All the fun of Confucianism, minus the whips

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All the fun of Confucianism, minus the whips

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It’s 10 degrees below zero (14 degrees Fahrenheit) and 800 meters (half a mile) above sea level, but in the front yard of the old-fashioned village school in Chunghak-dong, South Gyeongsang province, the boys are too busy making arrows out of bamboo strips and the girls are having too much fun riding a see-saw to care about the environment.
Welcome to Mongyang-dang, a seodang (Confucian school) perched on the lower edge of Mount Jiri.
Tucked into Hadong county, Chunghak-dong’s village schools were once characterized by whips and stern schoolmasters. Then the schools began to incorporate popular Korean children’s games. The result was something not quite a seodang and more like a playground for Chinese classical works. Schoolmasters still wear long beards and horse-hair hats, but their demeanor has gone from harsh to grandfatherly.
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The students, of course, don’t attend year-round ― only during summer and winter vacations, when many of them can stay there as if at camp. But many are regulars, such as Lee Seung-ju, a 14-year-old student from a school in North Gyeongsang province. Currently a 6th grader, Lee is back for his seventh time.
“At first I was scared because I was whipped on the calves a lot,” he said, “but nowadays the seodang is so much fun I want to come back every time I have a vacation.”
Seodang owners knew they had to do something to bring kids in. Once the nation’s most common form of higher education, the modern market provides few job opportunities for those well-versed in Confucian classics. Once there were more Confucian schools in Korea than in all of China; by 1998, however, Korea had only four. Since then, there has been a seodang “mini-boom,” peaking at 30 before settling at around 23 schools.
“We’re trying to cater to the youth as long as it doesn’t undermine our trademark etiquette education,” said Kim Bong-gon, 39, the headmaster of the Mongyang-dang traditional village school.
Other village schools have also changed with the times. The oldest and strictest school, Chung-hak now has its students spend an hour every day playing with shuttlecocks or seesaws. Other schools teach traditional narrative music and martial arts. One seodang even offers an online site that uses cartoons to teach Chinese.
The whips are gone. The worst form of corporal punishment is a light slap on the feet of any student who neglects to memorize the Chinese saying of the day.
There may be more games and less whips, but the emphasis on Chinese classical teachings has stayed. Students get up at 6:30 in the morning and start off the day by meditating to thank their parents. The day is spent studying such texts as Sajasohak, a book on how to teach and learn Chinese classics, Myeongshimbogam, a collection of basic classical texts, Gyeokmongyogyeol, a Korean textbook for children, and Sasosamgyeong, the “four books and three classics.” The students are back in bed by 10 p.m.
Parents come back after the course, which is either a week or two weeks long, to be greeted by their children, who bow and thank them for making “the long journey” to seem them. The sight is enough to make some parents burst out in tears.


by Kim Sang-jin
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