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[Kim Seong-kon] Beautiful custom, vulgar society

Granted we now live in the age of radical social change, but we should keep the beautiful custom of respecting older people.


When planning the agenda for the Seoul International Forum for Literature last May, the organizing committee encountered one minor problem: Who should have the honor of proposing a toast at the welcome reception among the 14 distinguished international guests? A committee member solved the problem by saying, “We have a beautiful custom of respecting seniority in such an occasion.” So the committee decided to ask the oldest participant, Amiya Dev from India, to propose a toast on behalf of the honorable guests. 

Another issue was that we hosted two Nobel Laureates for two keynote speeches, one on opening day, and the other the next day. Who was to give the first keynote speech? The two eminent writers surely would not care, yet some people are sensitive to such protocol. So we checked their ages according to the beautiful Korean custom and found that the two Nobel Prize winners were born in the same year. Consequently, we decided to simply go by alphabetical order. Since C in Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio precedes G in Gao Xingjian, (we decided to rule out “le”), we had le Clezio speak on the first day, and Gao Xingjian on the second day.

Unfortunately, a few years ago, our leftist administrations eradicated the beautiful custom of respecting seniority. They wrongfully assumed that the older generation was but a bunch of despicable conservatives, and that everybody should be equal in every respect. As a result, few young people seem to respect older people these days. For example, the beautiful custom of giving up your seat for the elderly in a bus or train is largely extinct in Korea now. At workplaces, too, people no longer treat their superiors with due respect.

Some young people shock us when they yell at elders or curse them with dirty words without hesitation. When we do not respect our parents or teachers, our homes and schools will crumple. Likewise, when we do not respect our seniors or superiors, chaos, vulgarity and dehumanization will prevail in our society, leading to eventual collapse. Due to misdirected leftist ideology, however, we hopelessly mistake the deterioration of social order as the promotion of equality, wrongfully believing we are building an egalitarian society by ignoring seniority.

It is undeniably juvenile to disrespect your seniors and superiors, or your parents and teachers. Just like teenagers, indeed, we are often charged with unrestrained emotional surges, challenge authorities, and become rebellious without a cause. In order to build a mature society, however, we should learn to control our emotions, recognize authority, and respect our seniors and superiors. Traditionally, Korean society has been based on loyalty, respect for our parents and courtesy. We should uphold these beautiful customs despite the increasingly dehumanizing postindustrial society in which we now live.

Meanwhile, our elderly should also try to improve their treatment of the young. In the subway, for example, we often frown at demanding elders who, instead of sitting in the reserved sections for senior citizens, shamelessly demand in a loud voice for young women to vacate their seats for them. I have seen old men scold a pregnant woman sitting in a section reserved for the elderly and pregnant, simply because the woman does not look old enough to sit there. There is a saying that when you grow old, you should close your mouth and open your purse instead. When older people are with younger people, however, some become quite demanding and ungenerous towards the young.

What we urgently need in our society is decency and gentility, decorum and discretion. We should be more refined and courteous, not just through formality, but in a genuine sense. Otherwise, we will inevitably end up living in a vulgar society. They say that Korea is a Confucian society and thus seniority still counts. That may no longer be true; ordinary Koreans do not read books by Confucius or other Confucian scholars any more. In fact, Korean society is a curious mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity.

In his famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats delineates the agony of old age:

That is no country

for old men. The young

In one another’s arms,

birds in the trees

Those dying generations

at their song ...

Whatever is begotten,

born, and dies.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick …

And therefore I have sailed

the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

Writing this poem at age 60, Yeats intensely wants to leave the country of the young and sail to Byzantium where he can transcend his aging body and become a soul-searching golden bird.

Aging is a sad phenomenon. No one is immune from getting old. As Yeats suggests, however, old men and women can become sages who should be esteemed. Granted we now live in the age of radical social change, we should keep the beautiful custom of respecting older people.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.
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