pp 1–22 | Cite as

Reversing the Stream: Virtue Politics and Moral Economy in Neo-Confucian Korea

  • Sungmoon KimEmail author


This article investigates the Neo-Confucian project of “reverse moral economy,” which aims to restore the ideal congruence between political power and moral virtue, by examining a political debate on the selection of the new Crown Prince and the incumbent ruler’s subsequent abdication that took place in Korea during the formative period of the Chosŏn 朝鮮 dynasty (1392–1910) in light of the so-called “the Mencian trouble,” a compromise between Mencius’ ideal vision of Confucian virtue politics (or moral economy) and his realistic concern with political stability. After discussing how Korean Neo-Confucians were able to justify their choice of a more virtuous candidate in violation of the Lineage Law, which upheld father-son transmission as the constant norm (jing 經), by judiciously balancing (quan 權) between the candidate’s virtue and the incumbent ruler’s recommendation, it articulates the Korean Neo-Confucian project of reverse moral economy from the standpoint of the constitutionality of the new dynasty.


Korea Mencius Moral economy Neo-Confucianism Royal succession 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.



I am grateful to Youngsun Back, David Kim, and Susan Shim for their valuable comments. Thanks are also due to the journal’s anonymous reviewers as well as from my previous submission. This research was supported by the Korean Studies Grant Program of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2019-R02).


  1. Allan, Sarah. 2015. Buried Ideas: Legends of Abdication and Ideal Government in Early Chinese Bamboo-Slip Manuscripts. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  2. Angle, Stephen C. 2009. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. ______. 2012. Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  4. Angle, Stephen C., and Justin Tiwald. 2017. Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  5. Annals of the Chosŏn Dynasty 朝鮮王朝實錄. Digitally remastered by the National Institute of Korean History. (last accessed on November 1, 2019).
  6. Back, Youngsun. 2016. “Confucian Heaven (天 Tian): Moral Economy and Contingency.” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 8.1: 51–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. ______. 2018. “Virtue and the Good Life in the Early Confucian Tradition.” Journal of Religious Ethics 46.1: 37–61.Google Scholar
  8. Bloom, Irene, trans. 2009. Mencius. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chen, Ning. 1997. “The Concept of Fate in Mencius.” Philosophy East and West 47.4: 495–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chi, Tu-hwan 지두환. 1994. A Study on State Rituals during the Early Chosŏn Period 조선전기 의례연구. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Chow, Kai-wing. 1994. The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China: Ethics, Classics, and Lineage Discourses. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chŏng, Chae-hun 정재훈. 2006. “King Sejong’s Education of Princes 세종의 왕자교육.” In King Sejong’s State Management 세종의국가경영, edited by Chŏng Yun-chae 정윤재. Seoul: Chisiksanŏpsa 지식산업사.Google Scholar
  13. Chung, Chai-sik. 1985. “Chŏng Tojŏn: ‘Architect’ of Yi Dynasty Government and Ideology.” In The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and JaHyun K. Haboush. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Chung, Tu-hŭi 정두희. 1994. A Study on the Censorial System during the Chosŏn Period 조선시대의 대간연구. Seoul: Iljogak 일조각.Google Scholar
  15. Ch’oe, Sŭng-hŭi 최승희. 1976. A Study on the Remonstrating Office and the Remonstrative Discourse during the Early Chosŏn Period 조선추기 언관언론 연구. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Ch’oe, Sang-yong 최상용, and Pak Hong-kyu 박홍규. 2007. Chŏng Tojŏn, A Statesman 정치가 정도전. Seoul: Kkach’i 까치.Google Scholar
  17. Ch’oe, Yŏn-sik 최연식. 2003. A Political Thought of the Dynastic Founding and Consolidating 창업과 수성의 정치사상. Seoul: Chimmundang 집문당.Google Scholar
  18. Ch'oe, Yŏn-sik 최연식. 2015. The Intellectual Genealogy of the Chosŏn Dynasty 조선의 지식계보학. Seoul: Oktang 옥당.Google Scholar
  19. De Bary, Wm. Theodore. 1991. The Trouble with Confucianism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Duncan. John B. 2000. The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty. Seattle: The University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  21. Ebrey, Patricia B. 1991. Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China: A Social History of Writing about Rites. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. El Amine, Loubna. 2015. Classical Confucian Political Thought: A New Interpretation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Eno, Robert. 1990. The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  24. Hahm, Chaihark. 2001. “Conceptualizing Korean Constitutionalism: Foreign Transplant or Indigenous Tradition?” Journal of Korean Law 1.2: 151–196.Google Scholar
  25. Han, Hyŏng-cho 한형조. 1996. From Zhu Xi to Chŏng Yagyong: A Study on the Philosophical Paradigm of Chosŏn Confucianism 주희에서 정약용으로: 조선유가의 철학 패러다임 연구. Seoul: Segyesa 세계사.Google Scholar
  26. Han, Yŏng-u 한영우. 1997. A Study on ChŏngTojŏn’s Thought 정도전사상의 연구. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Henderson, John B. 1991. Scripture, Canon, and Commentary: A Comparison of Confucian and Western Exegesis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hong, Yi-sŏp 홍이섭. 2004. Sejong the Great 세종대왕. Seoul: Sejongdaewang Kinyŏmsaŏphoe 세종대왕 기념사업회.Google Scholar
  29. Hui, Victoria Tin-bor. 2005. War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hutton, Eric L. 2006. “Character, Situationism, and Early Confucianism.” Philosophical Studies 127.1: 37–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ing, Michael D. K. 2017. The Vulnerability of Integrity in Early Confucian Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2000. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  33. ______. 2002. “Confucian Self Cultivation and Mengzi’s Notion of Extension.” In Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi, edited by Xiusheng Liu and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Indianapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  34. Kim, Hong-kyŏng 김홍경. 1992. “A Study on Pyŏn Kye-ryang’s Philosophy of Statecraft 변계량의 경세사상 연구.” Studies in Confucian Thought 유교사상연구 4: 161–201.Google Scholar
  35. Kim, Sungmoon. 2011. “Confucian Constitutionalism: Mencius and Xunzi on Virtue, Ritual, and Royal Transmission.” Review of Politics 73.3: 371–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. ______. 2016. “Achieving the Way: Confucian Virtue Politics and the Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy East and West 66.1: 152–176.Google Scholar
  37. ______. 2018. “Contingency and Responsibility in Confucian Political Theory.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 44.6: 615–636.Google Scholar
  38. Kim, Ton 김돈. 1997. A Study on the Power Relations between the King and the Bureaucrats during the Early Chosŏn Period 조선전기 군신권력관계 연구. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Kim, Yŏng-su 김영수. 2006. The Politics of State Founding: Revolution and the Transformation of Civilization during the Late Koryŏ and Early Chosŏn Period 건국의 정치: 여말선초 혁명과 문명의 전환. Seoul: Ihaksa 이학사.Google Scholar
  40. Koh, Young-jin. 2003. “Neo-Confucianism as Dominant Ideology in Joseon.” Korea Journal 43.4: 59–86.Google Scholar
  41. Li, Feng. 2006. Landscape and Power in Early China: The Crisis and Fall of the Western Zhou 1045–771 BC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Mo, Jongryn. 2003. “The Challenge of Accountability: Implications of the Censorate.” In Confucianism for the Modern World, edited by Daniel A. Bell and Chaibong Hahm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Nivison, David. 2002. “Mengzi as Philosopher of History.” In Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, edited by Alan K. L. Chan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Google Scholar
  44. Park, Hong-Kyu. 2006. “King T’aejong as a Statesman: From Power to Authority.” Korea Journal 46.4: 192–222.Google Scholar
  45. Pines, Yuri. 2009. Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.Google Scholar
  46. Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Schaberg, David. 2010. “The Zhouli as Constitutionalist Text.” In Statecraft and Classical Learning: The Rituals of Zhou in East Asian History, edited by Benjamin A. Elman and Martin Kern. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
  48. Scott, James C. 1976. Moral Economy of the Peasant. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Setton, Mark. 1997. ChŏngYagyong: Korea’s Challenge to Orthodox Neo-Confucianism. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  50. Song, Jaeyoon. 2009. “The Zhou Li and Constitutionalism: A Southern Song Political Theory.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 36.3: 423–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Thompson, Edward P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50.1: 76–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Tiwald, Justin. 2008. “A Right of Rebellion in the Mengzi?” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 7.3: 269–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. To, Hyŏn-ch’ŏl 도현철. 1999. A Study on the Political Thought of the Confucian Scholar-Literati during the Late Koryŏ Period 고려말 사대부의 정치사상 연구. Seoul: Ilchogak 일조각.Google Scholar
  54. ______. 2005. “The Unfolding of Reform Ideology during the Late Koryŏ and Early Chosŏn Period and the Zhouli 여말선초 개혁사상의 전개와 주례.” In Political Thought and the Zhouli in Premodern Korea 한국중세의 정치사상과 주례, edited by Yonsei Institute of Korean Studies. Seoul: Hye’an 혜안.Google Scholar
  55. Vankeerberghen, Griet. 2005. “Choosing Balance: Weighing (Quan 權) as a Metaphor for Action in Early Chinese Texts.” Early China 30: 47–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Waley, Arthur. 1989. “Terms.” In The Analects of Confucius, trans. by Arthur Waley. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  57. Williams, Bernard. 2005. In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Yi, Han-su 이한수. 2006. The Family and the Family-State under King Sejong’s Reign 세종시대 가와 국가. Seoul: Han’gukhaksuljŏngbo 한국학술정보.Google Scholar
  59. Zhu, Xi 朱熹. 1990. The Commentary on the Analects 논어집주, trans. by Sŏng Paek-hyo 성백효. Seoul: Chŏntongmunhwayŏn’guhoe 전통문화연구회.Google Scholar
  60. ______. 1991. The Commentary on the Mengzi 맹자집주, trans. by Sŏng Paek-hyo 성백효. Seoul: Chŏntongmunhwayŏn’guhoe 전통문화연구회.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public PolicyCity University of Hong KongKowloonHong Kong
  2. 2.Department of Political Science and International StudiesYonsei UniversitySeoulRepublic of Korea

Personalised recommendations