Promoting Confucianism in Shilla
The Korean alphabet Hangeul was invented by King Sejong 1446. Hangeul is applauded as the most scientific alphabet, easy to learn with the capability of writing any sound. But even before the creation of Hangeul there was an attempt to write the Korean language in a form other than Chinese characters called “Idu.” It was Shilla scholar and writer Seol Chong, who came up with this simpler method of writing Korean with sounds and meanings borrowed from Chinese characters.
Seol Cheong was one of Shilla Dynasty’s ten greatest scholars. He was also the pioneer of Korean Confucianism, who translated Confucian teachings into Korean. Of note, Seol is the son of Wonhyo, the most revered Buddhist monk of the Shilla period. In the turbulent 7th century just before the unification of the three kingdoms, Wonhyo established Buddhism in Shilla to comfort the country’s war-ravaged people. He then met with Princess Yoseok, the daughter of King Muyeol, who bore Seol in 655. Wonhyo then returned to the secular world to continue preaching the Buddhist teachings and eventually brought about thriving Buddhism in Shilla. But unfortunately he severed his ties with Princess Yoseok and his son, leaving the young Seol to grow up fatherless.
Despite unfortunate absence of his famous father, Seol was brilliant enough to have a promising career as scholar. When Chinese characters were first adopted in Shilla, he was tasked with translating Confucian teachings into the local language. With the translation of Confucian writings Confucianism spread quickly throughout the Shilla Kingdom and scholars of the time lauded Seol for cultivating the ways of Confucianism in Shilla.
Spreading the teachings of Confucius
Seol wrote “Hwawanggye (The Warnings for the Flower King),” the country’s first fictional piece that features objects as main characters, to instill the spirit of Confucianism in King Shinmun, Shilla’s 31st king.
Included in “Samguksagi (Historical Records of The Three Kingdoms),” the story tells of how the peony, the king of flowers, is faced with choosing between the rose and the pasque flower for his vassal. The rose flaunts her beauty and seductiveness to appeal to the peony king, while the modest-looking pasque flower promises her undying loyalty. Enchanted by the rose’s beauty, the king leans toward choosing the rose, which prompts the pasque flower to lament how rare it is for a king to befriend honest and loyal people and distance himself from the treacherous ones. Hearing her admonition, the peony king admits to his foolish mistake and chooses the pasque flower for his loyal official.
The story’s moral is to listen to the harsh words of those who are loyal rather than the flattering words of unfaithful subjects. Moved by Seol’s wise idea to propagate a Confucian idea through a story, King Shinmun ordered the story to be included in historical records to serve as a lesson for future rulers.
The story won Seol the king’s trust and friendship, and opened up a wide and straight path to high government posts. He led the study of Shilla’s culture and heritage, and wrote countless works, including a piece that extolled the spirits of Shilla’s three main beliefs – Confucianism, Buddhism, and Zen.
Although most of Seol’s writings are lost, the respect he earned endures to this day. He is admired as a great sage, rivaling the prestige of his father, Wonhyo, for coming up with a new way to read and write classical Chinese works. It is not known when or how he died, but he is still a fixture in Korean textbooks and academic works teaching us the value of academic ingenuity.