Thursday, January 06, 2011

Confucianism and Korea - Part II: What is Confucianism?

[Series Index]

Part I of this series is essentially a big series of caveats, but the Korean cannot put enough caveats in a topic as big and sophisticated as Confucianism. So here are some more.

Really Big Caveats

First of all, the Korean's Chinese skill is very rudimentary. So pretty much all of his knowledge about Confucianism came through reading the Chinese texts with Korean annotations. Translating one language to another is hard enough; translating something that had been translated once already is fraught with danger. The Korean tried to include as many original quotes in Chinese as possible to make clear what he is talking about, and he welcomes any correction or amplification on any point. Since this series is about Korea, crucial concepts and the name of important books will be written out in Korean pronunciations of Chinese scripts. (For example, 大學 is Daehak, not Daxue. 仁 is In, not Ren.)

Second, the Korean will make a lot of comparisons between Confucianism and Christianity in this series. This is done because among English speakers, Christianity is the only philosophical system whose scale is comparable to Confucianism -- they both have had many internal controversies and highly convoluted relationship with history for a very long time. Really, nothing else comes close. But the Korean would strongly caution not to mistake the crutches for the legs. The similarities between Confucianism and Christianity stop at the point when we discuss the actual philosophy instead of the way people interact with the philosophy. (And even prior to that point they are not exactly the same.)

It is particularly important not to over-connect Confucian concepts with Christian concepts just because they sound similar. For example 天 is often translated to be "heaven," which sounds awfully like the Christian god. But the two concepts are very, very different. The Korean will try his best to give the broad construction of Confucianism. Confucian concepts have to be understood within that context, not in any other context.
With those caveats, let us jump right ahead.

What are the Central Tenets of Confucianism?

If Confucianism must be reduced to a single sentence at the risk of gross generalization, it is this: one must achieve 仁 (in) through constant study and rituals.

What is in? Some scholars translated in as "authoritative conduct." The Korean's preferred translation would be "virtue". When a person achieves in, he becomes a 君子 (goonja) - an "exemplary person." From the way goonja is described in Confucian tomes, he sounds like a demigod of some sort. For example, a person suggests to Confucius that the mourning the death of parents should be shortened to one year, because the requisite three years is too long. This seems to make perfect sense, because the mourning that Confucius required was not simply feeling sad. Confucian mourning involved building a shack next to the parents' grave, eat nothing but the wild plants around the area, wear clothes made of hemp (not warm and extremely scratchy,) tend the grave and wail before the grave every day. For THREE years. Why would anyone do this?

The Master replies:

夫君子之居喪, 食旨不甘, 聞樂不樂, 居處不安, 故不爲也.
When a goonja is in mourning,
he eats food but cannot taste,
hears music but cannot enjoy,
inhabits his house but cannot get comfortable
-- that is why he does not do so [shorten the mourning to a year]
[論語 17.21]

In other words, goonja is this incredible person who mourns for three years not because he thinks it is the right thing to do, but because he has no other choice -- because he is set in the way of in, one of whose component is filial piety.

But goonja is not a demigod like a Catholic saint or a Buddha who achieved nirvana. In fact, goonja is almost the exact opposite of those two concepts, which involve some level of detachment from the material world. In contrast, goonja is the most worldly person possible because with in, goonja knows how the world works. (In other words, he knows 天道 - the "heavenly way.") While achieving in and becoming a goonja take a huge amount of work, the world comes naturally to a person who achieved the goonja status.

More after the jump.

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

How does the world work? It works independently from our desires. Thus, Xun Zi said:

Heaven does not withdraw the winter because men hate the cold
Earth does not withdraw the vastness because men hate the distance
Goonja does not withdraw his actions because small men criticize
天有常道矣 地有常數矣 君子有常體矣
Heaven has a constant way, Earth has a constant way,
and goonja has a constant way of action.
[荀子, 天論]

The Korean likes to visualize a goonja as an expert surfer. The wave can be massive and menacing, but surfers do not change the wave. Instead, they let the wave come to them. With enough skills, there will be no wave that will faze him. The waves will come in all different shapes and sizes, but he will be able to effortlessly jump on top and ride them. But the surfer still has to put in an enormous amount of effort to become effortless when the wave does come.

Again, it is very, very important to recognize that goonja is not a religious concept. Confucianism is not a religion -- it is a code of ethics. There is no deity in Confucianism. There is almost zero concern for the afterlife in Confucianism. For the most part, Confucianism is about achieving moral life in this world and this world only. The ultimate goal of Confucianism is about figuring out the way this world works, and train oneself in a way that goes along with the flow of the world.

And that flow of the world is not found in some far away place, but from within oneself. So the Master said:

詩云 伐柯伐柯 其則不遠.
"Book of Poems [시경, sigyeong]" said,
"Cut the axe-handle, cut the axe-handle;
the way is not far away."
執柯以伐柯, 倪而視之, 猶以爲遠.
One holds the axe-handle to cut the axe-handle,
but one only glances and thinks it is far away.
[中庸 13]

People hold the handle of the axe to cut the wood with which to make another axe-handle. Likewise, you are not far away from the ultimate thing you want to turn yourself into -- in fact, you are holding it right now.

At this point Confucius is sounding like an ancient Chinese Tony Robbins, a self-help guru who tells unhappy people that everything will be alright as long as they believe in themselves. But thinking that way is a huge mistake, because that goes directly against the relational nature of in.

The Relational Nature of 仁 (in)

The biggest clue about the nature of in lies in the character 仁 itself. Reading from the right, 仁 can be divided into two characters -- 二人. Two people. And therein lies the keystone knowledge of understanding a Confucian mode of action.

If you can come away with only one thing about Confucianism out of this post, remember this: Confucianism is utterly focused on human relationship. The greatest truth about the world is essentially about how to handle human relationship. So how should people with in behave with other people? It depends on the relationship. One of the most important Confucian doctrines is 三綱五倫 - Three Commands and Five Morals, which covers pretty much all human relationships as far as Confucianism is concerned. The Three Commands are:

The subject must serve the ruler.
The child must serve the parent.
The wife must serve the husband.

The Five morals are:

Between parent and child, there must be closeness.
Between ruler and subject, there must be justice.
Between husband and wife, there must be distinction.
Between old and young, there must be order.
Between friends, there must be trust.

Underlying this principle is the assumption that people are in different places depending on their station, from which the proper relationship flows. This necessarily means that in Confucianism, it is imperative for everyone to know their proper place in the relationship. Thus, when a nobleman asked Confucius about governance, the Master replied:

The ruler must act like a ruler
The subject must act like a subject
The father must act like a father
The child must act like a child
[論語 12.11]

Among these relationships, the absolute, most important relationship is the relationship between a parent and a child. In fact, this is the relationship that forms the foundation of in:

孝弟也者 其爲仁之本與
Filial piety is the foundation of in.
[論語 1.2]

Accordingly, Confucian texts are filled with parables about filial children. A good example involves a child who cried when his mother hit him with a stick to discipline him. The mother asked: "You did not cry when you were disciplined any other time. Why do you cry now?" The son replied: "It used to hurt when you hit me for my wrongs. Now your strength has diminished [as you aged], and your beating no longer hurts. This is why I cry." [小學 4.16] Another example involves a man who danced like a little child in order to delight his parents, although he was 70 years old. [小學 4.14]

Achieving In - Studying and Manners/Rituals

How do people achieve in and become a goonja? Confucianism identifies two major ways: self-study, and performance of manners/rituals. First, studying. The very purpose of studying is to become a goonja. Thus, Xun Zi said:

學惡乎始? 惡乎終?
Where does scholarship begin, and where does it end?
曰: 其數則始乎誦經,終乎讀禮:
Scholarship begins with mastering the "Book of Poems,"
and ends with perusing the "Book of Rituals"
The meaning of scholarship begins with becoming a goonja,
and ends with becoming a seong'in ["holy man", the highest achievement].
[荀子, 勸學]

Likewise, the very first thing that Confucius says in the Analects, collection of his teachings, is: "Studying and occasionally learning, is this not a source of joy?"

Once a person cultivates in within himself by studying, he must apply the in to his interactions with people. As he interacts with people, he must follow proper manners and perform proper rituals. When one of his students asked Confucius about in, the Master said:

Overcoming self and returning to manners is in.
If one overcomes self and returns to in for just one day,
The whole world will return to in.
[論語 12.1]

This concludes the Korean's brief, cursory and inadequate overview of Confucianism. There is much, much more that can be discussed, but this probably would be enough for our purposes. Next installment of this series will discuss how Korea has interacted Confucianism in pre-modern times, so that we can get a sense of history when we finally discuss the influence of Confucianism in modern Korea.

By now, astute observers could discern a lot of aspects about modern Korean society, good and bad, that are outgrowths of Confucian philosophy. To give a quick example -- How can people not place education above and beyond almost everything else when education is not only for achieving better life, but the primary way of achieving the highest ideal of personhood? (And contrast this with Christianity in which faith and faith alone guarantees salvation.) All this and more will be discussed in later part of this series.

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


  1. I think the main tenet of Confucianism lies within Daehak (대학, 大學) or "the Great Learning", and its practices/etiquette can be found in many Confucian etiquette books such as Myeongshimbogam (明心寶鑑, 명심보감) and Sajasohak (사자소학, 四字小學).

  2. Thanks for the article. It is a lot easier to try to tackle contemporary issues, but although this may be harder it is more foundational.

    As for the Catholic Saint, I would say that as a dead person, yes it would be different in that today the saint could only act now supernaturally as an intercessor to God. In that cause they may be detached from the world, but when the goonja dies, he/she is detached for the world as well.

    But for the Saint to be a Saint, that Saint would have to have been in the world and showed an example of heroic virtue. Typically the Saint is not detached from the world. The goonja too would have heroic virtue. Both would end up having some theoretical way of acting properly in the world, and meet it.

    Some differences I would see is that the supernatural and natural is so closely tied together in Christianity. In Confucianism the feeling is much more agnostic, and perhaps could even open itself up to being able to synthesis other ideas about the supernatural.

    One difference is one of mission. There is a mission in Christianity to get to the end point. The Saint usually will be able to work in the world but will be pointed towards the heavenly world. That would be at some end point. The goonja is not. It would set it up more of a context of a cyclical world.

  3. With regards to the emphasis on education. One could think it may actually come closest to Plato's idea of the philosopher king. With the examination system upward mobility was not limited. I think one may contrast it with something like the idea of the "Protestant work ethic" and the rise of mercantilism, the entrepreneur or professional has in recent centuries been able to raise up social classes.

  4. 夫爲婦綱 <- this one always makes me laugh. Ah Confucius, what a jester ^^

    And thank you for the clear explanations about a complex subject.

  5. This is very, very fascinating and I'm completely hooked. I've read dry and boring discussions of Confucianism in the past, not the "exact" sayings. More please, more!

  6. kudos to you^^

    this is one very heavy and difficult subject to explain, especially given that yours is an english blog and i assume a significant portion of your readers are non-asians/chinese and may not 'get' the essence as easily as asians/chinese do (since these would presumably be exposed to relatively more confucius' teachings)

    i hope people will stay with you on your focal points, and not 'drag' this to a discussion of confucianism vs another religion, when confucianism is not a religion, but a code of ethics like you said... (or a value system)

    looking forward to the rest of the entries (and your other entries as well, of course)^^ thanks again.

  7. I've read the analects about 3 times and one thing i always wondered was given how common death must have been back then, it would seem like at any given time, half the society would be out of commision in mourning. Doesn't seem possible.

  8. I think this is a great intro to Confucianism, but I would caution you about some of your comparisons and contrasts with Christianity. You talk about the Confucian concept of "heaven" as possibly being relatable to"the Christian god"--what do you mean by this? You also state the for Christians, "faith alone" is of central importance, but this doctrine (sola fide) is central only among certain groups of Protestants, who make up a minority of Christians worldwide.

    It seems that perhaps by "Christian" you really mean "North American Protestant" or even "North American Evangelical". Just as it would be inaccurate and misleading for me to conflate Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, I think this is a serious mis-categorization.

  9. You talk about the Confucian concept of "heaven" as possibly being relatable to"the Christian god"--what do you mean by this?

    Actually, the Korean stated pretty clearly that they are NOT related, although it is easy to think that way.

    You also state the for Christians, "faith alone" is of central importance, but this doctrine (sola fide) is central only among certain groups of Protestants, who make up a minority of Christians worldwide.

    The colloquial use of the two words "faith alone" do not link to the formal doctrine of "sola fide."


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