Confucianism in Korea
Pre-modern Korea has frequently been described as a “Confucian country.” Indeed, Confucianism played a major role in the life of Korea in former times. Nonetheless, one has to keep in mind the fact that Confucianism is very different from the great religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, it can hardly be seen as a religion at all.
Confucius, a great Chinese sage of the 6th century B.C., did not see himself as a religious prophet. In fact, he explicitly said that he did not care about the world of spirits and gods. What he was looking for was a way to create a perfect and harmonious society.
Confucianism is conservative in one important regard, it resolutely did not believe in progress. For Confucius himself, as well as for generations of his disciples, the ideal was deeply rooted in the past. They thought that the perfect society existed centuries ago and the best humans could do was to approach this ancient and unreachable ideal.
As time passed, Confucian rejection of the spiritual began to be challenged by his remote followers. In the 12th Century, a group of Chinese philosophers (led by Zhu Xi) revised the initial ideas of Confucius and devised a new version of the ancient teaching. This version, usually known as ``Neo-Confucianism,’’ became especially prominent in Korea from the 15th century. Neo-Confucianism paid much attention to issues that can be defined epistemological and ontological in the Western European tradition. Nonetheless, Neo-Confucianism still remained quite indifferent to the world of gods and spirits.
At the beginning of the Christian era, Confucianism began its gradual expansion across East Asia. It would be just a minor exaggeration to say that the adherence to the ideas of the great Chinese sage was the underlying element of traditional East Asian culture. For centuries, the ruling elite of China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam used Classical Chinese as the sole language of written communication and high culture ― and Classical Chinese was essentially the language of Confucius and his early commentators.
What values have been promoted by Confucianism? It has surely placed much emphasis on the virtue of social hierarchy. But it has also emphasized the need to care for the downtrodden. It is not incidental that in traditional East Asian societies, it was quite normal, indeed expected, to be sympathetic toward the plight of farmers ― a feeling which would seldom intrude upon the hearts of knights in shining armor, whose proud castles dotted the landscape of Europe.
The related feature of Confucianism was the idea of meritocracy ― i.e. that the elite in the ideal society should be selected on the basis of their moral qualities. This approach could work though only as long as one had a method by which to find and select the people of sufficiently high moral standards. After some experimentation, the countries of the Confucian world decided that morally upright individuals were best located through competitive exams on philosophy and history.
In most cases, exam topics were remarkably remote from practical issues. The people who were likely to become police chiefs or tax collectors were expected to know how to compose classical poetry and how to discuss some finer questions of ethics (and of course they should demonstrate an impressive knowledge of Chinese politics of the first millennia B.C.).
The logic behind this seemingly bizarre approach was, however, quite sound. It was assumed that the reading of the Confucian cannon, seen as the embodiment of high moral virtues, would automatically imbue individuals with higher moral standards. Hence the reasoning went that people with better knowledge of Confucian theories and culture, were also likely to be persons of superior moral qualities.
Remarkably, it was assumed that every male should have access to the examination system. This approach led to a remarkable (for the times) level of upward social mobility in Confucian countries. Admittedly, Korea of the Choson period (1392-1910) was rather different, since only children of the gentry were eligible to sit state exams. However, educated Koreans of the era saw these restrictions as somewhat problematic.
Confucianism coexisted with Buddhism and local cults. Such coexistence occasionally led to violent confrontations and clashes, but most of the time, things remained peaceful. Confucianism reigned supreme above an ideology of state and society, whilst other religions usually dealt with the individual and his/her spiritual life.
In modern times, the popular attitude toward Confucianism has changed at least twice. In the late 19th century, reformers and modernizers in Japan, Korea and elsewhere came to see Confucianism as the embodiment of reaction, as the major obstacle on the way to a bright, modern future. In the 1960s and 1970s, after the countries of East Asia achieved remarkable economic breakthroughs, Confucianism came to be seen as one of the major factors behind the East Asian economic miracle. Strangely enough, both interpretations can be and might well be right ― but this should be another story.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Reach him at email@example.com.