Toegye Yi Hwang and Yukgok Yi-i
considered to be the greatest Joseon scholars
Neo-Confucianism was adopted by the ruling class as a combination of political doctrine + religion + social norms in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). As opposed to the Buddhism-centered Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the Yi ruling clan of Joseon chose Confucianism, mainly because of its weight on the intelligent and honourable ruler and general focus on the class system. The king was a well-read scholar, and it is documented they spent every day reading Confucianist texts and discussing them with the court officials. They also passed a large part of their youth reading, analysing and discussing Confucianism.
Confucianism is known for its strict hierarchy between: ruler-courtiers, husband-wife, father-son, and so on. The society was divided into Yangban (scholars), farmers, artisans, and merchants, in that order. The very bottom class was composed of slaves, shamans, butchers and the children of concubines, who were barred from civil service exams.
Buddhism in Goryeo grew more and more corrupt in Goryeo and enabled the elite to amass fortunes. Additionally, Yi Songgye, founder of the Joseon, would have wanted a new philosophy to impose on the population, since he had gained the throne through the 1392 military coup. It was necessary to justify his crime – for plotting to overthrow a monarch would be soon considered the greatest crime in the Joseon society.
Neo-Confucianism is focused on the metaphysical, and (perhaps similar to Plato’s ‘ideas’) translates these idealistic concepts into the real world. For instance there were debates about whether the nature of animals was the same as the nature of humans, and this impacted politics – those who believed the nature of the two were the same believed that Joseon should accept legitimacy of the Qing Dynasty in China, and those who thought they were different believed Joseon should not accept the legitimacy of the Qing but only of the Ming, because the rulers of the Qing were Jurchens from Mongolia (not authentic Chinese royalty in the Joseon point of view). You can see how this gives headaches to people, and was out of reach from the public’s train of thought.
Ideally Neo-Confucianism should have gone like this: “Every human being has the ability to learn, and realise the way of the universe”. So for example in Joseon all government officials had to pass written exams on Confucianist texts, as opposed to Goryeo where many officials were elected based on their heritage only. Even the low-class (unless your mother was a concubine, or if you came from a family of shamans, butchers, artisans, slaves or if you were a monk), could become important officials, in principal. However, in reality, peasants had no time to sit down and read complicated texts, since Joseon was an agrarian economy. So the Yangban (nobility) class inherited this exam-passing tradition.
On the other hand, there were many very poor yangbans who rose to power solely through their studies as well (their poverty coming from lack of land ownership, which was their main source of income). Yangbans were not allowed to work for money, as this was seen as tainting their dignity (even today Koreans have very little respect for people ‘who work with their hands’, i.e. manual labourers, craftspeople, musicians).
Although many people think Confucianism is outdated, even Koreans themselves, many of the way Korean people think today can be traced back to this important philosophy.
It’s also not overly idealistic though. For example Confucius once said something along the lines of “Well, it’s good to help people, but don’t overdo it, and take care of your own self and family first, then your village, then your country”. Which is maybe why even now Koreans are focused on forming clans. And have little interest for helping charities. And a bunch more problems, but I should really not get started on that.