History

THE EARLY YEARS

Sosu Seowon, the first private Neo-Confucian academy of
the Joseon Dynasty, was originally established as Baegundong
Seowon in 1543 by Ju Se-bung, then Punggi-gun county magistrate,
to enshrine the late Goryeo Neo-Confucian scholar An Hyang.

In 1550, the academy received royal authorization and a signboard with the new name Sosu.
It was Korea's first state-authorized academy. There was a great
difference in status between academies that had been authorized by the state and those not. When the king bestowed an academy with a new name and name board as a sign of state recognition,
he also granted land, bond servants, and books to help maintain the operation of the academy.

As the academies became firmly established as places for education and self-cultivation of the sarim, they also became bases for
the activities of Confucian scholars in the provinces, spreading rapidly thereafter.
The subsequent academies were established by regional associations of Confucian scholars (yurim). In the 106-year period,
some 200 academies were founded, 91 of which were authorized by the state. Qualitative development was also achieved.
Scholars had carried on the academic lineages of eminent Confucian scholars such as Yi Hwang.

When the sarim gained control of politics in the capital between the
mid-16th century and the late 16th century, the number of academies
established gradually increased.
This was due to the heightened political and economic influence the
seowon enjoyed owing to state-recognition.
Unfortunately, the principle of dedicating the academy to a Confucian scholar began to be ignored.

Academies were widely built to honor those already enshrined at another place, and those who would not have been considered
traditionally, such as victims of political strife and even those with no other virtue than having successful descendants. Alongside this proliferation of academies and their subsequent detrimental
effects, arguments arose among intellectuals and this later provided grounds for closing down the academies altogether.

 

More serious measures to control the academies were taken from the late 18th century when King Yeongjo took the hard-line
policy of closing 173 seowon across the country.
This move was largely prompted by two major reasons: the negative influence the academies and shrines had begun to exert on
society and increasing control by the descendants of the venerated scholar, making them even farther removed from serving the
public interest. Subsequent kings tried hard to get rid of the evils associated with the academies with little success.
Finally, during the reign of King Gojong (r. 1863–1907), Regent Heungseon ordered the abolition of seowon and shrine between
1864 and 1871, resulting in the closure of many academies around the country.
In 1871, he closed down all but 47 academies and shrines across the country. Among those that survived the abolition order, 36 remain in South Korea and 11 in North Korea.

With the regent's order for the abolition of seowon,
many academies made changes in order to survive : removing the
lecture hall area and leaving only the shrine; removing the shrine
area and turning the lecture hall into a village school (seodang); or leaving the shrine intact and moving the lecture hall to another
location to separate the two.

Even after the closure order, academies began to reappear one by one as a result of the political and social situation of the time and
remain to this day.
Most of them, however, have lost their educational function and
exist only as shrines where rites to the venerated scholars are held.