[OUTLOOK]New life for old beliefsKoreans are reinventing Confucianism. The phenomenon is limited to Korea even among East Asian countries. Japan is too proud of its modernization to feel nostalgic about the past, and China is too engrossed in modernization projects at hand and has sealed its traditions away. Only Korea is reminiscing over the past and rediscovering the forgotten legacy of Confucianism, based on a sense of confidence in our successful modernization.
Korea’s 20th century was a history of oblivion for Confucianism. The humiliation of national ruin and colonization was blamed on Confucia-nism and we found consolation in practical studies because of calls for modernization. Confucianism could not advance and had to wither in a corner with the sighs of old men. However, Confucianism made a comeback to the spotlight at the end of the last century. Ironically, what brought back the old philosophy was the success of modernization.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Confucianism, which had been considered an obstacle to modernization, came to be known as the very philosophy that achieved a successful modernization. The so-called “Asian values” were recognized to have contributed to the triumph. Believers in Confucianism, who had remained silent till then, rejoiced at the news that the Confucian virtues of group-oriented tendency, enthusiasm for education and devotion to the family, had brought the Asian nations into new power. However, the celebration did not last long. The foreign currency crisis that hit Asia in the late 1990s threw a cold blanket over the joyful mood.
The story continues, however. Korea has miraculously risen again, and its newly found confidence called for a new Confucian code. The impetus came from the cultural circle. Hanryu, or the Korean wave, has spread all over Japan, China, Southeast Asia and now across the Pacific, and Confucianism is often mentioned as its root.
A movie about a king, courtiers and clowns has attracted more than 10 million viewers, inspired by a single line in the Chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty. A book about the eccentric habits and unrealistic fixations of old-time scholars has become a bestseller. The change is astonishing. We used to look at the history of the Joseon Dynasty as a time of political strife and ugly conspiracies in the royal family.
I think that the triumphs of “King and the Clown” and “You Can’t Reach unless You Get Crazy” were made possible because they set ideologies and justifications aside and focused on the individual lives of the characters. It is a revolutionary shift of paradigm that we started to see the history of the Joseon Dynasty, its Confucian politics and culture as they were, transcending the traumas of colonization.
I might be overanalyzing, but the attempts to approach Korea’s tradition and Confucianism not from a political point of view but from a cultural aspect will accelerate. The costumes and props featured in movies and television dramas set in the Joseon period are getting more magnificent, and characters from the era boast their grandeur in computer games. The colorful dress of the Joseon Dynasty was hidden in black-and-white photos, but it is now blooming in the streets and online. As the country’s economy grows and becomes globalized, local culture will expand and Confucian codes will become revitalized. With growing attention to Confucianism, the experts need to change and reinvent ways to approach the ancient philosophy.
Spring has come, but the Confucian camp remains rigid. It is regrettable that they are so attached to the glory of the past that they miss out on new opportunities. Confucianism is not about refusing to reinterpret the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, never meddling with the patriarchy, or keeping the ancestor worship ritual without any modification.
Confu-cianism has earned a new life and written a new history by transforming itself along with the times. Along the way, a group of Confucians claimed to have burned the Four Books and the Three Classics and abolished the ancestor worship ritual. Without the texts and the ritual, Confucianism still lives on.
Where is the new frontier? Aside from its cultural contents, Confucia-nism can be found in family values, the basis of hanryu, in management based on human relations and the unique perception of the meaning of life. Of course, different people will see different horizons.
One thing we have to keep in mind is that this is only a basic principle; the actual code of new Confucianism needs to be created and built on today’s reality.
* The writer is a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Han Hyong-jo