This paper is aimed at examining the ethical consciousness manifested in the pictorial ideographs in folk paintings (minhwa munjado, 民畫文字圖) and the Daoist books for promoting virtuous deeds (gwonseonseo, 勸善書) — which contained the thoughts of the confluence of the three religions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism — in the late Joseon dynasty. The idea of the Daoist books for promoting virtuous deeds, aimed at edifying the public, was written as a result of the confluence of the three religions in the mid-Tang dynasty and thereafter. In China, through the formation of the new Daoist Order in the Song dynasty, the scriptures were actively produced and the books for promoting virtuous deeds that fused the three religions became popularized. There was an increasing tendency that people practiced ethical virtues whose models were presented in the books for promoting virtuous deeds.
The books for promoting virtuous deeds containing the thoughts of unifying the three religions and the contents of edifying the public in the Joseon dynasty had been largely influenced by the policy of educating and civilizing the public in the Ming dynasty. The edification of the people through the books for promoting virtuous deeds started in earnest with the compilation of the Samgang haengsildo (Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds, 三綱行實圖) during the reign of King Sejong in the Joseon dynasty In the late Joseon dynasty, not only the royal families but also the Buddhist temples and the individual public participated in the publication of the books.
In the process of the diversification of the ethical consciousness along with the internal and external crises in the late Joseon dynasty, the books for promoting virtuous deeds were circulated as the codes of ethics among the general public.
When we reconsider the historical trend that Daoism-based books for promoting virtuous deeds prospered for the purpose of edifying the people, we can see that the popularity of the books for promoting virtuous deeds and the pictorial ideographs in folk paintings — which emphasized social and ethical consciousness such as filial piety (孝), brotherhood (悌), loyalty to the nation (忠), trust (信) or individual sense of ethics such as proprieties (禮), righteousness (義), uprightness (廉) and a sense of shame (恥) — can be understood under the same context.
The popularity of the pictorial ideographs in folk paintings which convey the ethical consciousness of the people in the late Joseon dynasty were produced voluntarily in society among the public without any direct intervention of the ruling class. The popularity of the pictorial ideographs shares the similar trend with the development of the Daoist books for promoting the performance of virtuous deeds by edifying and enlightening the people and encouraging them to do so. This not only coincides with the trend of the ethical thoughts among the public in the late Joseon society but also manifests the way how the people of Joseon took up the challenges as they were overcoming the internal and the external crises and coming up with social irregularities and absurdities.