Confucianism and Korea - Part VI: The Korean on Confucianism in Modern Korea

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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.

More 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)

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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.

Less Confucianism

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.

Gender Equality

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.

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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.

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