Confucianism could be the key to explaining many of the customs, behaviors, and values of Korean society. Since its appearance in China, until its arrival in Korea, this philosophical current (one of the most important currents in ancient China that later spread to other oriental countries) has shaped the moral system, the way of life, and the social relations among old people and youth. Likewise, Korean culture that  it is the foundation of  South Korea’s legal system. Next, we will immerse ourselves a bit in this ideology to give way to  the relationship with the  Korean culture.

Famous phrases and quotes from Confucius. A man without virtue cannot dwell long in adversity, nor in happiness; but the virtuous man rests on virtue, and the wise man covets it. [Photography]

Confucius, better known as Master Kong, was the mastermind behind this philosophy because after analyzing the society in which he lived, he dedicated his life to studying and teaching the principles for building a “harmonious society”. Likewise, he reflected on rectitude, appropriate conduct, and the nature of government, giving importance to the construction of virtuous people who would reestablish peace and social stability. Confucius didn’t get to see the changes in society that he so wished, then it wasn’t until several hundred years later, during the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) that “Confucianism“, an ethical system of behavior and government, became the system that would define Chinese culture for the next two millennia.

To delve a little deeper into the subject, it should first be clarified that Korean Confucianism evolved by merging with Taoism and Buddhism, giving place to what is currently known as “Neo-Confucianism”. This, considered a philosophy and not a religion, began to be understood from divine explanations.

Now, let’s see some  main ethics of Neo-Confucianism:

  • “Anyone can be virtuous”: previously it was believed that virtue only belonged to the authorities, but Confucius thought that whatever a person’s work is, they should be fully assumed and be better at it every day.
  • The ruler has to be morally superior”: benevolent, just and virtuous, because the value of a person is not in his power, but in his values.
  • “Love others”: The common good must prevail over the individual good (be humble and compassionate).
  • “The family as an agent of social change”: the main changes in society are carried out from the family nucleus, where each person has a role (here the person prepares to integrate into society).
  • Wellness in relationships”: Confucius explained that to create harmonious social relationships, some hierarchies should be kept as shown in the following image:
Interpersonal relationships according to Confucius (January 22, 2023). Source: own authorship.
  • “Filial piety”: It is the virtue that refers to the love, respect and deep obedience that children must have towards their parents (everything that is done is to honor the parents, so bad things shouldn’t be done that deceive or embarrass them). This virtue not only demands respect towards your parents but towards all the elders. This is where the formal protocols used in Korea come from, including the formal language.
THE BURTON HOLMES LECTURES VOL. X. (March 31, 2015). Traditional Korean Family [Photography]. Hyun Jin Moon.

On the other hand, in the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC – AD 668), the rulers of Korea sought ideologies under which their populations could be consolidated and their authority could be validated. In Ming China (1368-1644), Neo-Confucianism had been adopted as a state ideology. The new Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) followed suit and also adopted Neo-Confucianism as the main belief system among scholars and administrators such as Jo Gwangjo (a Neo-Confucian who made radical reforms in the 16th century). Thus, Confucian schools opened in Korea and these teachings began to be implemented in the curriculums of educational centers. Similarly, Korea introduced Confucianism in the media, business, law and today it is part of the culture in general, an example of this is the national policy of “culture-oriented development” to fully harness the essence of Confucian culture and integrate it into modern life.

Currently, celebrations such as the festival to worship Confucius are celebrated at Sungkyunkwan University and nearly 300 municipal schools across the country. Among the most famous, we find the “Jesa” (제사) ancestor worship ceremony where deceased relatives are worshiped on New Year’s Day or on Thanksgiving as a symbol of honor and respect. Here both men and women are venerated up to the fourth generation.

Your. (July 6, 2019). Everything is prepared for the Jesa, the big ceremony (x). [Photography].NORAE MAGAZINE.

Even if today there are no lectures on this thought in schools and universities, Confucianism has been impregnated in most Korean culture actions. This philosophy has promoted development in the country and has systematized values such as respect, discipline and autonomy. However, it has also brought detrimental consequences for the wellness of citizens such as gender inequality, the social pressure exerted by parents on their children, the pressure on hierarchical authorities (rulers, grandparents, parents, older siblings) to comply with their obligations, the stress and exhaustion of students due to their academic performance, the strict labels of respect among others that make it difficult to establish close intergenerational relationships, whether in companies, educational institutions or in the family nucleus.

Although not all of society is governed by these principles,  moreover some customs have changed, some influence of Confucianism can still be felt in all areas of Korean culture, so I would like to recommend a drama mentioned in the article. “The Inheritance and Spreading of Confucianism in Modern China and South Korea” by Ya Xiao, Jie Hu, called “Reply 1988”, which approaches the promotion of Confucianism through family ethics along with other interesting customs of daily life in Korea.

Written by: Luisa Mendez

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero


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