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Confucianism is a philosophical, political and ethical system that originated with a Chinese scholar named Confucius. Why am I talking about a Chinese scholar on a Korean blog? Well, since ancient times Confucius values have influenced Korea in several ways. Some of its values still remain in Korean society today.
For example, Confucius ideology places great emphasis on heirarchical relationships; an idea that may seem opposite to Western notions of egalitarianism. The scholar Confucius advocated the observance of filial piety called hyodo (효도) in Korean. Filial piety is respect for one’s parents, the elderly, and one’s ancestors. “Respect” for one’s parents, that seems like a familiar concept in American society, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Hyodo (효도) means that an offspring has a duty to fulfill his/her obligations to his/her parents. Why is there an innate obligation for a child to “serve” his/her parents? Well, it’s thought that a child should be greatful to his/her parents because without its parents a child would not have been able to exist in this world.
Under Confucius’s order of heirarchical relationships, children are always inferior in status. When a parent strikes a child’s face, the child must accept it, because the parent is always considered right. In American culture, this would be viewed as child abuse but Confucius would label it as “discipline.” In Korean society as well, teachers are considered superior in status to their students. Therefore a teacher’s “discipline” can range from hitting a student with a ruler or to any kind of social or verbal humiliation like making a child kneel on top of his/her desk with both arms raised. While teachers are respected and paid well in South Korea, they no longer hold the sort of power that they used to hold. Nowadays, South Korean parents are all too willing to sue teachers. As a result, teachers are using less physical means of controlling their students.
However, one Confucian value that is still practiced today is a ritual called jesa (제사). Jesa (제사) is a customary practice where one pays one’s respect to his/her dead ancestors. The customary practice of jesa (제사) consists of various foods placed on a table, which are given as offerings to the ancestors. The food is set on the table in strict accordance of rules. For example, fruits must be peeled at least partly, so as to help the ancestor consume the food much easier. Also, chopsticks are placed inside the rice bowl so that the ancestor will be able to eat it easier. It may not make much sense to Westerners, but it’s just a nice gesture or a way to show that one is thinking of the ancestor’s needs. Also, South Koreans will often perform a jol (절) or a deep bow where one’s head touches the ground and the body lays prostrate in a kneeling position towards the ancestor’s grave.
In many ways, whether for good or for bad, Korea is changing. While Korea goes through this transition, some Confucius values may be dropped. While others like jesa (제사) continue to be popular.