The main purpose of this short sketch is to raise the awareness of the background of certain actions. I will present 3 Rules and 5 Bonds (Relations) that are fundamental in Confucian philosophy and their reverberations in the modern society. It is shortened English version of my post-conference paper.
- Confucian values.
- Realization of those values in life.
- Contemporary society.
Actually, the philosophy I am referring to is not Confucianism per se but Neo-Confucianism (seongnihak) that was widely spread during Joseon period (1392 – 1910) and its features are etched subconsciously in every Korean psyche. I will call Neo-Confucianism as Confucianism to just keep it short.
First of all, I would like to state something first – it would be very, very inappropriate and misleading to explain everything with Confucianism. It is more of a thought frame, but it is not a reason for behaving like that. I will explain this in the last part.
1. Confucian values.
Neo-Confucianism may be described in short as some kind of amalgam, blending the ideas of Confucius, Mencius, Taoist cosmology and Buddhist spirituality. The main aim is to acquire the ideal called gunja. This ideal is similar to arhat or Christian saint, but it is different from those while talking about the highest point achieved. When a man becomes gunja, it is not the ending point of his/her road, but a new start – now he/her is obliged to implement the values into the society.
By the end of 17th century Neo-Confucianism sunk in the barren discussions and arguments of highly metaphysical nature (mainly between Toegye and Yulgok followers, and also among the said groups even. They argued about the main principle – whether it is i or gi. The dichotomy between i and gi lead to few interesting theories, but it is not the place to talk about it). As a contrast to this situation, new movement, Shilhak (‘Practical Learning’) emerged and one of its most prominent philosophers was Jeong Yak-yong (pen name: Dasan, 1762 – 1836). In 19th century Neo-Confucianism stagnated and could not do anything in respond of growing threat from both Western countries and Japan.
The most important principle in Neo-Confucianism is inthat may be translated as “virtue”. Needless to say in is always mutually projected (hanja/kanji for that: 仁 is composed with two other: ‘people’ and ‘two’, so I guess this explains everything). In is the ultimate goal for gunja. After achieving it, as I mentioned it earlier, it has to be transmitted wider (sounds like some disease).
Now we should move to Samgang Oryeon (삼강오련), that is 3 Bonds 5 Relations (I know there are probably better translations and official ones than mine, but I was writing this on Korean Neo-Confucianism, and re-translated all myself to show the distinction of Korean philosophy from the Chinese one).
1. The subject serves the master
2. Children serve their parents
3. Wife serves her husband
1. Between parents and children is respect.
2. Between ruler and subject is justice.
3. Between husband and wife is distinction.
4. Between older and younger is order.
5. Between friends is trust.
The first one is actually the most important relation – it corresponds to the “filial piety” 효(孝), and this may be virtually implemented into any other relation.
2. Realization of those values in life.
As the example, let me quote two stories from the book I provide link to if anyone is interested.
The Poor Scholar and the Minister’s Daughter
In Joseon Korea, there was once a government minister who had a beautiful daughter.
When she came of age, the minister began to look for an intelligent young man to be her
husband. Shortly afterwards, a young scholar came to see the minister to seek his daughter’s
hand in marriage. The minister, seeing his poor and shabby appearance, refused him
However, as it was just past midday, he asked the young man to stay for lunch, and had
a table prepared for him, laden with sumptuous dishes and expensive wines.
The poor scholar’s eyes opened wide at the sight of delicacies, which he had never eaten
or even seen before. However, he did not eat, but began to wrap up the food and put it in a bag he was carrying.
Greatly surprised, the minister asked the young scholar why he was storing the food
away instead of eating it.
The young man replied, “I have never seen such fine dishes before, and so I am taking
them home to give to my mother.”
The minister, deeply touched by the man’s devotion, instantly changed his mind and
gave him permission to marry his daughter.
The young scholar was the famous Yi Wonik (1547~1634)1, and went on to become a
government minister like his father-in-law.
More Precious than Gold
From early childhood, Yi Oknyon, a Kaesung governor of the late Koryo dynasty, was
very close to his younger brother Yi Jonyon.
One day, the two brothers were walking along a road when they came upon some lumps
of gold lying on the bank of the Han River, and decided to share them. Then they boarded a ferry to cross the river, and when they were about midway, Yi Oknyon’s younger brother suddenly threw his gold into the water.
The older brother, in shock, asked, “Why did you throw it overboard?”
He answered, “Although I knew the gold was precious, I know that our kinship is even
more precious. After we found the gold, the wicked thought occurred to me that if you had not been there, I could have kept the gold all for myself. I was afraid that this jealousy might harm our kinship, and so I threw my gold into the river.”
Oknyon, upon hearing his younger brother’s words, agreed with him and threw his share
into the river as well.
Since then, that branch of the Han River was called “Tu Kum Tan,” meaning “the
stream where gold was thrown away”.
3. Contemporary Society.
Modern Koreans do not realize that a great part of their behavior is deeply rooted in Confucian values. But here the danger lies, as I mentioned. Explaining all with Confucianism, although handy, is error prone. Koreans (and Asians of Confucian Influence Sphere) behave like that because it’s a tradition. They are not followers of Confucianism.
Many of drama viewers may feel a little bit odd seeing grown up man wincing on the thought of his mother disapproving something. The opinion of a parent is always before one’s own. Parents (and Grandparents) are the most revered people. And although it was sanctioned by Confucianism, it cannot be explained that Koreans respect older people because of Confucianism. No, they respected old ones long before they were aware of anything that may be called “Confucianism”. 15th century fisherman had absolutely no idea about some Confucius or Mencius and their teachings. Hell, he sometimes was not aware of his own Kings! But he respected his parents nonetheless. Confucianism just shaped what was always there and codified the rules. But it is NOT any explanation for them. As I said it earlier – it is just a frame. Similar thing exist in Western countries, we embrace personal freedom even though lot of Westerners are not Christian or Athena believers. Because it is our tradition, etched in our nature. We are unable to escape that.
So next time when you will see another Asian drama/movie character fearing the wrath of his/her mother or father, I hope you will understand it is because this is part of the culture. Calling it stupid only proves lack of deeper view on this matter.
And if I may be frank, I find reverence like that worth following. And I am saying this from a personal experience – few of my teacher friends, both Korean and not, find it repulsive how young and younger students try to address us by our names. The distance has to be kept, I am very sorry. If I do not drink any bruderschaft with some, it is offensive to do that. So yes, as a closure – I do embrace some Confucian values in my life.