Wee wisdom

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Wee wisdom

In a hall surrounded by framed calligraphic passages from Confucian classics, a group of elementary school children sits on the floor in front of a long row of low tables. "Mullipmunjung, muljwabangjung," says Oh Nam-gyu, 81, a teacher at the Yangcheon Hyanggyo, a Confucian school, in the rhythm and cadence peculiar to the reading of old Chinese texts.

No, it is not some magic spell that would turn stone into gold. "What this means is 'Do not stand in the middle of a doorway and do not sit in the middle of the room,'" explains Mr. Oh to the young students as they studiously copy the Chinese characters stroke by stroke in their textbooks. Upon Mr. Oh's call to repeat the phrase, the students chant it out in unison, stressing the words that need to be stressed and raising their tone at certain words, after Mr. Oh's fashion.

While most children spend their summer vacations cooling off at swimming pools or glued to computers in air-conditioned rooms, the 17 primary school children in this class, from neighborhood schools in Gayang-dong, southwestern Seoul, have chosen to pursue learning Confucian ethics, etiquette and Chinese characters.

Every weekday, from 2 p.m. to 3:50 p.m., these kids come to the school to immerse themselves in studying Cheonjamun, a primer that teaches 1,000 Chinese characters, and Myeongsimbogam, a collection of wise sayings by sages that dates to the Goryeo period (918-1392). The free five-week summer program is funded by the Yangcheon district government and kicked off July 22. It also includes mastery of Sajasohak, a collection of phrases written in Chinese characters that instructs young children on Confucian etiquette and codes of conduct, and calligraphy -- no one with proper classical training would be caught with poor handwriting.

The breeze coming through the open doors on all sides of the hall provides the only relief from the stifling heat. The Yangcheon Hyanggyo buildings, the only of their kind in the metropolitan area, have a history dating to 1411, but were completely renovated in 1981 because the original structures became too weather-beaten.

"How many of you have an assigned place for your father to sit at home?" Mr. Oh asks. Only three of the students raise their hands, but the teacher is not too surprised. Lifestyle changes resulting from living in apartments have affected centuries-old norms of proper etiquette. With people using sofas in their living rooms, the concept of reserving an araetmok, or the warmest spot in the room, for the head of the house has become outdated. "Araetmok is the spot that you face when you enter the room," Mr. Oh explains. "That is where the head of the house should be seated."

In this age of gender equality, does it really matter who sits on which side of the elder? Well, if you were properly educated, you would know that you never sit directly in front of the elder; a man sits to the left of the elder while a woman sits to the right. But Mr. Oh is willing to accept that the times are changing. "It is probably too complicated for the children to remember everything, but it doesn't hurt them to learn," he says.

What do Mr. Oh's students think about all this? Since they all signed up for the class voluntarily at school, no one is complaining too much about the hours of etiquette and ethics lessons. "It is sort of fun, and I get to spend time with my friends," says Lee Seon-min, a sixth grader at Tapsan Primary School in Gayang-dong. Another sixth grader, Lee Min-hee, says, "It is a bit irrelevant to our daily life, I think." For example, she knows, at least in her head, that she should wait until the elders have lifted their spoons before starts to eat and she should allow the elders to try the tasty dishes first. "I usually follow the etiquette, but not when it comes to my favorite food," she says.

Mr. Oh would probably be comforted to know that his lessons do not fall on deaf ears, because the children appear inattentive during his lecture, passing notes to each other and giggling. A fifth grader, Seo Hui-won, is able to recapitulate the lesson of a moral tale Mr. Oh read, even if he missed some of the details: Not to be greedy, to be humble by lowering yourself, and that if you are not greedy there is nothing to be jealous about. Not too bad for a youngster who was busy doing his homework for another subject while the story was being told.

Ahn Sae-am, a sixth grade student, is an enthusiastic participant. "I like learning about etiquette and filial piety," she says. "It is also a good chance to study Chinese characters." Sae-am is enrolled in the program for the second year in a row. Her mother, Lee Gwang-ja, 38, was pleasantly surprised when her daughter told her she had signed up for the program at school. "I had planned to send her to a math-drill school during the vacation," Ms. Lee says. "I guess I'll be saving some money and she will be learning more Chinese characters."

While Ms. Lee and her husband had already taught their daughter many of the manners at home, Ms. Lee has noticed some changes since her daughter began taking classes again at the Confucian school. "Now, she never fails to use honorifics and I can see that she pays more attention to how she speaks and behaves," Ms. Lee says.

There is no doubt that the strict moral codes and manners dictated by Confucianism are becoming more difficult to practice in today's modern society. But Mr. Oh says he believes they are relevant for all times. He says that is why, despite the declining enrollment, he has been offering daily afternoon classes since 1983 in addition to the summer programs. Mr. Oh himself received a master's degree in Confucian philosophy from Sungkyunkwan University in 1990. Asks Mr. Oh, "How can we say that teachings such as 'Do only good deeds,' and 'Throw away greed and lower yourself' will ever become irrelevant?"

by Kim Hoo-ran

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