Recently, I read the controversial book “Confucius Must Die for This Nation to Live” by Professor Kim Kyung-il. The book is a de-facto declaration of independence from Confucianism, which has been the predominant and prevalent philosophy in Korean society for the past 600 years. In the book, the author strongly asserts that all social evils and chronic problems in Korean society stem from Confucianism. According to Kim, both China and Japan abandoned Confucianism a long time ago, but Korea unwisely constructed its society upon Confucian morality, which has since degenerated into hollow formalism and a male-Chauvinist and patriarchal system. Kim wrote that Confucianism was, in fact, adopted to justify the Joseon Kingdom that was founded through a military coup that overthrew the Goryeo Kingdom, the religion of which was Buddhism.
After reading the book, I came to realize why every time Korean politicians seize power, they take up the chant of weeding out corruption. Kim argues that such a cyclic repetition is inherent in Confucianism. According to Kim, the following pattern has been repeated in Korean history: “When someone assumes political power in Korea, he immediately hoists the flag of Confucian morality, launching anti-corruption campaigns. Then the new leader exercises strong power superseding the law in the name of cleaning up deep-rooted irregularities and social maladies. And then, he replaces elite professionals with amateurs who belong to his faction, essentially turning off warning signals from experts. As time goes on, corrosion and corruption inevitably follow. Eventually, the regime collapses due to internal chaos or external conflicts. Finally, a new regime appears, once again hoisting the flag of morality and social justice with an anti-corruption campaign.”
Kim also contends that the three major disasters of Korea in the 20th century had all something to do with Confucianism. First, the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 was caused by the hopelessly incompetent political leaders who were ignorant of international politics and thus sold out their sovereignty to Japan. Indeed, they were invariably narrow-minded, myopic Confucian zealots who were only interested in factional conflict, not realizing their nation was caught in the crossfire of international conflict.
Second, Kim argues that the Korean War, which broke out in 1950, manifested the factional hate and hostility typical to Korea that was justified and legitimized by Confucianism. Although the people of the North and the South spoke the same language and shared the same culture, they did not tolerate each other. They were sharply divided due to the difference in political ideologies and tried to eliminate each other.
Another reason for the Korean War was the power politics between two groups led by two powerful bosses, which had been a typical trait of a nation ruled by Confucianism. Kim also points out that one of the main reasons why the South Korean army collapsed during the war was corruption. The Republic of Korea army generals reportedly misappropriated military budgets and, as a result, soldiers were not equipped with proper weapons and their morale was low. Kim maintains that military leaders could embezzle money easily because Confucian morality did not allow complaints against your boss.
Third, Kim says that the financial crisis of 1997 was caused by our bravado, self-deception, and delusion of grandeur. Indeed, we vastly inflated our economic success and were full of conceit. The result was that Korea fell prey to the Asian Financial Crisis. The crisis was also caused by the Korean government’s retreat into the past under the excuse of rooting out chronic corruption, instead of looking to the future.
We should stop returning to the past. Instead, we should move forward to build a better society. Unfortunately, however, we keep going back to the past again and again because Confucianism urges us to do so. As Kim writes, the flag of self-claimed justice and morality is so enticing that we keep hopelessly returning to the past to find skeletons in the closet, as if our salvation could be found there. Obviously, however, that is an inherent illusion of Confucianism.
Kim points out that from its inception Confucianism was meant to serve politicians, not ordinary citizens; men, not women or children; and the privileged, not the underprivileged. Moreover, Confucianism emphasized the importance of obedience to seniors, teachers, and even dictators. Naturally, military dictators forced schools to teach the Confucian morality of loyalty and filial piety so their power could not be challenged. Confucianism also discouraged discussions and creativity and instead encouraged passivity and obedience. In that sense, Confucianism has exercised bad influence on our education despite its merits.
In order to make our country prosperous, our war against the so-called “accumulated evils” of the past should not be directed at those who worked for the previous government. Instead, it should be directed against our chronic disease of factional hostility, against repeating the same follies of self-righteousness and hate, and against the either/or mentality. We should put an end to such negative legacies of Confucianism. We should build a colorful society, not a black and white one, so we can let our children inherit a better tomorrow. By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.