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[VOICE] Does Confucianism have a role in Korea today?

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Published : 2012-02-13 21:30
Updated : 2012-02-13 21:30

Some 2,500 years after the death of Confucius ...
Does Confucianism have a role in Korea today?


The teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius have had a profound influence on South Korea. So much so, that the nation is sometimes referred to as the most Confucian society on earth.

An emphasis on family, personal betterment and respect for age and authority continue to feature highly in Korean life to this day, some 2,500 years after the philosopher’s death.

Ethicist and director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, Tu Weiming is adamant Confucianism still has much to offer a modern society such as Korea.

“Confucianism is arguably the most comprehensive and integrated humanism in world history. It is also one of the most important and significant rational ways of learning to be human among all Axial-Age Civilizations, namely Greek philosophy, Judaism ― by implication Christianity and Islam ― Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. It offers Korea the ‘core values’ that will make her a standard of moral excellence in the developing as well as the developed world,” Tu said.

Tu says that key values set it apart from Western notions of ethics such as “The Golden Rule.”

“Just to name two of these values: the spirit of humanity ― sympathy and compassion ― and the practice of reciprocity. I would argue that the Confucian idea of reciprocity is more congenial to inter-religious and dialogue among civilizations.”

Tu even argues that Confucian values of the common good and hard work without immediate reward contributed to Korea’s rapid recovery from the 2009 financial crisis. In 2010, the country grew its economy by 6 percent while most of the developed world remained stagnant or saw negative growth.

“Similar examples can be found in other Confucian societies, such as Japan and Singapore. In all these societies, the leadership ― often the collaboration between the political and business elite ― can mobilize the whole society ― including the labor and the citizens ― to deal with the national crisis as a collective enterprise. This phenomenon is difficult to imagine in many contemporary societies such as USA, England, France, or Greece,” Tu said.

Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of “Confucianism for the Modern World,” agrees that Confucianism has been instrumental in Koreans’ propensity to rally around a common cause.

“Back in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit, we had Koreans giving up gold. The huge spectacle of people lining up in the streets and giving up their gold because they thought our country was going under. We still sort of contrast that with how the Greeks or the Italians or the Spaniards are responding to their financial crisis where they just simply blame politicians and others. You really cannot explain that without Confucianism, where that sense of economic nationalism comes from or the sense that this nation is all on the same boat,” Hahm said.

He also believes the philosophy’s rigorous ethical standards have largely been a positive influence on the nation, despite numerous past and present improprieties in the political and business worlds.

“Confucianism still requires a lot from people in power or authority. That has really served us quite well and it has been a major source of social development and political development in society,” Hahm said.

But Confucianism has its critics, with charges against it ranging from its view of women to its reinforcement of hierarchies, whether deserving or not. In “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell cited deference toward superiors, a Confucian trait deeply embedded in Korean culture, as a major factor in Korean Air having one of the world’s worst safety records from 1988-1998.

“Confucianism began with so little mobility of households et al, and it relies on an unchanging hierarchy, women come up short in almost all relationships,” said Jerome F. Keating, a former professor at National Taipei University and the author of the paper “The Dark side of Confucianism.”

“The 21st century has a growing sense of democracy; even the Arab Spring senses this, where people want the right to choose their leaders and they don’t want to depend on the ‘benevolence’ of those above. Technically, Confucianism relegates responsibility up and down the ladder, but that is more honored in the breach than reality.”

To Keating, Confucianism is largely ill-suited to modern life.

“With any philosophy, religion, ideology you have to examine it from the standpoint of the world for which it set about presenting answers to living. Confucianism was constructed for an agricultural based society and economy: note the low rank given to businessmen at the bottom of the ladder ― how that has changed. That is one of the issues I see. The world of today is not that agriculturally based, it is a globalized society where people are very mobile and the majority of workers make money differently.”

While traces of the philosophy can be found in the earliest records of the Korean Peninsula, its influence grew considerably from the 14th century onward during the Joseon Dynasty. By the 1500s, Neo-Confucianism had come to dominate thought and social mores in the kingdom, largely due to the influence of Yi Hwang and Yi I, the two most prominent scholars of the time who appear today on the 1,000 and 5,000 won notes.

Confucianism emphasizes harmony and the importance of family, recognizing that, in Tu’s words, “the family is indispensable for human survival and flourishing.” Accordingly, societies influenced by the tradition such as Korea, Japan and Taiwan tend to have enviably low levels of violent crime and family breakdown. Keating argues, however, that such positive social indicators shouldn’t be taken at face value.

“In Taiwan, and I am sure in other Asian countries, incest and abuse and rape by uncles, etc. goes unreported because of the shame factor in preserving family image. Similarly I have noted that there is no lessening of extra-marital affairs, etc. Family stays together but at what price? In the West, we call a mistress a mistress. In Asia it gets a (euphemistic) phrase like sciau tai-tai (little wife). You are dealing with cultures where image and face rank higher than honesty and straightforwardness,” he said.

Hahm, too, acknowledges the philosophy’s limitations, noting that the strict dictates of Confucianism are often at odds with the reality of morally weak people.

“Because it is such a highly set standard people try to sometimes shirk it, sometimes to circumvent it. It also leads to a lot of hypocrisy, which leads to a terrible deal of widespread cynicism in society, a sense of betrayal,” Hahm said.

Not only is the ethical bar high, it is distinct from other societies, adds Hahm.

“They are different standards as well. Something like a Lewinsky scandal, I don’t think any Korea politician could survive something like that. So in that sense we have a much higher standard than the western societies where they think that’s a private issue, it’s a private affair as long as the guy is doing OK as a president, that’s what we should worry about, not so much what kind of private life that person has. It’s the kind of distinction Koreans still fail to make.”

Hahm doesn’t advocate a societal return to Confucianism. But he believes where it could be most relevant today is as a counterweight to other modes of thought.

“I think what (role) Confucianism can play, or any kind communitarian traditional order value system can do, is sort of (be) a mitigating factor in whatever excesses individualism in society might create.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com )


Readers’ voice

On a Korea-China FTA...

An FTA with China would kill small Korean industries. With an FTA with China, cheap products from China will get cheaper. As we can see from the FTA with the U.S., farmers are having problems earning a living. This will lead to small industries or small companies in Korea. With Chinese products in Korea, more industries will die out and only huge companies like Samsung will grow. This will lead to a monopoly of Samsung, making Korea not a nation but a company.

Furthermore, suppose that China suddenly decides to raise the prices of their exports. With most of the small industries dead, Koreans will be forced to purchase expensive Chinese goods. This will create chaos in the Korean economy.

Also, Korea having FTAs with China, the U.S., and Europe will only turn Korea turn into a tool of hegemons. All hegemons have to do is threaten Korea with raising prices. This unseen authority over us will only lead to Korea being controlled by foreign governments. Korea would have to get its hands on its own government or Koreans might rise up against the weak, foreign-based government. For the better, an FTA with China should rather not be pursued considering the FTA with the U.S. for now.

― Yuh Yun-sung, Daegu, via Facebook

An FTA with China, of course, can positively or negatively affect Korea, like the FTA with the U.S. But my thoughts are that its advantages are bigger than the disadvantages, based on several reasons.

Of these reasons, let me explain one regarding Taiwan.

Korea and Taiwan have many things in common, being among the four dragons in Asia with Hong Kong and Singapore. Both were colonized by Japan historically. Though both have high population density and poor resources, both have excellent labor.

In other words, both countries have developed based on an export-oriented economic structure. That is, in spite of being short of resources, they both import raw material and process it and export the finished goods. Due to this point, the two countries are in competition. Therefore China has nothing to do but be an attractive market, which has the largest population, to both.

By the way, Taiwan has signed an ECFA, or Economy Cooperation Foundation Agreement, with China. The ECFA is similar to an FTA in many aspects.

The China-Taiwan ECFA was signed quickly, considering Taiwan’s goal to escape recession and China’s political ambition to get a foothold for the yuan’s internationalization by embracing Taiwan into the yuan’s economic bloc.

As a result, Taiwan’s products are more price competitive than Korea’s, as tariffs have been lowered or even removed. Under this situation, it is evident that China will choose Taiwan’s products. This is the reason Korea must hurry up with an FTA with China.

― So Kyung-suu, Seoul

On overeducation...

I guess the problem of graduating from university and not being able to find a job is a common problem in many countries these days. It’s pretty serious here in Korea, too. Koreans tell me education played a big role in the economic growth of the country and it has always been seen as way up the ladder and out of poverty.

Korean parents always seem so passionate about their children’s education and teach them the importance of studying hard and getting good grades on tests. Going to university is not a choice. It is mandatory. There are so many universities but only a few are considered worth going to if you want to have a good job. It seems a good job means working at a big company.

Emphasis is put on a university name rather than the field of study. I’ve seen students give up their dream in order to go to a higher ranking school. For the many who could not make it into a high ranking school, any university will do and I believe the only reason they go is to save face. Not having a degree looks bad.

From what I see, a lot of universities are easy to graduate from if you just go to class and finish the assignments. Some people have actually told me it is possible to negotiate your grade with the professor.

In the end there are a ton of graduates with no job and no specialized skills. It was all just a waste of time ― and with insane tuition fees.

It seems as though the education system isn’t set up to prepare students to be skilled and knowledgeable in the field of their choice. Rather, it is just a way of ranking people and responds to the demand of providing upward mobility in status through competition. Status has always been important in Korean culture.

Another thing to consider is that a lot of these students have never worked before and most of the time, university was paid for by their parents. Their first job will be the one they get after graduation. They have been students their entire life and won’t settle for anything less than a high-paying job.

I’ve had many university students tell me they gave up job offers at smaller companies because with their education, they need to be working at a big company. It seems to me that they don’t have any intention to work their way up from the bottom and expectations are really high.

I believe this is all starting to change though. The new generation of students and parents see the problem and are trying to find ways around it. I think in the future we will see a decrease in universities. Maybe even schools merging with each other. The quality of vocational and technical training schools will increase and more students will enroll in these types of schools.

― Carlos Unite, Seongnam

“Miracle of the River Han,” they call it. South Korea has produced unprecedented economic growth since the end of the Korean War to become the 13th largest economy in the world. From one of the most impoverished nations in the world to an economic powerhouse backed by tremendous exports stemming from the country’s technological and engineering capacities. South Korea has achieved this through education.

For a developing nation to enjoy a wealthy economy and catch up with developed nations, it needs resources. Middle East nations have crude oil. China has enormous human labor force. South Korea? The brains.

Only research & development in technological fields have enabled South Korean corporations to mass produce electronic goods and cars and ships for export, and build many of the most impressive structures in the world. Technological superiority through continuous research & development has been made possible because of education.

Pre-university South Korean students continue to perform impressively in academia compared to their foreign counterparts, consistently ranking within top two or three in the world in mathematics and sciences. These top-performing and hard-working students were, are, and will continue to be the main driving force behind South Korea’s economic growth.

Over-education is an oxymoron because there are never negative returns for education. More and more education will only provide South Korea with the resources it needs to continue its impressive economic growth, which also provides the role model for other aspiring economies.

Passion, enthusiasm and commitment to education form the backbone for this Tiger economy. Over-education is an oxymoron. Koreans are not overeducated.

― John Stefan, Seongnam

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