“Neo-Confucian Learning in Korea The Forgotten Origins of Modernity and the Platform for the Future”

Neo-Confucian Learning in Korea

The Forgotten Origins of Modernity and the Platform for the Future

Emanuel Pastreich

August 10, 2013



There is a powerful myth that dominates Korean society today, one which severely undermines Korea’s cultural potential because it labels a tremendous chunk of the Korean cultural tradition as irrelevant, making it seem as if the intellectual achievements of Korean intellectuals before the twentieth century was misguided. You can find this argument in high school textbooks, or even in the introductions written in English for foreigners about Korean culture.

The myth concerns Korea’s intellectual tradition and the importance of the Neo-Confucian tradition in Korea. Neo-Confucianism is a general term for the philosophical system codified by the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279) scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) which formed the basis for much of the state ideologies of later dynasties in China and Korea. Neo-Confucianism was a synthetic approach to epistemology that combined early Confucian teachings with metaphysical terms developed in Buddhism to create an overarching world view that embraced the natural world, governance and ethics.

The Neo-Confucian vision of the world as a moral whole in which the scholar had the most privileged position by access to the Confucian classics became the basis for literally all formal education in the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1911). As Korea strove to modernize in the 20th century, during the colonial occupation by Japan, a myth about Neo-Confucianism took root that remains powerful to this day.


The myth goes something like this:

In the Joseon Period, Korean scholars, the yangban class, were lost in abstract theories and impractical ideas about self and society drawn from the fuzzy thinking of Neo-Confucian tradition. Lost in the abstractions of Neo-Confucian discourse on “virtue” and “filial piety,” yangban scholars lost all interest in practical studies: the know-how for administrating a country and the technology for improving the lives of the people. These yangban spent their days reading books and made no contribution to society. Because of their failures, Korea fell far behind in modernization and only made progress when Western science was introduced in the 20th century, sadly through the Japanese colonization.

Although it is true that a small group of decadent and self-interested yangban in the 19th century used Neo-Confucian learning as an ideology to justify their rule and to reject Western learning, the overall story is a misleading and damaging myth. This story was product of Japanese scholars during the colonial period during who strove to convince Koreans, and the world, that Koreans had fallen so far behind that they needed Japan to save them.

What is odd about this myth is that it has had such a power over Korean thinking, even today. Perhaps the myth has such power because it has combined with the myth of modernization, the idea that Korea had to throw away its past in order to become modern, to become an advanced country. That myth remains very powerful among older Koreans in their fifties and forties.

But the age of rapid modernization is over. We will face new global challenges for which traditional Korean ideas, and not the practices of modernization, will be critical.

Many Koreans assume that Neo-Confucianism is opposed to science and technology, but in fact the opposite is the case. Zhu Xi thought was the basis for Chinese and Korean scientific discourse, the “investigation of things” (gewu) in Asia and that system of science was more advanced than its rivals in the West until the 17th century in  many fields.

Koreans learn in textbooks that Neo-Confucianism was attacked by the group known today as “Silhak” (practical studies) and that such figures as Park Jiwon and Jeong Yakyong argued that scholar should turn away from Neo-Confucianism. This story is not accurate. In fact the “Silhak” movement was squarely within the Neo-Confucian tradition and was rather an argument for greater engagement of intellectuals in contemporary issues, not an alternative to Neo-Confucianism.

To take the hostility of some Korean intellectuals in the nineteenth century to Western learning as an excuse to dismiss Neo-Confucian learning is a terrible mistake. Many thousands of insightful Korean scholarly and literary works were written in the Joseon period that offer much to modern society. Unfortunately, Koreans have dismissed that tradition as being “Chinese” –and not “Korean”– and made little effort to introduce it to the world. The Korean culture that is commonly introduced to the world is the rather simplistic novels, “Tale of Chunhyang” and “Tale of Hong Gildong.” These simple morality tales lack the complexity which distinguished the Joseon intellectual  tradition.  The sophisticated writings of the Joseon for the most part have not been translated and are unknown even to educated Koreans.

The result is that it appears to the world as if Korea had no serious intellectual tradition before the 20th century. Confucianism is misunderstood as simplistic set of rules for being good by following rules. Respect old people; be sincere; follow orders because that is what Confucius says. This popular interpretation is quite distant from the complex arguments advanced by thinkers of the Joseon period.

What might be a first step to reclaim the Neo-Confucian tradition? Perhaps one step is for Koreans to make that tradition more a part of contemporary culture. Most Koreans, however, can only imagine Neo-Confucianism in terms of respect for teachers and old people, so attempts to modernize that tradition so far have not been all that successful.

But what if you took the teachings of the remarkable thinker Yi Toe-gye and presented them in a manner that related to daily life and the problems that young people face? What if the essential truths were transmitted in a manner that ordinary people could understand in terms of their own experience? That was the approach used in introducing Zen Buddhism from Japan in such books as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a best-selling novel from the 1970s that relates in a lively manner the principles of Zen teaching without any reference to the texts of the original classics. Yi Toe-gye’s arguments are not old ideas that belong in a museum, but are about the issues of the current day. For example, it might be a good idea to produce a popular play dealing with young people’s experience of alienation, competition, suicide and the dangers of an obsession with surfaces. Much of Yi Toe-gye’s thought about human experience and the distraction of surfaces could be in that accessible context. The young people watching the play, or TV show, would see that Neo-Confucian tradition in an entirely new way.

Also, we must recognize that Korea’s remarkable modernization in the 20th century could not have taken place without the strong intellectual tradition of Neo-Confucianism that gave intellectuals the ability to think strategically about development and government. The government officials and CEOs who led the Korean miracle were not successful because of their enthusiasm and their hard work ethic. That is a solipsistic argument one often hears in Korea, something like: Koreans work hard because they work hard. Rather it was the tremendous richness of the Neo-Confucian tradition and its emphasis on the merging of abstract principles and concrete practical action that allowed Korea to both set up lofty, seemingly impossible, goals while also having the tenacity to engage in the daily struggle for markets and technology without losing sight of the ultimate goal.

But there are some aspects of the Neo-Confucian tradition that call out for reinterpretation today in light of new challenges. For example, the Neo-Confucian metaphysical tradition holds that the most important aspects of human experience are those which are invisible to the human eye. The entire tradition highlighted the invisible metaphysical underpinnings of our universe and human experience, and led the reader to question the superficial surface of daily life.

We live in an age, the digital age, in which increasingly the visual, the image as reproduced on TV or on the internet, assumes more authority, more significance, than any underlying principles or metaphysics. We are caught in the most superficial understanding of our world; our world is being flattened out by the digital revolution. What we lack is a sense of the underlying metaphysics behind the phenomena that we observe.

That part of our modern experience that is so weakened is exactly what was addressed so effectively in the Neo-Confucian tradition. Attention to underlying principles, to the rules by which the world works– as opposed to the appearance of things– is exactly what we need so desperately in this age. At a moment in which the appearance of things has become everything, this insight could be critical.

Although we have been told a story about the Confucian scholars who were so terribly backward and were unable to deal with modernity, maybe they understood something about the world that is of value in this age, at the moment at which we have reached the limits of the modernization paradigm?

Let us remember how the Confucian scholar lived. He read his books, he wrote letters and essays, and he recited the classics so that he could better understand their nuances. He used very little resources and conducted himself in an extremely modest manner. There was no need to go anywhere, or to do anything, order to find infinite depth and meaning in his life. He was concerned with underlying principles, not appearances, and therefore he could find truth and satisfaction in his readings of a set of core texts.

Perhaps the most important challenge that we face in the world today is reducing the incredible waste of natural resources by privileged people living in wealthy nations. We must move beyond the  compulsive need to own cars, to live in big houses, to eat too much food. We are caught in a sad cycle of over-consumption as a confirmation of happiness. That consumption is having a devastating impact on the environment and threating the future of humanity.

That model of the Confucian scholar who finds infinite depth in a few books and papers is extremely appealing for us as we face the crisis of consumer culture and the resulting climate change. The enormous bulk of damage to the environment today comes from those in advanced, wealthy nations who consume too many resources. Unless we seriously reduce our consumption, we will not be able to promise a sustainable world to our children.

Korean Neo-Confucians have much to offer to us, and to offer to the world. Imagine if you could find complete satisfaction in the moment in your home reading books and writing. It may seem boring from the outside if you are lost in a consumer culture, but if you understand this world from the inside, it has tremendous appeal. .

In traditional Korea, there was stress on eating only what one needs and avoiding consumption for show. That Korean tradition of humble living and modest consumption was despised by many in the process of modernization when it seemed that bigger was better. But in this age, when Korea can best be a leader in that it presents models to the world of living with less, that tradition of modest living, in which the greatest minds of the 17th and 18th century lived extremely modestly as scholars—has much to offer us. We must reinterpret that tradition in a manner that can be readily understood by young people.



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