When I wrote the book “Another Republic of Korea, of which Koreans are Ignorant,” I spent hours deciding which part of traditional Korean culture could serve as a blueprint for its future development. I wrote the outline for a chapter about the value of filial piety for Korea’s future, but ultimately did not use it because the response to it from Korean friends was so lukewarm.
Koreans describe filial piety as an obligatory duty, but evince no particular enthusiasm for it.
Yet filial piety was not a quaint habit in the Joseon Dynasty, but rather the core of an ethical system that bridged abstract morality and concrete practice, one that brought together the private and the public realms to create a sustainable political system.
Chinese in the 18th century spoke highly of Korean filial piety, considering the respect Koreans showed for their elders and ancestors to be the mark of civilized society. It seems wrong-headed to leave out filial piety when we plan the future of Korea.
I visited Confucianland in Andong, a massive building crammed full of dioramas illustrating Confucian values with cartoonish figures. Although I understand the motivation for the amusement park, regrettably it seems more aimed at tourism than at promoting virtue, and it contains little that would draw in people over the age of twelve.
But the compassion for others found in filial piety is desperately needed in our society, in a country in where elder parents are abandoned by their children, and similarly youth are so alienated from family that they commit suicide in despair.
The Korean tradition of filial piety must be revived, but that can only be done if we first accept that filial piety must be completely reinterpreted and made a living, breathing part of daily life, and not an abstract concept. We must use our imagination to radically reinvent filial piety. We need intellectuals to work together with artists, writers and common citizens to reinterpret the tradition for the present day—the work cannot be done by “branding committees” or PR consultants.
First, filial piety must be stripped of any bias against women. Korean society has changed fundamentally and the Confucian tradition must be gender neutral. There are plenty of examples of such reforms in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Women should be important ancestors and they should participate in the Confucian rites in the same manner as men. A failure to reform the tradition will result in its loss.
Second, filial piety must be understood not only as a moral duty but as a process that leads to self-understanding. Filial piety is the key to our own true identity because we understand how we are a product of the contributions of ancestors about whom we know so little.
We need to use storytelling to revitalize the filial piety tradition and parents should tell their children about past ancestors and allow them to see how their thinking, the shapes of their bodies and their experiences are related to past generations. Filial piety offers a form of psychological understanding which is akin to, but more constructive than, Freudian approaches. The critical role of the parent in the lives of children is recognized through filial piety, not in abstract scientific analysis, but in daily practices that reinforce positives of the relationship.
After Bertrand Russell spent a year in Beijing giving lectures in 1920, he noted in his book, “The Problem with China,” that Confucian filial piety was a far preferable system for running a government than the “patriotism [which] directs one’s loyalty to a fighting unit” employed in Western nations. These words have profound significance. Filial piety offers potential for a unifying philosophy connecting the personal and the political. It is not a simplistic “ideology,” nor dependent on any “patriotism” that can easily descend into militarism. Koreans were criticized by Westerners in the 19th century for placing too much emphasis on family, but perhaps it was precisely filial piety that kept Korea from becoming imperialist and has allowed it to retain humanity in government institutions.