I enjoyed researching this article as the role of Confucianism in Korean society is a common subject of debate among foreigners living in Korea. It is also a subject that seems to provoke very emotional responses at times. The idea for the piece came from a long term Korea expatriate. — John.
By John Power
The teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius have had a profound influence on South Korea. So much so, that the nation is sometimes referred to as the most Confucian society on earth.
An emphasis on family, personal betterment and respect for age and authority continue to feature highly in Korean life to this day, some 2,500 years after the philosopher’s death.
Ethicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming is adamant Confucianism still has much to offer a modern society such as Korea.
“Confucianism is arguably the most comprehensive and integrated humanism in world history. It is also one of the most important and significant rational ways of learning to be human among all Axial-Age Civilizations, namely Greek philosophy, Judaism ― by implication Christianity and Islam ― Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. It offers Korea the ‘core values’ that will make her a standard of moral excellence in the developing as well as the developed world,” Tu said.
Tu says that key values set it apart from Western notions of ethics such as “The Golden Rule.”
“Just to name two of these values: the spirit of humanity ― sympathy and compassion ― and the practice of reciprocity. I would argue that the Confucian idea of reciprocity is more congenial to inter-religious and dialogue among civilizations.”
Tu even argues that Confucian values of the common good and hard work without immediate reward contributed to Korea’s rapid recovery from the 2009 financial crisis. In 2010, the country grew its economy by 6 percent while most of the developed world remained stagnant or saw negative growth.
“Similar examples can be found in other Confucian societies, such as Japan and Singapore. In all these societies, the leadership ― often the collaboration between the political and business elite ― can mobilize the whole society ― including the labor and the citizens ― to deal with the national crisis as a collective enterprise. This phenomenon is difficult to imagine in many contemporary societies such as USA, England, France, or Greece,” Tu said.
Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of “Confucianism for the Modern World,” agrees that Confucianism has been instrumental in Koreans’ propensity to rally around a common cause.
“Back in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit, we had Koreans giving up gold. The huge spectacle of people lining up in the streets and giving up their gold because they thought our country was going under. We still sort of contrast that with how the Greeks or the Italians or the Spaniards are responding to their financial crisis where they just simply blame politicians and others. You really cannot explain that without Confucianism, where that sense of economic nationalism comes from or the sense that this nation is all on the same boat,” Hahm said.
He also believes the philosophy’s rigorous ethical standards have largely been a positive influence on the nation, despite numerous past and present improprieties in the political and business worlds.
“Confucianism still requires a lot from people in power or authority. That has really served us quite well and it has been a major source of social development and political development in society,” Hahm said.
But Confucianism has its critics, with charges against it ranging from its view of women to its reinforcement of hierarchies, whether deserving or not. In “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell cited deference toward superiors, a Confucian trait deeply embedded in Korean culture, as a major factor in Korean Air having one of the world’s worst safety records from 1988-1998.
“Confucianism began with so little mobility of households et al, and it relies on an unchanging hierarchy, women come up short in almost all relationships,” said Jerome F. Keating, a former professor at National Taipei University and the author of the paper “The Dark side of Confucianism.”
“The 21st century has a growing sense of democracy; even the Arab Spring senses this, where people want the right to choose their leaders and they don’t want to depend on the ‘benevolence’ of those above. Technically, Confucianism relegates responsibility up and down the ladder, but that is more honored in the breach than reality.”
To Keating, Confucianism is largely ill-suited to modern life.
“With any philosophy, religion, ideology you have to examine it from the standpoint of the world for which it set about presenting answers to living. Confucianism was constructed for an agricultural based society and economy: note the low rank given to businessmen at the bottom of the ladder ― how that has changed. That is one of the issues I see. The world of today is not that agriculturally based, it is a globalized society where people are very mobile and the majority of workers make money differently.”
While traces of the philosophy can be found in the earliest records of the Korean Peninsula, its influence grew considerably from the 14th century onward during the Joseon Dynasty. By the 1500s, Neo-Confucianism had come to dominate thought and social mores in the kingdom, largely due to the influence of Yi Hwang and Yi I, the two most prominent scholars of the time who appear today on the 1,000 and 5,000 won notes.
Confucianism emphasizes harmony and the importance of family, recognizing that, in Tu’s words, “the family is indispensable for human survival and flourishing.” Accordingly, societies influenced by the tradition such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan tend to have enviably low levels of violent crime and family breakdown. Keating argues, however, that such positive social indicators shouldn’t be taken at face value.
“In Taiwan, and I am sure in other Asian countries, incest and abuse and rape by uncles, etc. goes unreported because of the shame factor in preserving family image. Similarly I have noted that there is no lessening of extra-marital affairs, etc. Family stays together but at what price? In the West, we call a mistress a mistress. In Asia it gets a (euphemistic) phrase like sciau tai-tai (little wife). You are dealing with cultures where image and face rank higher than honesty and straightforwardness,” he said.
Hahm, too, acknowledges the philosophy’s limitations, noting that the strict dictates of Confucianism are often at odds with the reality of morally weak people.
“Because it is such a highly set standard people try to sometimes shirk it, sometimes to circumvent it. It also leads to a lot of hypocrisy, which leads to a terrible deal of widespread cynicism in society, a sense of betrayal,” Hahm said.
Not only is the ethical bar high, it is distinct from other societies, adds Hahm.
“They are different standards as well. Something like a Lewinsky scandal, I don’t think any Korea politician could survive something like that. So in that sense we have a much higher standard than the western societies where they think that’s a private issue, it’s a private affair as long as the guy is doing OK as a president, that’s what we should worry about, not so much what kind of private life that person has. It’s the kind of distinction Koreans still fail to make.”
Hahm doesn’t advocate a societal return to Confucianism. But he believes where it could be most relevant today is as a counterweight to other modes of thought.
“I think what (role) Confucianism can play, or any kind communitarian traditional order value system can do, is sort of (be) a mitigating factor in whatever excesses individualism in society might create.”