Confucianism and Korea - Part IV: Confucianism in Modern Korea

[Series Index]

So after three preceding parts, here we are now -- the most fun part of the series where we will look at Confucianism in contemporary Korean society and compare/contrast with what we know already. In fact, the Korean could have jumped straight to this post, but he opted to take a slower, more prodding route for exactly one reason -- to give context. And the reason for giving more context is because people who are unfamiliar with Korea overuse Confucianism to explain everything about Korean culture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it is misleading, and sometimes it is laughably ignorant.

An excellent example of such ignorance comes from back in 2008, regarding the earthquake in China. (Hopefully people still remember this.) In a Q&A with a New York Times reporter stationed in China, one of the questions was this:
Have there been any mentions of the earthquake as an example of the Chinese leadership’s ‘mandate of heaven’ being withdrawn?
This is freakin' hilarious. "Mandate of heaven" is a Confucian concept under which the ruler may proclaim his legitimacy, and natural disasters in the past were considered to be signs of the presence and departure of the mandate of heaven. While he is no expert on China, the Korean would daresay that few in modern China have thought about natural disasters in those terms in the last few decades. Accordingly, the Times reporter's response was a barely suppressed chuckle:
To tell you the truth, no one I’ve spoken to in the past week has mentioned the mandate of heaven. The survivors seem more concerned with getting by on a day-to-day basis and looking after the welfare of family and friends.
So in order to avoid this kind of situation, allow the Korean to give a couple of big caveats about how Confucianism operates in Korea.

1.  In modern Korea, Confucianism is a mode of thought, not a set of commands. Put differently, Korean people make Confucian-style thoughts, but that does not mean Korean people consciously try to follow Confucian laws. In fact, Koreans think without thinking about whether their thinking style is Confucian. It is very, very rare to find a Korean person who explicitly connects her code of conduct to Confucianism.

A similar example is America's libertarianism and Christianity. A lot of American libertarians expressly disavow Christianity. But they still generally subscribe to individualism, which is a Christianity-styled thought. This does not mean that all Christians are individualistic, nor does it mean that individualistic people think they are Christian. (In fact, often the opposite is true for both propositions.) But it does mean that major tenets of Christianity, if followed to their logical conclusion, lend themselves to individualism. (Yes, the Korean is aware that this is a broad example, but this is a broad discussion about a broad topic.)

This is how Confucianism works in Korean minds. Very few Koreans "obey" Confucianism. In fact, if you tried to justify something you did by quoting Confucius in modern Korea, you are more likely to be laughed at than seriously listened to. But Korean people's world view is often Confucian-styled, often themselves without realizing that it is Confucian-styled.

2.  In modern Korea, Confucianism is not the only mode of thought available. There is a tendency among non-Korean observers of Korea to attribute to Confucianism every mode of thought/action that appears remotely different from theirs. This is a big mistake. Influences of other major Eastern philosophies -- i.e. Buddhism and Taoism -- as well as Korea's traditional Shamanistic philosophy play a large role in guiding Korean minds. Christianity has been around Korea for 200 years also. In addition, much of Korean mode of thought is based on Hobbesian individualism, which is an outgrowth of Korea's recent historical experience of war and extreme deprivation. Do NOT try to explain everything about Korea with Confucianism. And please, no stupid questions like, "If Confucianism tells people to respect elders, why do I see so many Koreans not giving up seats to elders in a subway?"

Having said that, let's dive straight in. Here is a non-exhaustive list of how Confucianism operates in Korea today, after the jump.

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Relational Understanding of Humans

Relational understanding of humans is absolutely the most important aspect of Confucianism that operates in Korea today. Recall that the highest ideal of Confucianism is to achieve 仁 (in), which could be translated as "virtue." And also remember this -- in is always, always, always about relationship among people. In fact, the value of an individual's life is secondary to the achievement of in. For example, when a person in Korea gives up her life to save another, she is praised for committing an act of 殺身成仁 (살신성인) -- "kill [one's] body to achieve in."

The relational nature of in leads to the relational understanding of humans. Here is a great example of how this works. A few months before getting engaged, the Korean moved in with the Korean Girlfriend (currently the Korean Wife.) The Korean accidentally slipped this fact to the Korean Mother -- a big mistake. A firestorm of phone calls ensued, featuring ridiculous screaming matches worthy of the most hysterical Korean drama. The Korean tried to persuade the Korean Mother that she had already met the Korean Girlfriend, that she liked her, and that she knew that the Korean was planning to propose within a few months. The Korean Mother's retort was:

"Suppose I visit your house, and [the Korean Girlfriend] was there. What should I call her? Who is she to me?"

This may not seem like much, but that last question is the most crucial concern for someone who has a relational understanding of humans. For a Confucian-minded person, it is not enough to ask, "Who are you?" The most relevant inquiry is: "Who are you to me?"

The Korean considers this aspect to be the most significant not only because it is the strongest influence of Confucianism that can be observed in modern Korean society, but also because it is the most different from the Western mode of thought. With a greater emphasis on relationships, individuals take a back seat. (BUT, it is important to note, the individual is not out of the Confucian car.) In Confucianism, a person does not exist autonomously. To exist alone is not enough. It is the link -- not only the presence, but the type and quality of it -- to another person that makes that person a human.

There is a great deal of truth in this, and an excellent illustration of this truth is actually a Hollywood movie -- Cast Away. The movie famously depicts a FedEx employee Chuck Noland who was swept onto a deserted island by himself. At that point, the movie had a potential to become an Ayn Rand-type story in which an individual triumphs through self-reliance. But no -- Noland draws a face on a volleyball, names it Wilson, and talks with it constantly throughout the movie. In other words, facing utter isolation, Noland sought to create a human-like relationship somehow, even if the counterpart to the relationship is an inanimate object.

Fittingly, the movie's most poignant moment is when Noland loses Wilson in the process of escaping from the island. What tugs our heart strings is not the fact that a volleyball disappeared into the sea. That would be stupid. What is sad is that Noland lost his only connection to humanity, his quasi-human relationship with another.

Of course, Tom Hanks deserves an Oscar
for making us empathize with a volleyball

This relational understanding of humans thoroughly pervades Korean society, affecting behaviors as well as thought process. When two Koreans meet for the first time, they spent the first few minutes asking each other how old they are, what they do, where they are from, etc. A lot of Westerners are put off by this -- what business of his to know my age? I gave my name -- isn't that enough? No, a Korean would reply -- you might say who you are, but you didn't tell me who you are to me. Are you an elder? An alumnus? What should I call you?

That last point about nomenclature is also pervasive in Korean culture. Except for close friends (and sometimes, even between close friends,) it is rare for Korean adults to call each other by name only. In fact, even the word "you" is rarely used. Various "relationship words" are used instead. Just to give a few examples, with a person named Jisu (relationship words in italics):  Jisu hyung (older brother), Jisu nuna (older sister), Jisu sunbae (elder classman). If there is no direct relationship to be found, then one's social position is a decent substitute. Koreans would use words like "doctor", "manager", "professor", "lawyer", etc. in such case. Failing at those, Koreans use catch-all terms like "elder" (어르신) or "teacher" (선생님).

In addition to the nomenclature, social interactions of Koreans also tend to be a constant recognition and reaffirmation of relationships. Koreans bow to elders and seniors. Polite Koreans give things with two hands so as to signal respect. Korean manners require that you never show up empty-handed to visit another person's house -- you must always bring a gift, even as trivial as a box of fruits. A family newly moved to a neighborhood gifts rice cakes to their neighbors, in recognition that they are new to the neighborhood. Almost all functions -- sometimes as routine as the new semester in school -- have an opening and closing ceremony, usually accompanied by a speech given by the leader of the group.

(To remind everyone of the caveats once again -- Confucianism does not cause any of this to happen. At no time did Confucius say that there will be a ritual for a new semester. But Confucianism does make it easy for Koreans to engage in this type of social interaction.)

Maintaining a relational understanding of humans leads to a constant assessment of everyone's "place." If you want to know your relationship to another, you need to understand your position relative to another. And your position always comes with a certain set of "what you are supposed to do." If you are a student, you must be "student-like" -- diligent in learning and respectful to teachers. If you are a teacher, you must be "teacher-like" -- educated and dignified. If, say, there was a gambling ring involving doctors, professors and lawyers, they are heavily criticized for being a "leadership class" that sets a poor example.

The natural outgrowth is that Koreans end up caring a great deal about social status. Remember, it is not just the individual that makes a person; it is also the type of social links that the individual creates with other individuals and the larger society. This necessarily involves a constant survey of one's place in relation to the world, which in turn fuels one's desire to have a higher social status whenever possible.

Confucian Educational Philosophy

Korea's educational zeal is notorious, and the results are undeniable -- Korea usually tops the chart when it comes to student achievements. But the funny thing is Korea's educational system has all the factors that Americans generally think as hindrances to education. The teachers' unions in Korea are very, very strong. Teachers are only required to have bachelor's degree, and not master's degree like the U.S. The teachers are not evaluated by performance at all, and it is damn near impossible to fire a bad teacher. The class sizes in Korea are not small. Then what accounts for the success of Korea's educational system?

Many plausible explanations are available -- the Korean personally thinks that teachers' unions are very important in recruiting quality teachers, and class sizes really don't matter. (This will be discussed in a later post about education, so no need to elaborate further here.) But it seems plain that Confucianism plays a role (how big a role, no one knows) in Korea's educational zeal.

Western philosophy (broadly defined) also emphasizes education, but its emphasis is geared more toward discovering the truth that is external and eternal. Issac Newton and the contemporary physicists, for example, explicitly linked physics to Christianity. Studying and discovering the order of the universe is to become closer to God, as they are an attempt to understand the truth that God set in motion. In contrast, the educational focus of Confucianism is inward-looking. Recall that the ultimate goal of a Confucian is to achieve in. Education -- studying, really -- is one of the way in which a person gets closer to in. Studying the ways of the world is an act of shaping oneself into a proper vessel of in 

Confucianism's emphasis on education is also far more intense. The Korean cannot think of any Western philosopher, comparable to Confucius in stature, who spoke of similar dedication to studying. In the very first line of the Analects, Confucius says: "學而時習之 不亦說乎" -- "Studying and at times learning, how is this not a source of joy!" Confucius then spends easily half of the most important book of Confucianism talking about what he studied, how he studied them, and just how much he loved studying them. According to an ancient biography of Confucius written by Sima Zhen, Confucius would read a book under the leather strings that bound the bamboo pieces wore out and broke three times. (This is known as 韋編三絶.) 

All this is because in a way, studying is an act of humanly self-creation. As we saw in the previous series, achieving in is no more than following the truest human nature. And education gets one closer to in. In this sense, Confucian education is about making a human out of a beast. Because of that, the complaints like "Why do I have to learn calculus? I will never use it in my life!" make no sense in Confucianism. Under Confucianism, education is not a series of skill acquisition, as if adding options to a car. It is about making you a person. And the more educated person is almost literally a better person, a person closer to the ideal human.

These aspects of Confucian educational philosophy are evident in Korea's educational philosophy today. Studying and effort are revered for their own sake. While many Koreans worry about the excessive intensity of their educational system, no one -- really, no one -- dare talks about dumbing down the curriculum. While childlike taunts of "teachers' pet" also exist in Korea, students generally hold a deep-seated respect for their fellow students who get good grades. Also, because teachers are fundamentally more respected because they are not seen as mechanics adding skills upon students (like adding an optional X-ray vision to Robocop,) but a personhood-shaper.

Lastly, Koreans are more inclined to publicly discuss other people's educational level, and are more inclined to listen to people who are more educated. This leads to a type of meritocracy, as discussed further below.

Confucian Democracy

To continue the discussion of meritocracy -- as discussed earlier, educated person is the better person under Confucianism. And it is the obligation of the better person to make other people better and more educated. Ultimately, the better person becomes the ruler of people, because that is the nature of in -- people are naturally inclined to follow a person who has achieved in. Mencius' story about Emperor Shun is worth retelling here:  Shun became the emperor even though he was not the heir of the preceding emperor, because the people naturally came to him to resolve disputes and voluntarily sang of Shun's virtue.

In modern era, this Confucian vision has been absorbed into a form of Confucian democracy in Korea. The most important devices of Western democracy -- for example, periodic elections -- are undoubtedly present. But much of governance in Korea is driven by Confucian consideration. The president is not someone who is there to do a job. He is also expected to be a Confucian-style leader: the paragon of moral authority, the best of all humans. A phrase in 大學 (Book of Great Learning) succinctly describes this requirement: 修身齊家治國平天下. "Polish oneself, then put the family in order, then rule a country, then give peace to the whole world." Each of the preceding is a requirement for the subsequent. You cannot, for example, rule a country without getting your own house in order first. This type of understanding about leadership and governance means that anyone who fails to be a shining example for the people immediately loses legitimacy as a leader. (Suffice to say that the Clinton Impeachment would likely have ended very differently in Korea.)

Another characteristic of a Confucian democracy is that people end up placing a huge amount of faith in the government. This is a massive contrast to American democracy, which is constantly suspicious of its own government. In Confucian democracy, the relationship between the government and the people is not contractual, in a strict Lockean sense. A Confucian government is literally made up of people who are better than you, which means you would do well to listen to them.

This is consistent with the way Koreans approach governmental authority. The smartest Koreans generally aspire to join the government, and government hiring is generally merit-based. This engenders respect from Korean public, who in turn is perfectly content to let the government regulate such minute things in a way that would horrify average Americans. For example, Koreans generally have no problem with the government telling corporations exactly what to produce and how much. Koreans also have no problem with the government leading the charge of regulating morality by, literally, telling people what is the right thing to do. (For example, official curriculum in Korean public schools must include a class called "Ethics." Imagine the howl of American parents if the government forced their children to learn "Ethics" from school!)

High school ethics textbook

But remember that in is always a two-way street. In is about human relationships, which always flow both ways. This necessarily means that the ruler has certain obligations to his subjects. And if these requirements are not met, the people may justifiably rebel and replace their rulers. This contributed to the relentless character of Korea's democratization movements: the activists understood that if the ruler failed to meet his obligations to the people, the ruler does not deserve to rule. Recall that such obligations include maintaining a morally upright life. With that consideration, it is not a surprise that Kim Jae-Gyu, former head of KCIA and assassin who killed the dictator-president Park Chung-Hee, began turning on Park when Park's womanizing reached an obnoxious level. Fittingly, when Kim assassinated Park, the president was drinking with two women in a safe house, well on his way to bedding them.

Confucian Civil Society

Finally, Confucianism contributes to distinctive characteristics of Korea's civil society, and how people relate to one another in a modern society made up of strangers. This list can be endless, but the Korean will quickly discuss three examples.

First, the private-public divide is either muddled or nonexistent in Korea. Under Confucianism, a person's public self -- how the person is represented to the world -- is an outgrowth of the person's private self. A Confucian teacher's quality does not only depend on her knowledge of the material; it also depends on who she is as a person. A teacher cannot build the students' character if the character of the teacher is not up to par. This means a person's private life is constantly under scrutiny, and more so if the person belongs to the "leadership class" -- political leaders, academics and professionals, whose virtues should be greater than ordinary people's.

Second, Koreans are suspicious of people who insist on doing everything "by the law." Recall the admonition by Jo Gwang-Jo: "The royal court's discipline cannot be established by punishment. Once the court gets right first, the lower people naturally obey with their heart. Punishments and the laws cannot be abolished, but they are but the means to assist governance. They cannot be the foundation of governance." Koreans have a keen sense that the law is subordinate to morality. The law can be manipulated, especially by the rich and powerful -- but not the sense of right and wrong. Law is a final resort for dispute resolution, when the moral code arising out of human relationship fails. In this sense, it is somewhat disgraceful to rely on the law, because it signifies that you were unable to resolve a dispute in a humanly, civilized manner. An example of this appears often in Korean dramas in the form of a selfish heir -- while the family is still grieving the death, the selfish heir demands his inheritance "by the law." ("법대로.")

(A funny episode related to this tendency: in 2009, the city of Sokcho renamed the street in front of the courthouse as "Law Boulevard" -- "법대로", which can also mean "by the law." Some citizens did not appreciate the double entendre, and petitioned the city council to the change it. The city council refused.)

Third, although Korea has a number of different very active and vibrant religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, strife between religions is rare in Korea compared to other countries. Because Confucianism has no deity, its philosophy withstood the onslaught of modern liberalism better than other deity-based philosophy. Instead, religions in Korea co-opted significant portions of Confucian philosophy. For example, Korean Christianity puts a heavy emphasis on God the "father," which coincides neatly with Confucian reverence for parents. Because every Korean implicitly acts based on Confucian rules, religion is not a big part of public life, and expression of religion is not usually seen as a threat to non-believers. (Many Korean pop stars profusely thank God at every opportunity, and practically no one in Korea pays any mind.)

Thank you for bearing with this long, long post. The next and final part of the series will discuss the Korean's own opinions of how Confucianism in Korea could be better applied, and what America can learn from Confucian social order.

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