A couple of days ago I received an email from a blogger at Korea Dispatch, calling my attention to a post, "Korean families in crisis." It is a sad, and all too common, saga, made the worse by the fact that one of the people profiled is disabled, and after overcoming all sorts of difficult circumstances she is faced with the necessity of divorcing an abusive husband.
The post ends with this:
According to Confucius, the family was seen as both the model and the foundation of the nation, it’s structure thought to mirror the relationship between the ruler and his people. In Korea family has always been esteemed, a core value that has defined tradition for millennia. Today, while lip-service is still paid to family values, the reality appears quite different.
The question, then, is: why have Confucian family values declined in Korea?
The first thing to note is that this is not a specifically Korean problem. I suspect the underlying culprit is modernization. By that I mean the broad, trans-historical forces of industrialization (and now post-industrialization), urbanization, social mobility (the capacity and freedom to move from one livelihood and lifestyle to another) and associated social and cultural ramifications (which are complex and problematic but which include a certain cultural individualization and transformations in gender roles and expectations). These kinds of processes started to have noticeable effect on US society over the decades of the twentieth century and we now live with their products: high rates of divorce, attenuation of tradition, high-stress/high-consumption society, infantilized culture, etc. There is good to come of all of this as well - creativity, innovation, freedom - but the costs are clear.
Korea, then, is experiencing something similar, although the processes began in earnest after WWII. Yes, the Japanese colonial period matters in significant ways, but the high-speed industrial development of the 1960s and afterward, in my opinion, is of greater social-cultural importance. This is not to say that Korea is becoming like the US (which I suspect many Koreans might fear). Rather, it is to suggest that all societies (well, almost all; North Korea is largely spared all this - but at even more horrendous cost) are moving along a somewhat similar trajectory of modernization (yes there are variations in the expressions of modernity but the similarities here tend to catch my eye.)
If this is true, then it is quite understandable why Confucian values would erode. It's hard to maintain the integrity of family or community when economic and social and cultural forces of global scale are encouraging individualization and undermining collectives of all sorts.
And, perhaps, it is precisely these global forces that make it ever more necessary to keep the Confucian conversation alive. I do not consider myself a Confucian, not by a long shot, but I learn a great deal from, and have come to respect deeply, the Confucian perspective. It is a reminder that we can still strive for Humanity, even when the Way is not in the land.
UPDATE: Pete, at Korea Dispatch, wrote to correct me: the disabled women in the family does not have an abusive husband, her sister does. She (the disabled women) is being forced to divorce her husband, who is loving and loved, in order to save the family home - something to do with divorce and property laws. Also, Pete suggested a new blog, new to me at least, that looks at modernizing Korea: The Grand Narrative. Some good stuff there.