The Korean society that we know today is largely influenced by Confucianism, an ancient philosophy that originated in China. It was responsible for shaping social order, guiding personal conduct and ethics, and defining the cultural fabric of Korea. Even in today’s day and age, Confucian teaching remains deeply rooted and influential. We delve into the intricate relationship between Confucianism and Korean society, exploring how its principles continue to remain relevant in modern Korea.
- Social Hierarchy
Confucian teachings played a key role in shaping Korea’s social hierarchy throughout its history. Introduced during the Three Kingdoms period, Confucianism gave rise to traditional hierarchical relationships, teaching the Korean society to respect authority figures and age-based seniors.
This remains evident in today’s governmental and societal structures, where people of lower statuses or with less authority, are expected to show respect to those of higher social positions. For example, speaking formally to superiors at work or the elders at home, and obeying instructions given by those in authority.
Learn More: The Social Hierarchical System in Korea
- Family Values
Filial piety is also a key concept influenced by Confucianism, where lots of emphasis is placed on respect, dutifulness and loyalty towards one’s parents and elders. There are also hierarchical structures in Korean households, where elders hold authority, and younger family members display deference and obedience. For instance, an eldest son holds a position of authority within the family and therefore inherits the responsibilities of caring for parents and ancestors, as well as younger family members who are expected to obey him.
Despite western influences, Confucian values continue to hold a significant position in Korean society, and the commitment to filial piety remains prominent. Family gatherings and ancestral rites are still an integral part of Korean culture, serving as occasions to reinforce familial ties and paying respects to one’s ancestors.
- Rituals and Etiquette
Source: The Smart Local
The Confucian concept of “Li” encompasses the appropriate behaviour and conduct that individuals should observe in various situations. For example, dressing modestly, speaking with courtesy, and adhering to table manners. These practices signify respect and maintain social order. Some key aspects of Confucian rituals and etiquette in Korea include:
- Bowing: Bowing is a fundamental gesture of respect, and individuals are required to bow whenever they meet another. The depth of the bow depends on the social status of the person being greeted. For instance, one should bow deeply when greeting elders.
- Ancestor Worship: Descendants typically pay respects to their ancestors through memorial rites, which involve setting up altars offering food, wine, and incense during special occasions such as Chuseok and Seollal.
- Seating Arrangements: In traditional Korean Confucian culture, seating arrangements reflect hierarchical relationships. The most honoured guest or the eldest individual is typically seated in the place of honour, which is usually at the head of the table or the center of the room.
- Dress Code: Individuals would wear the traditional Korean clothing, hanbok, according to their gender, age, and social status. Wearing the appropriate attire was considered a display of respect. Today, there is less emphasis placed on dressing in hanboks that reflects status.
- Gender Roles
Besides family values, Confucianism has also had a significant influence on gender roles in Korea. According to Confucian teachings, men are considered the heads of the household who have authority and responsibility, while women are expected to be subordinate to men and fulfill domestic roles. Sons were always highly valued as they carried on the family name and were seen as the primary caregivers for elderly parents, while daughters were expected to marry into another family and prioritise their roles as wives and mothers.
However, this has since evolved when Korea began to modernise and accept Western influences. Today, while Confucian values still hold some influence, they are often reinterpreted or coexist with more egalitarian values. This has led to an increase in educational opportunities, participation in the workforce, and active roles in politics, culture, and society.
Korea’s educational landscape is also heavily rooted in Confucianism. It has served as the guiding philosophy behind Korea’s reverence for learning, teaching the society about the importance of education and cultivating individuals who would contribute to the welfare of society. Education was seen as a pathway to personal and societal advancement, instilling a sense of duty and responsibility among the educated elite.
Confucian values also taught the Korean society about academic excellence and meritocracy, promoting the idea that individuals should strive for self-improvement through diligent study and hard work.
Today, the pursuit of academic achievement remains a central aspect of Korean culture, with many students studying more than 10 hours a day to excel academically.
- Work Ethic and Discipline
Hard work, self-discipline, and a strong work ethic are key values of Confucianism ingrained in Korean society. The pursuit of excellence and dedication to one’s work are highly important traits, and employees today are often expected to work long hours and achieve high productivity. This commitment to hard work is rooted in the Confucian notion of self-improvement and contributing to the betterment of society.
Understanding how Confucian values influence today’s Korean society can help you better navigate life in Korea and give you a better idea of Korean culture.
If you’re interested in learning more about all things Korea, considering taking up a Korean class in Singapore to learn the Korean language.
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