Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Rethinking Confucius

As I'm heading out of Buddhist South-East Asia and back to Confucian East Asia soon, I thought I'd try this.

As most Koreans readily admit, many of the most unstomachable elements of Korean society can be put down to the influence of enforced Neo-Confucianism in Korea's past. Take away the Confucian elements and Korea has a culture rich in colour and emotion, people say. I used to tend to agree...

Confucius lived in China during a time of social turmoil (the Warring States period). As I see it, his ideas were right for his time but his successors have done little to keep his teachings relevent for the changing times. (Similarly to the way the Bible or the Qu'ran - books of great wisdom and accumulated knowledge, whether or not you believe they're the word of God - are steeped in the culture, history, geography, political climate and social structures of the eras when they were written.)

My suggestion here is to bring the mainstay of Neo-Confucianism up to date. (To my mind, it's sensible, but it's not 100% serious, so I hope no-one takes offense.)

The foundations of his philosophy, as followed in Korea, are the o-ryun (五倫 오륜), the "5 rules of human relationships".

These are:

"Between (close) friends there should be trust."
(朋友有信 붕우유신)

No-one could argue with that. Moreover, there's nothing in these five ideals that says close friendships can't be formed between any two people.

(In Korea there seems to be a view that a 'close friend' has to be someone your own age, and it can't be someone you work with or a foreigner. The origins of this oppressive thinking are unknown to me.)

"Between parents and children there should be closeness."
(父子有親 부자유친)

Again, there's not much I need to add. I could say that a lot of Korean parents come across as very pushy, ordering their children about and later demanding their children sacrifice a lot of time and money for their ageing parents. There's a lot of 'filial piety' in The Analects, but surely pushiness just makes people resentful.

"Between husband and wife there should be differentiation."
(夫婦有別 부부유별)

Note that this says 'differentiation' (or 'distinction') and not 'discrimination'. This is also taken, by extension to mean between men and women - a position even most feminists wouldn't take issue with: women and men are different in important ways, but ultimately both equally important (even complimentary - like yin and yang); let's celebrate our differences and learn to get along together properly.

Again, I'm not sure who's responsible for starting the downhill spiral of (shockingly unabashed) "male superiority / female inferiority" (남존여비) in Korea - the preference for sons (and hence abortion of many female fetuses), the idea that only eldest sons can make ancestral offerings,... no idea.

(I take issue to some extent with the polarised exclusivity of these 'rules'. It's clear they should be applied with a certain amount of common sense flexibility, taking into account that everyone's different - effeminate men, masculine women, we're all human, we're all different.

Some of the more conservative societies are stricter about having males act "like men" and women be "ladylike", thus enforcing these stereotypes... It's my personal belief that this dilutes people's true personalities.)

"Between ruler and subject there should be obligations."
(君臣有義 군신유의)

And by extension, this is applied to employers and employees. Sure, if a job's worth doing, you try to do it well. Most intelligent companies nowadays have realised the need to "buy in" to the company's mission (to feel a part of it, sympathise with that mission and want to strive for it) so they'll do their best towards that goal. That, too, is a two-way process, whatever the management style. Your employer has certain obligations towards you - working conditions, commensurate pay, empowerment (to do one's job), job satisfaction, and so on.

The idea that someone with a better-paying job must demand more respect is nowhere to be found.

"Between young and old, there should be order."
(長幼有序 장유유서)

With young people having such ready access to information and opportunities nowadays (far more than their parents or grandparents) chronological age has become far less significant than maturity and aptitude. Yet one of the most bizarre aspects of Korean culture for most westerners is the reverse ageism.

In English, 'to respect someone' has 2 meanings:
1) to admire someone, to hold someone in esteem;
2) to show consideration towards someone.

In (most?) western socieites, the elderly were once respected in the first sense, for their knowledge and experience. Nowadays however, for better or worse, we're seeing the phenomenon of many young people 'up-ageing' - that is, acting and thinking older than their chronological age. With changing methods of communication, now when parents tell their children to respect their elders, they mean in the second sense. The idea of respecting someone just because they're old seems silly. There's a saying that "Growing old is compulsary; growing wise, sadly, is not."

People earn respect (admiration) for their actions, wisdom, experience, knowledge, attitude, aptitude,... The 'young' and 'old' duality could perhaps be replaced by a continuum of these.

Or perhaps truer to Confucius, the sense of 'elder' could be redefined as someone who does something better than you do: that is, respect those who are good at their job, someone who knows more about a given subject than you, and so on. This is very similar to its original meaning, I would argue.

Furthering Confucius

A cursory glance at the 5 'rules' shows a few things are missing. Or, more precisely, a few people are missing. Whereas Christianity and similar moral traditions ask people to 'be a good neighbour', be considerate to the poor, be kind to strangers, these people (strangers, basically) don't feature in the list at all. Where to put them?

Imagine this: the world's one big family. Everyone's your auntie, uncle, great aunt, nephew, niece, sister, brother, cousin, second cousin, or whatever. Every person you pass in the street, queue behind at the supermarket, see out the window is a relative and potentially a close friend. (Maybe even an employee or employer if you have the right skills.) Towards everyone you should have the closeness of family relations, and the willingness to trust others enough to build friendships. It seems Korea was moving in this direction before consumerism arrived and made people money-mad...

I would argue that, if Confucius was half as wise as he is credited with being, the '5 rules' are purposefully vague for the simple but essential purpose that they CAN (and SHOULD) be re-interpreted to better reflect changing times and keep the ideas fresh and relevant.

Do a quick search for 'respect' in the British National Corpus and draw your own conclusions.

Read The Analects of Confucius (the Master's conversations with his students) - to my mind this is the best version on-line. There's also a multi-lingual version in 21 languages.

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