What is the uniqueness of Confucianism

Learn like Confucius

Culture & Society

by Fabian Kretschmer, 09/27/2016

Hardly any other country has been so shaped by Confucius as South Korea. Even today, many Koreans seek guidance from the Chinese philosopher. A visit to the Sosu Seowon Academy, the oldest Confucian private academy in the country.

Anyone who sets out to visit Seok-hong Park believes that they will soon be walking in meticulously arranged landscape paintings: a stream flows along stony mountain slopes, pine trees rise into the sky blue, sparrows are chirping. A massive wooden gate points into the interior of Korea's oldest Confucian private academy, in whose halls the teaching of the Chinese philosopher has been taught since the 16th century. “The seclusion makes the Sosu Seowon the ideal place to concentrate on your studies. In addition, a life in harmony with nature is possible here, ”says the head of Park Seok-hong, a level-headed man with gray temples, a blue summer jacket and brown leather sandals.

The seclusion makes Sosu Seowon the ideal place to concentrate on your studies, "says Park Seok-hong, director of the country's largest private Confucian academy.

The academy is three and a half hours by car from Seoul, it feels like several centuries separate the two places: the rush hour traffic in the capital, the futuristic glass towers of the Gangnam district, the screeching sound of K-pop beats - all of this works here, in the midst of wooden buildings with artfully curved structures Roofs, unreal far away. Since 1550, around 80 years before Harvard was founded, pupils from select families have already learned astronomy here, were taught social manners or studied the works of Chinese poets.

Probably no country in the world was more influenced by Confucianism than South Korea. Since the country has always been under the influence of China, the teachings of the philosopher also spilled over to the Korean peninsula at the time of the Three Kingdoms. It shaped the social order from the ground up. The individual taught Confucius how to cultivate his or her personality and lead a family. The doctrine gave the ruler a guideline to guide his state. The community lives according to its social order - Park Seok-hong calls this the Confucian utopia: "A king should act like a king, a husband like a husband, a wife like a wife and a student like a student".

As early as the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) Confucianism was proclaimed a state philosophy, and university curricula were also adjusted accordingly. And his teaching continues to have an effect in everyday Korean life today: in the pronounced cult of ancestors, with regard to respect for the elderly and also with regard to the central value of education.

The architecture of the Sosu Seowon should blend harmoniously into the surrounding environment - to enable a life in harmony with nature.

This can be clearly experienced in the Sosu Seowon. The academy taught selected students from the surrounding villages the Confucian way of life. The relationship between students and professors was very special back then, says Mr. Park. He points to the two separate dormitories next to the reading room. They are constructed at such a distance that the teachers' house can never stand in the shadow of the student dormitory. And as soon as a lecture was over, says Park, the students had to tip backwards out of their seat circle, stooped and in feather-light steps. Nobody would have dared to turn his back on the teacher.

It is precisely this absolute obedience to professors and bosses for which Confucianism is sharply criticized by some. He is also held responsible for a handful of other social evils. For example for the prevailing patriarchy, after all, the image of women in Confucianism is hardly compatible with emancipation and equality. Nor does the strict social order seem compatible with the equality principle of Western democracies. In post-war Korea (after 1953) Confucianism was considered old-fashioned, backward-looking and a hindrance to the country's development for decades.

This changed at the latest with the Asian crisis in the 1990s, when tens of thousands lost their jobs that were believed to be secure overnight. At that time, the spiritual emptiness of many Koreans was also revealed. The absolute belief in eternal economic growth lost its general validity. At that time, many realigned their value system. Since then, more and more Koreans have been looking back to the past to find answers to the here and now.

In “Temple Stays” they live the secluded, ascetic life of the Buddhist mountain monks for a few days. In mock funerals, employees at risk of suicide celebrate their deaths in company seminars in order to learn to appreciate the uniqueness of life again and to throw off the chains of materialism. And in Confucian academies like the Sosu Seowon, visitors discover the millennia-old roots of Korean philosophy.

Up to 15,000 students take a three-day Confucius course every year. Most of them are of primary school age and their grandparents send them to Sosu Seowon if they wish. There they learn apparently anachronistic practices, such as how to behave during a tea ceremony or how to write formal letters to your parents.

Next to the Sosu Seowon is a traditional Korean village, the Seonbichon. There visitors not only get to know the original construction of old farmhouses, but can also marvel at music and dance performances.

Perhaps this is one of the central lessons that Koreans can take with them from the Sosu Seowon for their everyday lives, which is still very topical today: At that time, the focus of the lessons was by no means the state examination for the civil service examination, but above all the intellectual endeavor to acquire knowledge. In this sense, Confucian academies like the Sosu Seowon certainly correspond to the humanistic educational ideal of Alexander von Humboldt. In South Korea the equivalent, however, many curricula mainly focus on tests, degrees and certificates. The universities are gradually becoming business-related training centers, but critical reflection and personal development threaten to take a back seat.

Park Seok-hong is also giving this development a headache. When he ponders the status quo in his home country, his words sound as if he were talking about a pupil who at some point went astray. The alarming suicide rates, the greed of the business elite or the demonstrations of angry union leaders. "There is a lot of tension in Korean society," said Mr. Park. The country is divided - politically left and right, old and young, north and south. "We should face this national crisis with the values ​​of Confucianism, the only way to unite our country".

Dance performance (All photos: Fabian Kretschmer)

Such apocalyptic words may sound a little too pessimistic, after all, South Korea's recent past can also be written as a success story: The 13th largest economy in the world shines in unprecedented prosperity, the Koreans have fought for democracy on their own, and thanks to that Korean “coolness” now shimmers across the entire continent, as export good pop culture.

At the end of his tour, Mr. Park also had a few conciliatory words: “Of course we have lost many of our values ​​in the turbulent last few decades. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the future. There is a Confucian saying that says, "Learn the new by looking at the old."

Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Fabian Kretschmer, born in Berlin in 1986, studied journalism and communication science in Vienna, Shanghai and Seoul. He has been working as a freelance journalist for newspapers, magazines, online media and radio since 2010. He has been a correspondent in Seoul since September 2014, including for taz, Wiener Zeitung and Standard. In August 2015 the first book was published by rowohlt Verlag: "Something like happiness".