If you’ve ever visited Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), you may have noticed some traditional Korean buildings peering over a stone wall. That is Sungkyunkwan, Korea’s first institute of higher education. Established in 1398 at the dawn of the Joseon Dynasty, it was where the elite youths of the nation went for their formal education on the track to becoming nation leaders.
Sungkyunkwan is divided into many courtyards, with two that are much larger than the rest. Of these, my favourite is the academic section in which you find Myeongnyundang, the dormitories, and two very old trees.
Myeongnyundang is the main lecture hall of Sungkyunkwan.
This building should be familiar with anyone who’s spent time in Korea. If you’ve ever handled a 1000won bill, you might have noticed something familiar on one side:
The guy in the foreground is Yi Hwang, an alumnus of Sungkyunkwan who attended starting from 1523, and became Daesaseong (대사성, head instructor) in 1552. He’s also known by his penname, Toegye.
Myeongnyundang was burned down, along with the rest of the campus, during the Imjin War of 1592-1598, and again during the Korean War, only more recently being rebuilt in 1988.
Right behind Myeongnyundang, you can find Jongyeonggak, Korea’s first library dating back to 1475. You may note that these buildings have Chinese characters on them; Sungkyunkwan predates Hangeul and was always dedicated to studying and translating Chinese-language documents.
Turning around and looking behind us, we see the only truly original part of the campus: the two magnificent ginkgo trees planted in 1519, who are due to celebrate their 500th birthday in just five years. Sagging limbs are held up by stilts, like an old man on crutches.
You may be aware of the terrible odour created by fallen ginkgo berries, but don’t worry — that’s not a problem here. The reason why might become apparent if you’re familiar with botany and have seen Sungkyunkwan Scandal. As a Confucian academy, Sungkyunkwan did not accept female students. Women weren’t even allowed on campus. This was taken to such an extreme that any fruit-bearing trees were removed. Thus, the only remaining ginkgo trees are males that do not produce fruit.
Unfortunately I have no pictures of the ginkgo trees with leaves, but here you can see a leaf on the modern-day symbol of SKKU.
The leaf was chosen as a symbol because it is said that Confucius liked to instruct his students under the shade of a ginkgo tree. The students of Sungkyunkwan must have made extensive use of the trees.
In the old days, Sungkyunkwan had between 150 and 200 students, housed in two dormitories that lined the east and west sides of the courtyard. Their names are Dongjae and Seojae (East and West Dormitory). Each room was intended for two, and the students who attended Sungkyunkwan were waited on hand and foot. With Hanji-papered windows and ondol-heated floors, the dorms were comfortable all year round.
One SKKU student told me she likes to sit here and dream about being a seonbi scholar in the Joseon era. It is indeed a popular place for SKKU students to relax, read, or chat with friends.
The reason for the two dorm buildings actually reminds me of the western concept of political left and right wings (itself originating from where French politicians sat in the National Assembly during the French Revolution). They were created for two rival yangban (aristocratic) factions, the elite Hungu faction (I believe theirs was Dongjae but not positive) and the seonbi, who despite usually being from yangban families were considered rogue scholars. They are often depicted as a romantic symbol and their conflict with the yangban is addressed in Hahoe Maskdance plays. There were a number of seonbi purges in the 15th and 16th centuries, which had a significant effect on student life at Sungkyunkwan University. During the Third Purge of 1519, 150 Sungkyunkwan students marched on the royal palace to protest the arrest of Jo Gwang-jo, a prominent seonbi scholar as well as a graduate of Sungkyunkwan, demanding that he be released or they all be imprisoned with him.
Moving south, you can find Tangpyeongbigak, a two-meter-high monument bearing a message from King Yeongjo (1694–1776, reigned 1724–1776) beseeching the students to get along. “To be in harmony and not to form factions is the fair mind of a just man. To form factions and not to be in harmony is the mind of a petty man.”
We’ve now moved into the southern main courtyard of Sungkyunkwan, and the atmosphere here is much quieter, less playful. All the buildings here are decorated in red to show their royal standing. Unlike the more academic section, this part serves a more ceremonial purpose. It is dominated by Daeseongjeon, a shrine to Confucius.
This building once housed important relics of Confucianism, and actually it is the only building in this campus that is still active and used for its original purpose. Twice a year, Korean Confucianists perform Seokjeon, a memorial service for Confucius. Also, every year as part of the graduation ceremony, SKKU’s leaders visit Daeseongjeon to announce to the Confucian spirits the students who are graduating from the university.
During a ceremony here, the gates of the campus would all be open. The king would be carried from the palace to Sungkyunkwan in a type of litter called a gama. The king, who would not set foot on the ground outside the palace, would dismount here and enter through Dongsammun (East Three Gate) in the southeastern corner of the campus.
But this is only the second-largest gate into Sungkyunkwan. Who was seen as above the king, had the honour of entering through the main gate? Well, the name might give it away: Sinsammun (Spirit Three Gate) is for the spirits of Confucian scholars to enter.
These gates are only supposed to be opened to allow the spirits to enter. However, an exception was made last December when World Bank President Jim Yong Kim visited campus, and the gate opened a second time in March (pictured above) to welcome university representatives from around the world for the APAIE conference. It was something to see the gates open, and then the first people to step through were Korea University students. Soon after, over 100 people flooded through the gate in my direction. They were quite shocked when I told them that most people aren’t allowed to use the gates until after they’ve died.
The path leading from Sinsammun to Daeseongjeon as well is designated for the spirits of Confucian scholars. Today, visitors are encouraged not to walk directly along the path, and you may still see Confucian scholars who, when they wish to cross over the path, will bow to the spirits before setting foot on it.
Now, if you aren’t thoroughly lost yet, let’s find our way out and into the main campus grounds of SKKU.
The reconstructed campus does not represent the entirety of the original structure. In order to allow modern traffic into the university, many of the buildings were not restored.On this map, nearly everything in the left hand side is gone. The area we just went through is the lower central right. The other buildings in the upper right don’t seem to be to scale.
Outside the current walls of the old campus, you can still find one more building: Bicheondang, the examination hall, sitting right in front of the International Building and the 600-Year Anniversary Building.
As I mentioned before, in the old days Sungkyunkwan accommodated up to 200 students. Each year, only 30 of them were able to graduate. If you thought Korean education is competitive now, imagine that. The graduates would go on to become the intellectual elite and would shape the course of Korean history for centuries to come. Obviously the university has grown and modernised over the last six centuries, but the traditional campus is preserved as a reminder of Sungkyunkwan’s important role in Korea’s history.