Dosan Seowon (도산 서원) is a Confucian academy, surrounded by some of the most gorgeous countryside that the area can offer. The academy was established in 1574, in honour of Yi Hwang, a well-respected Confucian scholar also known as Toegye. It no longer functions as a place of study, but a refurbishment in the 1970s gave back the tranquillity of its original raison d’être: this was a highly important study place during the Joseon era, and the only one outside Seoul, for those who wished to pass the notoriously hard tests necessary for governmental officials. Opposite the main entrance, you may notice a little man-made hill topped by a traditional-style shelter; the stele underneath once marked an important spot for the government exams, with the original location somewhere towards the bottom of the lake that you pass on the bus in. As you enter the complex, beyond the flower gardens and up the steps are two libraries whose nameplates are said to have been carved by Toegye himself; the buildings were built on stilts to keep humidity to a minimum. Further on are structures that were used as living quarters, the main lecture hall, and a shrine to Toegye, though this last one is usually closed off. Passing back down under a cloak of maple – which flames roaring red in late autumn – you’ll find an exhibition hall detailing the great man’s life and times, as well as an astrolabe for measuring the movements of celestial bodies.
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Poet, scholar, all-round good guy and bearded star of the thousand-won note, Toegye (퇴계; 1501–70) is one of Korea’s most revered historical characters. Born Yi Hwang, but better known by his pen name (pronounced Twegg-yeah), he exerted a major influence on the politics and social structure of his time. The country was then ruled by the Joseon dynasty, one of the most staunchly Confucian societies the world has ever known – each person was born with a predefined limit as to what they could aspire to in life, forever restricted by their genetics. The aristocracy oversaw a caste-like system that dictated what clothes people could wear, who they could marry, and what position they could hold, among other things.
Toegye was lucky enough to be born into privileged society. He excelled in his studies from a young age, and eventually passed the notoriously difficult governmental exams necessary for advancement to the higher official posts. Once there, he refused to rest on his laurels – he hunted down those he thought to be corrupt, and as a reward for his integrity was exiled, several times, from the capital. However, his intelligence made him a force to be reckoned with, and he set about introducing neo-Confucian thought, much of it borrowed from the Song dynasty in China; he advocated, for example, advancement based on achievement rather than heredity. After his death, the Confucian academy Dosan Seowon was built in his honour; it retains the contemplative spirit of the time, and of Toegye himself.