Stories of Korea’s nine seowon

Introduction to 9 seowon, UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The center of schools of thought Dosanseowon Andong (Historic Site No. 170)

‘“…the entire house was quiet, and the walls were lined with books. I take a seat at the desk and gather together my thoughts before carefully opening up a book. There are some moments of clarity, which makes me so happy that I forget to eat.”

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Important functions of seowon

  • Outline
  • Veneration
  • Learning
  • Interaction
  • Other aspects


“…the entire house was quiet, and the walls were lined with books. I take a seat at the desk and gather together my thoughts before carefully opening up a book. There are some moments of clarity, which makes me so happy that I forget to eat.”
This is an excerpt from 陶山雜詠幷記(Dosanjabyeongbyeonggi), a book which was written by Yi Hwang (1501-1570). Yi, one of Korea’s most prominent Neo-Confucian scholars, stressed the importance of a detailed “full reading” of a book in order to gain true knowledge.

Scenery of Dosanseowon

Dosanseowon, which is located in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do, is divided into two parts: Dosan Seodang, where Yi Hwang studied Neo-Confucianism and taught students, and Dosanseowon, which was built after Yi’s death by his students to honor his academic accomplishments and character. Dosan Seodang and Nongun Jeongsa, a building where classes were taught, were left in their uncolored, unembellished state, and Dosanseowon was established in 1574 with the addition of several buildings behind them (Gwangmyeongsil, Jeongyodang, and Sangdeoksa). In 1575, it became a royally sponsored seowon after receiving a name boardfrom King Seonjo.
  • Sangdeoksa

  • Jeongyodang

  • Dosan Seodang

Jeongyodang, the building at the center of the seowon, is where classes were held. The name board that hangs from the eaves (which reads “Dosanseowon”) was written by the famed writer Han Seok-bong. Just in front of Jeongyodang are the student dormitories, Parkyakjae and Honguijae, which face one another.
The shrine, Sangdeoksa, is located at the back of the seowon. It houses the spiritual tablets of Yi Hwang and his disciple Cho Mok.
The asymmetrical layout of the shrine and learning spaces, pavilion format of Jangpangak, and asymmetry of Jeongyodang itself (which only has ondol heating on one side of the building) showed how seowon architecture can be altered without sacrificing its essence.
  • Petition signed by 10,000 people to recognize murdered Crown Prince Sado as a legitimate king

  • Sisadan

For the duration of its operation, Dosanseowon was a model of how academic learning and schools of thought should be developed at Korean seowon. Education was based on a debate system, and the seowon was very influential academically, politically, and socially. The seowon was also a treasure trove of old books and woodblocks on Neo-Confucianism, all of which were well-organized. The book repository was divided into two buildings (Dong Gwangmyeongsil and Seo Gwangmyeongsil), which collectively housed 4,338 volumes under 907 titles. This shows that, while its primary function was teaching Confucian theory, the seowon also acted as a publisher and library.

Dosanseowon also sent a maninso to the central government that reflected the views of local constituents, which was taken quite seriously—mostly because it was from a seowon that was recognized for its Neo-Confucian theoretical knowledge.
To honor the academic accomplishments of Yi Hwang at Dosanseowon, King Jeongjo sent ritual objects and documents (called “jemun”) through several government officials and even once hosted a civil service examination there. Sisadan, which is surrounded by pine trees across the river from the seowon, is where a special civil service exam was held in 1792 by decree of King Jeongjo to commemorate the academic accomplishments of Yi Hwang and give local residents the opportunity to enter public service. As the story goes, so many exam takers gathered on that day that the exam could not be held at Dosanseowon but was instead held further down the river! The construction of Andong Dam caused Sisadan to be submerged, after which the embankment was raised to bring it above the water.

On October 1, 2020, a very unusual event occurred during a ritual held at Dosanseowon. For the first time in the 600-year history of Korean seowon, a woman assumed the role of choheongwan (first officiant) and presented the first cup of liquor. The woman was Lee Bae-yong, chairperson of the Seowon Foundation, who played a key role in registering all nine surviving Korean seowon as a UNESCO world heritage.

Veneration at Dosanseowon

The veneration performed at Dosanseowon, for which the officiants start to prepare three days before the veneration at Dongjae and Seojae, still strictly adheres to the protocol composed by Yi Hwang and is regarded as the standard for all Korean seowon.
Yi Hwang created a set of rules for the venerations conducted at seowon by revising the protocol used by Sosuseowon.
When preparing the foods to be used for a veneration, one of the procedures was called “seokmirae,” in which rice was washed at a pond at the entrance of the seowon (called “yeoljeong”) nine times, with the number counted aloud each time. Today, rice is washed at a faucet near where the pond used to be. When burning incense, unlike at other seowon, the incense urn is placed on the ceremonial table before putting in incense.
The Chunchuhyangsa of Dosanseowon is held on the second and eighth lunar month of each year.

Veneration at Dosanseowon

Venerated individuals

A native of Andong, Yi Hwang played a leading role in modifying China’s version of Neo-Confucianism in a way that best suits Korea’s circumstances so that it could take root in the country. Yi Hwang’s books on Neo-Confucianism were invaluable resources for the people of Joseon. Yi’s theories were introduced to Japan after the Imjin Invasions and had a significant impact on Japanese Neo-Confucianism scholars as well.
Yi Hwang was active in the seowon movement of the mid- to late-16th century. His reason for building seowon was “because we must cultivate sarim, who are responsible for the era in which they live.” The sarim produced by the seowon were the elite of Joseon: literati who were well-trained in the ideology of Taoism. As such, Yi Hwang was a central figure in the establishment and dissemination of Neo-Confucianism in Korea.
Sangdeoksa, the shrine of Dosanseowon, also houses the ancestral tablets of Yi Hwang’s student, Cho Mok (1524-1606). Having become Yi’s student at the age of 16, Cho Mok occupied several high-ranking government positions (including governor of Bonghwa and a vice minister-grade position). Cho was also an accomplished scholar. After Yi died, Cho began to teach at a seodang, just like his teacher, and dedicated himself to publishing a collection of Yi’s writings.

Learning at Dosanseowon

Learning at Dosanseowon was done through debates in a gathering called ganghoe, which is roughly similar to today’s symposiums or seminar-type gatherings. Members of the ganghoe actively discussed a wide range of philosophical issues related to Neo-Confucianism, and it is through such discussions that several different schools of thought were able to merge their varying stances.
Ganghoerok is a document that records, in significant detail, the processes of these discussions and offers valuable insights into how Neo-Confucianism was taught and learned at Dosanseowon.
  • Jeongyodang

  • Parkyakjae

  • Honguijae

Interaction at Dosanseowon

Dosanseowon was also the site of active exchanges (and creation) of sarim literature. Members of the sarim who visited the seowon composed many sophisticated poems: today, there are about 3,000 surviving poems, most of which are based on the theme of the natural surroundings of Dosanseowon. One of the most famous is “Dosan Jabyeong,” a collection of poems, by Yi Hwang. The seowon was also visited often by skilled painters of Joseon who wanted to paint the beautiful natural scenery.
  • Cheonyeondae

  • Cheongwangunyeongdae

Other aspects (cultural heritage items and memorial objects)

Painting of Dosanseowon (Treasure No. 522)

Jeongyodang, the main learning area, is Treasure No. 210, while Sangdeoksa Shrine and Main Gate are collectively designated as Treasure No. 211. Painting of Dosanseowon, which is Treasure No. 522, was done by Kang Se-hwang, a famous literati painter of late Joseon.
  • Sangdeoksa and Sammun (Treasure No. 211)

  • Jeongyodang (Treasure No. 210)