Mittwoch, 22. Juni 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXIII - Korea: Confucianism and a Suspicious Death

I'm sure you've heard of a man named Confucius before, but have you heard about any of his teachings? Before you switch off, don't worry, I will not expound its manifold and complicated details. I will merely brush it a little, just barely enough to help you understand why Korea is as it is today. Because Korea is Confucianism incarnate.

(Students of Confucian doctrine might bear with me and forgive the lose handling of the subject matter, it is for the sake of rapid understanding only) 

Some Confucian Basics

Good old master Kongzi (his Chinese name) was born into a time of trouble and woe, and much of his thinking was geared around achieving stability, both in public and personal life. Like all great men, he never wrote a book about his own thoughts, and all of his surviving ideas are the mishmash of his disciples and other random philosophers who passed off their stuff as his. Confucian thought teaches a strictly vertical society, fulfiment of private and public obligations to the letter and very strict gender roles. When it became a state doctrine, its ideas of morally just personal life were applied to the state, resulting in a stable but stagnant society that cumulated in the British domination of the once proud Chinese empire. As a client kingdom, most of Koreas high culture was essentially Chinese: script, state organization, religion and rituals were imported, and with it came Confucian ideas and values. Unlike China, where political winds swept away large parts of the old order, Korea never lost its touch with old Master Kong, and his (or his descendants) school of thought still runs deep in Korean society.  Why I'm telling you this? Because it helps you understand some of the following oddities you might encounter in Korea:

Unconditional Respect for the Old

While it sounds like a very pleasant cultural aspect (one that many lament we have lost), "unconditional" is what causes the problem here. In a perfect Confucian world, old people would have acquired superior wisdom and composure and their enlightened guidance would earn them the admiration of the younger generation. While in a medieval world with very limited and little changing surroundings, that might have been true to some extent. As the modern world sees a role reversal, with the younger generation being much more knowledgeable in the ways of the world, respect for the  experiences and achievements starts to wane. Whether they are aware of that or not, Korea's elders certainly expect their surroundings to be as subservient as possible, and are not afraid to demand it. Many Koreans are still stuck in this way of thinking, even if they know better, and will frequently give in to the demands or advice of older superiors and family members despite better knowledge. The same is required of you as a foreigner, and if you frequently find old men or women push or bully you, then it is mainly because you have failed to be attentive to their wishes. Some of them are so fond of the social power gained by advanced age that they might just boss you around to annoy you. You will also find that there is a lot of tolerance for elderly (male) alcoholics prowling the streets, which you may encounter at night or in broad daylight.

Role of Women

Many Westerners adore the supercutesy girlie style of Korean (and Japanese) girls. Through anime culture a lot of girls in Europe and the USA have started adopting it in various varieties, wearing Hello Kitty shirts and frilly skirts. What most of them don't know is that, back over here, being cutesy is not a choice, but your only option.
The status of women in patriarchical Confucian society is low, with her only aspiration being to produce a son and serve her husband, and this sentiment still prevails in modern Korean society, although you might not notice at first glance. If you are here for a while, you will see it happening in the subtle things: people will always talk to the man (even if the girl is the Korean speaker!) in a couple, for example. Seeing a man slapping his wife in public and her not fighting back is a frequent sight. Domestic violence is accepted enough that there is still no public funding for victims of abuse, and a law instituted in 2007 that forced police to follow up cases of reported domestic violence has yielded little results. Violence is often seen as a deserved response to disobedience, and a 'good' woman would never have to suffer such.
Sexuality works pretty much the same way, so being outgoing (towards the other sex) or even sexually aggressive is the domain of men, and the few women who try to break out of these conventions face (public) abuse and disdain. Women are not expected to enjoy sex, in fact are discouraged from it, and proper conduct demands that they resist to show they are virtuous. If you are not at work, you might try looking up some Korean (or Japanese) porn, and you will understand. My friends in Korea aptly call it the "Crying Starfish Position".
The only option other than looking cutesy (read: obedient and pleasing) is the business look, complete with austere costume and determined look. You might end up very lonely, though, as many of the successful Korean businesswomen seem to have trouble finding (Korean) partners.

Social Pressure and Family Values

The family is the most important unit in Confucian philosophy, and consequently occupies a large part of the life of all Koreans. No big deal, you might say, so it does in mine. The difference lies in the rigidity and the amount of pressure put upon family members to further the status of the clan. Firstly, still today many parents make decisions on what career path their children should take, whom they should marry (often through matchmakers) or what hobbies to pick. State confucianism selected its officials from the survivors of torturous academic exams, for which families would each prepare a candidate if they could afford it, in hopes he would elevate the family to a higher status. The system has ceased, but the mindset persisted, and many young Koreans are geared to supercede their parents and beat all competition. Filial piety, obedience to one's parents, is still a nagging part of reality for those young Koreans who would like to have more freedom in their lives. A devious device is that children have license to do anything they please and are pampered like little kings and queens, until they come of school age, when affection becomes suddenly tied to achievement. Repercussions are so severe that many foreign teachers hand out only A's and B's in fear their students might get hurt if they perform less desirably.
This pressure to achieve only outstandingly, which means many long hours in school and additional activities well into the night, makes Korean teenage life rarely pleasant and leaves little room for self-development. The fact that Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world is a sad reminder of the fruits such stress yields. There is no room for cats in a tiger state.

Fan death

In relation to that, let me tell you about Fan Death. Fan Death is the belief that sleeping inside a closed room with a fan on will lead to your death. Explanations vary from vacuums being created by the fan sucking out all air of the room to an interesting cold fusion theory that claims fans chop oxygen out of air molecules. You will find warnings on fans you buy in the supermarket, and the government still tells you about its dangers and victims every summer. How an industrialized nation with world-class scientific research can believe in such bullshit? Because it is convenient. It helps families keeping face when a family member commits suicide.


Failure is not an option in this society that aims to excel at every single aspect of life, and will often be denied or covered up with elaborate effort. Such is the value of family excellence that up to today, there are no serious programs for mentally disabled people, so as not to even admit accidental genetic failure. This continues to a nation level, where flaws and underperformance are frequently glossed over or simply communally ignored. Whether its Korea's historic plight as a sandwich state, being dominated interchangeably by China and Japan, or its relatively small size, Korea is hellbent on showing the world how great it is at everything. While Korea's achievements are many, and its products and technology have gained worldwide renown, its national pride is hammered home so much it settles somewhere between the annoying and the bizarre. No matter what museum you come across, you will be told that either Korea is the largest/fastest/most advanced/generally superior producer/inventor/researcher/country in whatever aspect of life the museum refers to. When such a thing cannot be claimed, you will hear that your country (audio guides seem to get no change to the English text for foreigners) is currently in the process or at least in hope to be the bleeding edge of whatever you are looking at in no time. Even concepts which Korea has not invented will often be claimed anyway, such as Chinese medicine or iron-clad ships.

There's not much flag-waving, however. Just like the Japanese, Koreans live in the silent assumption that their country simply is the greatest nation on earth, and that their culture and way of life is superior without the need to show off their national pride. That the era of nationalism and cultural superiority is over has not reached Korea yet though, so many Koreans are openly racist and dismissive of other cultural influences, even if they have actually wholeheartedly adopted them. Black teachers can expect to get paid less, for example, and mixed (Korean-Something Else) couples may encounter abuse. Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous nations on earth, and people feel that makes them something special as a people. Well, they styled it the Hermit Kingdom for a reason.

After all, though:

Before that all sounds horrible, remember that this doesn't keep people from being nice, and Koreans are indeed very pleasant and helpful. Most of their plight is carried by them, and you will rarely be affected by it. That changes very much when you date a Korean, so I hear, when all the aforementioned issues suddenly become yours. To a certain degree they are shared by Japanese and Chinese as well, which I believe is one of the reasons they are so reluctant to forge personal bonds with Westerners: their whole social culture is forged by a myriad of age-old traditions, which they would never expect you to comprehend. That unfortunately also means you'll never be part of the high-culture party, and will always be somewhat looked down upon, even if people like you. Just smile and nod, and bear it with some Confucian grace. After all, you still have a face to lose.

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