud that the Confucian culture is better preserved here in South Korea than in China,” Lee said.

Confucian teachings fell in China in the 1970s as a result of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

“This province used to be known as the Chuno Ji Hyang,” he added, referring to a phrase that means “the home of Confucius and Mencius’ teachings”.

South Korea is home to 12 other Unesco World Cultural Heritage Sites, including the royal tombs of the Joseon dynasty, and the Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, which has housed the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks – Buddhist scriptures carved onto 81,350 wooden printing blocks – since 1398.

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