Salad Bar Confucianism

When a lot of foreigners first step off the boat here in Korea, they probably think two things—

1) What’s that smell?, and
2) What’s up with these people? They’re so nice / strange / rude / different!

Many will stay for a few days, a few months, possibly even a year, and may never get around to answering either of these questions. The answer to the first probably has to do with an overloaded sewage system trying and failing to deal with fifty million people eating fifty million pounds of fermented cabbage and soybeans every day; the answer to the second (relating to the reason why so many people eat so much fermented food) is still too elusive for me, and I’ve lived here for three years.

Although this country is prosperous, and it’s impossible to walk anywhere without encountering huge sleek silvery Hyundais out on the prowl, and hundred-story towers of glass seem to be sprouting up out of the Earth wherever you look, as though they’ve been seeded there by a divine architect—although this current generation of Korean people seems tall, strong, well-fed, and even happy—everything still comes from a completely different social, historical, geographical, even meteorological, context, from the homes of the foreigners who sojourn here. All the glass and steel looks very similar to what I’m used to at home, but the people who make and use these things come from a place that could not be more different from my family’s nest.

Many of these contexts have been done to death in other places, so today I’ll just focus on Confucianism, which is the favored whipping boy of many of those who have pretensions to understanding this bizarre culture, myself included. Several days ago I penned a blog post, since deleted, comparing Confucius with Plato. This piece essentially claimed that Confucius is the source of Korean culture, while Plato is the source of Western culture; the former discourages questions, the latter encourages questions; and this difference is at the root of every cultural misunderstanding or miscommunication that occurs in Korea vis-a-vis the West, or even between younger Westernized Koreans and older Koreans who are still really into this guy who is the source of numerous amusing racist jokes back in America (Confucius say man who drop watch in toilet have shitty time!).

But before I even came to Korea I admired Master Kong, which is what we might call him today if Matteo Ricci hadn’t gotten to him first. I’ve always meant to get to The Analects eventually, and as I’ve been reading about Confucius in Karl Jaspers I’ve come to realize that Korean culture has, perhaps, been influenced by Confucianism, but Confucianism is not the root of all the weird issues Westerners like me typically complain about.

Confucius tells us to respect our elders (arbitrary ajoshis), and to sacrifice to them after they die (Jaesa). He says we should probably refrain from questioning them (many Koreans would sooner die than ask a question in a classroom), while at the same time we should focus on learning about the world (hagwons), although we can never hope to possess a complete knowledge of this world (Korean modesty: I’ve met many Koreans who speak English fluently, but not a single one of them has ever claimed as much; they always shake their heads and say they have a long way to go). Furthermore, “to be human means to be in communication”—Koreans rarely if ever do anything alone, while as Confucians they must also constantly do the right thing, defined as what everyone else is doing (i.e., making the peace sign while photographing themselves in front of famous landmarks).

This stuff is definitely in Confucius, and it’s definitely in Korea, but I don’t know if the same ideas were present here before Confucianism became a big deal—it’s possible that some of Confucius’s ideas merely reinforced and justified practices that were part of the region’s history since prehistoric times. Cultures typically seem to take what they like from other cultures, while leaving out what they’re not so into. Iran (or the Iranian government, anyway) can’t stand the decadent West, but they’re totally down with copying western nuclear weapons and purchasing advanced western military technology—this hypocrisy courtesy of a much-maligned V.S Naipaul. Latin American syncretic faiths have combined Catholicism with ancient paganism, just as medieval Europeans changed the names of pagan gods and holidays to fit them in more closely with nascent, rising Christianity; and while most Americans are not completely crazy about Jesus Christ, everybody except me seems to really enjoy the materialistic feeding frenzy of Christmas. To throw in one more example, Protestants like Barack Obama are nuts for capitalism and bombing the living shit out of other countries, all while ignoring those rather important words from Mr. Jeebus—about the eye of the needle and loving our neighbors and turning the other cheek. Certain Catholic priests have also misinterpreted this latter phrase.

Plato, similarly, did not invent the idea of questioning everything constantly, but was himself born and raised in a climate of great intellectual fervency. Certain ancient Greeks, for whatever reason, really liked to ask questions, and pursue them, while most other people just didn’t (and still don’t) care. Plato is not, in fact, the root of science or empiricism; Bertrand Russell claims that his endless moral speculations actually put an end to the Greek scientists who were developing theories about atoms and whether the sun went around the Earth or the other way around while at the same time building the Antikythera mechanism and steam engines that would have made all the widespread slavery in the ancient world almost completely unnecessary.

Plato wasn’t the root of all this, but a part of it; the same is probably true of Confucius. Although Korea may be the most Confucian nation on Earth, after reading a bit about this character I think that the culture views Confucian philosophy as a salad bar—picking what it likes and leaving the rest. Confucius says, for example, that while we should reverence our elders, these elders need to act in a way that deserves respect, something a lot of these arbitrary ajoshis seem to have forgotten. And while he tells us to focus on education, he also says that “If a man can recite all three hundred pieces in the Book of Odes by heart and, entrusted with the government, is unable to perform (his duties) or if, sent abroad as an ambassador, he is incapable of replying on his own, where is the good of all his learning?”—much to the chagrin of many a memorizing hagwon-goer. “Do to no one what you would not wish others to do to you.”—which does away with all arbitrariness! “Truth and reality,” writes Jaspers, “can never be embodied once and for all in any unchanging state or dogmatic statements. Confucius ‘had no opinions, no bias, no obstinacy.'”—in contrast to a people which has made up its mind about Dokdo. And in a land where everyone does everything together, “The superior man goes searching in himself; the inferior man goes searching in others.” It’s useful for a human being to spend time alone thinking about himself or herself or the world—not so useful trying, as I am, to please a crowd.

So the next time you go knocking Jesus when Barack Obama sends a drone after another surely guilty militant—despite the fact that no one except Barack Obama appears to believe that he is a Christian—and the next time you attack Confucius for the ajoshi who’s glaring at you on the subway, remember that both Jesus and Confucius would probably be on your side. What Would Jesus Do? What Would Confucius Do? Both of them would probably tell these assholes to fuck off.

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2 thoughts on “Salad Bar Confucianism

  1. Miike Green says:

    Great post, although the last line is pretty intense! Apparently Asian cultures do everything together because they didn’t have the Renaissance like the West. Before the celebrity artists, musicians, and sculptors of the Renaissance, there were no real ‘indivduals’ in Western society. This period led to people going their own way and thinking for themselves, hence the higher number of inventors and explorers from Western Civilization. If you want a good argument about the misinterpretation of Confucianism I recommend you to watch ‘Tree with Deep Roots’ – the drama about the creation of Hangeul. It’s nice to read a well written post about something interesting in Korea. Thanks.

  2. hiddenconnections says:

    Thanks Mike! The bit about the Renaissance is interesting, I’d never thought about it before. I’ll check the drama out!

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