Modern Confucianism in Korea

The Korea Herald, a Korean English newspaper, has an article examining some arguments for and against a modern Confucian ethic. Tu Weiming, a prominent Confucian scholar, comes out swinging:

 ‘It offers Korea the ‘core values’ that will make her a standard of moral excellence in the developing as well as the developed world,’….Tu even argues that Confucian values of the common good and hard work without immediate reward contributed to Korea’s rapid recovery from the 2009 financial crisis. In 2010, the country grew its economy by 6 percent while most of the developed world remained stagnant or saw negative growth.

Contemporary supporters of Confucianism also point to compassion and reciprocity as core values alongside the oft-touted Confucian work ethic. Detractors, of course, are concerned that its emphasis on hierarchy, which depends more on the benevolence of authority than on granting power or status to those lower on the food chain, is socially and morally antiquated. There are social science statistics thrown into the debate: countries with a Confucian tradition have more intact families and fewer violent crimes; but this may be due to Confucian norms that publicly shame those with problems, rather than norms that encourage good behavior.

One interesting quip by Tu is that “the Confucian idea of reciprocity is more congenial to inter-religious and dialogue among civilizations.” [sic] That is to say, one of the issues we all have to deal with in this hectic modern world is that there are many different religious traditions, which often step on each other’s toes. If one of Confucianism’s advantages is that it plays nice with other moral and religious traditions, it might be well suited to contemporary needs.

Tu made the same point at a presentation that I attended at Peking University in 2010; I thought it was interesting, then, but haven’t pursued it much further. One of my gut instincts is that Confucianism might have an easier time interacting with other religions because it makes fewer metaphysical claims – or at least, the ones that it does make are arguably less central and intense to its moral teachings than the Christian doctrines regarding the nature of God, the soul, the Trinity, the afterlife, etc. Reading the Analects, I was struck by how much of the content was about human behavior, rather than the nature of the universe. There’s certainly a fair bit of metaphysics dealing with 天 (tian, meaning heaven, or sky), and with human nature, but the claims about moral rules seemed to depend less on metaphysics in general than in the Judeo-Christian realm. I could easily be wrong about this – I’ve just started looking at Confucianism in the last year. It turns out that Tu Weiming has a lecture on Confucianism and pluralism, which I’ll be checking out shortly.

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