Confucius' Poison | English Columnist Hyeonji Shim
Cody is upset. Paul is miserable. Few days ago, Cody and Paul’s feeding session in League of Legends had lasted all night on a school day -- needless to say, their calculus exams taken that morning had only the name slots filled, completed with a couple of drooling spots. The old “see me after class” in red 30 pt. font had further decorated the exams when handed back.
Cody’s parents of Caucasian descent retaliate with the typical “you’re grounded” with Cody’s electronics taken away and the wi-fi extender trashed.
Paul’s parents from Eastern Asia retaliate with… well, a faceless burden: “Aigo Paul, you know umma’s friend’s daughter’s first cousin’s son’s nephew got into the Harvard? Umma’s friends know you senior, they ask where you apply. I meet them tomorrow, they all tell me good daughters and sons. What I say, my son fail math?”
Paul lies in bed, hating on his mom’s friend’s daughter’s first cousin’s son’s nephew, unable to tackle the intangible problem that is constant pressure to save face of his family.
Cody sneaks into the basement with his old phone where the wifi reaches.
Cody is no longer upset. Paul is miserable.
Bowing 90 degrees and using formal language with any elder/authoritative figure, receiving and handing objects with two hands, waiting for the eldest to eat first before touching any food... A hungry, grumpy 9-year-old me once got fed up with all the strict societal guidelines that disfavored the young and glorified the old, and dared to eat first -- I, as expected, got a good scolding, but I stuffed my face while my grandmother nagged me about Korea’s core values of filial piety, kinship, loyalty and righteousness, ideals preached by Confucius. Well, all I got from her spiel was that a man named Confucius who died 2500 years ago was responsible for all the trouble I’ve gotten into for misbehaving and the paranoia when my bow accidentally stopped at 75 degrees.
“Confucius say woman laid in tomb may soon become mummy” -- the internet has turned “Confucius say…” into an opening line of double-meaning jokes fictitiously attributed to the most wise man there is, Confucius. Contrary to what the risqué puns suggest, Confucianism is an essential philosophy embedded in the cores of Eastern Asia’s societies, South Korea being the most Confucian society in existence. The ideals were far more suitable when first adopted centuries ago, but Confucius’ teachings that still persist in the modern society may be to blame for Paul’s misery, not the similarly miserable kid who got into Harvard.
Confucianism is as broad and complex as any philosophy/religion that has existed for millennia -- this piece’s focus is on the familial and collectivism values thriving in South Korea that producing hundreds of Pauls and the choke chain called burden.
Two defining characteristics of a Confucian society are its immense focus on collectivism and hierarchy, traits not typically seen in Western cultures. The five relationships outlined in Confucianism are: father/son, ruler/citizen, husband/wife, older brother/younger brother, friend/friend. Each relationship creates a giant web of connection, giving birth to a highly collective society i.e. South Korea, and all individual’s moral obligations in their respective status are to be fulfilled. Thus, the “save face” phenomenon is born -- in an interconnective society, success and failures cease to be defined within oneself, but are powerful measures to maintain an honorable position in the many relationships so as to not bring shame to one’s ingroup. A successful son, influential citizen, remarkable wife and distinguished brother are what the society and individual seek, nothing with regards to the best self. Paul’s mom wants Paul to earn the title of a successful son for all her friends to see; ironically, there is little, if at all, focus on Paul.
Perhaps it’s all the extra land the United States has (South Korea is 20% of California in terms of land) , but US is one of the most individualistic countries -- there is no “mom’s friend’s daughter’s cousin…” to be compared to. A college rejection letter isn’t a public announcement for your relatives and parents’ friends’ pity; the college’s prestige isn’t an ultimatum for one’s doomed social status.
Shown below is Hofstede’s cross-cultural analysis (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/south-korea,the-usa/), relating values of each dimension to the respective citizens’ behavior. The ingroup tendency, as mentioned earlier, is especially strong in South Korea with a score of 18 in individualism. Ingroup is a clique consisting of members who identify with each other, remaining loyal in exchange for care and safe exclusivity. An individualistic country such as the US doesn’t extend their care beyond direct family members, whereas Koreans generally keep in touch with huge extended families and family friends. It should be noted that “keep in touch” implies knowing about schools, jobs, mariages/divorces, illnesses etc… It’s an expression of endearment for one’s ingroup, but the “care” eventually ends up in judgment, pressure and competition given human nature.
The problem beneath the intimidate connection that grants citizens a vital sense of belonging is that Confucianism is a type of humanism, pushing away perfect divinity and putting erring humans in the center; therefore, the carefully crafted ideals are bound to be tainted by human flaws. The philosophy provides a guideline for a respectful and harmonic society by which we have abided strictly as part of tradition, but the guideline doesn’t quite work in reality and there is no fail safe; all that remains is the enormous burden to save face of one’s family and god forbid there be shame, rather than ambition for progress.
South Korea has habitually glorified Confucianism without much discretion, and I can’t be the only Korean with more than five versions of Confucius’ Analects sitting on my shelf; however, the main issue with Confucianism is that life becomes defined only via validations from relationships, with fear of breaking status and leaving obligations behind. The fatal byproduct is hopelessness -- hopeless because in absence of validation by others, whose thoughts one cannot control, shame overwhelms the individual and fear of being exposed hinders growth. The stigma against unfulfilled obligations in the ingroup is so strong, one would rather hide than face the shame. One prime example is that as an OECD country, South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the elderly, or senior citizens stricken by poverty who kill themselves to avoid being a financial burden to their families. From a Confucius perspective, the elderly has failed to be the respectable father, son, citizen and friend, and disappointment means game over. As for Paul, misery rather than improvement sets in because he has failed to be the good son, and shame is amplified when news is spread in the presence of the other son who is successful.
That is not to say Confucianism hasn’t aided South Korea’s miraculous economic growth since the 1950s, fueling individual’s work ethic in schools and workplaces to fulfill respective obligations. In the chart above, South Korea has a score of 100 for long term orientation, implying that citizens are very willing to put in the hard work now to bear the fruit later; however, Confucianism makes it hard for individuals who have fallen to get back up. The ancient humanism has long been a part of South Korea’s tradition and foundation for ethics, but perhaps some of the ideals are outdated and our behavior shouldn’t be so restrained by what one philosopher said millenia ago, and instead act at our own discretion. Questioning tradition is an inherent treason against Confucianism which values tradition, but must I bow 90 degrees to an adult who demands absolutely no respect? Should I keep my mouth shut when a teacher is unjustly punishing a student? Do I respond to a relative who criticizes every part of me, in the name of care? As someone who has grown up in South Korea, the answers aren’t so obviously “no”. We are taught to put respect first and personal discontent second; calling out a teacher or relative would be stepping out of line and thus violating the hierarchy established in the Confucius society.
Questioning a country’s behavior usually has no clear destination and remains in a grey area due to the millions of variables involved, but it is the recognition that matters -- recognition that blindly following tradition for sake of tradition is standing idly by in face of potential progress. Perhaps it is simply a matter of time for a progressive generation to lead, not tied down with unproductive parts of loyalty, kinship and filial piety. Had Paul’s mom stopped treating him like a failed trophy son, maybe Paul would’ve sold his worthless League account for a start rather than brooding over his own worthlessness in his bed.