Meet the New Confucianism, Same as the Old

On February 5, 2012, the New York Times carried a story about a Confucian academy in South Korea. It is one of some 150 such academies (seawon) in the country. Their main program consists of retreats, especially for schoolchildren. The program, apparently quite rigorous, is to provide training in moral behavior and etiquette (the two are closely related in Confucian thought). Park Seok-hong, head of a large academy originally founded in 1543, explained the basic assumption of these programs: “We may have built our economy, but our morality is on the verge of collapse.”

It is not a new lament. It recurs in many countries, including Western ones, wherever modernization has led to economic development, but also to a weakening of traditional patterns of belief and values. Recourse to Confucianism is not new either. The government of Singapore has been worried for a long time that the phenomenal economic success of the city state has left a moral vacuum. To deal with this problem, the government at one point launched a program of moral education in schools, based on the teachings of the major religious traditions present in the country—Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity—adding Confucianism to this ecumenical mix, under the assumption that it would appeal to the ethnic Chinese majority in the state. That turned out to be a mistake: Parents were free to choose the curriculum to which their children were assigned; most Chinese parents chose Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Confucianism had been savagely attacked as superstitious and reactionary (like all religion). In recent years the (still nominally Marxist) government has rehabilitated Confucius as a great teacher of social virtue. His birthplace has been promoted as a place for pilgrimage and tourism. And the centers for Chinese culture throughout the world were called Confucius Institutes. Like all traditions with a history of many centuries, Confucianism has emphasized different values at different times. Understandably, authoritarian governments like the values of respect for authority and social order (conveniently ignoring other Confucian values, such as the one saying that authority must earn respect by behaving in a just and humane manner).

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