“Women and Confucian Thinking” (JoongAng Daily September 25, 2015)

JoongAng Daily

“Women and Confucian Thinking”

September 25, 2015

Emanuel Pastreich

I cannot stand to take my daughter to the subway stations Sinsa or Apgucheong these days. It just sickens me to have to walk with her, a young and impressionable girl, past dozens of advertisements for plastic surgery clinics showing women posing in a sexually suggestive manner. The assumption that somehow women must be physically attractive in order to be successful, and must surgically change their appearance to do so, damages young women from an early age.

But the problem goes further than that. This country is increasingly run by women, ?and women will play an even greater role in the future. But if those women think their primary concern should be the shape of their body, rather than their commitment to being informed and active citizens, the cost will be tremendous.

This focus on physical appearances in Korea has reached a dangerous extreme. Twenty years ago, I felt that Japan rather than Korea, put an unnatural emphasis on women’s physical features, but today it is the complete opposite and even more women are feeling pressured to go under the knife. And there are even some who argue that plastic surgery is a “growth industry” that can bring in tourism yuan.

The time has come for us to put our collective foot down and declare that this trend, with its dangerous implications of cultural decadence, should end.

Advertising for non-essential plastic surgery should be prohibited and steps should be taken to restrict this technology to those who actually require reconstructive surgery. It is unfortunate such a move may impact on some parts of the economy, but a healthy moral environment should take precedent. 

The true solution to the problem will have to come from a fundamental shift in the thinking of young women in Korea. The Seonbi tradition in Korea can be the key to solving this problem. We can find inspiration in Korea’s past for a deep spiritual life which discourages materialism and an obsession with superficial appearance. You might ask, “how can the musty Confucian ideas formulated by men in traditional robes have anything to do with modern women?”

Women associate the Seonbi tradition of moral commitment with the dark legacy of female suppression and narrow thinking. It is true women were subject to terrible discrimination in traditional society. But what a terrible loss if the vision of King Sejong, or the insights of Dasan Jeong Yakyong, are lost on young women who will be Korea’s future leaders.

But with imagination and creativity a true revolution is possible that will separate the profound ethical insights of Korea’s Confucian tradition from the legacy of discrimination against women and thereby allow us to create a new culture in which women readily think of Korean Confucian scholars as their own models and heroes.

The reinterpretation of the Confucian tradition, and redefinition of the Seonbi as being directly applicable to women is essential for Korea’s future. This task is not unlike the reinvention of democracy in the United States and France. Whereas in Ancient Greece democracy meant only men from the upper classes voted, the concept was expanded to all white men in the 18th century, and extended to all men in the 19th century, and women in the 20th century.

The tremendous potential in the ancient concept of “democracy,” the idea of citizens participating in governance through the vote, has been chiseled out of the ancient stone in which it was imbedded and now stands independent at the center of a new political order. The same can, and should, be done with the remarkable Confucian tradition which Korea has so neglected.

We must create an open creative dialog among scholars, policy makers and citizens that will allow us to transfer the best of the insights on moral action and good governance from traditional Confucianism into a new culture that empowers women and makes them feel that the humble scholars who sacrificed themselves for the common good, who held up the highest virtues in the face of material temptations are their “seniors.”

It is important to create a culture of women Confucians, intellectuals, public servants and politicians, who will have the confidence to go forward without assuming that they must somehow leave behind Korean culture to be successful, or that they must spend money altering their physical appearances in order to get attention.

 

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