Thursday, August 14, 2014

Confucianism Doesn't Explain Everything, but it can Explain Quite a lot

Since the Sewol disaster and some rather simplistic reporting of Confucianism being in the reason for so many student deaths, using the C-word has become a bit of a no-no in writing about South Korea.  If you do dare to use it, you risk immediately discrediting everything you write.  "Did he say Confucianism?"  "He must know nothing about Korea, what a fool."

As I wrote at the time, the explanation that it was Confucian values that made those students follow orders and stay below was far too basic.  For a start, many didn't listen and escaped, and in a situation you are not sure about - and rarely are most people experts on ferry safety - you perhaps should defer to those in charge with the supposed experience and expertise.  Not only that, it was insulting, laying the blame on the students for their own deaths, when it was clear they were let down by a grossly negligent ferry company and an incompetent crew.

Turning to Confucianism to explain things was a mistake in this case (for the students, I could see a more complex argument for the company and the crew, but I would more broadly say that Korean, 'respect culture', rather than traditional Confucianism could've been a factor) but let's be honest, Confucianism is a driver of many of the behaviours we see around us on a day to day basis in Korea.  In many cases, common practices have become a slightly altered form of Confucian tradition, but modern culture in Korea still has a Confucian base.  It seems stupid to have to say this, as it is so obvious, but I do think some people might need to be told this brute fact.

Some popular news articles and some in the Korean blogosphere have managed to make using the C-word as an explanation a bit of a taboo.  Actually, I think I agree with the two articles I have linked to and many others on the subject, and I also agree that many people used Confucianism too freely, but it is amazing how things swing to the ends of two extremes and the reactions to such articles have not caused balance.  It has gone from being the one-stop solution to every query about things that happen in Korea, to being ridiculed whenever it is used, even if it is extremely relevant.

I have noticed the ridiculing of those that mention Confucianism a lot in the past few months, but it came to my attention this week when an old post I wrote for Asiapundits on the treatment of women in Korea was shared again by one of the editors and received some attention and comments.  In that article, I used Confucianism to partly explain the culture of patriarchy that still exists in Korea.  If you read that post, you will see it only formed a small part of what I wrote, but sure enough, it was picked up upon and received the usual treatment:

1. "It might further behoove you to read about why these cultural traditions exist rather than throwing it under the gauge blanket of confusion ism." (her spelling, not mine by the way)
2. "But Confucianism is such a handy word. Every time I can’t understand Korea, I just use it and pretend I do."

These kind of comments have increasingly become the norm.  But in respect to the treatment of women in Korea, surely it is impossible to say that Confucianism is not involved, it is a huge part of the system of hierarchy we see today, both with young and old and men and women.  In a rather long article, I actually only wrote a few lines about it and I'm not really sure how you can argue against it:

"To do away with nearly two thousand years of Confucian tradition (and about 700 hundred of strong cultural influence through the Joseon Dynasty) is what the women of Korea are up against, so perhaps it is no surprise they are still struggling to make an impact on society for better treatment.  In Confucian thought a virtuous woman is meant to uphold the ‘Three subordinations’: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and her son after her husband dies.  Men can remarry and have mistresses, but women must always remain faithful even after their husbands’ death.  With this is mind it is easy to see why men are still thought of in higher regard."

Most cultures all around the world are still in some state of patriarchy.  I would argue that Western culture is almost completely rid of it now (although I'm sure many would disagree, but that's an argument for another time).  But I don't think it is a stretch to say each of these cultures has had to, or is still battling out of, the old traditions that were enforced by a religion or cultural philosophy.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, etc.  Which hasn't tried to subjugate and control women?  They all have their particular ways about doing it, however, and some are worse and harder to escape and fight your way out of than others. Islam is undoubtedly the most oppressive of the bunch in this regard and has easy to identify consequences of its patriarchal philosophy.  The results of Confucian tradition in Korea are not so brutal on women, but they still have a significant affect and the form of patriarchy present in Korea has the obvious stamp of Confucianism about it and the culture as a whole persists in holding women back because of it.  Not solely because of it, mind, but to deny it is a factor is strange to say the least.  My suspicion is that it's down to political correctness.

Political correctness is not always a bad thing, it is good we aren't all going around saying bad words to people and jumping to overly-simple conclusions, and it has raised consciousness about certain issues.  But it regularly goes too far and prevents honest dialogue and that is something I have had to really fight with on this blog.

Reflecting on my time blogging, with just one week left in Korea, I have to say that I have been quite amazed by the aggressive, vitriolic, and ridiculing nature of the responses I have got to my blogs over the last two years or so.  Some people write entire repetitive essays of hate against me on my comments section or on their own sites. In the beginning, it was upsetting, I won't lie, especially as I thought I wasn't really being that controversial or anywhere near hateful.  Nowadays though, it is just time-consuming to deal with.  A new life dawns in Australia and I just don't have the time or inclination to deal with those who say white is black and always misconstrue what I write to be some of the most vile evil know to man, indicative of some of the worst elements in modern society and harking back to the days of Hitler (really, no exaggeration, it's what some people think).  The fact I am a White man also seems to be a real problem for many people (even some White men).  How dare a White man give his perspective on Korea.  What a danger to world my meager little blog must be.

It seems that even with a lightly-read, tiny blog on South Korea, you can't escape the abuse, just by having different opinions to the progressive crowd.  From day one, I have had to fight the assumption that you just can't make and share your own judgements about other cultures and you can't compare other cultures (if what you are saying is in any way negative in nature). Although I should say you can, but Western culture - and in particular American culture - must always come out on the losing side, then it's fine.

Confucianism might be becoming another word us White guys can't use anymore in writing or talking about South Korea, it feels like it is now off the table for discussion.  Keep this in mind the next time you ask a Korean person about why they behave in such different ways to us Westerners, because in my experience Confucianism is as much a 'go to' in their explanations of their own behaviour as it is for us. Why?  Because it really is relevant in explaining Korea, there's no escaping it and people other than Koreans themselves can use it (including White guys), it's just not always relevant in every situation.  So somewhere between 'always relevant' and 'never relevant', I think there might be some middle-ground we can occupy.  How about treating every claim of Confucian involvement in different circumstances on its own merit and arguing the particulars of each case?  Now there's an idea.


  1. I think that it would be more accurate (and honest) to say the most reasonable criticisms of that Asiapundits post were that you relied on anecdotes rather than stats or studies, you came across as a patronizing ex-pat who implies that he knows what is better and how to better resolve problems for Koreans and Korean women than the people themselves, you exhibited an ironic patriarchal attitude by attacking Korean women for not acting the way you expect them to, you did not reference any actual Korean feminist sources in your article, and that you seemed generally ignorant about the issue which is understandable because you have only a rudimentary grasp of the language.

    Those are far more devastating criticisms than your claim that - to paraphrase - "people are defensive of Confucianism".

    1. What a silly comment:

      1) This piece was not even an attempt at a defensive of that piece at Asiapundits (which I wrote a long time ago anyway). I merely used the example of a couple of comments from it. It was a piece about Confucianism (How much clearer could I make that).

      2) Of course it's anecdotal, that's the whole point of writing an opinion piece. See my description below the title of this blog:

      "Korean culture from the perspective of a man married into a Korean family"

      Asiapundits asked me to write opinion pieces for them, so I did. The opinion is not from the perspective of a random foreigner flitting about Korea speaking nonsense either, it comes from a man who's wife experienced all the negatives I mentioned in that post first-hand.

      People dismiss the important of reasonable anecdotes. They are not evidence, but good anecdotal investigations and writing lead to action and actual evidence. This in fact what science is based on, it starts with a solid anecdote and moves on from that. Writers of opinion pieces do this ALL THE TIME in the journalistic profession. It doesn't have to be a scientific paper every time you write something.

      3) What I thought was quite funny is that while I got a couple of posts criticising me like you, I had 2 Koreans, 1 man and 1 woman who mostly agreed with what I wrote. I think their only objection was that the lady did not agree that the situation might need pressure from outside of Korea to get results. However, she was full of praise for me and actually thought I was doing a good thing by writing about it and bringing the treatment of women in Korea and their lack of solidarity to light. I quote:

      "As a Korean woman, I mostly agree with your article except the conclusion that some foreign pressure onto this country is needed to make a change. The priority solution is to know where we are and change our mindset through solidarity and open discussions. I really hope the day comes. Thanks for your honest opinion anyway! Your wife will be so proud of you! :)"

      So you see there are two sides to looking at that piece, you just choose the ignorant one.

  2. I'm a South Korean myself, and I know this is not about Confucianism.

    It's just we are still living in medieval time under the shell of being modern country.
    We just got out of Chosun kingdom before less than 1 century.

    We didn't achieve modern civilization ourselves, but was injected of western and Japan way of civilization. Now we are confused between Chosun medieval style and western modern style and worsely, Japan colony era style.

    I'm NOT saying being modern and global is everything, it's just we don't know how to be open minded and still preserving our own style. yet.

    Westerners try to explain Asian issues with religious or systemic point of view, however Look at Korean christian churches. It has nothing to do with original christianism.

    Oppressing women happens in many not-opened, uncivilized places like a lot of nations in Africa and Middle-east. Many of them still practice old beliefs that are not useful or dead, still refusing to change. It's just medieaval thing.

    Is Islam wrong, or is it just old-fashioned? Can they be changed into modern philosophy? Are they gonna make peace with other religions? I don't know yet.

    We will be OK someday, open-minded, still preserving our cultures, developing confucianism in healthy way, but not yet.

    I can see you got sick and tired while you were being attacked in this blog, but that also can happen if you criticise the way of fundamentalists in US bible belt. Uh, that Christian fundamentalists give me creeps.
    ...Yeah we are also rigid fundamentalists in many ways, sadly.

    Confuianism can be changed into more healthy philosophy in future, or can disappear. I don't know but we are still searching.

    hope you are having good time in Aus, now it's spring time in there I miss beautiful Aussie summer.

  3. Hi, I was linked to your blog and I have enjoyed seeing some fresh perspective. I agree Confucian tradition still plays a role here, but I disagree about a few other points. Strongly disagree, in some cases. The main point of contention I have is that you repeatedly refer to the tradition as Confucian, when in fact the system of beliefs has been under generations of dynamic change and is pretty consistently referred to by Koreans themselves as Neo-Confucianism. Also in that regard, I don't think we can accurately discuss this one as outsiders, and that includes other socio-religious traditions such as Islam. Not sure what metric you use to state Islam is the "most oppressive," but it seems too strong and too close to the logic of Bush/Blair.

    I wouldn't be offended by a Chinese Daoist or a Secular Malaysian for example, talking about Roman Catholicism (which I was raised in but now reject). But I also wouldn't quite deem it an insider perspective. I guess I agree we should be able to discuss cultural values BOTH as insiders and outsiders. The problem is when you criticize as an outsider, it's kind of inherently inhibited in many ways.

    I'm also not sure you're qualified to speak, at least experientially, on the demise of patriarchy. I think by any measure, particularly those (women) who live the reality of it, the system of male dominance is persistent. Your last few paragraphs paint yourself as a victim of online bullying, which is unfair. But it is also to be expected when you are making big broad statements about things you have no lived experience with. Perhaps that is the origin of the vitriol.

    1. If we are being 100% accurate, yes, Neo-confucianism, but that is still a form of Confucianism. Change the title of the post then, my point doesn't change.

      Islam is the most oppressive current mainstream religion towards women, I think there is a lot of evidence to back this up. Look at the world today and look at the countries where women's rights are the worst. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out a link.

      Yep, totally agree that I am no expert in Korean culture, but all I am really saying is (Neo) Confucianism still explains a lot of behaviours in Korean people. Never personally known a Korean person to really disagree with this. It is amazing how such a bland and obvious theory can be latched upon and made out to be too simple and something that can't be discussed by a non-Korean. I completely disagree with that. Just depends on how you use it in each specific case you are trying to explain (as I mentioned in the post).

      I am qualified to speak on patriarchy, I have lived in the Western world for most of my life and I have seen it largely disappear. If you are saying you have to be a woman to see this that is quite frankly ridiculous. Women could just as easily be blinded by self-interest as men could be blinded by lack of experience from the other side. What is important is looking at the situation from an objective stand-point, man or woman. If I haven't done that, kindly explain why, but don't say I am not qualified to speak, which is as poor an argument as it is strange.

      The bullying is to be expected, you're right, but I am making statements I have lived experience with, otherwise I wouldn't make them. But anyhow, people should be able to have opinions about matters without being abused for it. You don't need experience sometimes if your opinions make logical sense. Again it is a non-specific argument; you should argue against someone's opinion based on reason and logic, not by simply saying, 'you don't know what your talking about', which essentially is all you have really written here.

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