The Formation of Four-Generation Ancestor Worship in Early Chosun

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Jung, Geungsik; Hughes, Benjamin

Issue Date
BK 21 law
Journal of Korean Law, Vol.1 No.2, pp. 137-149
The new ruling elite who played a leading role in the establishment of the Choson Dynasty developed a discriminatory ancestor worship system based on four-generation ancestor worship. They were greatly influenced by Chu Hsi Family Rituals, the Ming Dynasty system, and such old practices as were found in the Liji. However, they did not adopt Chu Hsi Family Rituals wholesale, but adjusted it with a view to establishing a stratified society.

In the mid-sixteenth century, as commoners were gaining financial resources and using them to perform rituals basically equivalent to those of the elite class, national laws on discriminatory ancestor worship which were inconsistent with Chu Hsi Family Rituals became the subject of many heated and

politically charged conflicts.

As a result of increasing comprehension of Chu Hsi Family Rituals and the widespread diffusion of Neo-Confucian values, the discriminatory ancestor worship system began to break down at the close of the 16th century, especially in regions where Neo-Confucianism had been disseminated early. Initially, performing three-generation ancestor worship regardless of social position became common, but by the

end of the 17th century, four-generation ancestor worship based on Chu Hsi Family Rituals had become the norm, and has been recognized as the common ideal form of the sacrificial rites until today.

The intention of the new ruling elite, who wanted to maintain the hierarchical society and the ritual system they established, was frustrated in the end. Regional ritual practices and norms diverged from national and officially sanctioned patterns of ancestor worship, and the discriminatory rituals system was eventually transformed into a more egalitarian system. This transition from uniformity to diversity, from a discriminatory to an egalitarian system for the performance of the most important normative rituals in Choson society, signaled an important step forward in Korea historical development.
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College of Law/Law School (법과대학/대학원)The Law Research Institute (법학연구소) Journal of Korean Law (JKL)Journal of Korean Law Volume 01 Number 1/2 (2001)
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