Cong-Ja and The Confucian Society That Does Not Read Confucius

So it’s funny…

The other night I was bitching to my friend Myoung Jae about how in Iksan, I was the only person I knew who’d actually sat down and read Confucius (or, as he’s known in Korea, Cong-Ja). Now, I’m not just talking about foreigners, I mean Koreans too.

Korea’s supposed to be a Confucian society, after all. So you might think that a fair number of people are at least passingly familiar with The Analects or The Great Learning (I think this is the same book, by the way, but I am not sure). I asked Korean friends continually, and nobody had. Not even Confucius, let alone his major commentators, like Mencius (Meng-Ja). I could see nobody having read Lao Tzu (No-Ja) as Taoism isn’t big here… but Confucianism has so much lip-service paid to it I couldn’t believe nobody actually knew Confucius.

Well, yesterday I had lunch with two Confucian scholars… well, Chinese classics majors, anyway. They had studied The Tae Hak (The Great Learning) together last semester and found it very difficult but had struggled through. When we were talking, I think I figured out why almost nobody actually reads Confucius here… because, they said, it’s thought you can only really understand it in the original Chinese and so they must study it in hanja characters (Chinese) rather than in translation into Korean.

I don’t know if there is a good Korean translation, though of course there should be one. Then again, I suppose many Westerners have read neither the Bible nor Homer in the original languages, but… there are translations and if you went looking for someone who had at least read a translation at a University, you’d probably find someone. After all, I met people in Iksan who’d read Baudelaire and Pound and Philip K. Dick both in English and in Korean translation, no less.

It makes me think that Korea’s not really a Confucian society any longer, as much as a simply hierarchical society with an antiquated privilege left to older rich men and (subordinately) the women connected to them, with the standard downward flow of domination you find in plenty of other cultures that never experienced Chinese philosophy in any way, shape, or form. (…such as traditional European society, for example.)

Anyway, it was a pleasant lunch with these young scholars of Chinese lit, one of whom is my student. I learned a few things, including the fact that at my University, the dormitories have a great diner. The counter lady even gave me an extra pajeon when she saw I was a (white) professor. I am still uneasy about such special treatment but it was delicious, and we had a good chat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *