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Confucianism, an ancient Chinese way of thought that has spread through much of East Asia, is often described as a religion. Perhaps a more accurate definition of Confucianism is that it is a detailed code of interpersonal behavior. In cultures where it is embraced, Confucianism is a practical political and social doctrine.

Kung Fu-Tzu, known in Western countries as Confucius, lived in China around 500 BC. He was a teacher who offered his students a system of order during a period when China was disrupted by warfare. One of Confucius's most important teachings was that there was a proper order to all things in the universe, including human society. Confucius taught that within and through this social order peace and harmony could be achieved if every person knew his or her proper place in society and upheld the responsibilities of that place. In Confucianism, this idea is summarized as follows, "Let the ruler be ruler, the subject be subject, the father be father, and the son be son." Through the definition of five basic relationships, Confucianism provided a simple guide for ordering the family and society. The five moral disciplines to govern the five human relationships were the following:

  1. Justice and righteousness should mark the relations between sovereign and subject. Kung Fu-Tzu - 'Confucius'
  2. There should be proper rapport between father and son.
  3. Separation of function between husband and wife.
  4. The younger should give precedence to the elder.
  5. Faith and trust should reign over relationships between friends.

In all familial relations, respect of parents and grandparents has supreme value. The elderly are considered superiors; as such, near total obedience is given to them by the rest of the family. At least in theory, quarrelling, loud talking, smoking, and drinking alcohol are not permitted in their presence. In turn, the elders are supposed to treat the younger generation with affection. They are allowed to be strict, but not cruel. While the husband/father is supreme within the family, he, in turn, is subservient to his employer, or national leader. All people have the responsibility of honouring and obeying their ruler. However, this responsibility is supposed to work two ways. The ruler also has responsibilities to his people. He is supposed to protect them, ensure their welfare, and above all, set good examples for them through his own actions.

Confucius thought that if a ruler was honest, his people would follow him in honest behaviour. But if the ruler was corrupt, how could he expect anything different from his subjects? The ruler also had a responsibility to follow the laws of heaven. If the ruler failed in his obligations, natural and economic chaos might follow, and the people would have to overthrow the ruler. Confucius taught that if everyone upheld these five basic responsibilities and relationships, social and political order would prevail. To further ensure harmony and unity, Confucianism stresses that several concepts are valued above all else in social situations. They are benevolence, righteousness, propriety (or decorum), wisdom and sincerity. Confucius taught that age brought wisdom. The older a person was, the more honoured was his or her place in ancestor worship. Confucius preached that people should always look to the past and the ways of their ancestors as the example for solving contemporary problems. People should learn the accumulated experience of their previous generations. Confucius taught, "By reviewing the old, we can learn the new."

For centuries in Korea, Confucianism has meant a system of education, ceremony and civil administration as first expressed by Confucius in his writings. Confucian concepts of social harmony and moral precepts permeated the intellectual life of the old East Asia and played a pivotal role in moulding the Korean culture as we know it today. In Korea, Confucianism was accepted so eagerly and in so strict a form that the Chinese themselves regarded the Korean adherents as more virtuous. They called Korea "the country of Eastern decorum," referring to the punctiliousness with which the Koreans observed all aspects of the doctrinal ritual.

Confucian teachings have, over time, become less rigidly followed as a basis for government and administration. After so many centuries of indoctrination in these tenets, however, Koreans can hardly be said to have discarded the customs, habits and thought patterns derived from the system. In particular, kinship organization, ideology, ritual and associated behaviour have represented crucial, perhaps dominant, themes in Korean culture. Fundamental ideas about morality and the proper ordering of human relationships are closely associated with the Confucian concept of filial duty. The pervasive, highly elaborated system of lineages and branch lineages provided the basic structural principle on which most groups in traditional society were organized. Kinship loyalties and obligations have generally taken precedence over other claims and commitments, both ideally and in terms of actual behaviour. As part of the modernization process, profound changes have been taking place in the kinship system, particularly in the rapidly growing urban areas. There has been considerable erosion of the dominance of family concerns. Nevertheless, ideals of family cohesion and solidarity retain influence, and the individual's emotional dependence on close kin is still very great.

It is easy to see the influence of Confucianism on Koreans today. Older people are still very much respected; even slight differences in age are acknowledged. Among a group of friends or co-workers, the oldest person is expected to pay in a restaurant or pub while the youngest is expected to pour beer, serve the food, and generally make sure that everyone has what they want. Still today, most young Koreans can imagine no greater trespass than openly defying their fathers.

Despite the sorry record of corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels of the South Korean government over the past several decades, most Koreans will rally behind authority when they're told to. Happily, this is generally for benevolent reasons. An example that comes to mind is support for the 2010 Winter Olympic Bid. Pyeongchang, South Korea was running against Vancouver to host the games. Public opinion polls in Vancouver showed tepid support for the bid among locals (around 55% in favour), whereas 95% of South Koreans were "very supportive" or "supportive" of their country's candidacy. To the bitter disappointment of 40 million South Koreans and the quasi-apathy of a couple of million Western Canadians, Vancouver prevailed.

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