Custom-built schooling

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Many city-dwellers are rediscovering the traditional values of Confucian teaching. Brendan O'Malley reports.

Young Hyun Yun kneels on a bare lino floor inside a traditional-style Korean house set into the slope of Chiri mountain near the south coast. "Today we are teaching about filial piety," he says. "We are going to learn that father gave me my body, mother gave me food and clothing, so children must be very thankful to their parents. This is very important: a son or daughter must respect their parents." It's a message that hundreds of parents from Seoul, Pusan and other big cities consider so important, in fact, that they send their children there in the summer to be taught self-improvement - the traditional way.

Young Hyun Yun, 45, dressed in white Hanbok silk garments and a black horsehair hat, is a Confucian teacher in Chonghak-dong, a village celebrated for upholding Korea's traditional values. Yun runs the village school, which is attended full-time by local pre-elementary schoolchildren, and in the afternoons by elementary school pupils.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a whiteboard covered in Chinese characters, local children dressed in Hanbok suits or dresses are called out one by one to read Chinese script to their teacher, as he points to the words on sheets of paper using a carved cane stick.

In the afternoons, normally 15 local children out of the 200 or so population of the village attend, but these numbers are swelled in the summer by an extra 150 children from the cities, sent for two-week courses in Korean culture, ethics, discipline and Confucian tradition - even though their parents have long since embraced the ways of modernmetropolitan life.

"Most of the city kids have behavioural or attention problems," says Yun. "For the first two or three days they can't adapt. They cry for their parents. But we allow them only two phone calls in two weeks and by the end they become totally different. They can conentrate and are disciplined. Their parents are surprised."

On the third course this summer, he explains, most of the children's parents were from the teaching profession - because even they find it difficult to teach their own children discipline.

The high regard in which Koreans hold their tradition has made Chonghak-dong a popular tourist destination. But this has changed the way of life of the villagers. Until three years ago, the place was several hours' walk from the nearest road, but now the valleys echo to the sound of cars making their way into the hills, while the villagers earn their livelihood from running bed and breakfasts, restaurants and selling souvenirs.

On their way there, tourists pass the country's largest ghost hotel - a brand new high-rise luxury block that scars the view of a tranquil mountain lake. Yet it stands unfinished because the builders went bust during the 1997 crash; it remains an empty monument to environmental insensitivity and the dilemmas posed by the popular longing for a taste of Korea's rural past.

Yun says that in some ways the Chonghak-dong villagers have become victims of their own success in promoting the traditional way of life. He cites the way the demand from tourists for Hanbok clothes, which local young people continue to wear at college, has driven up the cost of these garments. A traditional tall black hat with a wide brim used to cost 40,000 won (pound;25), but now costs 200,000 won.

Mr Yun makes a living from school fees and bee-keeping, but his driving ambition is to promote the ideas of the Samdo religion, which combines Confucianism with aspects of Buddhism and Christianity, and to teach children self-improvement. Does he really succeed with the city kids?

"After learning some filial piety they become new children," he says. "Parents are usually surprised and thankful - because they can see that their children can now concentrate - and they recommend us to other parents."

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