Stop Attributing Everything to Confucianism

Stop Attributing Everything to Confucianism

Jieun Choi
Jieun Choi

To some, Confucianism is synonymous with East Asia.

Anything and everything about East Asian countries, good or bad, seems to be explicable through Confucianism. Perhaps sociologist Max Weber set the trend when he argued in 1915 that Confucian values had discouraged capitalist development in China.

A century later, the Economist both credited and blamed the Confucianism-infused corporate culture of South Korean chaebol, family-run conglomerates, as their strength and weakness, postulating that a management style steeped in a family-first mindset nurtured employee loyalty and centralized decision-making. But as expectations in the workplace change among the younger generation, the writer argued, South Korea’s corporate culture “must change” as well.

Confucianism, defined as the teachings of Confucius, a scholar who lived in what is now China from the sixth to fifth centuries B.C., has been a significant force in East Asia (as have Buddhism and Taoism). At the risk of essentializing Confucianism, one could make a credible argument that certain elements of the tradition live on in the region: emphasis on education and family, gender inequality and hierarchical social relations.

But even in the premodern era, Confucianism took on different forms in different parts of the historical Sinosphere: China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. And with the dawn of modernity, so-called Confucianism has assumed a yet more complicated role and identity in these countries, as well as in other, more recently established states like Taiwan and Singapore.

To put it plainly, there is no one thing that we can call Confucianism; nor can we sum it up in a few words.

Ignoring the substantial differences among such Asian countries and grouping them together to offer a singular explanation for their collective successes and problems is absurd — and frankly Orientalist.


Confucianism: the Holy Grail of Capitalism?

When Western powers arrived in East Asia, defeating China in the Opium War and forcing Japan to open its doors to the outside world, the events prompted much soul-searching among intellectuals of the region over just how their countries had come to be surpassed by ‘foreign barbarians.’

Confucianism, a dominant idea at the time, naturally came under attack as holding back development. In Korea the full force of criticism was levelled at the literati establishment that filled the court bureaucracy. The Confucian preoccupation with metaphysics in the latter part of the Joseon Dynasty — at the expense of promoting ‘real learning’ like science and technology — was assigned special blame for the national crisis. Popular phrases like Dongdo Seogi — “The Eastern Way in a Western Vessel” — came to embody what Asia had to do to move forward: retain its native habits and mentality while embracing Western innovations. Others still called for the outright discarding of Confucianism in favor of Western ideas as varied as capitalism, Christianity and socialism.

The man most often credited for spurring South Korea’s economic development is the notorious dictator Park Chung-hee. But he reportedly despised the C-word, attributing lack of entrepreneurship in South Korea to Confucianism and its focus on literary learning. His economic policy, characterized by state-dictated plans in close collaboration with select conglomerates, is widely seen as merging authoritarian control, cheap labor and big capital, in a way that eschewed any Confucian leanings or ideas.

So how did Western scholars, including political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, come to credit Confucianism for some Asian countries’ unprecedented economic growth?

At the risk of gross generalization, Asian societies tend to be more family-oriented and collectivist than their Western counterparts, and those characteristics have been attributed to Confucianism. So, too, has the emphasis on education, a well-known tendency in East Asia, because Confucian scholars encouraged studying (mainly as a way of cultivating virtue) and the present-day education fervor in East Asia seems to be a continuation of that tendency. Given the perceived importance of high-level education (i.e. competent young people eager for jobs) and hierarchical social relations (i.e. management commands, employees obey blindly) for the region’s economic development, certain academics have found Confucianism to be a convenient and useful explanation for the phenomenon.   

But Confucianism, when reduced to a few key elements, can also be used to explain problems as well as successes, especially when tragedies strike.

A case in point: Malcolm Gladwell famously opined in Outliers that the 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam was attributable to a burdensome work schedule and a power structure “dictated by the heavy weight of [the] country’s cultural legacy.” According to Gladwell (who, to his credit, doesn’t use the C-word), a junior pilot wasn’t able to report an error to his superior, and that was the reason behind the deaths of over 200 passengers and crew.

And when an Asiana Airlines flight made a crash landing at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, another wave of culturalist explanations obsessed with Confucianism hit, prompting a writer at The Atlantic to say, “If an (apparently) mishandled approach shows something about Korea — or East Asia, or Confucius […] — then what do we make of the many thousands of Asian-piloted flights that land smoothly and safely throughout Asia every single day?”

A more recent tragedy — the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking — invited yet another round of Confucianism-bashing. The culture of obedience was blamed again — perhaps rightly — as most victims were high school students and they reportedly followed the crew’s instruction to stay where they were, sinking with the ferry. But is the streak of obedience due solely to Confucianism or something else entirely — perhaps ingrained militarism in South Korean society? (The country suffered nearly three decades of military dictatorship until 1987 and the conscription system in place today forces most young men to spend about two years performing military service.)

And what about the Confucian focus on moral integrity and social obligation? If Confucianism had indeed exerted its force on the Sewol tragedy, the captain would have stayed on-board until the very last passenger was rescued, instead of escaping first to save his own life.

The Making of “Asian Values”

Confucianism is a complicated tradition — as it should be, given that it’s been around for about two and a half millennia. It doesn’t just emphasize obedience, family or education. It also promotes benevolence and charity. In Chinese-speaking parts of Asia, Confucius has taken on the persona of a deity and is frequently worshipped in temples, whereas in South Korea Confucianism is understood very much to consist of social mores or conventions (even though there is a temple dedicated to Confucius in central Seoul). Like any other philosophical or religious tradition, Confucianism, over the course of its long history, has been appropriated by its practitioners and critics alike to mean different things at different times.

In modern China, Confucian values were demonized and nearly eradicated during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and during the subsequent years of heady economic growth the vacuum was filled by another belief: materialism. But in recent years Confucianism has been making a comeback, as the Communist Party attempts to revive it as a tool for promoting social harmony and justifying oppression. Once attacked as being feudal and backward, Confucianism, rebranded as a distinctly Chinese system of ideas, is merging with capitalism on the one hand and ‘communism,’ defined as one-party rule, on the other to give rise to a new political ideology.

Meanwhile, late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew (who served as prime minister from 1959 to 1990), repeatedly emphasized Confucian ideas, dubbing them “Asian values,” as the city state’s unique characteristics. That Singapore is a multicultural society where Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity coexist seemingly mattered little to him. His alleged motives were to consolidate state power and justify his repressive rule — in the name of social harmony and greater social goods — while rejecting Western ideals of democracy and freedom.

Lee excused myriad restrictions like punishing consensual sex between gay men and limiting press freedom by what he called Singapore’s (and other East Asian countries’) culture and tradition of strict discipline, family values and obedience.

“The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society,” Lee once said, positing as to why the U.S was rife with guns, drugs and violent crime.

Similarly, the South Korean chaebol, or family-run conglomerates, often draw parallels between themselves and family — e.g. “Samsung family” — to foster a strong sense of responsibility and dedication in their employees. In such corporate settings rigid hierarchy is still prevalent, and justified in positive terms, though not always explicitly labeled “Confucian.”

Interestingly, South Koreans are increasingly subverting what might be called Confucian values: eating alone instead of with family, neglecting elders and forgoing dating and marriage. Within the country, some scholars have called Confucianism out for its ill effects on society (much as those intellectuals at the turn of the last century did), especially after the Asian Financial Crisis nearly decimated the South Korean economy twenty years ago.

Kim Kyeong-il, a Chinese studies professor, lambasted Confucianism in his book titled “The Nation Lives Once Confucius Dies,” arguing that the tradition is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. “Confucius’s idea of virtue was not for the sake of people but politics. It was virtue for the sake of men, elders, the establishment and even corpses,” Kim said in an interview.

Kim was sued for defamation by Confucian scholars who clearly disagreed, but was found not guilty in a court of law.


Of course, looking at what Asians themselves have said about Confucianism, it is clear that there does exist a loose boundary around what people broadly perceive to be this tradition.

But no learned person would try to explain a certain country or region by invoking just one word, or define an intellectual tradition going back centuries with a few descriptives.   

Rapid economic development in East Asia occurred for a combination of reasons, including foreign aid, restrictions on individual freedom and collusion between the state and business sectors. Certain principles of ‘Confucianism,’ like obedience or loyalty, may have played a role. But trying to explain multiple countries’ varyious trajectories with a single broad brushstroke is lazy journalism and sloppy scholarship.

So stop attributing everything in East Asia to Confucianism. At this rate, even the entire North Korean regime might be explained away with it.

Oh wait — it already has been.


Cover image: To some, Confucianism is synonymous to East Asia. (Source: Pixabay)

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