Confucian and Neo-Confucian Values

North Korea Table of Contents

Neo-Confucianism, the dominant value system of the Chosn Dynasty (1392-1910), combines the social ethics of the classical Chinese philosophers Confucius (Kong Zi, 551-479 B.C.) and Mencius (Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) with Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. One of neo-Confucianism's basic ideas is that the institutions and practices of a properly ordered human community express the immutable principles or laws that govern the cosmos. Through correct social practice, as defined by Confucian sages and their commentators, individuals can achieve self-cultivation and a kind of spiritual unity with heaven (although this was rarely described in mystic or ecstatic terms). Neo-Confucianism defines formal social relations on all levels of society. Social relations are not conceived in terms of the happiness or satisfaction of the individuals involved, but in terms of the harmonious integration of individuals into a collective whole, which, like the properly cultivated individual, mirrors the harmony of the natural order.

During the Chosn Dynasty, Korean kings made the neoConfucian doctrine of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) their state ideology. Although it was a foreign philosophy, Korean neo-Confucian scholars, of whom the most important was Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye (1501-70), played a role in adapting Zhu Xi's teachings to Korean conditions. This was done without denying the cultural superiority of China as the homeland of civilized thought and forms of life.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea became quite rigid and conservative by the mid-sixteenth century. In practice, the doctrine emphasized hierarchy in human relations and self-control for the individual. The Five Relationships (o ryun in Korean; wu lun in Chinese), formulated by classical Chinese thinkers such as Mencius and subsequently sanctified by Zhu Xi and other neo-Confucianist metaphysicians, governed proper human relations: that "between father and son there should be affection; between ruler and minister there should be righteousness; between husband and wife there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young there should be proper order; and between friends there should be faithfulness." Only the last was a relationship between equals; the others were based on authority and subordination.

Throughout traditional Korean society, from the royal palace and central government offices in the capital to the humblest household in the countryside, the themes of hierarchy and inequality were pervasive. There was no concept of the rights of the individual. In the context of the wider society, a welldefined elite of scholar-officials versed in neo-Confucian orthodoxy was legitimized in terms of the traditional ethical distinction between the educated "superior man" or "gentleman," who seeks righteousness, and the "small man," who seeks only profit. This theme was central in the writings of both Confucius and Mencius. Confucianism and neo-Confucianism as political philosophies proposed a benevolent paternalism: the masses had no role in government, but the scholar-officials were supposed to look after them as fathers look after their children. In the Chosn Dynasty, status and power inequalities, defined precisely within a vertical hierarchy, were generally considered both natural and good. The hierarchy extended from the household relationships of fathers and children through the intermediary relationships of ruler and ruled within the kingdom, to Korea's subordinate status as a tributary of China.

There is a danger, however, in overstressing the idea of Korea as a homogeneously Confucian society, even during the Chosn Dynasty. Foreign observers have been impressed with the diversity of the Korean character as expressed in day-to-day human relations. There is, on the one hand, the image of Koreans as self-controlled, deferential, and meticulous in the fulfillment of their social obligations; on the other hand, there is the Korean reputation for volatility and emotionalism. The ecstasy and euphoria of shamanistic religious practices, one of Korea's most characteristic cultural expressions, contrast sharply with the austere self-control idealized by Confucianists. Although relatively minor themes in the history of Korean ethics and social thought, the concepts of equality and respect for individuals are not entirely lacking. The doctrines of Ch'ndogyo, an indigenous religion that arose in the nineteenth century and combined elements of Buddhism, Daoism, shamanism, Confucianism, and Catholicism, taught that every human being "bears divinity" and that one must "treat man as god."

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress