If you have been in Korea for even only a short time, you have probably heard something about Confucius. If, so may have come to associate him with catchy sayings, as well as sexism, authoritarianism, and an outdated educational system. I have heard these things, too, and wondered how they could have formed the backbone of an ethical system that has strongly influenced East Asia for 2500 years. I will give a short history of Confucius, a brief description of his philosophy, and attempt to answer some of the criticisms of Korean culture that appear to be based on Confucian tenants.
Confucius was born in the Chinese province of Lu (where is this today? our editorial resources are too limited to answer.) in 551 or 552 BC. The philosopher has been known by several names, Confucius being the romanization of the Chinese original. In Chinese, he is K'ung Fu Tzu, in Hang guk mal, Gong Ja. He was born into a noble family that had lost power, and lived his youth in poverty.
Most of what we know about Confucius comes from one work, the Lun Yu, which is known in English as the Analects. Although credited to Confucius, his students more than likely composed the work after his death, as the work consists of his sayings or his students' comments on them. However, the original has been destroyed and has only been recreated using texts that were copied several hundred years after Confucius died. Several apocalyptic chapters, which scholars believe were added over the years, perhaps to further the political designs of different groups, seem to have been added at several latter dates. Opponents of the Confucian school are suspected of inserting some of the chapters in order to discredit the Master. Nevertheless, the Analects give us a good idea about the man and his beliefs.
Confucius held several minor posts in the Chinese civil service until sometime around the year 500 BC when he became ssu k'ou (a middle level minister) in the Lu Provinces. Shortly thereafter, he failed in an attempt to destroy three ruling families in the area whom he believed had gained power unlawfully. He fled Lu and visited least five provinces during a 13 year span. He went to every court where he could get an audience and preached the ethical beliefs he had developed. Although he attained various posts during his travels, he was never given a job in which he could effect real change. Discouraged, he finally returned home to Lu in 484 BC where he studied and taught until his death in 479 BC.
To understand the ideas he advocated, it is helpful to know that Confucius lived during a very chaotic period of Chinese history. The Chou Dynasty was disintegrating and the ensuing power vacuum was creating turmoil in public life. Thus much of Confucian philosophy is aimed at defining the social structure and maintaining its stability.
Confucius identified five relationships which he felt are integral to public stability: husband and wife, father and son, elder and younger, king and subject, and that between friends. The relationship between friends was intended to be one of reciprocity and mutual respect between equals. The first four relationships described linear power relations with the first member of each pair being the dominate half. Confucius, though, did not intend this system to be one of despotism, but, rather, one which addressed a mutual need. The first member was required to protect and nurture the second, while the second respected and served the first.
The keystone of the Confucian philosophy is the concept of the gentleman. The gentleman has five important qualities: benevolence, wisdom, courage, reliability in word, and reverence. Benevolence was considered the key attribute. Confucius described it as the observance of ceremonial rites, and the effort to overcome the self. Particularly noteworthy is that true Confucianists believe power is never wielded in self-interest, but only for the sake of society. The importance of wisdom is credited to Confucius' lifelong ambition to be a scholar. Courage does not describe bravery in battle, so much as taking the right course of action even in the face of adversity and pressure to do wrong. Reliability in word includes honesty about the past, present, and future, as well as modesty. Reverence means acknowledging the immensity of the task of doing everything one can to better the lives of those for whom one is responsible.
One other important concept related to the gentleman is the "Decree of Heaven." Many leaders throughout history have used this concept to justify their power. However, Confucius widened the implications of Heaven's Decree to mean that everyone, regardless of his position, is ethically responsible for doing everything he can to help society. Once a person no longer lives up to the Decree of Heaven, but begins to serve himself, he loses the right to his position. Interestingly, this talk of heaven is the closest that Confucius came to an idea of a spiritual world. Confucius never talked about God or the soul and is widely considered to be agnostic. Rulers were simply expected to keep high ethical standards for their own sake, not the promise of eternal salvation. Confucius' vision of an individual's behavior and those of a ruler are close to Plato's philosopher king: a leader has the right to rule until he no longer fulfills his responsibilities to society.
Now we can consider the criticisms of Confucianismís influence on Korean culture. The first is that it is the basis for Koreaís sexism. In Confucius' China women were not given political power, and this has had a lasting influence upon the status of women in Confucian cultures to this day, but I believe that much of the sexism in Korea today stems from the Chosun Dynasty whose 500 year reign ended in 1910. The Chosun Dynasty took Confucianism to extremes never intended by the Master, for example, women were not even allowed to leave their homes. Furthermore, during the Chosun Dynasty, many people ignored the Confucian principles of respect and responsibility.
Regarding authoritarianism, its certainly true that Asian rulers have often used Confucian ideas as a means to legitimate their power, but Confucius states repeatedly that once a person has proved himself an incompetent ruler by neglecting the needs of the people and/or seeking personal gain he no longer has the right to rule.
The problem of the Korean education system comes from excessive rote memorization that students are forced to do and the testing system that many westerners consider cruel and counter-productive. First, Confucius did believe in memorization, particularly of the odes -- a group of 200 - 300 poems of antiquity. However, Confucius considered the ability to interpret what has been learned and create new ideas more important than rote memorization. His ideas should not be linked to an educational system that was developed in a rapidly industrializing country where the purpose of the system was to give a basic high school education to as many students as possible. Also, the system of standardized testing was considered extremely progressive in the days of Confucius because it took power away from the elite and redistributed it to the people of merit. Thus, in theory at least, anyone could gain power regardless of social status, provided the test was successfully completed.
This is a very brief summary of Confucianism. Although parts of his philosophy may b longer be valid, many good aspects continue to influence Korean culture in a positive way. For example, an excellent case can be made for the integral role that the very Confucian values of had work, education, merit and splayed in Korea's post-war economic "miracle." The fact that large parts of his philosophy retain their relevance after 2500 years is a great tribute to their durability and thus to Confucius' insights in the human condition.
Note from a Reader (Micheal): The birthplace of Confucius, is. it is at the Shan Dong province.