(23) Sungkyunkwan, A Sacred Place

By Yang Sung-jin

Summer vacation once meant empty seats in college libraries. Not anymore. Many students are now spending a lot of their time in their campus library, preparing for job interviews. However, there is one crucial disadvantage to sticking around campus: female students are becoming bolder than ever in expressing themselves — sometimes through revealing clothes. Not infrequently, groups of male students (who say they are distracted by such fashions) post warnings on the doors to the libraries which read “No Miniskirts, No Tank Tops, Please.”

In 1708, a similar incident occurred at Sungkyunkwan (the National Confucian Academy), the highest educational institution in the Choson Dynasty. A high-ranking official named Yun Sung-jun filed an appeal to King Sukjong: “The restaurant for Sungkyunkwan students should be governed by strict rules and principles, but these days women are setting the tables, causing great distractions. These makeshift measures go against the old principles. Therefore, male servants should wait on tables instead.”

Of course, the king accepted Yun’s desperate suggestion aimed at putting Sunkyunkwan students back on track.

Sungkyunkwan was not only the cradle of Confucianism-inspired students but also the symbolic center of Confucianism itself. With students studying Confucian ideology day and night, the institution was in charge of preserving the “munmyo,” or shrine of Confucius, which in turn perpetuated a view of the school as a sanctified entity.

In the Annals of the Choson Dynasty, the sacredness of Sungkyunkwan is suggested by its frequent associations with the word “pan-kung” and “pan-su.” The former term means a national university, the status of which is one step lower than a school in China; the latter indicates a watercourse surrounding the compound of the national university.

In 1432, an official named Kim Pan of Sungkyunkwan implored the king to restore the pan-su: “In the past, the pan-su prevented onlookers from entering Sungkyunkwan as a flowing stream protected it on three sides.

Now, there is no water, which allows people to freely use the road connected to the shrine of Confucius. In order to restrict onlookers from this holy site, the speedy construction of a pan-su is in order.”

Guardian Stream

In 1469, a Sungkyunkwan student named Kwon Cha-hu called for the restoration of the damaged pan-su. “More than anything else, we have to restore the pan-su. When our nation was founded, the first thing we did was to set up a national university and maintain the pan-su system. But the construction of a new palace building diverted the watercourse of pan-su.”

Yet Kwon’s appeal went unanswered. It was on March 12, 1474 that King Songjong discussed the restoration of the pan-su with government officials.

Upon finishing an academic lecture, the king said, “The other day, I consulted with official Kim Jil on the matter of restoring the pan-su. But in hindsight, I now think the construction will place an unnecessary burden on the public. Moreover, changing what the previous king did is not right.”

Said Kim Jil to the king: “Sungkyunkwan once looked beautiful. But since the latest construction project, the pan-su has been irreparably changed. Now, the western part of the pan-su is located inside the royal palace, which goes against the rules.”

Kim also argued that if a Chinese diplomat paid a customary visit to the shrine of Confucius at Sungkyunkwan, he would be offended by the altered appearance of the pan-su.

Official Chong Kwal supported Kim’s logic: “A nation ruled by anemperor has a university called a ‘pyok-ong’ and a nation governed by a king has a ‘pan-kung.’ And a pan-kung is meaningless without a pan-su, the significance of which is preserved only inside Sungkyunkwan.”

Though the pan-su’s philosophical functions have yet to identified, scholars agree that the pan-su played the role of reinforcing the sacredness of the educational function of Sungkyunkwan and the shrine of Confucius.

As a result, not only ordinary people but also military personnel were banned from crossing the pan-su. In 1545, a soldier violated the rules by entering Sungkyunkwan, which prompted a scuffle with a student.

One of the students filed an appeal to the king saying “The pan-su is designed to keep people from entering the sacred compound. That is why no military personnel have been allowed to set foot inside Sungkyunkwan since its establishment. But on this occasion, a disrespectful soldier humiliated Confucian scholars and sacred spirits by entering the school gate.”

Scandal in Sacred Water

While most Sungkyunkwan students reacted angrily to the intrusion of the soldier and to the damage which had been done to the pan-su, some of them welcomed other intruders.

According to an article dated Aug. 1, 1437, students Choi Han-kyong and Chong Shin-sok were bathing in the pan-su before holding a regular ceremony at the shrine of Confucius. At that time a young lady accompanied by two female servants was walking on the road near the stream. Suddenly, Choi burst out of the water, entirely naked, and proceeded to flirt with the lady, going so far as to take her hands by force.

In desperation, the lady resisted and her servants screamed at Choi. Chong then joined in the fray, fended off the two servants and helped his companion sexually assault the lady. Later, the pair finally ran off and returned to their dormitory, retaining the woman’s hat, perhaps as a reminder of their escapade.

The servants who had been driven off by Chong reported to their master, who sent a male servant to look for the lady. He found out that the lady had been released, but that her hat was gone.
Since it was now very late and the two Sungkyunkwan students in question were gone, the servant ran to the Sungkyunkwan office, where an official of the college was on duty.

“I’m a servant of Hong Yo-kang. And our lady, who is not yet married, was accosted by two students of Sungkyunkwan while passing by the pan-su on her way to get a treatment for her illness. The two students disrobed our lady and tried to violate her by force. And her two female servants were beaten by the pair and they reported to me what had happened.”

The official on duty was Chong Rok. He immediately inquired into the incident among students and received explanations from Choi Han-kyong and Chong Shin-sok, both of whom claimed it was a just benign flirtation.

Chong Rok called one of the servants to confirm what had happened. In giving her testimony, the servant made several mistakes and attempted to falsify the real identity of the lady. Initially, the servant argued that the lady was the daughter of his master but subsequently changed his story, calling her the “daughter of nursemaid.” Yet this was a lie. The truth was that the lady was the servant-concubine of the master’s son.

Shortly thereafter, the lady filed suit with the Office of the Inspector-General. Although initially she charged the two students with attempted rape, she later toned down her charges, calling their actions a mere flirtation.

Even though speculation about the lewd behavior of Choi and Chong mushroomed, a hush-hush atmosphere prevailed, largely due to the fact that the scandal involved members of the “yangban” (upper) class.

A turning point came only when the Office of the Inspector-General reported details of its investigation to the king: “Chong Shin-sok, who is in charge of carrying out the shrine ceremony, stole the hat of the lady and humiliated her, an offense which is punishable by 40 strokes with a cudgel. Choi Han-kyong, on the other hand, tried to rape her, which calls for 80 heavy cudgel-strokes.” The king wrapped put the scandal to rest by accepting the suggested punishments.