“Filial piety and Korea’s future” (JoongAng Daily April 18, 2016)

JoongAng Daily
“Filial piety and Korea’s future”
April 18, 2016


Emanuel Pastreich


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.

One response to ““Filial piety and Korea’s future” (JoongAng Daily April 18, 2016)

  1. Craig April 18, 2016 at 5:27 pm

    I general, I can see this point. However, I find it odd that this clannish social mode would be adapted to modern circumstances.

    In the past, this came as part of a package of “confucian” thought systems that were, at their core, essentially feudal; you owed loyalty and respect to your superiors, in a Mafia-like respect hierarchy. I see little to admire in such a mechanism.

    A lot of people love strict hierarchies like this; the ultimate form is the veneration of ancestors. It’s linked to respect for authority and the authority accorded to those with greater age. Alas, this is actually one of Korea’s chief problems, crippling its corporate culture and sabotaging many social relationships.

    “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.”

    >> Elites in the west have long been enamoured of the authoritarian traditions in the East that inspire loyalty and subservience. This has been especially true of visions of China, where “meritocratic” philosophies of authority exercised by intellectual elites has been admired for quite some time.

    This is a “rationalist” reactionary response to the concepts inherent in independence and liberty. To me, it seems to step from the Western elites’ fear of the vox populi, the same voice that sees the Demes as dangerous and needing to be led by the Select. This is especially true of those who see in themselves a more educated form of wisdom than that practiced by the masses. Those with power and who see themselves as in positions of influence, or those without such power or who feel that society should be led by some class of “Knowers”, usually including people like themselves, generally dislike the idea that we do not owe our superiors respect. They tend to want a “rational” hierarchy and then to have that hierarchy defended and respected.

    Filial piety and the entire corpus of Confucian thought about social order are at root undemocratic. Confucianism as practiced is an articulated argument for authority and social order. Emphasis on harmony and legacy are primarily useful for blocking challenges to established norms and stakeholders. What I’ve noted over the past two decades is that business leaders, politicians and even scholars who end up as cheerleaders for China’s recent rise tend to find themselves in these circles; their resistance to China’s authoritarian governance is weak, and hence there’s a disturbing fondness even in the core of the business community for centralized control and order. What is lacking in this approach is any respect for actual people as individuals independent of the imposed social hierarchy.


    There is a deep, and often unappreciated, ongoing value in disrespecting authority, in questioning any elite’s claim to wisdom or power, to resisting imposition of will, to defying tradition and breaking with the past.

    Korea descended into centuries of social decay and stagnation. Modernization came via drawing in outside forces, and factional fighting led to Japanese occupation and direction and then a counter-punch that weirdly recreated much of the stagnant Joseon dynasty in the North. In the South, it’s only been recently that the severe weaknesses of traditional Confucian culture has been exposed, and new generations are slowly learning to assault the bastions of traditional, mechanical, automated respect for authority.

    And this is all for the good.

    Creativity, accountability, independence, initiative, confidence, drive – these are the things the West has to teach to countries like Korea.

    I’m not sure the root core of confucianism – undemocratic, obsessed with harmony in unchanged order, respect for authority – are neecessarily good for the future.

    Come traditions we still honour should be subject to change and editing. And some are best left in the past.

    Personally, I would like to see a more democratic future, with more fluid social mobility, more upsetting of old schema, more bottom-up change and less respect for hierarchy, authority and imposition of will.

    I don’t think filial piety and the basket of ideas it comes in would be a particularly good route to that destination.

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