TV's Newest Star? It's Old Confucius

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TV's Newest Star? It's Old Confucius

Clad in a black traditional Korean robe, he stands in front of a blackboard with a piece of white chalk between his fingers. When he is completely engrossed in what he is saying, he seems unable to control himself: his already thin voice goes into an even higher pitch, he leaps from one end of the blackboard to the other with the ends of the roomy robe flowing after him and the chalk often breaks off as he writes on the board. From time to time he wipes the perspiration on his shaven head with a handkerchief, taking a brief pause. The captivated audience sporadically nods in agreement and honors him with enthusiastic applause.

Kim Yong-ok, a former professor of philosophy, has caused a storm recently for his controversial style and interpretation of Chinese classics. This does not come as much of a surprise because Mr. Kim has always been considered a maverick. He made his debut into academia in the early 1980s, armed with a doctorate from Harvard University, and he has constantly been mired in controversy.

While a professor at Korea University, Mr.Kim had a large following among students who found his spirited lectures, spiced with vocabulary often considered too vulgar for ivory towers, new and refreshing. He caused a sensation when he left the university in 1986 and embarked on a study of Oriental medicine in 1990 at Wonkwang University. He earned a license to practice Oriental medicine in 1996.

Mr. Kim's current notoriety stems from his televised lectures on "Lun Yu" or "The Analects," a collection of Confucius' sayings compiled by some of his disciples. In an unprecedented move, Korean Broadcasting System, a public television network, began airing the 100 episodes of Mr. Kim's lectures on "The Analects" last October. Not only was the length of the series remarkable, but its schedule as well. For two hours every Friday evening at 10 p.m., viewers of KBS 2 are treated to "Do-ol's Talk on 'The Analects' " ("Do-olui Noneo Iyagi"). Do-ol is Mr. Kim's pen name.

From its inception, the series promised to be different. To deliver his knowledge most effectively, Mr. Kim said he would include interviews, debates, documentaries and public forums. Viewers were promised that the lectures would be anything but stuffy and academic.

The response has been enthusiastic. According to KBS, the viewing rate for the program is 10 or 11 percent, compared to 7 or 8 percent for similar programs. The network considers this experiment a huge success. The weekly episodes are recorded before a live audience that usually overflows the studio, with as many as 50 auditors standing.

This program follows another hit series of lectures delivered by Mr. Kim, "Lao Tzu in the 21st Century," which aired on Educational Broadcasting System last year. Using his book as the text for the series, Mr. Kim introduced his translation and interpretation of "Dao de Jing," the primary Taoist writing known in Korea as "Do deok kyeong."

Mr. Kim's latest controversies began with the airing of the EBS series. Although he has never been free from criticism, his television series have been covered extensively by the media and have triggered a tit-for-tat argument in the newspapers and on television.

The first shot was fired by an unknown writer, Lee Kyung-sook. She published "The Man Who Made Lao Tzu Laugh" ("Nojareul Utgin Namja"), at the end of last year. It is a word-by-word critique of Mr. Kim's interpretation of "Dao de Jing" as it appears in "Lao Tzu in the 21st Century." The book caught the attention of the media primarily because it was by an unknown author who described herself as a housewife and chose to reveal no more than her name and a record of her past writings to the public.

A sequel hit the shelves last Wednesday. Ms. Lee lambastes Mr. Kim for engaging in self-glorification while giving scant attention to the subject matter he promised to treat. Citing another one of Mr. Kim's writings, she says, "There is very little of either Lao Tzu or his philosophy in 'This is Lao Tzu Philosophy' ("Noja Cheolhak Igeosida")."

Another of Mr. Kim's tormenters is Suh Ji-moon, a professor of English at Korea University. In her contribution to JoongAng Ilbo on Feb. 9, Professor Suh took Mr.Kim to task for his lecturing style, which often includes vulgar language, and sniffs that an inferior man should not be discussing a superior one.

Not the man to keep mum, Mr. Kim responded in his next television broadcast with the old I-decline-to-respond tactic. He would not, he suggested, enter into academic discourse with an amateur. Oddly enough, no formal critique of Mr. Kim's lectures has been offered by recognized professors of philosophy, and while Mr. Kim claims that professors at Sungkyunkwan University, the bastion of Confucian scholarship in Korea, have applauded his efforts, no one has come forward publicly to defend him either.

Professor Suh returned to the lists in a piece contributed to Munhwa Ilbo, where she wrote: "Do-ol's interpretation is blasphemy against Confucius and all scholars who revere Confucius."

In a telephone interview last Thursday, Professor Suh said, "I watched a few episodes on KBS2 and felt that Professor Kim had not been moved by Confucius' teachings. In fact, Confucius is not the main subject of the lecture at all."

Mr. Kim finally answered his critics in last Friday's episode, "The Way of Learning." Again, he said that he found nothing in the newspapers worth answering. Rather, he explained his background, mentioned the reasons why he chose to study Eastern philosophy and introduced his writings, which include several translated works.

Based on the premise that a lecture is a kind of entertainment, he said, "Once you have understood the meaning, it is all right to forget what I have said or the name Kim Yong-ok." In clear reference to Ms. Lee's writings, he said, "Viewers have the ability to select and choose no matter what an ordinary housewife says."

Although the current public interest in Confucianism may have stemmed from the popularity and charisma of a single personality and the controversies that he has stirred, it may have some positive outcomes. Professor Suh notes "People seem more interested in Do-ol than Confucius. Yet, this is a very good chance to talk about Confucius."

Indeed Mr. Kim has sparked a public interest in Confucianism which has been ignored for many years in the name of modernity. Perhaps this will lead to the rediscovery of Confucian values and ideals, for no matter what Koreans profess their religion to be they cannot deny their Confucian heritage.

A witness to this trend is the popularity of books on Eastern philosophy. Volumes on the subject remain on the best-seller list for several weeks, which is unusual. Mr. Kim's "Do-ol's Talk on the Analects," for example, has been on the weekly best-seller list at Kyobo Bookstore ever since it came out Feb. 1.

The newly found interest in Confucianism promises to yield more writings on the subject. Already Ms. Lee plans to publish her interpretation of "Dao De Jing" while Professor Suh has begun writing a weekly newspaper column on Confucianism that will explore some basic principles, as well as her favorite verses and some personal perspectives on Confucian values and ideology. "The column is not dedicated to criticizing Professor Kim," she emphasized.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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