What does it mean for Andong to be recognized as the cultural center of Korea? And what even is considered the core of Korean culture? If you look back to Korea’s history as well as the way it is today, you might see that Confucianism is often at the center of it all.
Confucianism comes from the teachings of a Chinese philosopher named Confucius (500s BCE). Known as a philosophy, moral framework, or even a way of life, it has had a big role in influencing Korean culture. Even if you aren’t familiar with what Confucianism is, you’ve likely seen and experienced some of it if you’ve ever been to Korea. I saw glimpses of it through watching Jesa (an ancestral memorial tradition), where my aunts and uncles in Korea would bring various foods to our grandparents’ tombs, even though at the time, I didn’t know why.
I experienced it firsthand when I initially moved to Korea and learned—through trial-and-error—about how important it is to be extremely respectful to people that are older than me. I hear about its remnants through my friends’ experiences working in Korea, where higher-ups have so much authority and people below them are expected to listen, not speak up. It is also found in things like Korean gender roles and the deep pursuit of education that dominates families today.
Andong’s significance in this is that it was the home to many of Korea’s greatest scholars, one of which was Yi-Hwang. He and others established Seowons—Confucian academies—to be hubs for the pursuit of learning and knowledge. Dosan Seowon, one of the major Seowons in Andong, was known to be one of the leading academies of the entire nation.
I had always thought of Confucianism as something that didn’t belong in society today because of its strict rules on how to interact with others and the limited role for women in society. However, from exploring its history through the Seowons, museums, and people in Andong, I see that it is less about the particular “rules,” but more about the mindset of preserving healthy relationships in society. It is about mutual respect and living a fruitful life in conscience, mind, and spirit.
While most of Korea has evolved with time and moved on from tradition and philosophy, Andong has continued to live out and keep the traditions up to this day. Whether through the museums, where they hold the documents and writings of Confucian scholars to commemorate their contributions to society or the annual Mask Dance Festival, Andong holds onto the virtues that have established Korea as it is now. Seeing this, I wonder if we should not all look back and strive to carry on the attitudes of those that came before us.
While the well-kept spirit of Confucianism and traditional Hanoks are conspicuous, Andong also has something new to offer: one can enjoy Andong soju in a trendy pub tailored to modern tastes.
If you want to explore your own Andong, contact Daramji. We would connect you with unlikely local people and hidden gems.