Friday, December 03, 2010

Confucianism and Korea - Part I: Introduction

[Series Index]

Dear Korean,

What is the relationship between Confucianism and how individuals communicate. Specifically, how does it influence decision making the age cohorts of those in their 50's and above, 30's to 50's and those under 30. and the flow of communication in the present age?

We've Got Seoul

Dear Korean,

I've been studying Korean independently for about 1 1/2 years now and I really get into the culture, language, music, movies etc. There's various things I've read but I'm not sure 100% if they really aspects of Korean culture derived from Confucianism specifically. So I was wondering if many aspects of Korean culture and traditions are derived from Confucianism and if so what types of things?

Rachel M.

Boy, those are some big questions. Many 1000-page books and doctoral dissertations have been written regarding Confucianism's impact on Korea. This question is particularly difficult for a number of reasons, including:

- Difficulty of defining just exactly what "Confucianism" is. For example, Protestants at least have one literary source (the Bible) to consistently refer to, if they wanted to define what "Christianity" is. But even dealing with just one book, many people have severe disagreements about what "Christianity" is. (Is it a religion that preaches loving thy enemies, or eradicating thy heretics?) Some might point to The Analects, the teachings of Confucius himself, as the Bible equivalent -- but that would be a serious mistake. Confucianism is not a religion, and Confucius is not a deity. Therefore, while the teachings directly from Confucius is very important, it is definitely not the be-all, end-all of Confucianism.

- Similarly, Confucianism has evolved over time and split into many branches, including (contrary to the stereotype) a branch that particularly emphasized empirical criticism, natural science and technology, which actually had a lot of traction in Korea from 17th through 19th century. The difference among these branches are as stark as the gap between the witch-burning Puritans and Mardi Gras-celebrating Catholics.

- Even if a workable definition of "Confucianism" can be somehow found, it is near impossible to isolate Confucianism's impact in Korea, because it requires imagining what Korean would be like if it were not for Confucianism. What is the influence of Confucianism, and what is the influence of inherent tendencies that are universal to all mankind?

Take the deep-rooted sexism in Korea, for example. Many observers (Korean and non-Korean) blame Confucianism influence for that. But it's not as if sexism does not exist in parts of the world that have never heard of Confucianism. In fact, until the advent to postmodern liberal democracy, blatant forms of sexism existed in nearly every society on the globe. So it must be that the cause for sexism in Korea goes deeper than Confucianism. It is more likely that all humans are by nature inclined for sexism, and they end up building various kinds of philosophical superstructures that justify the sexism somehow. (Mind you, this is NOT to say that sexism is somehow justified. There are plenty of cases in which human's natural inclinations are nonetheless wrong and immoral.)

- Related to the point above, there is a tendency to blame Confucianism for just about everything that people don't like about Korea. This tendency appears quite frequently among complaints by expats, but Koreans themselves are just as happy to indulge in this also. A bestseller nonfiction from 1999 with a provocative title, "Confucius Must Die for the Country to Live," blamed Confucianism for, among other things, Korea's drinking problem, corruption, sexism, military dictatorship, lack of creativity, and so on and so forth. This type of rhetoric is obviously imprecise, and often a result of not really understanding what Confucianism even means. (And again, the meaning of Confucianism is rather elusive.)

Since this topic will have to involve a deep examination, the Korean will discuss in a series going forward. Feel free to add more questions about Confucianism and Korea, and the Korean will address them all later in the series.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. much information I can from here on korea. I will visit here again to find out more about korea

  2. I would recommend reading the Great Learning (大學, 대학) and the Original Way (原道, 원도).


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