Confucianism and Potential Problems With Modernity

Confucianism, the way of life taught by Confucius, may have a long history, but is one that still appears to have a place in modern society. Max Weber argued that capitalism was not compatible with capitalism due to incompatible values, but the success of many eastern nations has been attributed to the application of Confucian values to business development and interactions. In South Korea this has been referred to as Confusion democracy, but there is not universal agreement of the value and compatibly of Confucianism.

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In the views of Shin Ch’aeho, Yun Ch’iho, and Yi Kwangsu there are many flaws with the new national visions of Confucianism. Shin Ch’aeho argued that the values Confucianism created a meek society in Korea, with slavishness becoming more dominant than the indigenous culture, which he argued lead to the loss of independence. Shin was a during the years of Japanese rule (Duncan, 2006). His death in a Japanese prison elevated him to a Koran nationalist icon Duncan, 2006). In this context it may be assumed that the anti-Confucianism thought was aligned with the anti-Japanese thought, but this is concept is undermined when looking at Yun Ch’iho who after initial resistance, became a collaborator, rejected Confucianism, arguing that it may not be known what Korea would have been without Confucianism, but the state of Korea, with a high level of poverty and oppression, was the result of the country with Confucianism, in an approach that was highly aligned with Shin’s thoughts. Yi Kwangsu was also a collaborator, who was very specific in his criticisms, associated cultural traits of Koreans, such as high levels of formalism and a the neglecting of commercial interests all as a result of Confucian values and teachings Duncan, 2006).

Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, anti-Confucianism appeared to continue, with the Confucian concepts frequently utilised as an explanation for the lack of economic development in the country, with Park Chung Hee arguing it had created undemocratic political processes, and prevented the emergence of entrepreneurism Duncan, 2006). Overall, Confucianism has been presented as a barrier to modernisation, preventing the realisation of democracy and preventing economic growth.

However, while there has been a high level of opposition, has also been some support both in individuals who are supportive of Japanese rule, and those who opposed it. Pak Unshik argued that Confucianism should be revitalised in line with the of thought, where there was an emphasis on the ability to gain unity between intuitive knowledge and direct action, which would facilitate the ability of a nation to cope with rapid change Duncan, 2006). Others also argued that Confucianism was relevant to modernity started to gain more attention after liberation from Japanese rule, by the 1990’s Confucianism was seen as a way of helping to overcome social problems such as violence, with the teaching of traditional values Duncan, 2006).

Many of the issues may also reflect the concepts of civil society. In the west the idea is strongly reliant on differentiation of the public and the private spheres and the relationship between the state and the market economy, with the probate sphere being seen as the driving force behind the development of the market economy which has also been associated with the rise of the modern western society Duncan, 2006). In the context of Korea there have also been concepts of public and private, but the concepts have had less impact and it has been argued during the Chosen dynasty, Confucianism was utilised as a tool to control the populace, rationalising oppression and facilitating control, and therefore the state retaining control Duncan, 2006). The lack of economic development and lack of stimulating private sphere, and it has only been in recent years where there has been increased emphasis on what the West would refer to as the “private” sphere that economic development has been observed. However, the concepts of public and private in Korea are contradictory to those in the West, where political parties and state interests from non-kinship ties with perceived as private, and therefore threaten the state, whereas kinship ties and lineage is public. However, the economic development which has taken place should also be noted as it has not been in contradiction to Confucianism, but with the application of many values, interpreted for modernity and a different environment, such as concepts of fairness Duncan, 2006). Therefore, concepts of civil society may be argued as subjective, interpreted with reference to societal constructs that have been created and maintained, with subjective views and visions. Within the concept of modernity, today there is a reinterpretation of Confucianism, not in terms of values, but the way in which values may be applied ion the modern context, inducing the adoption of capitalism.


Duncan, J, (2006), “The Problematic Modernity of Confucianism,” in Armstrong, C, (ed), Korean Society. Democracy, and the State, Routledge,