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[Herald interview] Confucianism helped Korea in financial crisis: scholar

Chinese professor Tu Weiming says willingness to work without immediate reward, government-corporate cooperation fueled recovery


Chinese neo-Confucianism scholar Tu Weiming said Korea was able to overcome the recent global financial crisis due in part to Confucian influence on Korean society, where people generally work hard without expecting immediate reward.

Tu, director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University and lifetime professor of philosophy there, was in Seoul to give a lecture on Confucian humanism in the 21st century and China’s quest for a new cultural identity at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul last week.

“Korea is one of the countries that were most influenced by Confucianism. Even Christianity in Korea has Confucian factors,” Tu told The Korea Herald.

Although negative factors of the Confucian tradition like male domination, hierarchy and conservatism are apparent in Korean society, its positive aspects ― putting a lot of emphasis on group efforts, for example ― helped the nation steer clear from the economic downturn, he said.

“They work hard but they don’t get the reward right now. But they are willing to sustain their effort for economic development. There’s also collaboration between government and business,” the 70-year-old scholar said.
Tu Weiming, director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Tu Weiming, director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

The Korean economy’s year-on-year growth rate spiked to 6.1 percent in 2010 from 0.2 percent in 2009, on the back of public stimulus and strong exports with record-low borrowing costs, the Bank of Korea said in late January.

The irresponsibility of CEOs of multi-national financial companies and the lack of social cohesion in Western society have been blamed for the recent global financial crisis, he said, adding that Confucianism might give an insight to the Western world, if not solve the problem.

Tu further said that Confucian ethics may have played a role in boosting the economic growth of the East Asian region, comparable to the Protestant ethics that contributed to the rise of capitalism.

However, he said that the current Confucian values were not perfect, requiring a continuous process of change.

“The Confucian tradition has been critiqued very thoroughly by some of the best minds. Christianity hasn’t gone through that yet nor Islam, nor Buddhism,” Tu said.

“A lot of changes have to be made before the Confucian tradition will be a dynamic and creative force in East Asia.”

Tu is also working as research professor and senior fellow of Asia Center at Harvard University.

He taught Chinese intellectual history, philosophies of China and Confucian studies at Harvard University from 1981 to 2010. Tu served as director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute from 1996 to 2008.

By Kim Yoon-mi (yoonmi@heraldcorp.com)
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