Confucian confusion

Those of you tired of the cultural critique that inevitably pops up in the western world following Korean disasters should check out this piece over at Sweet Pickles & Corn. The basic gist is that, if anything, the Sewol tragedy could have been lessened had there been more adherence to Confucianism rather than less.

What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers. In a well-oiled Confucian system then, obedience is never blind; it is always underwritten by a social contract that obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

On a completely different topic, if you’ve yet to read The Revolution will not be Grammaticized over on SP&C, it’s a helluva yarn.

  • roboseyo

    A nice counterbalance to the “culture of obedience” stuff. This Joongang article also discusses the “we adults let our children down” angle. http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/Article.aspx?aid=2988310

  • Guest

    The only reason the culture get brought up so often in Korea is because of Koreans always going on about their culture.

    Pleaseuu respectuu my cultureuuu!

    You knowuu aouttuu Korean culturreu?

    Is it wasn’t bannged on about so much many it would be pointed at when things go wrong.

  • dans

    The only reason the aspect culture gets brought up so often with anything to do with Korea is because of Koreans always going on about their culture.

    “Please respect my culture!”

    “You know about Korean culture?”

    “Korea has a unique culture.”

    And so on, nearly every day.

    Is it wasn’t banged on about so much many it would be pointed at when things go wrong.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    Ah, jeez, I can’t resist. From OP:

    “What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers.”

    That’s beautiful. Reminds me of From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. How does that work out?

    The United States military is more purely Confucian in practice than that of Korean culture, and rather than merely rely on some flimsy social contract, the U.S. military has laws and regulations that get (though sometimes imperfectly) enforced.

    “In a well-oiled Confucian system then….”

    “In a well-oiled Confucian system” sets up the no true Scotsmen defense. The problem with predicating Confucianism as practiced with some well-oiled theoretical system is that no such Scotsman exists in the whole world.

    …(Context specifically “obedience” but generally Confucianism) obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

    A behaviorist would note that Lord Acton’s maxim, based on historical observation, trumps theoretical Confucianism.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    I want to stress again that I do not blame Confucianism for the children following the directives to stay below. Before this incident, I would have likely done the same, which scares the hell out of me, with my young children and assumed that that those trained for such emergencies know best for all.

    I blame Korea’s culture of corruption that is so entrenched that not one of the employees said to his boss, “No, I’m not going to do that, and I have a duty to report such violations to the appropriate authorities.” I blame Korea’s culture of cronyism and bribery that enabled the ferry to pass inspections despite the ferry’s one operable life boat. Who signs off on such? Must be the same, sole inspector who signed off on the nuclear power plant certificates. Or the one who signs off on the fire inspections for every building I’ve walked into in Korea.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    The problem with this two-way street is that seniors can shirk their obligations with little or no consequence, while subordinates will be taken to task. Korean Confucianism is a bullshit cultural phenomenon that allows (or encourages?) older people to bully and belittle younger people.

    I also think the cultural explanation of regarding the children following directions is ridiculous. I really with everyone would drop it.

    But it does sound like personal relationships got in the way of maritime safety officials carrying out their responsibilities. Though this certainly isn’t exclusive to Korea. Good ol’ boy systems exist everywhere in the world.

  • bumfromkorea

    Who was this idiot that hastily tried to delete his/her comment?

  • KWillets

    If Confucianism were the reason, wouldn’t the kids have listened to their parents who were texting them to get out of the ship?

  • Seoulgoodman

    Exactly. I would be more inclined to blame the company, who only spent 500$ last year on safety drills.

  • silver surfer

    It’s a conformist culture. Everyone looks around to see what everyone else is doing and does that.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    I don’t think Confucianism was the reason; nevertheless, by the time the parents texted the children to get out, the children were trapped.

  • redwhitedude

    It’s about being shortsighted make that extra buck and disregard proper procedures.

  • Dokdoforever

    The mistake is to try to reduce East Asian or Korean culture to ‘Confucianism.’ There are other equally important historical cultural influences, such as ‘legalist’ philosophy, a fairly Machiavellian worldview, instructing those in leadership positions to take any and all measures to enhance their power, as well as Taoism and Buddhism. Modern Korean culture is a combination of those influences along with Christianity and the effects of industrialization and modernization. So, it’s a mistake just to label whatever seems different from the West as ‘Confucian.’ In reality, Korean culture is a distorted version of Confucianism, in which the duty of subordinates to obey is enforced much more strictly than the duty of leaders to behave virtuously. In reality, most in powerful positions put on a good show of virtuosity in public, while enriching themselves behind the scenes.

    The question at a practical level then, is how do we constrain these irresponsible, self-serving authorities? Korea is probably the most Confucian place in the world, yet many in powerful positions merely pay lip service to Confucian obligations.

    On the other hand, Korea’s safety record has vastly improved the last few decades. Is this because Korea has become more ‘Confucian.’? If anything Korea’s probably become less Confucian. So, I think the solution will not be cultural, but instead will be better formal institutions, such as stronger rule of law and better enforcement of regulations. Korea’s achieved progress in this area, as well as in safety since the 1990s. Strong formal institutions can compensate for distorted Confucianism.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Both of you are correct.

  • redwhitedude

    Conformist? More along the lines of the senior guys says so I should not question it and follow it. Koreans have yet to figure out how to reconcile seniority (age based that is) with doing things properly(like speaking up when something needs to be said even if you have to say it to an older person).

    Pathetic how they get away with this stuff until a big accident happens. In other countries everytime you try to say bribed somebody you run the gaunlet of being turned in, that is bribe different guys.

  • Aja Aja

    This tragedy had nothing to do with confucianism. What those passengers at that time needed the most was leadership from the crew whom the passengers trusted and looked upon for instructions during a terrifying crisis. And some of the passengers got it in the form of a young 22 year old girl who possibly saved over 50 lives.

    This is the video report of her courage.

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/21/world/asia/young-sewol-crew-member/index.html?iid=article_sidebar

  • Sumo294

    Well said–thank you for the thoughtful post.

  • Sumo294

    Any whistle blower always have to sacrifice. Firemen who wish to save lives have to risk their lives. Americans who helped to defeat Hitler and Nazi Socialism–often had to give up their lives. The few crew who stayed behind died to help those kids. The captain who fled was right about one thing–running away at first opportunity saves your own neck. Not heroic–but he lives–does he not? When you believe that this life is only life you have and that Social Darwinism is guiding principle for the preservation of life–how exactly can you condemn the man for cowardice? Only a belief in transcendental ethical morality can place blame on such selfishness.

  • Sumo294

    Wow– . . .

  • DC Musicfreak

    Who’s doing all this “Confucian” labeling? I’m seeing articles or comments scolding those who would call that clusterfuck a result of Confucianism running 10-1 over those actually making such claims. There is a risk of counterproductively protesting too much.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Social Darwinism? Really?

    The ship he was in charge of sank. He had a legal and ethical responsibility to try to save his passengers. It was his job. Adults also have a responsibility to protect children who are in their charge. He lives? Maybe in prison.

    If someone can’t handle this kind of duty, then they shouldn’t take this kind of job.

  • DavidSmith

    Why is Korea still one of the top exporters of babies for adoption?

    Why don’t Korean people adopt Korean children?

    Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate, yet it EXPORTS children overseas.

  • John Bocskay

    I’m the writer of the piece in question. Some people have taken my suggestion that Confucianism may have helped to mean that I am making some sort of ironclad argument that more Confucianism is the answer, and that it would have worked according to the ideal. That’s not the intent of the piece, as most readers seem to have noted. I was reacting against a particular cultural explanation that says in essence: 1) Confucianism is all about mindless deference, and 2) because of this deference, many people died. The suggestion that more Confucianism may have helped was put forth to challenge this popular assumption and misunderstanding, and to say that if you are going to blame Confucianism, you can’t merely point to one side of the equation (the obedience) as if that were the whole story; you have to at least acknowledge that if we are to employ Confucianism as a lens to understand this, you have to account for the Captain’s actions using the same metric, and many people weren’t doing that. It was never meant to be an argument for instituting a more pure version of Confucianism and naively hoping for the best.

  • Aja Aja

    A great post about this bull shit, as an individual, and not as a smug, arm chair pundit.

    http://waegukin.com/what-not-to-say-about-the-sewol-disaster.html

  • Sumo294

    Yes he had a legal obligation to do his duty but to whom did he owe an ethical responsibility. You do not believe in Confucianism nor do you believe we owe behavior to a living god. If he had ethics–according to Darwin–he only had a responsibility to sire children and to make sure his own family prospered to ensure the success of his genetic code.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Why are you trying to cite Darwin on everything? We are not monkeys in a jungle. We are developed, intelligent creatures. And Darwin believed groups develop ethical behavior to ensure the survival of the group.

    No, the captain’s responsibility did not end with his family. He was in charge of a vessel and owed a responsibility to those under him. It’s neither Confucian nor religious. Passengers are led to believe that the captain and crew have their safety in mind.

    If your idea of ethics was widely adhered to, almost everyone in the world would probably be dead.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Korean Confucianism is a bullshit cultural phenomenon that allows (or encourages?) older people to bully and belittle younger people.

    What you are describing happens in Korea, but it is not Confucianism at all.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Reminds me of From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. How does that work out?

    It works out as a dynasty that continued its bloodline for 518 years, one of the longest in human history.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    I thought you were a democrat and an anti-racist.

  • JW

    Good point. No need to waste time on this nonsense. There will always be a few idiots that you can’t do nothing about.

  • Bob Bobbs

    우리 민족끼리

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Doesn’t stop me from being a traditionalist who can appreciate the power of history.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Korea’s pervasive social hierarchy is rooted in Confucianism. On your site, you describe the three commands and five morals of Confucianism, which you say covers all human relationships. The ones I see most exemplified in Korea are:

    – The subject must serve the ruler.

    – Between husband and wife, there must be distinction.

    – Between old and young, there must be order.

    Sure, older people are supposed to act benevolently toward younger people. But what if they don’t? Where’s the system of checks and balances? The result is that younger people defer to older people even when the older people are irrational, unethical, or just plan assholes.

    I don’t claim abuses of power to be a tenet of Confucianism. But abuse and bullying are going to be likely outcomes when older people are given unconditional deference for no reason other than their date of birth.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    But what if they don’t? Where’s the system of checks and balances?

    Get back to me after you read 소학 and 맹자, which gives a step-by-step guideline of what to do “what if they don’t.”

    And until you do that, you would be well advised to STFU about “unconditional deference for no reason.”

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    “you would be well advised to STFU about “unconditional deference for no reason.”

    You would be well advised to write more considerate comments if you expect anyone to take you seriously.

  • A Korean

    Just curious. Which 선비 taught you those books at which 서당?

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    My grandfather, who was a 성균관 scholar.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Whatever you say, chum. Plenty of people take seriously already.

  • A Korean

    맹자왈: STFU. :)

  • A Korean

    That brings up a host of questions, but let’s forget that. Are you still able to read classical Chinese writing?

  • Bob Bobbs

    Sayin’ it don’t make it so.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    T.K.:

    Anonymous_Joe: Reminds me of From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. How does that work out?

    It works out as a dynasty that continued its bloodline for 518 years, one of the longest in human history.

    In missing my point about Confucianism you seem to have illustrated my larger thesis. The Marxist’s maxim quoted might be beautiful in theory but corrupted in, if ever even put into, practice, which in a real world with scarcity reverted to base greed.

    Ideal Confucianism, likewise while perhaps beautiful on paper (I have reservations), became an abomination in practice and the means to the end of maintaining clan interests. Your example illustrated the extreme that one family used Confucian tenets solely for its dynastic interests while retarding a country’s development and suppressing its people.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    John Bocskay: “I was reacting against a particular cultural explanation that says in essence: 1) Confucianism is all about mindless deference, and 2) because of this deference, many people died.

    I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my post, though I think you misunderstood my point. From the start of this tragedy, I have posted against the notion that the children needlessly died due to mindless deference. In an immediate follow-up to the post you replied to, I wrote “I want to stress again that I do not blame Confucianism for the children following the directives to stay below. …I would have likely done the same, which scares the hell out of me….

    My objection to Confucianism, as I have observed Confucianism practiced, is that subordinates owe fealty to their superiors and that subordinates view their obligations to their superiors above their obligations even to the law. Specifically in the case of the Sewol, the problems were not limited to a greedy owner, an incompetent captain, and cowardice of the crew. The ferry’s cargo was loaded to 400% of capacity, which is not an “oopsy” or a “those regulations are waaaay too stringent, so what’s an extra 10%?” A company that size did not have one accountant cooking the books; it had a team of chefs. The maintenance staff, inspectors, dock workers… not one of them said anything.

    I have witnessed institutional transgressions in Korea that at least one, if not all, should have said, “I not only will not comply but also have a responsibility to report this to the the proper authorities.” After having witnessed first hand such transgressions and the repercussions of reporting such, I now fully understand the primacy of relationships, a Confucian tenet, in Korea and the reason that subordinates do not go against their superiors.

  • 8675309

    The reason that “subordinates do not go against their superiors” has more to do with a culture that is ingrained with a military style obedience-trumps-everything attitude rather than following a Confucian sense of adhering to one’s ethical duties and responsibilities.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    8675309: “The reason that ‘subordinates do not go against their superiors’ has more to do with a culture that is ingrained with a military style obedience-trumps-everything attitude….”

    What is your explanation for where such an ethos comes from and why it perpetuates?

  • bumfromkorea

    From what I know (and that’s very little), Mencius was one of the first to extensively lay out a “right of revolution” – obey the ruler… but if he screws up, kick him out of the throne.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Thanks! A helpful answer.

  • bumfromkorea

    My speculation is that the problem of an unidirectional flow of duty in Modern Korea is created by the mixture of Confucianism with a brutal militaristic culture transplanted from the Imperial Japanese army to the South Korean military by the ethnically Korean ex-Imperial officers (who formed a large majority of the South Korean military leadership post-liberation, I believe). And since every South Korean male goes to the military…

    So, the duty of obedience is doubled down while the reciprocal duty is muted with the “orders are orders”/”까라면 깐다” type mentality. Again, this is just my guess, obviously missing a lot of evidences.

  • bumfromkorea

    In so far as a mechanism of stability of a nation (and keep in mind that for the most part of Chosun dynasty’s existence, her contemporaries were, at best, an aristocracy if not an outright absolute monarchy (which Chosun never really was)), Confucianism worked well. I would argue that it is the very un-Confucian faction struggles that caused Chosun’s decline and lack of progress, not an institutional problem inherent in a Confucian society.

  • yuna_at_marmotshole
  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    our example illustrated the extreme that one family used Confucian tenets solely for its dynastic interests while retarding a country’s development and suppressing its people.

    Only if you myopically look at the last 50 years of the dynasty–during which, as Bum said, Confucian principles arguably decayed. When your ancestors were wallowing in filth, Koreans were inventing the world’s most scientific alphabet, the world’s first armored ship and multi-rocket launchers. Literacy was high (for the time,) active partisan politics prevented the monarchy from overreaching (unlike, say, the French monarchy,) taxation was fair and social welfare system kept people from starving during famine.

    But yeah, keep talking about things that you don’t know.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    “When your ancestors were wallowing in filth, Koreans were inventing the world’s most scientific alphabet, the world’s first armored ship and multi-rocket launchers”

    Yes, of course. Because Western nations accomplished nothing in the early-modern period. And unless you know AJ’s ancestry, you can’t assume that they were “wallowing in filth.”

    Boasting about your ancestors’ or your nation’s past accomplishments is silly. It’s like some east coast WASP talking about his family name or how his ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Nobody cares.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Boasting? No, I’m merely noting the facts that contradict the ill-informed proposition that Confucianism only results in failed nations.

    And trust me on this: I know AJ well enough that I know he cares. He cares so much that he will write another pissy response whenever he sees this, after furiously waving his arms about how he was leaving this blog. Just watch.

  • Aja Aja

    This is the video scene from a smartphone, of the actual 4th floor of the ship. Most of these kids, if not all of them, did not make it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJ-oX9V4vLw

    If you look at the conversation of the kids that went on for 16 minutes from 8:52am, most of the kids did not realize that this was serious. They are joking and laughing that they may have to start swimming. The pandemonium of kids laughing and having a good time as the boat leers to the side, belies the Western media reports portraying these kids as quiet obedient robots obeying their elders. The announcements on the ship, come in between, in firm emphatic tone, do not move from your places. None of them have a clue what is going on, and how serious this situation it is. As the clock ticks, and the ship leers further, the kids begin to worry and start wondering what’s going on but none of them knew that the ship was about to sink, until the ship leered too much, trapping most them inside the ship.

    This is why what that captain did was so despicable. Most, if not all, of those kids could have survived if there were proper instructions given. Perhaps it’s time for ROK to start giving survival lessons to the young people as well, and teach them to take safety seriously. The lessons should start young.

  • wangkon936

    There’s got to be some memory cards recovered from victims’ smartphones that may show even more harrowing footage. Don’t know how much you can recover from a memory card soaked in salt water, but my IT friend said quite a lot potentially.

  • Aja Aja

    In that video alone, the announcement comes on at least 3 times telling the unsuspecting kids not to move. After first and second announcements, I can almost see the kids starting to go out to the deck, but this damn ignorant broadcaster shouting at them to stay in position, which stops those kids on the track. Some kids are even worrying about those who are on deck, worried for their safety. Watching this, makes me so mad, I can’t control the rage inside me right now. 16 minutes wasted in evacuating the ship, they could have saved them all.

  • wangkon936

    I have a question. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, Korean kids may listen to instruction better than the average American kid. If so, then if a similar marine time disaster was to occur in America and if hundreds of unruly American kids cause hundreds of deaths because they didn’t listen to instruction, panicked and caused a clusterfuck on board, does that enable the casual non-Western observer to criticize chaotic/selfish Western culture ad nauseam?

  • Anonymous_Joe

    I think that yo need to read and reread what I wrote about Confucianism and listening to directives as relate to this ferry sinking.

    In fact I’ve written it from the beginning, several times since, and in places that my thoughts were not blatantly obvious, I immediately followed up with a post. In fact, I did so in a follow up in this very subthread: http://www.rjkoehler.com/2014/04/26/confucian-confusion/#comment-1356132416

    Read what I wrote and then ask me again.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    Calling me out in a personal attack, yet again T.K.?. “Furiously waving (my) arms”? Another false attribution: “Confucianism only results in failed nations”.

    As MiG correctly pointed out, you know nothing of my ancestry even though I have hinted enough. I did not bring in other countries, though if you want to compare Korea of that period to other countries…. Nah, I’ll let you do it.

    But yet another argument in ad hominems. If this were a fifth grade cafeteria fight, you’d be the winner of every fight; that is, until you went outside behind the cafeteria.

    Yes, I am trying to extricate myself from TMH. Reread my post where I state such Mr. Attorney who should understand the written word.

    Every subthread I’ve seen you engage here has become about you because you make it about you. I usually avoid engaging you not for fear of the intellect displayed in your posts but for the demonstrated lack thereof.

    Now, all that said, I had only addressed your ideas and did so respectfully, though contentiously. I would say address the ideas in my post, but I know the fifth grade response.

  • A Korean

    It’s a shame that your grandpa taught you all that, but failed to instill humility and diplomacy.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Ha! For a few minutes there, I really thought you finally learned your lesson and not rise to an obvious bait. I guess you just can’t quit me.

  • wangkon936

    My comment above was not directly addressing your declared thoughts. I was addressing the overall conversation direction in this sub-thread. Please excuse the confusion, if there was any.

    However, since you asked, we do not yet know all the facts or the interaction of all those facts to know for sure of Korea’s “culture of corruption” contributed meaningfully to this disaster, so personally, I am withholding my judgement.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    That’s another thing I’ll miss about TMH: trolling, that is of the sort that goes unchecked on one side.

    No T.K., I won’t miss you. There are many people here whom I disagree with, and I have disagreed with everyone at one time. I still think that I could be friendly with them in the school’s cafeteria.

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Yet you’re still here. I’ll just keep kicking this around until you finally quit.

  • wangkon936

    Okay, I will give an example to this. Who here read Brother One Cell by Cullen Thomas? You know that idiotguy who mailed himself some pot from the Philippines to Korea so he can smoke some and sell the rest, got caught and spent three and half years in a Korean prison. Well, I did. I would bet many people that comment on this blog have not though. That’s surprising given that he’s one of you guys. He makes a lot of interesting observations.

    Anyways, while in his time in jail, he noticed something about Korea and Confucianism. Korean jails are vastly more humane, tribal (even among the non-Korean inmates), safer and rehabilitory than American jails. There was no sexual misconduct (at least none that he ever saw) or violence. Nobody worried about getting sodomized while picking up a bar of soap or being shanked in the activity yard. He even mentioned a very strange unspoken agreement between the guards and inmates with mobster backgrounds to collaborate to maintain order in the prison. There were a lack of repeat offenders. Plus, Koreans spend vastly less on their prison system than Americans. For better or worse, he attributed this to Confucianism for which the Koreans have been “marinating in” for centuries. He said there really wasn’t any way you could “transfer” this to America because it was a cultural trait that wasn’t compatible with current American culture.

    Again, culture is a two sided coin and/or a double edged sword, if you will.

  • 8675309

    It is not difficult to understand why — in a country where every able-bodied male serves in one of the most rigid and oppressive militaries around — toeing the line and obeying superiors is emphasized above all else, even if it flies in the face of common sense and one’s own interests. This has little or nothing to do with Confucianism, imo, as this kind of blind obedience and knee-jerk deference to authority is perhaps a legacy leftover from the days when Korea was ruled under successive juntas and the iron fists of generals. At the very least, this is how many Koreans run their households.

  • wangkon936
  • yuna_at_marmotshole

    The kids were doing exactly the right thing in an *emergency situation* involving lots of people in a public space – listen to the loudspeaker.
    We can leave the whole business involving both words start with that letter between B and D out of this.

  • silver surfer

    Is it Korean culture then?

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Depends on your definition of “culture.”

  • redwhitedude

    All because these crew apparently weren’t properly trained. Considering all the no no in safety they committed I am under the impression that they had this cavalier attitude of “I’ve traveled this route hundred times and nothing will happen so why worry”. Lifeboats that couldn’t be deployed, cargo not properly secured, overloaded ship, inexperienced crew member at the helm and so forth.

  • wangkon936

    A troll who has several socks.

  • wangkon936

    Something by experienced Koreanologist Aidan Foster-Carter:

    http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2014/04/25/blame-and-shame-sewol-crisis-structural-not-cultural/

    Article titled, “Blame and Shame: Sewol Crisis Structural, Not Cultural”

    David Pilling over at Financial Times:

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/0af86a44-ca44-11e3-bb92-00144feabdc0.html#axzz30IjFBG4C

    Article titled, “Bad policy caused the ferry disaster, not bad culture”

    I dunno… it just seems to me that Western observers with higher brain functions are not buying the “blame culture” conclusion that the more non-professional armchair observers are immediately jumping to.

  • wangkon936

    Aidan Foster-Carter:

    “The Sewol is a terrible tragedy, but South Korea as such is not responsible. Han? That catch-all phrase, a meld of grief and grudge, is over-used (I’m guilty too) and explains very little. Bbali-bbali? (quick-quick: doing things in a rush)? Maybe; but the proper target is those who cut corners, and any laxity found in safety inspection regimes or emergency drills. Deficiencies in safety policy or practice do not put a whole culture on trial.”

    […]

    The sooner South Koreans stop beating themselves up, start defining the problems as structural rather than cultural (or the fault of just one side in politics), and devise precisely targeted policies accordingly – after all the facts are in, not before – the likelier it is that lessons can be learned…”

  • wangkon936

    Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country:

    Mr. Tudor rejects sweeping cultural judgments, arguing that they lead to self-hatred and inertia. If something is “cultural”, the next step is to regard it as unchangeable.

    Based on many of the comments I’m seeing, I think too many current and former expats want Korea to “self-hate” itself and be stuck in inertia.

  • redwhitedude

    Why are we overthinking this. It’s blatant disregard of safety regulations and nobody was checking until an accident happened.

  • cockfucius

    This video tells us a few things. One, students had complete trust in adults and the staff and the captain. Two, students were reluctant to act on their instincts despite the assessment of danger. Three, announcer followed orders from the captain to announce people to stay where they are despite knowing of the potential dangerous situation unfolding before them.

    One, does Korean culture have a history of placing unquestioning trust and confidence in those that hold authority despite evidence of any? Yes, but are students at fault for trusting the system and adults? No. This is completely the fault of adults and staff, who are the largest controlling shareholders of the system. Culture is a byproduct of a hierarchial system when individual rational reasoning is drowned out.

    Two, does Korean culture have tendency towards herd behavior, afraid acting out in front of others where bystander effect is therefore more prevalent? Yes, but students simply trusted the adults and what the group were thinking. The limit of adults have not been re-enforced.

    Three, announcer and staff, although probably in the back of their heads knew that they were in a dangerous situation, did not question the orders. We see a similar pattern amongst Korean pilots, who have shared accidents when a junior pilot was afraid to offend the senior pilot, and the senior pilot was afraid to be fallible.

    Lastly, systematic failure that is prevalent in Korean society due to strong factionalism and corruption amongst public servants. Increase pension and salary for public servants so that bribery becomes economically unfeasible and create awareness of social interests at home, school and in public.

  • cockfucius

    All in all, announcer was following orders from a captain who was not qualified or present to assess the situation clearly and logically. Announcer did not question superior’s decisions despite knowing the potential doom out of saving people’s face. The face of a few cost majority.

  • cockfucius

    “There’s never an earthquake on the peninsula, why do we waste money installing safety measures on our nuclear power plants?”

    “There’s never going to be an attack from North Korea, why do we waste time patrolling islands near NLL?”

    “The shopping mall can easily support the 5th floor, otherwise it would’ve collapsed already ” (Sampoon 1995)

  • cockfucius

    Non-individualistic culture, self inflicted shame and guilt, blind trust in system and authorities were a part in this tragedy and unfortunately a byproduct of confucianism. confucianism by itself like any other idea or philosophy is sound on an ideal world but it creates byproduct in the society that practices it who tries to adapt to the changing environment and find that it overrides and suppresses common sense and logical reasoning within individuals, which collectively makes up the system.

    Confucianism has nothing to do with it, it’s the society that practices it without accounting for the fallible byproduct effect it creates in the process of adjusting to the environment which changes due to technology, globalization and economy.

  • cockfucius

    Excellent view, strong government policies and institutions can bring in the bad things caused by the distorted Confucianism. I would start by banning honorifics and mandatory armed services. Two things which affect communication and contributing to the economy.

  • cockfucius

    not exclusive to Korea but certainly prevalent in Korean society. it’s also called herd mentality. dot com bubble called, they have your parent’s 401k.

  • cockfucius

    yet spent $50,000 on pussy and cash to bribe local officials. clearly, the older generation has their priorities straight.

  • cockfucius

    set of beliefs and practices common to the group, so I’d say yes. however, Korea’s not the only one, I’m sure we look at radical muslim cultures and think they are crazy for making people wear hijaab in scorching weather.

  • cockfucius

    more like 씹선비 prevalent in Korea with pseudo intellectuals with pseudo ivy league degrees.

  • cockfucius

    read it, basically the instructions are to spread your legs apart higher above your ears and allow further penetration by the superiors. Great system to adopt.

  • cockfucius

    Pedant are taken seriously for reals.

  • cockfucius

    T.K.’s grandfather was a great 씹선비

  • cockfucius

    with slightly more freedom than North Korea but unable to escape China’s thumb. Human achievement to behold, Chosun dynasty!

  • cockfucius

    If a mass shooter was present, wouldn’t the last thing you want to do is listen to the announcement to stay where you are so the gunman can come and shoot you? Similarly, if the gunman took the shape of an oncoming natural disaster, wouldn’t the individual instincts based on a more accurate assessment of the event before their eyes have a better call on what to do? The fact that all the students in Sewol, in disbelief and trusting authorities that are not present with them had a better understanding of the situation?

    I know what you are saying but the result is that culture is the absolute common denominator for when a group is struck by an external stressor.

  • PC Bahng or Bust

    And then their rulers kept the people illiterate, exploited them so much so that the life expectancy for Koreans in 1900 was 35 years of age, hid from the world by de-populating their coastlines and had nothing to answer the Japanese with when they turned up in battleships. When Japan soared and Korea ran, who was then the gentleman?

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ T.K.

    Illiterate? A Confucian king INVENTED A WHOLE NEW ALPHABET just to make sure people could read. Thanks to that, Korea had higher literacy rate compared to the rest of the world.

    But yeah, keep talking.

  • cockfucius

    거북선 was not the first iron clad armored ship as widely claimed. only a small percentage of the actual ship used during the Imjin war had tiny amount of plating, which the japanese guns could penetrate easily.

    화차 was a rip off a chinese design made earlier.

    I think you are really reiterating the same garbage propaganda Korean government has been feeding to their citizens for a near century.

    Clearly, the literacy did jack shit against a modernized Japanese imperial army. Clearly, the intelligentsia ended up favoring Japanese culture over their own. Clearly, the monarchy and politicians of Chosun dynasty were busy covering their own asses while leaving much of the poor citizens who only wore dirty rags because the system required them too to be further exploited by their new masters.

    come at me bro.

  • cockfucius

    yes, literacy has proven to be an adequate defense against bullets and bayonets, at least they were able to read the treaties that claimed Imperial Japan as their masters and let it sink in. Such thing is far more important than modernizing and defending against invaders who were far less literate but still knew that guns not words ruled the world.

  • JW

    I think people like Foster- Carter and yourself are getting ideas confused here or you are not focusing enough on what needs to be discussed. Koreans beating themselves up over this incident obviously has nothing to do with possible cultural explanations of what caused this disaster. That simply has to do with how koreans as a nation are reacting to this tragedy and nothing more. And pointing out structural problems I would argue is simply another way of saying that there is a cultural problem because both structural and cultural converge in the definition of a long running practice common among people living that structure or culture. If you mean that we should focus less on common beliefs and more on practice..well I disagree. You might as well argue that philosophy matters less than empirical sciences. If on the other hand you are merely arguing that there just aren’t that many mature people to have this cultural discussion in this blog and elsewhere and so we should minimize discussion altogether … well that’s a very specific argument that has to do with your dislike of some people on this blog and elsewhere but that again has nothing to do with cultural/structural reasons as to why this disaster occurred.

  • silver surfer

    So yes, according to a certain definition. Stop calling it ‘Confucianism’, start calling it ‘Korean culture’. Got it.

  • silver surfer

    It’s certainly more useful to look for policy changes that might improve safety rather than hand-wringing over intangible, irremediable ‘culture’.

  • silver surfer

    Good comment by David Halloran in the ‘Blame and Shame’ article:

    “Most Koreans do not think in a rational way. But they live in a rational society. Everywhere they have machines that they do not understand and cannot cope with when things go wrong. Most can’t change a flat tire on their car. Very few can swim. Kids can’t ride bikes and can’t climb trees. They are universally terrified of water. If a robot had been piloting Sewol then the kids would not have died as the robot would not have set sail with an over loaded unsecured cargo deck. Also the robot would have known that on a RoRo ferry 5 degrees of list is unrecoverable and would have immediately ordered all souls to abandon the ship. The Captain clearly did not know that his boat was sinking or how quickly it might sink or what to do in those critical 50 minutes. I am a yachtsman and a sailor and have sailed the waters Sewol sank in. The most important thing he needed to do was assemble all souls on deck as early as he possibly could with life jackets on.”

    The key point is that there is widespread incompetence in Korea. This is probably for historical reasons, but it won’t ever change so long as everyone looks to others to follow their lead, and no one takes responsibility for their own decisions.

  • que337

    Nineteenth Century Westerners well documented how glorious the Edo Japan was:

    http://cultureandtime19.blogspot.com/2013/01/pictures-of-edo-period-japan.html

  • silver surfer

    In light of the report written by TK over on askakorean, the responsibility for this disaster appears to rest mainly on the shoulders of the captain.

    If true, this makes everything else I’ve said here about Korea irrelevant to explaining the disaster.

  • que337

    “Cock-fucius” reminds me of the olde Chinese punishment 궁형(宮刑) which scissored out criminal’s cock. I’d assume that alone suffices Mr. Cockfucius’ bitterness against Confucianism.

  • pawikirogii

    yeah, and something about white culture makes whitie run amok, no? serial killings, anyone? mass murder, anyone? mr halloran’s comment is racist garbage desigend to make a whitie like yourself feel better. now, aren’t you special?

  • wangkon936

    The key point is that there is widespread incompetence in Korea.

    Very bizarre thing to say about a country that makes as many competant technical products as Korea or is a part of the G20. Think about it, if what you said was really true, then Korea would still have the GDP of Ghana, don’t you think?

    There is something neo-racist about that statement. I think this statement falls along the same vein of failed analysis of:

    1) Custer when he said, “the plains Indians know nothing about modern cavalry warfare.”

    2) When the British garrison of Singapore said, “the Japanese are too nearsighted to be effective soldiers”

    3) And when the British colonial officers said, “the Zulus are too primitive to to wipe out our widely separated patrols.”

    So on and so forth…

    I think you suffer a misconception that was aptly identified by this American:

    http://www.halfkoreaninkorea.com/2013/10/being-half-korean-in-korea.html

    With very few exceptions, I’ve always understood why Koreans do the things they do, because being a middle child, I am naturally adaptive, and most of the time, I can be rather empathetic.

    […]

    I’ve heard numerous Americans say to me without realizing who I am, “Koreans throw logic completely out the window.” It’s been said to me numerous times, and I get so annoyed whenever I hear it. Those things contribute to my willful avoidance, and I’ve recently found myself being rather unforgiving, when I should be more empathetic. After all, I am a westerner myself.

    The other evening, while on the neighborhood bus that shuttles me to and from the subway station, I saw a white foreigner, who looked to be an American, and looked like he could have been a nice guy. It’s rather rare to see foreigners on that particular bus route, moreover, it was the first time I had ever seen one there. I know it was the same for him also. I can say that, because he looked right at me. I made eye contact with him, but I acted as if it were completely normal to see another American on the bus, and I immediately looked away, and completely avoided contact. I did it in sort of a haughty manner, and for that, I am ashamed.

    I could tell he wanted to talk. Maybe he was having a difficult time, and needed another foreigner to talk to. Maybe he felt alone in this strange country where people “throw logic completely out the window.” Maybe he could have been a friend, so looking back on that interaction, or lack thereof, I felt bad.

    I should make myself more available. I should also be more forgiving, and I shouldn’t allow my critical feelings to get in the way of being more outgoing and helpful.

    Again, as a half-Korean, despite my attitudes towards some Americans here, the longer that I am in Korea, the more I see myself as an American. At the same time, I’ve always understood Korean culture, and their way of life. All my life, I’ve always been accustomed to being around Koreans, and hearing a language that I don’t understand, so being here has always felt rather normal.

  • redwhitedude

    I don’t know why there is such a big fuss about confucianism over this. This disaster happened because there was incompetence and possibly corruption. It seems there people who take this opportunity to possibly bash Korea through confucianism BS. It’s like everytime there was a bloody rampage by some gun toting freak in the US that it ought to be the fault of gun ownership. It’s not. Confucianism didn’t cause this tragedy anymore than the gun ownership causes bloody rampages in the US. It is the people that cause both. Incompetence of the people and evil intent.

  • redwhitedude

    Well it’s certainly true that Korean education was inherited from the public education that the japanese set up in colonial times but it is less puritanical now than before.

  • wangkon936

    I’ve found if you want to offer helpful advice, you don’t ask your hosts to chuck their culture. Doing so would make you out to look like an asshole. More importantly it’s impractical, it’s very hard to literally change a culture. So hard that very few people actually do this and see the results in a lifetime and true “cultural” change takes generations.

    Even when Japan modernized on the surface it looked like they were “changing” their culture, but they really were not. They stayed essentially the same people, but just chucked feudalism and dictatorship for mercantilism and oligarchy.

    Do you think the Roman’s change anything when they conquered Espania, Britania and Gaul? They did eventually fuse Roman culture with the native cultures, but that took hundreds of years. However, after the fall of Rome, those regions referred back to their original feral states, the Roman alphabet, laws and technical knowledge would have been lost forever if it wasn’t for some Christian monks who saved the books or some Muslim traders who did the same. Western Europe essentially had to relearn its Greco/Roman heritage once the barbarians got tired of drinking their own blood from the skulls of their enemies.

    Any ways, history has shown that If you want to achieve change in a few decades, not generations, then the approach you want to take is to convince a population that their current culture has the wherewithal for the necessary change and that the truest and most ideal aspects of their culture is an aberration to abuse. Asking the Koreans (or anyone else for that matter) that their culture is shit will do more to alienate them then get them on the same page with you. That is unless you want to be an asshole and you want to rant and rave rather than offer any constructive advice. If so, then criticize away.

  • wangkon936

    “If a mass shooter was present, wouldn’t the last thing you want to do is listen to the announcement to stay where you are so the gunman can come and shoot you?”

    That is an interesting example you bring to the table. How does Korea handle this dilemma? Well, it does so by making sure the system won’t produce very many mass shooters. Granted that the holder of the 2nd largest record for “spree killings” (number one being Norway 2011) was a Korean (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woo_Bum-kon), however spree killings in Korea are far less common than in the U.S. where many schools and practically all sporting events have a metal detector. It is safe to say that mass shooting and spree killing does not register the same cognitive blip in Korea than it does in the U.S.

    It is very hard for a civilian in Korea to get weapons that kill very fast. Interestingly, since getting quick killing weapons in Korea is so hard suicide among U.S. troops stationed in Korea is practically non-existent:

    http://www.armytimes.com/article/20130218/NEWS/302180307/South-Korea-mostly-suicide-free-U-S-troops

    Because of how the laws are in Korea, U.S. troops can’t take personal weapons with them after duty/training. The vast majority of U.S. military suicides are when troops take their personal weapons with them. On a per population basis, U.S. Military suicides involving firearms are vastly lower in Korea than in the U.S. I find it ironic that in a place like Korea, where suicides are high, the situation has made it the inverse for American troops.

    So, which culture is better in this particular situation? I’m not taking sides, but again, it does point to the double edged sword aspect of all cultures when it comes to solving and/or addressing particular problems and situations.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    Dude, you don’t live here, and can’t even spell competent. Why discount the on-the-ground observations about the relative social value of competence? Nobody says that Koreans aren’t capable of competence, only that it is not valued as a paramount quality and therefore incompetence is not weeded out. As an employment lawyer, I can tell you that incompetence is generally not considered to be just cause for termination from employment here, and that should tell us something about the relative importance this society places on competence as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, connections.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    This apologia also explains how you can be a progressive despite the failure of Communism in the 1990s. Dude, true communism has never been tried. Now pass the dutchie.

  • wangkon936

    I agree. Micro connections in Korea are more important there than in the U.S. It creates issues in Korea, but it also creates efficiencies in that society as well. The value that Koreans place in micro connections is in there for a reason. I guarantee you if you were to totally remove it then that would probably cause more problems then you may think it would solve.

    Nobody says that Koreans aren’t capable of competence

    Uh, Silver Surfer just did. Did you not read his comment?

    Dude, you don’t live here, and can’t even spell competent.

    On the first point… I have been to Korea five more times since that blog I put together in 2006 (you know which one I’m talking about). Also, I have three pairs of aunts and uncles and five cousins who recently came from Korea and live within 20 miles of me. I communicate with them regularly. Honestly, I tell them about the country that you people describe in the comments section of this blog and they don’t know what the hell country you are talking about because it’s certainly not Korea as they know it.

    Regarding the second point… so what? Ask me if I give a fuck. Listen, it’s not that I can’t spell competent, I just didn’t spell it correctly that particular moment. Please get over yourself.

  • Aja Aja

    Cockfucius, this video clearly tells us that all those kids didn’t think this was so serious, and obeyed what the announcer said three times, all emphatically – virtually saying under no circumstances should the students move. In other words, these kids had no clue what was going on and what was happening to the ship until it was too late, when some of them started to get uneasy and start questioning the captain and the orders.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    99% of the people commenting on Confucianism on the Korean blogsophere don’t have a clue what they are talking about. For G*d’s sake, at least read the Wikipedia pages — which are paltry but still better than what’s coming from here.

    On another note, I would like to thank John Bocskay again for writing that post.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    I would like to add to TK’s comments. This whole notion that Korean Confucians promoted illiteracy during the Chosun Dynasty is easily debunkable, even with respect to Hanmun (Classical Chinese). Before the Chosun Dynasty, there were almost no women writers of Hanmun. By the middle of the Chosun dynasty, even slaves were writing Classical Chinese poetry.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    Most of the commenters here don’t know what they are talking about when they mention “Confucianism.” (A lot of the things they blame Confucianism for actually only came to Korea during the Japanese occupation, ironically). To them, Asian/Korean + Bad = Confucianism.

    For instance, no one here will pin Asian students’ high math and science scores on Confucianism, even though:
    1. Math is one of the Six Arts of Confucianism (六藝, 육예);
    2. Elementary Learning (小學, 소학) specifies that children learn numbers and arithmetic before learning to read Chinese characters and Confucian Classics; and
    3. There were popular schools of Confucian thought in China and in Korea during the 17th through 19th centuries that emphasized logical empiricism and many of whose members were actually mathematicians and scientists.

    Instead, I’ll probably get some kneejerk, hateful responses that feign expertise in social statistics. At best, I will get a few defending Americans’ illiteracy in math and science.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    Before you pin Confucianism as the explanation of everything Korea as if it were the unified field theory of modern physics, I recommend you read more than just Wikipedia pages. Thanks.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    The crucial distinction is that no one here at this time is explicitly claiming to act Confucian, in contrast to the Commies were explicitly trying to act/be Communist.

  • dogbertt

    Interesting to me that so many are eager to blame “Korean culture” for the actions of the captain, etc., but I haven’t seen anyone praise “Korean culture” for the incredible, selfless sacrifice of those crewmembers who gave their lives knowingly and willingly to save passengers. I would rather praise that as “Korean culture”.

  • silver surfer

    You’re projecting. It’s gyopos like you who think you are special and you can’t stand any criticism of Korea because it threatens your self-image.

    Running amok, by the way, is a phenomenon that happens in all cultures. Not that it’s relevant.

  • silver surfer

    There’s no contradiction between widespread incompetence on the one hand and super efficient competence on the other. They have manufacturing ships down to a science, but the brewing of beer leaves something to be desired, doesn’t it. Koreans themselves will be the first to admit/complain there’s a lot of incompetence around.

    When you think about it, it makes sense that rapid development entails taking a lot of short cuts. Hence I referred to ‘historical reasons’.

  • silver surfer

    Silver Surfer certainly did not say Koreans aren’t capable of competence.

  • silver surfer

    That thought struck me too and well done for posting it.

    According to TK’s report, almost everybody except the captain was ready to do the right thing (for instance, crew members asked repeatedly if they should begin evacuation and were told not to). It looks as if the facts may not all be out even yet.

  • JW

    Regarding spelling, I totally agree, Brendon and Yuna should join the ranks of other language nazis and go hump themselves. Leave the rest of us out of it please.

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