18th-century seonbi writing together.
Seonbi means "virtuous scholar" in Korean and refers to Joseon-era scholars who passed up positions of wealth and power to lead lives of study and integrity. A seonbi was to live a modest life, learn continuously without cessation, and strive to perfect his character not only by gaining knowledge, but by learning and following the rightful path. It also typically denoted a young noblemen who prepared for the gwageo examination or passed it but did not take on government positions. Seonbi masculinity denoted a mental attainment rather than a physical performance.
Due to the frequency of Korean literati purges, seonbis were idealized and romanticized in popular imagination as young men of integrity in contrast to the ruling yangban class, even though all seonbis came from that class.
The wandering seonbi is a common figure in Korean depictions of the Joseon period. For instance, a seonbi appears as one of the characters in the mask dance of Hahoe Folk Village, where he competes with a yangban character, often depicted as corrupt and greedy.
Seonbis were supposed to possess the virtues of filial piety and loyalty to the king of Confucianism, despise wealth or private interest, and be ready to lay down one's life to remain faithful to one's principles and to maintain one's integrity. They venerated scholars such as Jeong Mong-ju (who died for his fidelity to Goryeo), six martyred ministers (who refused to accept Sejo of Joseon's usurpation of the throne), and Jo Gwang-jo (a reformer who died trying to turn Joseon into an ideal Confucian society) as the embodiments of seonbi spirit and as examples to follow.
- Wan Gee, Choi (2006). The Traditional Education of Korea. Ewha Womans University Press, Inc. p. 151. Retrieved 17 May 2014.
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