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South Korea Index

The social values of contemporary South Korea reflect the synthesis and development of diverse influences, both indigenous and foreign. Probably the most important of these is the neoConfucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200), first introduced into Korea during the closing years of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). The rulers of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) adopted it as their state ideology. The most important Korean neo-Confucian philosopher, Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), had a great influence on later generations of Confucianists not only in Korea, but also in Japan.

Neo-Confucianism combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Daoist, or Taoist, and Buddhist metaphysics. One of the doctrine's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of the ideal human community are an expression of the immutable principles or laws that govern the movements of the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by the Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve a kind of spiritual unity with heaven. Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived of in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole that mirrors the harmony of the natural order.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea was becoming rigid and increasingly conservative by the mid-1500s. The practice of neo-Confucianism emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control on the individual level. Society was defined in terms of the Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese) that had been formulated by classical Chinese thinkers, such as Mencius, and subsequently sanctified by the neo-Confucian metaphysicians: "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be a proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals. The others were based on authority and subordination, including the first relationship, which involved not so much mutual love as the unquestioning subordination of the son to the will of his father.

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in Seoul to the humblest household in the provinces, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. Persons were expected to nurture "sincere" attitudes, which meant not so much expressing what one "really" felt as "reflecting on" or "clarifying" one's thoughts and feelings until they conformed to traditional norms. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. The ideal man or woman was one who controlled his or her passions or emotions in order to fulfill to the letter a host of exacting social obligations.

In the context of wider society, a well-defined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman" and the "small man" who seeks only profit. This was a central theme in the writings of Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism as a political theory proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children.

Just as the father commanded unquestioning obedience in the household and the scholar-official elite did so in the nation as a whole, there was also a hierarchy in international relations. China, the homeland of neo-Confucianism and the most powerful nation in the region, was the center of Choson Korea's cultural universe for most of the dynasty's duration.

Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism, for being the "Irish of the East." The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrasts sharply with the austere self-control of Confucian ancestor rituals (see Religion , this ch.). Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ondogyo (see Glossary), an indigenous religion that originated in the nineteenth century and combines elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, teach that every human "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

Western social and political values such as democracy, individualism, the equality of the sexes (also seen in Ch'ondogyo), and national self-determination were introduced by late nineteenth-century Korean reformers and by West European and North American missionaries, who had a profound effect upon the development of Korean education and political values. These concepts have played an increasingly prominent role in South Korean life in recent decades.

Although by no means democratic, the Confucian tradition itself contains anti-authoritarian themes. Mencius taught that the sovereign and his officials must concern themselves with the welfare of the people and that a king who misuses his power loses the right to rule--the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. In Korean as well as Chinese history, there were many Confucian statesmen who, often at the cost of their own lives, opposed the misuse of power by those in authority. The tradition of political protest in South Korea, particularly by university students, owes as much to this aspect of the Confucian tradition as it does to democratic and Marxist concepts imported from the West. Just as Korean historians idealize out-of-power "rustic literati" or sarim, who were said to pursue purely moral and academic studies and to disdain government service at various times during the Choson period, so modern-day university students, claiming to be the "conscience of the nation," have opposed the bureaucratic and professional elite in government and private business.

Thus, to depict traditional Korean social values in terms of an authoritarian Confucian tradition is overly simplistic. A more comprehensive account of social values might describe them in terms of interacting dualities, a kind of yin-yang opposition and synthesis. There is the tension, for example, between selfcontrol and solemnity on the one hand, and almost explosive volatility on the other, at the level of individual behavior; between the duty-bound austerity of Confucian family life and ritualism, and the ecstasy and abandon of shamanistic rites; between the conservatism of agricultural villages and the looser social organization of fishing communities; between the orthodox concept of male supremacy and the reality of much "hidden" female power; between the "higher" rationalized, humanistic, or scientific culture imported from China, Japan, or the West, and much older indigenous or native cultural themes; between hierarchy and equality; and between slavish deference to authority and principled resistance.

Data as of June 1990

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