Su: Obedience and order breed progress

This summer, while I waited outside Gangnam Station in Seoul, I saw a fashionable young Korean couple walk past me on the main street.

Dressed in startlingly urban-American clothing, the pair called attention to itself, sticking out amidst the uniformity. As I watched, the man carelessly dropped the cigarette he was smoking and the couple walked on as if nothing happened.

In response, an elderly street-cleaner ran to the cigarette butt and picked it up. Litter in hand, she caught up with the couple, took out a little note pad and wrote a fine for the young man. Despite his indifferent appearance, the man bowed deeply and apologetically and paid the fine without uttering a single word.

Immediately after showing respect for authority, the couple that appeared so out-of-place was brought back the fold of acceptability. I questioned what about the setting made the interaction run so smoothly. In another country, especially in China or America, a fierce argument would have ensued: neither side would have likely acquiesced and no amicable agreements would have been made.

My explanation? The preeminence of traditional Confucian philosophy in the Korean public sphere.

Hierarchy-based Confucian tradition has bound Korea, and many other Asian societies, for thousands of years. It emphasizes the importance of an individual’s submission to the rules of the society in order for the entire community to achieve peace necessary for development and prosperity.

Any refusal to submit can greatly infringe on the welfare of the collective will by potentially fragmenting a cohesive socio-economic fabric.

Those who betray the norms are condemned.

Not only will their effort to change the rules go unappreciated, they will be seen as individualists, wasters of social resources and destructive members of a complete society.

Like Confucianism, many traditions around the world hold the belief that collective stability is worth more than the willingness of the few to attempt change. Many segments of these societies respect stable tradition and belittle those who seek radical change that benefits only a small portion of the whole.

This notion opposes the belief that argumentation with the established order catalyzes constructive changes in the institution. Many believe that institutions benefit from opposition, open and violent, to existing social norms.

Most rally-cries for change have little practical results in mind for the collective. The would-be expenditure is rarely justified.

In many places, especially in those capitalist developing countries like China, there is too much incentive for individuals to change existing rules at the expense of society as a whole. The capitalist individual often sees change as an opportunity for profit-making.

In reality, change destabilizes the establishment and, in countries like Korea, warrants condemnation by the collective.

In modern thought, ambition and individualism is respected and the status-quo rejected. But if Korea’s policy on cigarette-butt disposal can provide an example of the benefit of adherence to societal norms—immaculately clean streets in impossibly crowded urban regions—then perhaps it can be said that uniformity and collectivism makes for a more livable world.


  • Zhu

    I was glancing through this article and when I found out this article was about Confucianism I was very interested. Your argument seems to contrast the ideals of Confucianism with the overwhelming mindset of "capitalist developing countries like China" (and by implication, America). Am I right?

    However, you also say, citing that one incident in Korea, that "unformity and collectivism makes for a more livable world." Even you must admit that this statement is a very vague generalization, and the logic is a little hard to follow. Is the elderly street cleaner who picked up the cigarette butt really Confucian (to use a Chinese term), or just a good neighbor (to use an "Western" term)? Are Confucians the only ones who can genuinely respect how the day-to-day community looks? By that logic, are the people who volunteer to clean parks or plant trees around New Haven (trust me, there are people who do these sort of things) also Confucian? Perhaps generational differences also come into play. Maybe the older generation is more socially conservative and rule abiding, and the younger generation is more apt to rebel, and this naturally causes the older generations to confront the younger folk. To imply that Confucianism (and by your extension, "uniformity and collectivism") is the only way to fix our modern societies is a little too simple an approach.

    In this article, you imply that modern China can stand to be a little more Confucian. But what do you have in mind to do that? "Uniformity and Collectivism": these terms sound like they come straight from the Cultural Revolution-- what do these terms translate to in modern China IN CONCRETE TERMS? Should China invade every Chinatown around the world and put in a Communist Party official to run each Chinatown? Should China continue to silence scandals like the Sanlu milk powder incident for the sake of the image of China or the Communist Party? Should China abolish capitalism? Your article provides few answers to these timely questions.

    Also if you want to promote Confucianism in America, you will have to be more convincing that just suggesting that "most rally-cries for change have little practical results in mind for the collective"-- since the Americans can just say, "Well, look at our Civil Rights movement, or our Feminist movement, which undeniably had given more recognition of the rights of women and minorities." I can understand where you're coming from, though. There seems to be few equivalents (or at least successful equivalents) of a mass movement of the people like a Civil Rights Movement in modern China. But one should NEVER generalize from one specific case.

    I hope these suggestions are all helpful.

  • Anonymous

    hmmm…its quite a job by the editor at the YDN to cut out the details about the incident. The point about the incident is not the street-cleaner confronting the youngsters but the apologic submissiveness of the youngsters when caught with "crime". Young people argue about these things, and how the ones I saw did not was what perplexed me.

    Your second point about the benefit of collectivism and uniformity was again the act of the editors. However, I do have to disagree with you on the interpretation of Cultural Revolution. Rather than showing "collectivism and uniformity", by which I mean submission to the established order of society, the Cultural Revolution was one gigantic rebellion against the establishment. Youngsters torched traditions and abused authoritative figures, completely overturning the social hierarchy. Sure, Mao wanted his enemies (i.e. other Communist elders and so-called anti-Communist feudalism) but with regard to the youngsters who used the political excuse to vandalize every bit of society, Mao himself could not control it (which is one of the main reasons why the Revolution almost came to an abrupt end with his death)

    The thrust of my argument is the preservation of the status quo. The pre-edited version of the article has a much stronger focus on the expense at which society and individuals must pay to deviate from that status quo. Sanlu milking powder incident, whether it was accidental or otherwise, was indeed a tramendous deviation from the status quo with serious consequences to the society. Similarly, if you do go putting Communist officials in every Chinatown, it would also lead to change in status quo that can easily tear apart social fabric in those places, as the residents have diverse political views.

    So you see, the article was never about Communism or capitalism (in case you noticed, Confucianism still flourish in Korea and there is nothing communist about the political system there). I believe in coexistance of capitalism and Confucianism as much as I believe in coexistance of a socio-economically changing society and maintanence of tradition. It is fair to assume that our society is completely different from that in which Confucius lived. But the fact that Confucian ideals are still widely revered and somewhat practiced show that there are certain principles that transcends time, politics, and ideology. Those principles are I am trying to point people to.

    Hope my clarafications help.

  • Anonymous

    If Confucianism is so constructive and ever so stabilizing, why did it fail to negate the growth of Maoism in China and Stalinism in North Korea?

  • Anonymous


    You have to realize that Cultural Revolution was a rebellion against the order, not "collectivism and uniformity" that lead to stability.

    It is things like Cultural Revolution that the author argues against in this article. It is a dramatic attack on the social rules that had serious consequences.

    Similarly, Sanlu's poisonous milk and idea of putting Communist officials in Chinatowns are both attacks against the status quo and according to the author, should be discouraged.

    If China was more Confucian than it is today, things like Cultural Revolution and Snalu incident would not have happened.

  • Zhu

    Thanks for the clarification, Xiaochen.

    You're right. During the chaos of Cultural Revolution the ideals of Confucianism would have simply been completely cursed out of existence. Confucianism cannot thrive in social chaos, since it relies so heavily on shared societal and cultural norms. In fact, Confucianism can be argued to be the polar opposite of anarchy.

    In this way, Confucianism as an ideal is to be admired. The only requirement is that the Confucian society must exist in a relatively stable social environment. But it is hard to see Confucianism not getting lost within the changing socioeconomic (even political) bustle in today's globalizing China. I'm not saying it's not possible for China to ever become fully Confucian again… I'm just saying now is not the time to ask too much out of Confucianism. It doesn't help that the Chinese government may now see itself as the defender of Confucianism, perhaps as a pragmatic response to the many societal changes it may not be able to control.

    I would love to see a Confucianist renaissance in China, but in order to realistically start on this path to social stability, it must begin to resolve to satisfaction the many socioeconomic and political issues that it has. This requires creative thinking, and actions that match rhetoric. To start, corruption in business and in politics can continue to be legislated and enforced with harsh punishments where no one is "above the law", since the social consequences of corruption can be tragically huge (like the Sanlu Milk Powder Incident). Improvements in international relations (especially in the Asian region) should also be an important goal for China, as a nation surrounded with friendly neighbors is a more secure nation. As China becomes more integrated into the international community, it should not continue to assume its hardline approach on protecting its economic and political "integrity" from the rest of the world. This hardline approach only adds to the tensions and cultural misunderstandings, and undermines the way to real solutions. China could instead for the time being start brokering new deals with its neighbors, and maybe give the "China vs. the splittists/imperialists" version of history a rest.

    Of course, a lot of the burden at this point is on the Chinese government. Will it reform its political policies to match the pace of its economic miracle? There is much guarded optimism in that statement, and perhaps I am beginning to see some changes in the right direction. But I'm not putting my bets on anything yet. I guess only time will tell.

    As long as there is good intentions behind a Confucianist renaissance in China, with a strong emphasis on good social relations, then I'll be all for it. But one must remember that Confucianism cannot fully function as an ideal in a social vacuum. I personally do not want to use "uniformity and collectivism" to describe Confucianism, because I think Confucianism is more than that. Confucianism is based on a common understanding that everyone is working for good of society, and we can all go on and on with how we can pursue this ideal.

  • Anonymous

    There is a big problem with Confucianism which Richar above has pointed out quite straightforwardly: it is very passive and the will of a few can easily upset its preservation, especially when the state itself is weak or not fully willing to do the preservation….the problem is prevalent in many traditions across the world because there was no way for the tradition to counterattack besides use of strong force (as I stated in the article) and if the force fail, then the tradition falls with it.

    Thus, here emerges the issue of how to reestablish these traditions within the modern context where state of rebellion against the traditions are extremely widespread. To that, I have stated that any tradition is no different from any modern ideology in that both can reinvent and redefine themselves in the contexts of which they are used. For example, the Confucian values, in the modern context, gives people the motivation to prioritize the welfare of the collective, which can be said is the most basic necessity political problems (such as corruption and violating the law for private benefits) can ever have any chance of being solved.

    All domestic and international problems you stated belong to the "I win and others lose" or "everyone stays the same" category. The traditions, long-forgotten or looked down upon, are the key to reestablish a moral code in which individuals and societies ought to behave in manner that lead to mutual benefits. Yes, "uniformity and collectivism" may not be the right word, but does convey a message that with help of tradition, people can heavily punish those who seeks personal fortunes at the expenses of other people/countries/societies.

  • SteveinMaine

    The headline writer is painfully ill-informed to state that this snowstorm was in any way a “surprise”. It was predicted DAYS in advance by the National Weather Service and other forecasting organizations. Will any correction be forthcoming?