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To combat modern ills, Korea looks to the past

YEONGJU, South Korea » When he looks out from the time-frozen world of Korea’s oldest private Confucian academy, Park Seok-hong sees the rest of the country “turning into a realm of beasts.” He points to recent news reports as evidence: young people swearing at elderly passengers in the subway and children jumping to their deaths to escape bullying or the pressure of hyper-competitive school life.

“We may have built our economy, but our morality is on the verge of collapse,” Park said. “We must revitalize it, and this is where we can find an answer.”

Park is chief curator of Sosu Seowon, a complex of 11 lecture halls and dormitories that first opened in 1543 in this town 100 miles southeast of Seoul.

In South Korea, where “Confucian” has long been synonymous with “old fashioned,” people like Park have recently gained modest ground with their campaign to reawaken interest in Confucian teachings that emphasize communal harmony, respect for elders and loyalty to the state — principles that many older Koreans believe have lost their grip on the young.

In the past five years, a steadily increasing number of schoolchildren — as many as 15,000 a year — have come here for a course on Confucian etiquette.

Elsewhere, about 150 other seowon, or Confucian academies, have reopened for similar extracurricular programs, said Park Sung-jin, executive director of the National Association of Seowon in Korea.

“I came here so Grandpa will scold me less,” said Kang Ku-hyun, a sixth-grader from Seoul.

On a recent Monday, Ku-hyun’s mother had hustled him and his sister onto a bus. After a three-hour drive, the bus disgorged 40 elementary school pupils here for a “seowon stay.” For three days, the children sampled the life of Confucian students of old, receiving instruction that has long disappeared from the official school curriculum, including dinner and tea table etiquette and the proper ways of addressing one’s parents.

“My knees ache from so much kneeling,” said Ku-hyun’s sister, Kang Chae-won, 10, after practicing deep bows from her position on the floor. “If nothing else, I learned how to bow properly. Grandpa will be pleased.”

Seowon stays are part of a broader trend that emerged about a decade ago in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, when South Korea suffered economic setbacks and rising unemployment and suicide rates. At the time, many people felt a keen sense of loss for the values that they believed had sustained older Koreans through much greater hardships following the 1950-53 Korean War.

In recent months, South Korea has also been gripped by soul-searching after half a dozen students who had been bullied at school took their own lives. A series of suicides by soldiers has also shocked the country, which depends on a conscript military to guard against North Korea.

To address this unease, Buddhist temples have begun offering “temple stays,” where city dwellers attempt meditation and poise. Korean marines run “survival camps,” where schoolchildren crawl through obstacle courses in a regimen designed to instill comradeship and perseverance.

Despite his dire warnings, Park does not go so far as to argue that the current school system should be replaced by Confucian academies. But he believes that it can learn a lot from the seowon.

There is an irony to the renewed interest in the seowon and Confucianism. For decades, many Koreans strove to free themselves from the strictures of Confucian tradition, blaming it for things like the rigidly hierarchical corporate culture and a centuries-old preference for boys that once led to rampant abortions of female fetuses.

In fact, Korean parents’ famed zeal for educating their children — an obsession both praised as the source of the country’s rapid economic development and criticized for the ills associated with high-pressure school life — is often traced to the seowon. The old institutes emphasized memorization of classic texts in preparation for the civil service exams and established the tradition of equating academic learning with social status.

The seowon were almost exclusively for boys from the elite “yangban” class. The royal court supported many of them, allowing the young aristocrats to study for years without regard to cost. By the time all but 47 of the academies were shut down in 1865, they had become hotbeds of corruption and factional politics that weakened the dynasty long before Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.

Under Japanese colonial rule, which lasted until 1945, Korea adopted a universal education system with a Western-influenced curriculum. The seowon that still stood served mainly as shrines where tradition-minded Koreans held rites honoring Confucian sages.

Still, champions of the importance of the seowon in Korean history argue that contemporary Korea can learn much from the old.

When the seowon were functioning properly, “they emphasized character-building and harmony with nature,” said Lee Bae-yong, a historian and former president of the Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Lee, now chair of the Presidential Council on Nation Branding, whose portfolio includes promoting South Korea’s international image, is leading a government campaign to get the seowon added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. In January, the United Nations agency granted nine seowon, including Sosu, tentative designations.

The old Confucian scholars in white robes and high black hats are long gone from Sosu Seowon. Instead, tourists peer into lecture halls decorated with Confucian dictums.

Much of the seowon stay program actually takes place in an adjacent replica village where aspects of an older lifestyle — weaving rice-straw mats, riding in ox carts, reciting Confucian texts — are enacted for tourists.

Park, the chief curator, can go on for hours about what he thinks is wrong with the “trash education” of today — an overemphasis on English and mathematics at the expense of ethics and history. But even he acknowledges that preaching Confucianism in South Korea today may have its limits.

Over the past two decades, he has seized every opportunity to promote Confucian learning — to everyone from government officials to visiting tourists.

“They accept one-tenth of what I say,” Park said. “They look at me as if I were crazy, ultraconservative, out of fashion. I feel like an outcast.”

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