Stories of Korea’s nine seowon

Introduction to 9 seowon, UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A pioneer of the field
of yehak within Neo-ConfucianismDonamseowon Nonsan (Historic Site No. 383)

Learn to accommodate others, just as the Earth carries so many things on its back and the ocean accepts all waters.
Learn widely and deeply so that you can practice propriety.
Develop for yourself a character that is as warm and soft as morning sunlight.

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Important functions of seowon

  • Outline
  • Veneration
  • Learning
  • Interaction
  • Other aspects


Learn to accommodate others, just as the Earth carries so many things on its back and the ocean accepts all waters.
Learn widely and deeply so that you can practice propriety.
Develop for yourself a character that is as warm and soft as morning sunlight.

Scenery of Donamseowon

The above is a translation of the 12 Chinese characters inscribed onto the flower wall near Sungnyesa, the shrine of Donamseowon. The words were written by Kim Jang-saeng (1548-1631), a prominent Confucian scholar of the mid-Joseon period. Regardless of the era, “practice what you preach” is a difficult dictum to follow.

The 16th and 17th centuries, when Kim Jang-saeng lived, were a difficult time in the history of Joseon: it was a period full of purges, revolts, and several wars with Japan. With Neo-Confucian theory unable to take sole responsibility for rebuilding society and serve as the moral compass of citizens, yehak, or the study of propriety, was adopted as an alternative. Kim’s political and social views, which were based on yehak, were established at a time in Joseon history when they were needed most.
Kim studied Neo-Confucianism under Song Ik-pil and Yi Yi and established the foundations for yehak in the 17th century. When Kim turned 35, his father, Kim Gye-hwee, died. The funeral rites were conducted according to Kim’s family’s rules of propriety. One year later, Kim edited Shin Eui-gyeong’s Funeral Rites and Ceremonies so that it could be easily understood by the general public. At the age of 52, Kim finished writing Exposition of Family Rites, a study of the rules of propriety of weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, and funeral rituals. As a result, Donamseowon focused its educational and ritual activities on the practice of yehak.
  • Sungnyesa

  • Eungdodang

  • Sanangnu

Donamseowon, located in Nonsan, Chungcheongnam-do, was founded in 1634 by Kim Jang-saeng’s students and local literati. The seowon was first constructed in a forest about 1.5 kilometers from its current location. It became a royally sponsored seowon in 1660 after King Hyeonjong bestowed a name boardengraved with the name “Donamseowon.” The name comes from a rock called “Donam” in the forest where the seowon was originally located. The seowon was relocated in 1880 because it was completely flooded every summer in its original location.

Donamseowon sits on a hilly area and faces east. After entering the main gate, Ipdeokmun, one can see the learning area, Yangseongdang, in the center, with the student dormitories (Geogyeongjae and Jeonguijae) to the right and left of it facing one another. In front of Yangseongdang is a stele with an inscription written by Song Si-yeol to celebrate the founding of the seowon. To the left of Yangseongjae is Jangpangak, which stored the books and other items sent by the royal palace.
  • Ipdeokmun

  • Yangseongdang

Of note, the Eungdodang lecture hall was designed according to yehak theory and a diagram drawn by Kim in his book Exposition of Family Rites. The building, whose name means “place where the truth resides,” is large (five kan wide and three kan deep) and has a wide, open atmosphere created by the generously spaced pillars. Under the roof, which does not have raised corners, was a “wind panel” that blocked the wind and rain from both right and left and what is known as “eyebrow eaves.” The Eungdodang lecture hall is the largest learning area of all surviving Korean seowon and was the site of frequent debates on and book-writing about yehak. Today, Donamseowon still has many woodblocks and theoretical treatises on yehak.

Veneration at Donamseowon

At Donamseowon, about 40 days before a veneration, the director would host a meeting to designate the heongwan and jipsa. The elected officiants were informed of the fact by mail and had to first give their consent.
Today, before a veneration, the ink stick is ground on an inkstone (called “naesayeon”) that was sent from the royal family during the rule of King Gojong, after which the name of the choheongwan is written on the chukmun. The inkstone is kept safely stored (along with a jade oil lamp) and taken out only for venerations.
Chunchuhyangsa is held on the second and eighth lunar months of each year.
  • Sungnyesa

  • Hyangsa

Venerated individuals

Sungnyesa, the shrine of Donamseowon, enshrines four individuals: Kim Jang-saeng in the center; Kim Jip, Kim Jang-saeng’s disciple and second son; Song Jun-gil; and Song Si-yeol.
Kim Jang-saeng, who pioneered yehak research in the 17th century, had a significant influence on the central government’s politics. Kim Jip helped his father create the theoretical foundations for yehak, and Song Si-yeol studied yehak under Kim Jang-saeng. After Kim Jang-saeng died, Song continued his studies under Kim Jip. Song Jun-gil studied under Yi Yi and Kim Jang-saeng and was appointed to government office by King Hyojong based on Kim Jip’s recommendation.
These four individuals are also enshrined at Seonggyungwan’s Munmyo for their contributions to yehak theory.

Learning at Donamseowon

Kim Jang-saeng advocated the need for “a well-defined order that can regulate individuals’ actions and help all people live in cooperative harmony with a benevolent mindset of integrity,” and defined this order as “propriety,” which is pronounced “ye” in Korean (禮). Kim devoted himself to adapting Song scholar Zhu Xi’s Family Rituals to make it easy to read and better address Joseon’s social circumstances for the most effective implementation of propriety. Kim Jang-saeng was a member of the Kiho school (a school of Neo-Confucianism popular in Gyeonggi-do, Chungcheongnam-do and Chungcheongbuk-do provinces), which aligned itself with the teachings of Yi Yi. He devoted much of his career to organizing theoretical concepts of propriety and cultivating future scholars.
  • Eungdodang

  • Yangseongdang

  • Jeongeuijae Geogyeongjae

Interaction at Donamseowon

  • Sanangnu

The first thing visitors see when they reach Donamseowon is Sanangnu, a large pavilion that stands in front of the main gate. Although it looks like a pavilion where, as at any other seowon, literati sat down together to write poems, debate with one another, and paint pictures, it is not an “original” structure. This pavilion is a modern construction that was erected in 2006.
Perhaps this is why, when visitors climb to the top, they see more of themselves rather than the literati of Joseon. Despite being a replica, the pavilion still seems to ask us: Are you a good person? Are you contributing properly to society and to your neighbors? Do you love your country?

Other aspects (cultural heritage items and memorial objects)

Eungdodang is Treasure No. 1569. Kim Jang-saeng’s books on propriety (Exposition of Family Rites, Funeral Rites and Ceremonies, Interpretation of Family Rituals, etc.) and their corresponding woodblocks are still stored at Donamseowon’s Jangpangak.
There is also the inkstone and jade candle holder that were presented by King Gojong.
  • Eungdodang (Treasure No. 1569)

  • Commemorative stele erected in celebration of founding of Donamseowon (Chungcheongnam-do Cultural Property Material No. 366)

  • Yugyeongsa (Sungnyesa) Shrine in Donamseowon (Chungcheongnam-do Tangible Cultural Treasure No. 155)