During the JoSeon Dynasty founded in the 14th century C.E, the Neo-Confucianism flourished with an ideal of the harmonized world through moral and ethical principles. In fact, there are bright and dark sides of Confucianism as understood and practiced in Korea. Today Korean society struggles with the tension between good and bad in Confucianism.
The good side of Confucianism is relational humanism of which aspects lie at the center of our lives and thinking. In Great Learning (Confucian teachings) the notion of community is well summarized with this following: “su-shin, je-ga, chi-guk, pyong-chon-ha” (修身 濟家 治國 平天下). Sushin means training the self (literally disciplining oneself); je-ga managing home; chi-guk ruling the nation; pyong chon-ha governing the whole world. Confucius based his ideals about human communities on inseparable and harmonious relationships between the self, community and the nation.
In Confucius’ view, the purpose of soo-shin is to build home with virtues, to rule the nation and to govern the whole world. Confucius finds the essence of human beings in the nexus of intrinsic living together with others. Individuals, home, the nation and the whole world are closely related and there must be roles for each.
The centrality of human relationships is well expressed in In (or Ren) – which means love (仁). This word consists of two ideograms: “person” and “two.” In is often translated as ‘human-relatedness,’ ‘co-humanity,’ ‘virtuous humanity,’ … or ‘love’.” There are no individuals without communities. In our culture, therefore, a good human being is a person who relates well with other persons in communities. Interrelatedness is part of the Confucian notion of love.
This relational human existence and love is also expressed in the Chinese word for human beings, composed of two characters: 人 (in) + 間 (gan). In means human being, who needs others to relate (see the ideogram of In, which shows two persons in unity). To live as a person means to live with others. Gan means a space or distance “in-between.” How to relate with others is what it means to be human. This is why we often use “woori” (meaning “we”) instead of “I” or “my.” For example, we rarely say “my teacher,” but we say “our teacher.” The examples include “our car, our school, our pastor, our country, etc.” This sort of habit of language reflects the deep sense of our community life.
However, the bad or difficult side of Confucianism has to do with its hierarchical, patriarchal worldview. As such, Confucianism has had a negative effect on women in particular. Samgang-oryn (three cardinal principles and five ethical norms) is a prime example of this.
Three cardinal principles (samgang) include 1) loyalty to ruler, 2) filial piety to parents, and 3) wife’s fidelity to husband; five ethical norms (oryun) deal with human relationships: 1) love between parents and children, 2) faith between rulers and people, 3) distinction between husband and wife, 4) order between elders and juniors, and 5) trust between friends. Especially, women did not have equal rights with men as seen in Samjongjido (women’s three things to obey): 1) obeying her father before marriage, 2) obeying her husband after marriage, and 3) obeying her sons after the death of her husband.