Why I Think Korea’s “Not Really Confucian” (And That Saying It Is Doesn’t Help Things…)

UPDATE (20 min after posting): Okay, the title of this post is probably a cheat for something much more complex I’m trying to say. This is a blog. Sue me.

ORIGINAL POST: Today a student dropped by my office to discuss an academic project she’s working on, and we got into a discussion of whether we can lay blame for various patriarchal ills in modern Korea at the feet of Confucianism.

During this discussion, I confessed that I don’t think we can. Or, rather, that I think blaming Confucianism is, like blaming Christianity, simply a lazy shorthand. This is not to say that I don’t think Confucianism and Christianity (like most major religions) haven’t been used to promulgate particularly noxious partiarchal norms and so on. It’s just that I think contemporary Korea just simply isn’t as Confucian as it likes to think — and that Christianity in Korea is just as much used to the same ends as Confucianism once was.

My point is this: patriarchal culture co-opts whatever it can. Christianity needn’t necessarily be patriarchal, though of course since men have been controlling how the story has been told for centuries — including the list of Jesus’ closest friends, the “apostles,” somehow all guys — that is how things have worked out. Patriarchy co-opted Christianity, just as Christianity co-opted all kinds of pagan rituals and festivals and so on.

Similarly in Korea, the Joseon Dynasty was the bunch that really promulgated Confucianism here — or, indeed, remixed it for Joseon use. The Joseon Dynasty was patriarchal as all get-out, and whaddaya know, their remix of Confucianism seems to have been even more noxiously sexist than the original. But they weren’t as far as I can tell, patriarchal because they were Confucian; no, it was the other way around — they chose to promote Confucianism and deemphasize Buddhism (also noxiously patriarchal, by our reference frame, but less so perhaps than Neo-Confucianism) because they wanted their society to be structured along more patriarchal lines. This is why Christianity in Korea so often looks like a peculiarly hyperconservative, Confucianized system: because it’s been remixed to fit the kind of paternalistic, conservative society — even more so than mainstream Christianity in most of the the West — that Christian leaders here want to promulgate. Confucianism, Christianity — whatever’s useful in building up that suppressive, controlling atmosphere, it gets co-opted.

Undoubtedly, there are traces of Confucian influence in Korean society — but this doesn’t make Korea any more Confucian than America is a Christian nation despite the many traces of Judeo-Christian influence that abide even in secular American life. And no, America isn’t a Christian nation, not even in the way Indonesia in my experience is a Muslim nation. (Both, by the way, are in fact secular nations, but in Indonesia the Islam actually affects the lives of everyone present, in ways that Christianity simply doesn’t seem necessarily to impact the lives of those who don’t want it to, at least in urban America.)

I’ll come out and say it: from what I can tell, the USA is a secular society centered on capitalist consumerism, but one that somehow gets off (or assuages the sense of meaninglessness it apparently feels) by pretending it’s a Christian society, telling itself that it is Christian, and so on. American is a multireligious, multiracial, multicultural society at the core of which is neither art nor culture but transfer of money — something that much more seems like the state religion of America — but it has a fantasy about itself as a great melting pot, comparable to Korea’s officialized fantasy of blood-homogeneity.

So anyway, this is one of my intellectual pet peeves in Korea. Everywhere you turn, something is being blamed on Confucianism. Yet when I ask the people saying this, “Have you actually read Confucius? Like, any at all? Any Mencius?” they giggle embarrassedly. (And yes, I use the Korean names — 공자 and 맹자 — when I ask this.) No joke, most of them admit to having read precisely none that they can recall. (A few add, “Maybe in school, but I can’t remember…” which counts for little in my books.)  Surely in a Christian nation, people would be, so generally that it would be a component of fundamental general education, reading the Bible (or picking it up in an oral tradition, at least). Surely in a Confucian society, people would value study of the Confucian classics — both the Chinese and the Korean texts — expounding the principles of Confucianism.

Sexism simply doesn’t come from Christianity, or from Confucianism. Patriarchal authorities have used systems like Christianity and Confucianism to enshrine and promulgate sexism within their societies, of course, but those systems are not the source, but only a vector of reinforcement. It always seems strange to me when people blame, say, rigid gender roles on Confucianism. As if other socities untouched by Confucianism didn’t ever produce rigid gender roles? Of course they did. Hop in my time machine and let’s visit North Dakota 100 years ago. Let’s visit Saskatoon in 1920, where women who smoke and drink are “bad women.” Let’s drop by Hollywood, where sexy almost invariably meant evil well into the 1920s. And this is a trope in Bollywood films, I gather, from not so very long ago at all… there’s a reason that in almost every modern, industrialized society, the term “femme fatale” is at least somewhat immediately comprehensible.

And this is why I object to calling Korea a Confucian society. To do so is not simply a descriptive act: it is also a political act. To say that Confucianism has influenced Korea is one thing, of course: that is a statement of fact. But to claim that Korea is a Confucian society now naturalizes the claim on society which both patriarchal values, and those values which have been co-opted into the system (Confucianism, ethnocentric nationalism, and even evangelical Christianity). In other words, Confucianism is one vision of what Korean society is, among multiple competing visions. A past history of Neo-Confucianism, like a past history of shamanism and Buddhism, have left their mark on Korean society, just as have a colonial experience, an experience under political dictators, and the influence of Western-style capitalism. But to call Korea Confucian today is, I believe, a political act — an active envisioning of society today (and tomorrow) according to one set of guidelines. And one thing we can be sure of is that people in the future won’t necessarily accept that definition, retroactively or for their own purposes.

I said to the student, “Well, it’s your culture, of course, and I don’t have a horse in the race. And you should take all of this with a big grain of salt, because I experience your culture as an outsider. And I’m not trying to put down Korea, or to say the West is better. All I’m saying that when you say what Korea is today, you’re also privileging one or another claim about what Korea ought to be like, because anyway Korea’s a complex thing — it’s Confucian, and recovering from Confucianism, and anti-Confucian, depending on where you look. If you want to live in a society where Confucianism is held up as the definitive norm today, and used to justify maintaining a degree of sexism, to brake the further emancipation of women, and so on, be my guest. Going around reaffirming that “Korea is Confucian” is the best way to keep this myth alive and keep enshrining the very things you say that you want to change. But if I were Korean, personally, I’d be saying that Confucianism is an oppressive, hateful, anti-egalitarian system irreconcilable with modern democracy and gender and racial equality, and I’d be advocating that the philosophy of Confucianism be strangled to death now, while it’s still weak, and before another economic downturn makes conservative gender roles come back into vogue, under the justification that it’s Korean tradition. I’d be finding people who are sympathetic to that vision and promoting their ideas. I’d be finding ways of saying this that were digestible to average people, and saying it loud and clear. I’d be saying, ‘Korea isn’t Confucian anymore, and it should never be again!’ But you know, it’s not my culture.”

Well, I said all those things, but sometimes in different (somewhat simpler) words and it was interspersed throughout a much longer dialog, because unlike the above, I don’t sit there lecturing students. I use a lot of the Socratic method, asking questions and getting them to think stuff through for themselves, while leading them along to the self-contradictions I’m targeting and which I believe my own thinking deals well with.

Anyway, part of the realization that I think so came from a book I recently read, about… yep, American history from about  1900 to about 1930. I’ll be posting about that soon, but for today, I have other stuff to do — some tidying, and some grading of essays and so on. I’m close to finished the majority of my grading, but there’s so much more to do, of course, that it doesn’t feel like I’m close at all.

6 thoughts on “Why I Think Korea’s “Not Really Confucian” (And That Saying It Is Doesn’t Help Things…)

  1. Hi Gord!
    Firstly, I like your thoughts on this.
    Secondly, did you notice you have an incompleted sentence? “It always seems strange to me when people say” …? :)

  2. Hi Gord, Confucianism was rarely mentioned by the students I talked with in China. HOwever, it was clear that there was a preference for sons over daughters; that children were expected to take their parents into consideration when making decisions about what they did; and many complained about the “loss of values” around them. (one of my Chinese friends, now living in Canada, roundly condemned his society as “basely materialistic; all that counts is guanxi now.”) There is, I have read, an intellectual movement known as neo-Confucianism, which is held up at time by certain thinkers as a way to reinvigorate the gerontocracy, but I don’t think the bulk of my students were aware of it, coming as they did from relatively small towns in Shandong province and still embued with communist teachings.

    It’s only a certain American demographic that insists on American being a “Christian” nation. I’m talking the born-again Republicans, and the Mormons who insist on Christ so as not to talk about their other beliefs. And that vision is confuted by reality: the moral spotlessness that the evangelical right claims is actually shot through with high rates of teenage pregnancy, and political behaviours that are decidedly un-Christ-like.

    In Canada, the default belief of those younger than myself seems to be atheism, which is often professed. The Conservative government has recently adopted stances–for instance the insertion of pro-life standards into an aid program for Africa–that might be described as evangelical Christian, and God knows why they are doing this; they’re aware of a crowd that I don’t mix with, obviously.

    These are my thoughts at the moment.

  3. Laura,

    Ah, thanks for pointing out the hanging sentence. I think it ended up there just by mistake. Ah, and “incomplete” sentence is better, though usually that’s used to refer to grammar, while what I wrote is an “unfinished” sentence. :)


    Yeah, some Chinese exchange students who come to Korea actually marvel at how “Confucian” it is here; mostly, though, they’re less impressed than shocked by it.

    I think a preference for sons over daughters isn’t specific to Confucianism. It’s a problem in India, too, and I suspect if there’d been the technology to do selective abortion in Europe 300+ years ago, it’d have been an issue there too. Likewise kids being expected to consult with or consider parents in major life decisions: remember the whole thing about asking a man for his daughter’s hand in marriage? I actually noted to one student that a lot of Korean mainstream TV entertainment (which she pointed out is mostly about family and romantic relationships) resembles nothing to me so much as it does Jane Austen’s fictional world. And as for loss of values, well, mainstream society in North America all but shat its ideological pants when young women started getting blunt cuts and smoking back in the 1920s.

    That was part of the point I was raising: while it’s risky to pick out parallels — because of specific cultural differences, and differences in tech levels — it’s far preferable, if one is skeptical enough of the method — to a purely dehistoricized view of both societies. The thing I struggle with is Korean students so often somehow imagining that Western society just magically is the way it is because of some inherent law of otherness. When I point out, “Oh, no, we were far more communalistic and much less individualistic 300 years ago,” or “Well, we haven’t always been as influenced by feminism as we are now,” it’s in part to historicize the process by which the West arrived where it happens to be now.

    By the way, the neo-Confucianism I’m talking about is the Korean reconceptualization of Confucianism that occurred during the Joseon Dynasty. For people in Korea today, it’s historical in nature, not contemporary. (And much more hardass than any Confucianism that ever existed in China, I’m told. Characteristically Korean in the effort to outdo the original source society. :) I’m not aware of any explicit form of rebranding Confucianism today in Korea.)

    I think only a small demographic of Americans insist on calling America a Christian nation, but a vast majority fails to call it into question even as it shapes (and distorts) American politics. That’s part of my point too…

    And yeah, the evangelical right is as “shiten” as any “shepherde” evere was.

    It’s surprising to hear the defualt belief system is atheist; when I was there, it was more mushy agnosticsm. But yeah, somehow a Conservative government has decided to punish the whole society for this. As a Korean high schooler said of his own society to a friend of mine, I say of Canada: “Well, things might get better for young people when all the old people die.” He was a bit more blunt than I’d be, but… it’s a waiting game to see what’s left of the nation when the people running it into the ground are finally too senile to wreck it any further.

    Then again, every generation has its utter assheads.

  4. Your students must appreciate your honesty and your originality and of course your incisively critical perspective but…doesn’t this go over their heads when you say it?

  5. Bradley,

    It wasn’t in class, it was in a one-on-one meeting. If I felt it would’ve gone over her head, I wouldn’t have spent much time on the issue.

    She didn’t change the point in her argument, but she did at least clarify it and argue it better, saying that the influence of Confucianism on Korea society is still felt. I can agree with that, even if I disagree that the sexism is inherently Confucian.

    By the way, meaning to reply to your mails, but busy for now. Will do so soon.

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