This, however, does not mean that I agree with the book entirely. I felt that in his book, Tudor relied a bit too often on Confucianism as a crutch, to provide explanations about Korean society that are too just-so. Tudor correctly identifies the full slate of the issues that contemporary Korea has, including high suicide rate, low satisfaction with life, low birthrate, excessive emphasis on education, grueling jobs with very long hours, etc. Tudor also correctly identifies that ultimately, competition--which drove Korea achieving prosperity and freedom at a rate unprecedented in human history--is what causes these social ills in Korea.
|Gangnam is not just for Gangnam Style--it is also the Mecca of plastic surgery in Korea.|
It is not a coincidence that glassy skyscrapers, symbols of Korea's prosperity,
house so many plastic surgery clinics.
Where Tudor and I part company is the reason for such competition. Often, Tudor points to Confucianism as the motivating factor for the excessive competition in today's Korean society. For example, Tudor begins the chapter about competition in Korea with following: "Because Confucianism places a special value on success through education and stable family, Koreans focus on the minimal standard of living at which they will be comparable to others."* Although Tudor then goes into the exposition of how Korea's desperate poverty shaped Korea's national culture (a point with which I am inclined to agree,) starting the chapter with a reference to Confucianism colors the subsequent discussion the chapter.
(*Because I am working off of a translated version of the book, this quote may not be exactly the same as Tudor wrote it. You can blame Mr. Tudor, who sent me a translated version rather than the English original.)
If Tudor's point is that Confucianism contributes to the problems that today's Korean society has, I wonder how Tudor may respond to the following historical tidbit. Pre-modern Korea--through Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties--enjoyed extremely long periods of peace and stability. For nearly a thousand years prior to early 20th century, Korea experienced only one major war that meaningfully threatened its survival. At all other times, Korea had a strong, unitary central government that was able to implement its vision for improving Korean society. Needless to say, such vision was informed by Confucianism.
And by Joseon Dynasty, such effort was wildly successful. One can argue that Korea has reached the pinnacle of an agricultural society by that point. Organized by village units with centuries of farming experience, Koreans have perfected the delicate balance of producing the most amount of harvest without overtaxing the soil. Koreans also diversified their crop, allowing the soil to heal and providing more variety to their table. (Recall that traditional Korean cuisine features more than 1,000 types of edible plants.) The village unit also made effective use of the labor, setting precise schedules of who works when, for what task.**
(**From 김건태, "19세기 집약적 농법의 확산과 작물의 다각화", 역사비평 2012년 겨울호 [Kim Geon-tae, Intensive Agronomy, Diversification of Crops in the 19th Century])
The result was a society that produced everything it needed without too much effort. Thanks to efficient farming, Koreans always had plenty to eat. Indeed, the amount of food that Koreans traditionally consumed nearly defies belief. A diary from the 17th century describes that Koreans ate 7 hob [홉] of rice per meal, or approximately 420 grams. This is around triple of the amount of rice Koreans eat per meal today. Yet Koreans never had to work very hard to eat. Studies show that Koreans did not work all that much except in periods such as planting and harvesting rice, because labor was distributed efficiently. Contrary to the stereotype of hard-working Asians, foreign travelers' account of Korea invariably describe Koreans as "lazy." In truth, Koreans were not lazy. They simply produced everything they needed without spending all that much time.
(More after the jump.)
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.
It is important not to idealize the past, as traditional Korea was hardly the perfect society. It was a monarchy with a class system. It was also a male-dominated society. Further, Korea did not always enjoy abundance of life's necessities--after all, Korea definitely experienced bad harvests and lean times during Joseon Dynasty's six-century-long history.
But it is hard to deny that traditional Korea has certain charms that modern Korea lacks. There was no constant competition or striving that stressed people out--simply people efficiently doing what they had to do to produce more than what they needed, and enjoying their lives in the free time. And these traditional Koreans kept much more closely to Confucianism than today's Koreans do. If Confucianism contributes to the excessive competition that today's Koreans experience, why didn't it cause Koreans of the Joseon Dynasty to compete more, work long hours, etc.? And if Confucianism did not cause that, what did?
Korea's problems do not arise Confucianism; they arise from modernity. Modernity--whose essential ingredients are industrialization and market economy--demands incessant competition. In the traditional economy, the one and only goal is sustenance. Traditional Koreans did not have large, interconnected markets to which they would sell any excess food, nor would there be anyone to buy such excess. Once they produced enough to eat, there is little incentive to produce any further.
|A Korean table at a jumak [restaurant and pub], circa 1890. |
Note the size of the bowls for rice and soup.
There is something very attractive about this model. After all, with all the technology we have, why do we work so much? By all indications, there is absolutely no reason for anyone in the advanced economy to work more than 15 hours a week to produce everything we need in life. The experience of traditional Korea shows that even a pre-industrial society can achieve this goal, as long as the society defines down the level of "need." So why do we bother with modernity's stress-inducing demands?
Korea's history provides the answer: if your country does not move toward modernity, modernity will come to your country in the most horrific form possible. To the people who reject modernity, modernity will be imposed. In the late 19th century, modernity first knocked Korea's doors in the form of French and American warships demanding Korea to open its ports. Modernity then busted down the doors with Imperial Japan, which soon enslaved the entire country in the following decades.
The essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans. And no one bears the brunt of such dehumanization quite like the conquered subjects of an empire, who are deemed less of a human in the eyes of the conqueror. Thus, Imperial Japan freely utilized Korea's "human resource"--hideous words, if you think about it--in the most inhumane manner. The empire conscripted millions of Koreans to die in forced labor, hundreds of thousands of Korean women (who were doubly commodified as conquered subjects and receptacles for men's sex) to serve as sex slaves to its soldiers, and thousands to serve as laboratory rats in live human experimentation.
This searing experience left Koreans with an unforgettable lesson: modernize, or literally, die. It is no surprise, therefore, that Koreans singularly focused on modernizing at quickly as possible. This focus was particularly evident in the personal philosophy of Park Chung-hee, under whose dictatorship Korea took the first steps toward joining the first world. (Indeed, "homeland's modernization" [조국의 근대화] is one of Park's favorite phrases in his numerous speeches.) But because Korea was so far behind in the race toward modernity, it was not enough for Korea to simply participate in the race. To catch the countries that were ahead in the race of modernity, Korea had to find a way to break the game.
In the bestseller Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes how Oakland A's, a team that is perennially strapped for cash and resources, manage to compete and beat the far-better-endowed teams by distilling the game of baseball into its very essence--that is, not getting your batters out. To that end, Oakland A's stripped its team of baseball's traditional and aesthetics preference, and focused only on not getting its batters out. Other MLB teams would idolize the batters who were physical specimen capable of hitting the baseball. Oakland A's would focus on batters who may not look athletic and appear to be pedestrian in traditional metrics, but were capable of drawing walks--not as aesthetically pleasing as a base hit, but same result at the end.
One can argue that Korea also made up for its disadvantage by distilling modernity into its very essence: commodification. In its furious race toward modernity, Korea arguably managed to commodify its people better than any other country in the world. It helped that Koreans had already experienced modernity's terrible commodification at the hands of Imperial Japan, and were broken by Korean War into poverty and desperation. To be sure, Korea's commodification did not necessarily mean endless hours of sweatshop labor, although sweatshops were a crucial component in the early stages of Korea's economic development. Korea invested massively in public education and raised a huge corps of highly able people. Through the combination of nationalistic exhortation and authoritarian rule, Korea squeezed maximum amount of quality labor out of them. The result is as we see today: Korea at the forefront of modernity, the fastest country to have done so in human history.
But such ruthless commodification of humans left numerous scars in Korean society, because unlike that of baseball, the essence of modernity is toxic. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that every social problem in Korea is ultimately reducible to commodification. Korean people kill themselves at a record rate because, in a society that replaced the traditional family-based relationship with modern employer-employee relationship, the unemployable no longer has any further reason to exist. Koreans double down on education precisely to avoid this fate and make themselves employable. Korean women undergo plastic surgery at a record rate because they are commodified based on their looks in both the job market and the marriage market. Koreans are both too busy to invest in themselves, and too concerned that their children will have to run in the same, tiresome hamster wheel; so they forgo having children, or have no more than one. Above all, in this inhuman modern society, Koreans are stressed out and unhappy.
Focusing on the true cause of Korea's social ills illuminates the true lessons to be learned from Korea's experience. The first lesson is that focusing on Korea's unique history and cultural tradition does not help finding the solution for Korea's issues. If Korea's tradition is the cause for Korea's social ills, one would observe the same ills afflicting Korea throughout its history. This is simply not the case. In fact, much of Korea's tradition would counsel against the afflictions of modernity. Confucian education, for example, is about building a certain moral character, rather than learning specific skills to become an employable cog in the modern economy. The educational fervor in Korea has gone past the level of diligence, and is now in the territory of constant exhaustion. Having Korea's education focus again on character-building, rather than picking up an ever-increasing number of skills, would moderate this desperation that ruining Korea's children today.
The second lesson is the extension of the first. Korea's problem is not Korean culture; Korea's problem is modernity itself. Thus, Korea's problem is not limited to Korea, but is universal, and afflicts every contemporary industrialized, capitalistic society. Broad survey of modernized countries reveals that echoes of Korea's problems exist all over the world, albeit in different degrees. Korea is frequently cited for having high suicide rates, but sociological studies make it abundantly clear that every single industrialized country in the history of the world experienced a huge spike in suicide rate in the process of industrializing, and later the country industrialized, the higher the spike. Korea's high rate of plastic surgery receives international focus, but Brazil, another up-and-coming industrialized nation, is also making headlines for huge numbers of plastic surgery. Although Korea's fervor for education is often considered as excessive, in the United States, the doubling down on education set off a nuclear arms race of diploma inflation of the kind seen in Korea.
(Aside: The trend of globalization, which is just another name for worldwide modernization, takes this worldwide commodification of humans to a new low. FoxConn laborers in China kill themselves in droves, while hundreds of workers in Pakistian die in a fire that supposedly passed the fire inspection, all in the process of manufacturing goods for wealthy, first world consumers. But even the first world consumers are no longer safe: as the international competition improves, the ruthless efficiency-seeking machine siphons the wealth that previously sustained the first world's middle class to the new capitalists of the rest of the world. In the modernized world, mediocrity has nowhere to hide.)
That Korea's problems are universal to modern nations leads to a disconcerting realization: solving these problems would require a complete redirection of human civilization from the path that it has taken for the last 250 years. It is not clear if this is even possible; it is equally unclear if this is desirable. For all of its problems, modernity also has enormous benefits in the form of unprecedented wealth (albeit distributed unevenly), advanced medical science and greater knowledge about the world around us. Even in the limited context of Korea, this inquiry retains the same character: for all of their complaints about today's Korea, would Koreans really want to go back to the way things were, three centuries ago? Are Korea's problems--stress, low birthrate, suicide--just something that Korea must learn to deal with, in exchange for the dividends of modernity? Can any one society refuse the tide of modernity today without getting swallowed up by other societies, which would continue to march toward superior economy and military?
These are important questions. They are also exceedingly difficult, and their scope is far greater than a single national culture or tradition. As such, in discussing Korea's problems, it is a mistake to focus solely on Korea's tradition or Korea's culture. Korea's problem is modernity, and Korea's problem is the world's problem. Fixing it requires not some tinkering of Korean culture, but a redirection of the human civilization.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.