Finally, here we are -- the last part of this series. This post will be about how Korea can capitalize its Confucian heritage better, or improve upon the Confucian heritage. Put differently, this post will identify areas of Korean society that can use more Confucianism, as well as the same that can use less Confucianism.
The Korean found some of the reactions to the last part of this series rather interesting. Some commenters said essentially that Confucianism has its share of problems, and pointed to the social ills suffered by China, Japan and Korea. The Korean would readily agree that a Confucian society will have their share of problems -- which is the whole point of having this part of the series. Undoubtedly, there are social ills in Korea that will be solved with having less Confucianism.
But as the Korean warned over and over again throughout this series, Confucianism is not the only mode of thought that guides Korean society. In fact, the Korean would say Confucius is not even the philosopher whose ideas guide modern Korea the most. Any guesses about who that philosopher might be? Buddha and Dharma, based on Korea's long Buddhist tradition? Lao Tzu and Zhang Tzu, the pillars of Taoism?
Would you have guessed... Thomas Hobbes? In his book Leviathan, the 17th century British philosopher described the state of nature: bellum omnium contra omnes, "the war of all against all." In such state of nature, life of a person is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan
Hobbes might as well have been speaking of the way Korea found itself as it began its venture as a modern nation in the 1940s, devastated by Japanese imperialism, World War II and Korean War. Just how ugly Korea was post-World War II is described in harrowing detail by a recent book, "Birth of the Modern Man." The book, which chronicles the history of Korea's public medicine, recounts the disastrous state of Korea's public health. Within one year of the liberation, 2.3 million Koreans from overseas (mostly from Japan and China) returned to Korea. During Korean War, 500,000 people escaped North Korea to come to the South. Cholera epidemic covered the country. Seoul, in particular, was a crowded sea of bodies, alive and dead. In 1950, there were 800,000 refugees in South Korea without a home. Out of the 440,000 infants born in 1948, 180,000 died before their first birthday. During Korean War, American medics reported that a surgery for a Korean soldier shot in the stomach usually entailed catching hundreds of parasites that were crawling out of the dying host.
(More after the jump)
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.
In the face of these Hobbesian conditions, Korea dragged itself to where it is now by, in significant parts, allowing the war of all against all to happen. The winners of that war -- the Lee Byeong-Cheol (founder of Samsung) and Chung Joo-Young (founder of Hyundai) of the world -- have built the empires that few in the world, and even fewer in the shithole that was Korea, could dare to envision in their wildest imagination. The losers barely carried on with their lives with no one else to alleviate their misery, or simply died off.
Understanding the mindset created in this process -- of brutal competition and (literal) survival over the next person in every aspect of life -- is the more important to understanding Korea than understanding any other Eastern philosophy, including Confucianism. This survivalist philosophy -- crude and uncivilized, yet pragmatic and efficient -- pervades Korean mindset more than any other philosophy. Like a black hole, this survivalist philosophy (or is it an anti-philosophy?) pulls in everything around it and twists its surroundings in accordance with its pull.
A lot of Korea observers don't get this idea. So often, they end up blaming Confucianism as the cause of Korea's social ill based on the mistaken belief that Confucianism is the main driver of Koreans' mentality. But Confucianism does not deserve their criticism, because the social ills are not the reflections of Confucianism. Instead, borrowing from this excellent post in Asadal Thought, it is only a refraction of Confucianism, distorted by uncivilized philosophy of brute survival in which Korea had to engage by necessity. (By the way, make sure to read that terrific post by Seamus, describing the interplay between Confucianism and Korean education.)
For these types social ills of Korea, more Confucianism is the answer, not less. Here are a couple of examples in which Korea can be helped by engaging in more orthodox Confucianism.
Abuse of Hierarchical Position
Confucianism is commonly described as emphasizing hierarchy. That is a fair description in a sense because in almost every Confucian relation, there is a clear order of who comes first, and who comes second -- parents over children, ruler over subjects, husband over wife, older over younger. But the Korean so far has avoided the term "hierarchical," and instead opted for the term "relational." That choice was made because the Korean believed the term "hierarchical" missed an important element in Confucian relations -- that each person in a relationship, whether superior or inferior, has a certain duty corresponding to his/her status in the relationship. In, the highest ideal of Confucianism, is a natural result when everyone acts on his duty.
Often, this element is ignored in contemporary Korea. Instead, what ends up happening is a naked power play in the guise of Confucianism. Political leaders demand respect while not having done much to inspire such respect from the people. Bosses demand deference without doing much to inspire the deference from their employees. Older Koreans yell at younger Koreans rather than persuade. Facing this dynamic, instead of naturally obeying their superiors, Koreans often do so with bitten lips and gritted teeth.
More Confucianism will help this situation. Under the more orthodox view of Confucianism, such leaders and bosses will soon lose the heaven's mandate to lead, because they have not fulfilled their own duties. Once the heaven's mandate is lost, they no longer deserve to be in that position. In fact, this is the core message that enabled the Joseon Dynasty, which replaced Goryeo Dynasty that was supposed to have lost the heaven's mandate. Likewise, orthodox Confucianism envisions a dynamic relationship within a hierarchy. Hierarchy is necessary; there is no group that can properly function without a leader who can take decisive actions. Focusing on the duties of the leaders of the hierarchy, as Confucianism calls for, will make the various hierarchies in Korea run smoother.
Excessive Educational Pressure
The Korean will not get into too much detail on this part, since there will be a huge education in Korea series in the future. But for our purpose here, it would suffice to say that education in Korea is a nuclear arms race. When the Korean recently read this article from the New York Times about how American parents with private school students spending up to $35,000 for private tutors, he scoffed. In terms of proportion of their family budget, Korean parents spends twice as much as American parents despite the fact that primary schooling (i.e. actual elementary, middle and high schools) in Korea rarely involve private schools. (And even if they do, private K-12 schools in Korea usually cost no more than $2,000 a year.) Korean families spend more money of children's education than everything else except groceries -- more than eating out, more than vacations, more than rent.
Normally, this would be a good thing. Undoubtedly, a highly education population and the economic system that rewarded highly educated people have been major factors in Korea's success. But Korea's survivalist philosophy is pushing Korean children to their breaking point. There are only 24 hours a day, and only so much stress a mind can take. Korean children -- both youths and adolescents -- are deeply unhappy, even compared to other Asian countries like Japan or China. The stress is literally driving a lot of students to suicide, and the rate of increase is startling -- from 2009 to 2010, there was a 47% increase in K-12 students who committed suicide.
Observers often attribute this to Confucianism's emphasis on education, but in fact this is a stark departure from Confucianism. As discussed previously, Confucian education is about character building. It is supposed to be about building a moral self, not about the rewards that follow intense education. Confucian education looks inward, but the current Korean education system is fixated outward toward better colleges and high-paying jobs. A reminder of proper Confucian education would serve as a great antidote for the current nuclear arms race of education in Korea.
On the other hand, there is no question that certain aspects of Confucianism do not fit the dynamics of modern society. Confucianism simply never had the chance to evolve organically along with modernity, as other Western philosophies have. It would do Korea no good to hang on to Confucianism in these areas. In such areas, Confucianism must be radically re-interpreted, or discarded altogether. Below are a couple of examples.
Ability to deal with strangers
Korea's driving situation is notorious: it is disorderly, erratic and fatal. Korea's rate of traffic fatality is over twice of the OECD average, coming in third-to-last among the 29 member countries. The streets of Korea often approach a state of total lawlessness, with cars jumping onto and driving on pedestrian sidewalks and motorcycles whizzing by between lanes.
Korea also has a bad track record of discrimination. As the Korean chronicled a number of times on this blog, xenophobia and racism are rampant in Korea. Even among Koreans, there is still lingering discrimination against homosexuals, disabled, children born out of wedlock, people from certain regions, etc.
What do these two social ills have to do with each other? They are both examples of how Confucianism never evolved to fit the modern life. Remember that Confucian worldview is relational, based on the five specific relations -- parent-child, ruler-subject, husband-wife, old-young, friend-friend. But what about people who do not fit in one of those relations? If you are a serious Confucian, what are you supposed to do when you encounter a total stranger who does not fit the existing set of relationships?
Bad driving and discriminations are two examples that show Confucianism's failure to deal with strangers. (There are certainly many more examples.) When a Korean person meets another person, they spent the first few minutes asking each other how old they are, what they do, where they are from, etc. in order to figure out their relational positions. But you can't do that when you are driving a car. Behind the wheel, all the markers that matter to a Confucian are hidden. Because of that, the survivalist tendency takes over again, which leads to crazy and selfish driving. Similarly, discrimination against other people ultimately originates from failure to relate. When a person does not fit a set of existing social relationship, that person matters less than other persons who do fit. This is true everywhere, but particularly truer in a society that takes a relational understanding of humans.
A crucial characteristic of an industrial and capitalistic society is the ability for people to move around and constantly deal with strangers. Without this characteristic, modern society is not possible. But Confucianism is not very good at teaching people how to deal with strangers, although it may be excellent with teaching people how to deal with your parents, for example. Since Korea would prefer to have modernity than Confucianism, Confucianism must yield on this aspect.
A radical reinterpretation of Confucianism could possibly overcome this limitation. One way is to potentially extend the family-like treatment to total strangers. In fact, this has already happened to a certain extent. The original meanings of ajeossi and ajumma -- terms referring to any middle-aged man or woman, respectively -- are "uncle" and "aunt." If Confucianism is to evolve into a modern philosophy, this type of expansion needs to be dramatically increased. For example, the friend-friend relationship of the five morals -- "between friends, there must be trust" -- can potentially be expanded to cover relationship among strangers, similar to the way in which the Bible's "Love thy neighbor" requirement has been expanded to cover everyone in the world.
Korea is not a place in which men and women are equal. The same can be said about almost all countries in the world, but the disparity of status based on gender in Korea is much more significant relative to other comparable countries. In a recent survey by the Economist, Korea ranked 104th (!) in the world in gender-based discrimination at workplace. Korean women are arguably more objectified by their male counterpart than any other women in the world, leading to shockingly high rate of plastic surgery and unhealthy diets that leave some women disturbingly thin.
This is Seo-Ah from Korean girl group, Brave Girls.
Focus on her arms in particular -- that is just sick.
Incredibly, this picture is from a tabloid article praising her figure.
Confucianism is hardly the only reason for this -- in fact, the survivalist philosophy probably has a greater role, as Korean men are trying to hang onto their dominant position and Korean women are doing whatever it takes to survive in a male-dominated society. But it is undeniable that Confucianism contributes to this. The Confucian manners -- ones listed in great detail in sohak (小學, Book of Small Learning), for example -- unfailingly consign women to a crabbed, inferior and unequal role relative to men's. And importantly, more (orthodox) Confucianism cannot solve this problem.
Fortunately there are multiple ways out of this, and Korea is well on its way to taking those roads. Among those who have a preference, parents who wish to have a daughter out number those who wish to have a son by 50%. The proportion of husbands participating in running the house is steadily increasing, easily surpassing the majority and moving toward supermajority. In 1998, only 13.3% of the people who passed the bar were women; in 2010, the same number was 41.5%. Gender equality in Korea still has a long, long way to go, but Korea did come this far because enough Koreans take the idea of gender equality seriously.
Also, there is room within Confucianism context to achieve greater equality between men and women. Confucianism reserves a special, elevated role for mothers. One of the most popular Confucian morality story involves the mother of Mencius, who moved to three different residences for the sake of young Mencius' education. Similarly, one of the most revered women in traditional Korean history, Shin Saimdang (whom you can see on the new KRW 50,000 bill,) is also renowned for (among other things) her motherly achievement of raising her son, Yi Yi, to be one of the greatest Confucian scholar in Korean history. (Yi Yi is also on the KRW 5,000 bill, to complete a mother-son pair on Korean money.)
The special emphasis placed on the parent-child relationship also has been summoned in the call for gender equality. "What if she was your daughter?" has a strong resonance anywhere, but particularly in Korea where family relationship is paramount over everything else. The rallying cry has been very effective so far in, for example, dramatically increasing punishment for sexual assault against a minor.
* * *
This is the end of Korea and Confucianism series. This was the most difficult series so far in the history of AAK! because of the breadth and depth of the subject involved. It basically took 10 months to write -- four months to buy books and brush up on the knowledge of Confucianism, and six months to complete six parts. Even with that, the best the Korean could do was to skim the surface. The Korean hopes you found it helpful, and welcomes any comments or additions.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The section of this post that deals with hierarchy really encapsulates the frustrations felt by a lot of people in this society (Korean and foreigner alike). In Korea, everyone understands who comes first in every relationship, but oftentimes the people at the top of the hierarchy conveniently ignore the responsibilities that their position entails. By characterizing postwar Korea as an essentially Hobbesian society, you shed a lot of light on why Confucian relationships in modern Korea so often turn into naked power grabs.ReplyDelete
It's important to keep in mind that most of the decisionmakers in today's Korea came of age in a society that more closely resembled Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" than any modern society we would recognize. (This is something that most foreigners in Korea easily lose sight of; after all, most of us have no idea what growing up in that type of society would have been like.) Thus, modern Korean society does have some twisted- almost masochistic- practices that are really difficult for people who are not familiar with that milieu to accept. With that said, I think Korean society would be well-served to understand that a lot of these practices are not necessarily a product of Korean culture (and criticisms of them are NOT broadsides against Korean culture in general), but rather products of a unique social situation that no longer exists. This post demonstrates great awareness of that fact, and it's something that I hope you share with a Korean audience in the future.
I would argue more Confucianism over all is needed, not less. You pointed out, rather indirectly, it's the melding of modernity and Confucianism that's a large part of the problem, and unfortunately the latter takes the blame.ReplyDelete
Though I agree Confucianism needs to be re-interpreted in light of modernity, I wouldn't blame discrimination against some of the groups you mentioned on Confucianism. Han Yu mentions in his treatise, the Original Way (원도), "For the widows, poor, orphans, and sick, there will be care" (鰥寡孤獨廢疾者가有養也리라). Perhaps the more charitable side of Confucianism needs to be re-emphasized again.
Though I can't be sure, I think xenophobia is rather recent. You have a plethora of Korean family clans that can trace back their lineages to China, Japan, Mongolia, and even Central Asia. Extreme Nationalism, for sure, is a recent byproduct in reaction to the Japanese occupation.
Lastly, I would like to add that plastic surgery is absolutely contrary to Confucianism. More than a hundred years ago, cutting hair (and even surgery) was viewed as a rejection of filial piety.
Overall, this post was very good!
This comment has been removed by the author.ReplyDelete
First, some housekeeping. In your second paragraph in the "Excessive Educational Pressure" section, I think you meant to say:ReplyDelete
Normally, this would be a good thing. Undoubtedly, a highly educated population and the economic system that rewarded highly educated people have been major factors in Korea's success.
OK! Suck up time!
This was definitely my favorite post of the series because throughout the entire series, I was really struggling to understand just what the spirit of Confucianism is. Particularly how it would maifest itself in its ideal form As you said, Confucius isn't the only influence on Korean or any other culture. This made it difficult to isolate for me. It's not you, TK, it's me. Somehow seeing the potential application of Confucianism gave me a better perspective on it. I know you did essentially the same for America, but perhaps as a result of living in America, I got a little more emotionally attached, and unable to take constructive criticism, probably couldn't focus on the ideas separate from the criticism itself.
At any rate, this is a great post, and I never would have thought to attribute the lack of Confucian status markers to disorderly driving. So anyway, great job, and I think this post is a real AAK! gem.
The second part of the post was quite observant; the first part was entirely deletable. Firstly, you imply that the Koreans of their generation were not responsible for the Korean War, as if a civil war could be something that "happened" to them. Second, I hope you are being cute about Hobbes. I would say, that Korean Confucian culture is scientific towards the modern, globalized world like the Hobbesian revolution dealt with religion.ReplyDelete
Still, a helpful start to a much needed debate.
Excellent series, TK. The amount of effort put into some of your posts is pretty astounding...even if some of us may not agree with your conclusions. So, here are my comments:ReplyDelete
I am wondering how different Joseon society (19th century, early 20th) was compared to "modern" Korean society. In other words....although we can recognize that Koreans have a brutal "survivalist" mindset today, are we making the mistake of suggesting such was not the case before? And are we forgetting that Korean "survivalism" is actually rather similar (if not the same) as survivalism of other countries (namely, the US and China, whose socities today can be characterized as very survivalist), and that Korean survivalism is less the result of Korean historical sufferings* and more the result of wide globalization and its brutal capitalism?
*as bad as the 20th century was for Korea, it was just as bad or worse for many others in East Asia, let alone other parts of the world.
I am interested in seeing whether this so-called "inward" Confucian education, the type that (supposedly) focuses on personal accomplishment and character, really brings results that are any different than "survivalist" education that aims for job pay and job reputation. Or to put another way, does Confucian education (compared to what it is today) really could result in children being less driven by their parents, or being less suicidal? I would lean a bit towards "not really." And yes, that Tiger Mom thing comes to mind.
With the part about "Less confucianism" I feel my criticism rises even more:
Dealing with strangers:
I feel this section is mistakenly titled. TK appears to assume that Confucianism is what is at play when drivers are rude and disorderly, and Koreans are xenophobic, etc. It is strange that TK did not apply his own advice: "Be careful to assume Confucianism is the dominant influence in any bad social habits you see in modern Korea." Look, bad drivers exist everywhere where car culture did not develop in an institutional, systemic way over a long period. Korea, Mexico, China, India...all of them are, by Western standards, "bad drivers" because of recent history and not so much any social influence dating back millenia. As for xenophobia and racism....again, be careful with assuming Confucian is the dominant influence. I am not sure if it is even related; I see it as Koreans being used to seeing only "One ethnicity" in their history. I struggle to see how xenophobic tendencies in Korea is different or more "Confucian" than, say, the xenophobia in certain Scandinavian countries that have traditionally been quite homogenous until recently.
And as for the prejudice against dark skin...this is almost a universal thing around the world. Even in India and the Middle east.
Now, I can see how Confucianism is partly at fault. But here is where (I think) me and TK diverge: I don't see Confucianism as the "reason" for sexism, rather, I see biological nature as the real "reason", and whatever sexism built into Confucianism is a result - not the cause. In other words, the fact that a woman is the one who gets pregnant and bears a kid is why sexism will always exist, and sexism in Confucianism is just the consequence of that fact. This goes all the way from female infanticide all the way to marriage dowries and honor killings (the tendency to see women as "either pure or stained" comes to mind). And as for the rising awareness of gender equality in Korea and elsewhere, I think that is partly the result of urban living (which - you guessed it - decreases the importance of bearing many children, thus allowing the upward progress of women), but a great source of such gender awareness is also the same source of animal rights awareness - Western influence.
And finally, your last paragraph is very weird:
"The special emphasis placed on the parent-child relationship also has been summoned in the call for gender equality. "What if she was your daughter?" has a strong resonance anywhere, but particularly in Korea where family relationship is paramount over everything else. The rallying cry has been very effective so far in, for example, dramatically increasing punishment for sexual assault against a minor."
I can't see what Confucianism has to do with the call against sexual predation. Wouldn't the outrage against child rape come from.....the fact that you are raping a kid?? And not some Confucian culture? I may be wrong or misunderstanding here....
Dealing with a stranger...ReplyDelete
If I'm not mistaken, there is a Confucius's teaching that can be applied to the case. Golden rule.
Even if there was no such a teaching, what's the problem?
I don't get it.
Can we not just use our common sense keeping in mind that a stranger is also human like us?
What AAK means in that paragraph is that since family relationship is the most important in korean society, think of your targeted victim as your family member before you commit a crime and then you wouldn't dare.
Personally...I think the argument is knid of lame. Sorry AAK.
But I appreciate you putting your time and efforts into helping people understand Korean culture.
Just have to say, I love this post. As a Chinese person from the Mainland, I find a lot of similarities between Korea and China (and a lot of differences, of course), but many issues regarding Confucianism are the same.ReplyDelete
I rather like the Hobbesian explanation; it seems to explain a lot.
I also wanted to say that I always appreciate how well thought out, researched, and written your posts are. I've learned a lot about Korea from reading your blog.
Excellent. Thank you for these six parts.ReplyDelete
J.B., very much agreed on your last point -- Korean people's self-stereotype of their own culture can often by terribly inaccurate, and it is a huge hindrance for outside Korean observers.ReplyDelete
kuiwon, thanks, especially given that you probably have deeper knowledge of Confucianism than the Korean. And yes, plastic surgery is very contrary to Confucianism. The Korean's Confucian sensibility is very much offended by it.
Dan, thank you, correction was made. Glad you enjoyed the post.
Hume's Bastard, responsibility for Korean War has absolutely nothing to do with the post. If you cannot read the texts presented without getting caught up with your preferred issues, perhaps it's time to take a break.
Not sure if this is really persistent trolling or a character flaw that no one pointed out to you yet, but you have a consistent tendency to over-read the text. For example, this comment from you:
And are we forgetting that Korean "survivalism" is actually rather similar (if not the same) as survivalism of other countries ... , and that Korean survivalism is less the result of Korean historical sufferings* and more the result of wide globalization and its brutal capitalism?
No one is forgetting anything. Of course survivalism can be applied to other countries that have similar historical experience as Korea. Saying "factor X plays a role in phenomenon Y" does not mean "ONLY factor X plays a role in phenomenon Y" or "Phenomenon Y cannot happen without factor X."
Or this one:
TK appears to assume that Confucianism is what is at play when drivers are rude and disorderly, and Koreans are xenophobic, etc. It is strange that TK did not apply his own advice ...
Please, read the post. And this time, really focus on it. In no part of the post did the Korean say Confucianism causes any of that. Rather, the post pretty clearly says that Confucianism is incapable of handling situations involving strangers, so other things -- including survivalism and inexperience -- take over instead.
Or this one:
But here is where (I think) me and TK diverge: I don't see Confucianism as the "reason" for sexism ...
Nothing in the post said the Korean sees Confucianism as the reason for sexism. Actually focusing on the written text -- as opposed to making conjectures based on the written text -- would make a conversation go a lot smoother.
Thank you. You're a bit too kind. I didn't know who Jo Gwangjo was until I read these series of posts.ReplyDelete
Interesting serie... I guess I should have read it before my first trip in Korea ^^ReplyDelete
Back then, I couldn't pinpoint why I had this outcast feeling despite people's overall nice attitude toward me.
This all relational standing is pretty enlightening on that matter...
I really like the idea of education as a character builder, (education taken here in a really really large sense,
not just limited to the academic one) because cultivating oneself sounds essential to build balanced relationship
with others (and in a greater scale with society).
I also agree with the importance of relationships for and between human beings. But I guess I will have to differ
with the Confucianism mindset about its hierarchy system. Yes, human society should be organised but somehow
hierarchy pyramidal shape leads straight to power plays rather than wisdom. I mean, your "place" in society doesn't determine your value as a human being.
That said, it's always a pleasure to read you because despite some disagreements I have with some topics at times, I always learn something ^^
And for that : 감사합니다 ~
Your use of the term "survivalism" and the kind of Hobbesian "war of all-against-all" behavior reminded me of Bruce Cumings' description of the Korean War and also the later industrialization projects by the military dictatorships as both "a result of anomic conditions from the Korean War" as well as driving further anomie (rought paraphrasing; "anomie" is the sociological term meaning "normlessness," roughly). This is a very good postReplyDelete
oh my god, you're really good. 10 months? must have a hell of a whole lot of dedication. you're unbelievably good. i hope you're a professor or something, you have a way of writing that just makes the reader absorb information and not get bored... its a real talent. you've helped me so much the paper im writing. thank you so much!ReplyDelete
Gender equality in Korea is rather unique to Asian standards, other nations such as Viet-Nam and China had many women led movements and women were not discriminated in several large and influential periods, we in Viet-Nam hono(u)r the leaders of the independence movements during the first and second Chinese domination, the leaders in question were female. When Chingis Khan ruled over the known world, his people practically invented Proto-Feminism (and not that whining victimizing kind you Americans suffer from). We all know Disney's Mulan, were a female passed for as male, in reality after she admitted to be female the other soldiers didn't mind, but the Western version of the story made it look like they were planning on killing her. In Japan Homosexuality was considered to be more ''pure'' than Heterosexuality but Western (Portuguese) Homomisia condemned it, and the Japanese followed suit. Thanks to American (Hollywood) media, and British imperialism we now see Asian females as ''me love you long time'' characters in kimonos. Which might be true for South Korea, but North Korea (a country you often miss to acknowledge as Korean) has the highest female-to-male ratio in the military compared to other nations of the world.ReplyDelete
Nicely done...after a nine month visit there I fell in love with the region but the social practices left me in complete culture shock.ReplyDelete