Is Confucianism dead or alive in modern Korea? Do remnants exist that affect non-Confucians? Is Confucianism a religion or just a philosophy?
Confucianism absolutely affects Korean society today, whether or not people claim to be adherents to it.
A quick example before we get into it: Over the two years that I’ve been taking my now two-and-a-half-year-old son Noah all over in Korea to the supermarket, walking down the streets, meeting people, etc, the first thing people say to Noah is usually, “몇 살?” which is, “How old are you?” That’s exactly why my Korean mother-in-law taught Noah how to respond to people in Korean asking about his age, but not about his name. People in Korea ask his age first because that is more important than identity from Confucian culture. In fact, people often don’t even ask his name at all.
What is Confucianism?
In a nutshell, Confucianism in Korea largely revolves around rituals, loyalty to the home country, and principles of behavior towards others based on various things such as age, gender, family relation, etc.
Confucianism in Korea is probably different in some ways from in China, where it originated in ancient times. Confucius is known to have been born in 551 BC.
Confucian Influence on Family
Perhaps the largest influence of Confucianism on Korean society that I am most familiar with is regarding family.
There are different kinds of ancestral rites performed at certain times. I will try to just summarize them so you get the idea. I have personally witnessed all of the following ancestral rites in Korea.
There is the memorial service performed at the home on the anniversary of a family member’s death. A special table and ceremonial dishes and tableware are used to present offerings of food.
A similar ritual is performed for deceased ancestors on some of Korea’s most important holidays such as Chuseok and Seolnal, Korea’s New Year’s Day. The spirits of the dead are invited to come. In the days leading up to Chuseok, Koreans go to their ancestor’s graves (often up on the mountainside) to cut the grass in an activity called 벌초, “beolcho”. After the grave area is cleared of weeds and grass, they present offering such as alcohol or fruit and do a formal bow.
Additionally during these holidays, elder family members or neighbors give children money in envelopes after children make a special bow.
According to the Korean National Encyclopedia, ancestral rites stem from Confucian ideology, but if you come to spend time in Korea, you will quickly see that the elderly are treated differently in the day-to-day grind, not just in formal rites. It’s even a core part of the Korean language. Different sentence endings are warranted depending on who you’re speaking to in regards to age especially.
Filial Piety and Chunghyo Theme Park
The morals and virtues pertaining to how to treat elders, parents, and ancestors is called 효 in Korean, translated as “filial piety.”
Some of the 10 lessons for how to be filial with parents include: don’t insult them, don’t lie to them, don’t tarnish their reputation, don’t blame them or tell them they’re wrong, greet them when they enter, etc.
The Chunghyo Theme Park in Goseong is a place on a mountainside where a man named Pyeong Lee lived in a hut for three years to mourn his mother-in-law’s death and take care of the grave in accordance with Confucian rites.
This custom of living and mourning in a makeshift funeral home next to a parent’s grave for three years is called “simyosali” 시묘살이. It is sort of to repay the parents for caring for the child during the three years of infancy during which the child could not eat and be active on his own.
Simyosali was common as recently as 100-200 years ago, but not anymore.
Still, my wife said she heard that there are people alive to this day in the village who know the history of Pyeong Lee’s hut directly through his older family members.
Pyeong Lee’s gravestones are located at the entrance to the village. The smaller one is the original, erected at the time of his death, and the larger one was added around 1990 because the original was getting worn.
The funeral hut on the mountainside of Cheonwangsan has been made into a learning site about Confucian filial piety, intended for families to visit together in a natural environment outside of the classroom.
Twelve info boards span 500 meters. They explain the principles of Confucian filial piety, such as 忠, which is loyalty to family, but also to the country, such as paying taxes. The actions of children to respect their parents is 孝, and so on.
Memorial for Woman Serving Mother-in-Law
In my mother-in-law’s village in Goseong, there is a memorial for a woman who is praised for having served her mother-in-law so well by Confucian principles.
The woman is said to have lived in the mid-Joseon dynasty, so perhaps around the 1600s.
I’m not exactly sure what is written on the plaques inside.
So is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy?
While this article is far from exhaustive on Confucianism in Korea, I think given what we’ve looked at in this article, the case can be made for either way to an extent. I personally consider activities intended to interact with sprits to be religious, while some of the other activities seem to be more along the lines of cultural traditions. I don’t think kids bowing for the money and even adults doing some of the other things are having any sort of Confucian motivations or commitments in mind. Ancestral rites are not something I believe I should participate in at all as a Christian. Moreover, the Bible covers how I am to live with regards to others.
My Korean wife generally thinks Korea as a whole views filial piety not in extreme ways as perhaps the past did, but as more of an evolved philosophy in Korea.
Some people in China might revere it more religiously with things like shrines, prayer, and worship.
Do Koreans Still think Confucianism is Good?
Out of curiosity, I read over a dozen blog articles written over a span of 10 years about what Korean people had to say about Chunghyo Theme Park, this particular Confucian learning site on a mountainside here in Goseong. Keep in mind Chunghyo Theme Park is about filial piety specifically.
Not every blogger expanded on their personal opinions, but there were several who acknowledged that times have changed, and that the way it was once practiced would be irrelevant to today, as “forcing loyalty to it would be like putting on infamous armor that is not suitable for this era,” as one Korean expressed it.
The Korean blogger also expressed concern that Confucian-style filial piety could lead to children being viewed as old-age pension insurance, diminishing love.
She also asserted that the personal thoughts of individuals are more important than the belief that both parents and adults are always right. She wrote that adults’ behaviors are not always the best example for children, and we need to respect the precious thoughts and feelings of children.
Still, all these Korean bloggers seemed to write about Chunghyo Theme Park in a positive light, and as an opportunity to reflect on the way we treat our parents in general.
So we’ve seen how Confucianism has bled into the culture of Korea over a long period of time, to the point where it has become murky to determine whether someone is following Confucius or simply going with the flow of the values that Korean culture has.
I think it’s clear that many Koreans don’t consider themselves to be affiliated with Confucianism, but some of the ways they live, while not necessarily wrong in my opinion, reflect values that they have been immersed in since birth, which trace back to people being impacted by Confucian principles.
I mean, I also adopt these customs with Confucian roots as a foreigner in Korea (aside from spiritual things like ancestral rites), meaning I bow slightly when greeting people, use polite language for people older than me, and various other things I was not used to doing in America, but that’s because I am simply trying to be respectful to others. And I think that’s the heart of most Koreans, too.