Confucian lore questioned;Escape to ... Seoul;Summer diary

13th August 1999 at 01:00
THE first sight of Seoul is banks of city skyscrapers and well-kept tower blocks. But I hadn't realised the significance of living space in this mainly mountainous country, until I heard an unusual TV ad.

"Respecting our ancestors means keeping them nearby," said a man's voice. But the traditional way of burying families in tombs will not be possible in 10 years, he explained, as all the cemetery plots will be saturated.

His answer? Let him heat your bones to 2000 degrees centigrade and they can be turned into beads for jewellery. Then your sons and daughters can wear you wherever they are.

A future life as a fashion accessory may not remotely interest most South Koreans, but the clash between Eastern values and Western-style capitalism is pervasive in what has become the 11th largest economy in the world.

The shopping streets are packed with young women seeking trendy clothes in subtle shades of white and grey - many of them from retail chains with names familiar to us - but there are also shops such as Shoes for Innocence which suggest a parental fear that other brands will lead children down the wrong path.

You wouldn't believe this if you saw Korea's equivalent of Top of the Pops, a procession of teenage boy and girl bands dancing in white costumes to songs of pure love that would make the Eurovision Song Contest seem raunchy by comparison. But the fans still go crazy.

Koreans seem to work hard and play hard. The older ones can still remember what it was it like to go to school hungry - before the economy took off, based not on loans but exports, everything from microchips to ocean-going ships, and that's just Hyundai.

It all came crashing down in 1997. They have nearly recovered now, but not without a soul-searching debate about what was to blame. And one man who took more than his fair share was Confucius.

It was argued that the influence of Confucianism and its emphasis on respect for elders led to nepotism, subservience and inefficiency in the powerful conglomerates, and overlending by the banks; it was also blamed for the rigid school system, the adherence to rote learning and the idea that teacher is always right, which failed to produce school-leavers with initiative.

Hardly a day seems to go by in Seoul without teachers' voicing their opinions on an aspect of daily life in a national paper and often on the great philosopher.

In the Korean Times teacher Choi Tae-hwan asks if it is impossible to get rid of the "yoke of Confucianism" in our daily lives, which, he complained, was "based on the importance of age, vertical hierarchy, authoritarianism and ostententation". Why, he said, should young people be taught the expression "A Yangban must never run when caught in a shower without an umbrella", when it reflects the philosophy's stress on dignity and authority over rationality and practicality.

In the Korean Herald, it is left to a foreigner, Gary Rector, to sweep to Confucius's defence. He was no closed-minded elitist, he says, in fact one of his sayings was: "One who masters the old and is receptive to the new qualifies to be a teacher."

"Just memorising a bunch of answers to pass an examination so you can get into a prestigious university and have the right sheepskin hang on your wall would not have gone over big with Confucius," says Mr Rector.

Schools have already begun to bring in child-centred learning methods and foreign companies are leading the way introducing "horizontal" relationships based on professional expertise rather than the number of years spent with the company. But workers still have to remember their original job titles - manager, assistant manager - when they step outside the office, so outsiders can pinpoint their place in the firm's hierarchy.

However, the Confucian stress on filial duty and respect for your elders is something that many Koreans are proud of and the argument about its place in today's world may simply reflect a generational divide. When an eminent Confucian professor told my translator, a fashionably-dressed 24-year-old, that she should study the philosophy, her look, a mixture of bewilderment and disdain, said it all.

Brendan O'Malley

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