The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

by John Bocskay

Whenever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1seniors. Since Outliers, Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16th, taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as the ship listed steeply and water flooded in.” Based on this observation he asks whether the high death toll “was a symptom of a hierarchical culture in which young people are taught to obey authority figures without question.”

Ralph de la Cruz of The Dallas Morning News was more blunt, calling it “death by obedience,” and opining that the tragedy was so terrible because in Asian cultures “compliance is de rigueur.”  He then provides the inevitable comparison of the young Korean victims to American teens, whom he contends “would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry,” presumably because they are taught to “think rather than simply obey.”

There’s some irony in de la Cruz’s analysis, as his home state of Texas has recently seen measles outbreaks for the first time in years, precisely because many Texans “think” that the vaccine is linked to autism, despite overwhelming evidence that it isn’t. If you’ve been keeping score in Texas, your card should read: Obedience – 1, Thinking – 0.

There are also a few assumptions at work here, not the least of which is that rational and effective emergency management is the inevitable result when hundreds of scared teenagers ignore orders in dangerous situations and start “thinking” –whatever that means. Another assumption is that it should have been obvious to the students that by staying put they were endangering themselves, and that when it did become clear they needed to get out, that they were physically able to do so. Jakob Dorof’s April 21st piece on makes a strong case that by the time it was apparent that the students needed to get out, it was already difficult or impossible for many to escape.


The stricken ship, listing hard to port.

As Dorof’s piece and subsequent survivor testimony should be making clear by now, to believe that the passengers’ hierarchical culture overrode their more basic animal instinct for self-preservation requires one to accept a series of increasingly dubious suppositions: that from the initial minutes of the predicament it should have been immediately obvious to a large group of 18-year-olds, nearly all of whom have never been on a large ferry before, to not only determine that a listing ship was absolutely going to sink, but to be so certain of it that he or she would feel emboldened to ignore a series of direct orders from the captain, and then, assuming the angle of the ship still made movement possible (which, by most accounts, it did not), to climb to a higher deck and jump down several meters into a frigid and turbulent sea, at least some of them without a lifejacket and before any rescue ships had arrived.

Viewed from this perspective, their compliance with the captain’s order to stay where they were in the early minutes of the unfolding calamity doesn’t seem to require a patently irrational preference for social hierarchy but simply a combination of confusion, immobility, and common sense.


A free-thinking Black Friday shopper struggles to pursue her own rational self-interest.

Salmon also states that the students who survived were those who ignored the orders and “took personal initiative”, much like de la Cruz’s idealized American teens would have done, but this assertion now appears to contradict much of the evidence that has emerged from survivors who were plucked from inside the ship by rescuers who shattered windows to reach them. At any rate, the implication is clear: Koreans would be better served in an emergency by having hundreds of free-thinking adolescents ignore the orders of authority figures and independently make prompt assessments of chaotic situations, and then to pursue the course of action that each person had decided was best for him- or herself.

Why doesn’t that strike me as a recipe for effective disaster management?

Because it’s ludicrous. It’s at moments like these, when a disaster occurs and the tendency to panic is greatest, that obedience is most essential, which brings me to one of my biggest beefs with Confucian Theories of Korean Disasters: to these critics, Confucianism is nothing more than a mindless system of deference to one’s superiors, who may or may not be worthy of the public trust. Confucianism demands obedience, they point out, so those at the bottom “blindly” follow those at the top, sometimes with disastrous consequences.


The most misunderstood 6th century Chinese philosopher of all time.

What these critics never bother to understand or to point out is that Confucianism is not a one-way street that merely demands unconditional deference to one’s seniors; it is a system of reciprocal duties that just as clearly describes the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, ruler to subject, and by extension, of captain to crew and passengers. In a well-oiled Confucian system then, obedience is never blind; it is always underwritten by a social contract that obliges leaders to be virtuous and to carry out their duty with the best interests of their subordinates in view at all times.

At its core, Confucianism is relentlessly meritocratic, and seeks to ensure that leaders are chosen for their superior virtues, not their seniority, their money, or connections. In other words, those at the top of the Confucian social pile don’t enjoy their positions for nothing – they must be deserving of the public trust, and the same responsibility flows right down the pecking order. Just as the emperor occupies his station by possessing virtue, so is he obliged to promote people below him according to their fitness to lead.

Does that sound like an accurate description of Captain Lee and his crew? To be fair, there is a lot we still don’t know at this stage of the investigations, and stories of the heroic actions of some crew members are also beginning to come out. At the very least, we may note that the captain and crew members who fled the ship, by saving their own lives first while hundreds of their charges waited aboard the doomed vessel, did not discharge their duties in accordance with these fundamental Confucian precepts. Where was the concern for the lives of the passengers? Where was their virtue? And was Lee’s decision to put an inexperienced 3rd mate at the helm in unfamiliar waters in any way characteristic of the Confucian injunction to promote subordinates according to their merit?


Captain Lee Joon-seok

If Confucian deference turns out, in retrospect, to have been misplaced, who will deserve blame, those who held up their end of the social contract, or those who didn’t? Why do none of the peanut-gallery Confucianism experts ever say, “Ah! The ferry captain clearly failed in his Confucian duty! If only he had been more Confucian this disaster might have been avoided.”

If there’s any one question pertaining to the connection between Korean culture and tragedy that is worth asking, it’s this: Why is there a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals?

Early indications are that this is precisely how many older Koreans are viewing the tragedy – as a failure of officialdom and its shocking lack of protocol or concern – a key point that a recent L.A. Times article managed to miss:

          The botched rescue also has cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation.

          “I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children,” said Kim Seun-tae, a 50-year-old minister whose son attends Danwon High School,…

          The minister said he was struck by video from survivors’ cellphones that showed the mostly 16- and 17-year-old students sitting dutifully in their seats. “They were good, well-behaved kids. They followed instructions,” Kim said. “Everybody is in a state of shock and depression. We can’t look each other in the eye or speak.” [emphasis mine]

You may wonder, as I did, what exactly Kim believed his failure to be when he said, “we failed our children,” or why the parents “can’t look each other in the eye,” but the Times reporter doesn’t ask Kim to elaborate and appears content to reach for the default narrative and suggest that the parents were blaming themselves for teaching their children to “respect the older generation.”

But is that really what Korea’s elders are now beating themselves up about? That’s not the impression one gets from this Joongang Ilbo story, which deals more explicitly with the reasons parents and concerned citizens “blamed themselves for letting down their own young.”:

 “Students are in the cold sea because of irresponsible and unethical adults,” read a message on a web page dedicated to the tragic accident. “I feel ashamed for being an adult in this country and also for not being able to do anything for them.”

Another message read, “Children just listened to what the adults were saying but could not escape. I feel terrible that I’m one of the older generation that made this ugly world.

Total strangers are accepting joint, generational responsibility for a world so poorly and cynically run that the Sewol ferry did not seem to have had a proper safety examination and the  passengers were not given any safety lessons in advance of the tragedy.

 “Adults escaped first, leaving the children in the sinking ship,” said a 46-year-old office worker. “I assume greedy adults who didn’t bother to fulfill their duties caused the accident. When other big accidents occurred in the past, I was surprised but didn’t feel guilty about it. However, I feel terribly sorry for the students this time because I’m old enough to have contributed to this terrible world.” [emphasis mine]



A relative of a Sewol victim smacks a government official.

The people quoted in the article all strike a common chord: the problem, as they see it, is that they failed by teaching their kids to have faith in authority without fulfilling their end of the deal and ensuring that the authority figures were deserving of their children’s trust. “A big part of Confucianism – respecting older generations – has gotten shook up,” says professor Cha Seong-hyeon of Chonnam National University in the Joongang Ilbo piece, and he identifies the challenge ahead to be to “try to regain the intergenerational trust.”

As hard as it will be to regain that lost trust, something tells me that it will be even harder to persuade Western critics that sometimes a little more Confucius may be just what Korea needs.


  1. This is so carefully analyzed and well-argued. Of course, I don’t think any of the Western “thinkers” making the counter-arguments are actually giving any kind of serious thought to Confucianism, or Korean culture, or, you know, anything at all. My sense is that it’s just knee-jerk fear of people behaving differently than we do. We’re so damn proud of our Rugged Individualism.
    Thank you very much for this, Bosmosis!

    1. Thanks “Poly”. I agree, a lot of it is probably just intellectual laziness, but there’s also something a little darker at work that always seeks to paint Asian people as a mindless undifferentiated mass. Whatever it is, it needs to be called out.

      1. It does, that is true. One might be able to argue that this way of blaming Korean “culture” is really just a subtle way of being super racist, mightn’t one?

        I don’t think that Malcolm Gladwell is really being intellectually lazy, but I do feel like he is prone to moments of dishonesty when he needs something to fit his broader narrative. It’s hard to make snappy theories about human behavior when you actually go to the trouble of careful, nuanced analysis of that behavior.

        1. Well said. I agree that Gladwell isn’t lazy – I actually like him and think he’s one of the more thoughtful critics and does hit the mark sometimes. But what you said is true that he does gloss over things that don’t quite fit. I give him credit for taking big risks and trying to connect some very far flung dots, but this is one area where I was much less impressed with his work.

          My beef is not that Gladwell tries to implicate culture when things go wrong – I think there’s a place for that. The thing is that I don’t like – and I dont blame Gladwell for this – is that he has created a pre-fabricated cultural analysis framework that far lesser thinkers and writers trot out every time anything goes wrong in Korea, with much shoddier results. And I’m SO TIRED of it. 🙂

      2. “mindless undifferentiated mass” … yep, so in case of possible future war we can go over there (here- I live in Korea) and kill them.

    2. No. The tendency doesnt go back to some academic stiff who you quoted in your intro. So stop trying to be clever.

    3. Nothing Americans should say about their culture should be taken to seriously. As Canadians who know a lot about their culture we call it the land of hypocrisy. Strange how they babble on about free thinking, especially a Texan, when most of what comes out of their mouths is the result of propaganda. My grandfather was American, my son is American and I have gone to American schools so I can say I have some basis for this assertion. Their history books are full of distortions and inaccuracies which most Americans take in without question. I’m just learning about Confucianism (my wife is Korean) and apparently I know more then that American. I think this quote describes it quite well.

      From the very beginning, Joseon Dynasty made clear that Confucianism justified its birth. Shortly after the first king of Joseon ascended to the throne, he declared:

      하늘이 백성을 낳고 임금을 세운 것은 임금으로 하여금 백성을 길러 서로 살게 하고 백성을 다스려 서로 편안하게 하도록 하기 위함이다. 그러므로 군도에는 득실이 있고 인심에는 복종과 배반함이 있으니, 천명이 떠나가고 머물러 있음은 여기에 달려있다.

      That the heaven gave birth to the people and established a king is for the king to raise the people such that they live together, and to govern the people such that they comfort each other. Therefore, the king’s way has gains and losses and the people’s heart has obedience and betrayal; the departure and presence of the heaven’s mandate depends on this.
      This statement is very important toward understanding how Confucianism works as a governing philosophy, as it explicitly connects the people’s heart to the heaven’s mandate. If the people’s hearts do not obey, it means that the heaven’s mandate has left the king. Because such king no longer deserves to be a king, a revolution is necessary to establish a new king.

  2. Brilliant. A point that most have missed and that you squarely hit on the head. If ever there was a solid Confucian cherry-picking critique, this is it. And, as your elder, I fully support your conclusion and expect you to accept it. 😀

  3. Thank you for reading my post and leaving a friendly comment. My post is very personal and hardly in depth, but we were both sharing our sincere thoughts.

    I agree with you regarding what true Confucianism is like. I only studied it for a brief period, but I do know that Confucious himself wouldn’t condone blind obedience. He once reprimanded a disciple for standing still instead of running away while the disciple’s father beat him up. Confucious said that that’s not true filial piety, as it would reflect badly on the father, and might cause the father to lose a son and become a murderer.

  4. Thank you for writing this piece. I was considering writing something very similar. People who blame Confucianism typically don’t know much about it, other than some vagaries of “hierarchy” and “sexism.”

  5. The most in depth piece about the whole Confucian link to the Sewol tragedy. Glad you were able to put it in words. Hopefully the mainstream western media will catch on that linking everything Korea to Confucianism is offensive, obtuse, and short sighted. I was thinking of writing something similar on my blog as well. Maybe I’ll just point my readers to your blog =)

    1. Much appreciated, daechoongma! I’m hoping that future attempts by Western media to explain major events in terms of culture are more informed and nuanced, but not betting on it! However, I have to say that in my reading and research I did find quite a few writers who were condemning, in one way or the other, the urge to resort to this particular default narrative (blind obedience). Thanks for reading!

  6. Fantastic piece Bosmosis! Top notch writing. You really said something unique on the subject and clearly were able to put a voice to how many people were feeling. Below are a few reactions that came to my mind, when thinking about all this talk of culture and the Sewol tragedy.

    I think people tend to naturalize their own particular mechanisms for establishing social power and are therefore prone to mythologize or misconstrue alternative means for carrying out the same basic functions–creating authority and legitimating it. Be it neoconfucianism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, communism, capitalism etc,; they often serve as rationalizations/justifications for the existing power structure. Despite the various ways these organizing philosophies direct human behavior, behind the smoke and mirrors usually lies the common human traits of greed, lust for power and authority, submission, etc. To my mind, this tragedy is one built on these all too universal human traits. The recent anniversary of the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh (greed, disregard for human life, economic power) or the financial crisis of 2008 (greed, avarice, institutional capture) come to mind as similar cases that occurred in ostensibly different cultural contexts. Humans suck, but we tend to suck in very similar and predictable ways, despite our cultural differences.

    1. Well said, Bass! In a perfect world, you and I would have had time to discuss this piece in the draft stages; it would have been much better for it. I think you need to write the companion piece, my friend. That’s a bang-on analysis.

  7. This is a good read, and a welcome contribution to the otherwise annoying black and white assumptions and veiled air of cultural superiority that is being presented here in Merka. That said, there’s much more nuance I think than is even being presented here.

    Yes, there is something in this tragedy that has very much to do with Confucianism as it is today, not in a quantitative sense, but as an ongoing clash of tradition and modernity. What I see happening in this horrific event is one massive rupture within what are the darker aspects of what happens in this ongoing clash, a clash that is always already occurring in any event in the ROK. While the rest of the world has been modern for a couple of centuries, the ROK has been for some 50 years. Technology, transportation, communications, etc came at lightning speed, and with it, pervasive media, and with that, a still evolving personal and societal adjustment to overwhelming cultural scrutiny within the framework of so-called western ideals. And I’m not saying just this event, but again, it’s all the time, integrated in Korean daily life.

    So here’s the thing: Confucianism is not about following elders, or elders caring about *anyone*. It’s about an exchange of nurturing and teaching for those with whom they have *a relationship*. So then the question, as it pertains to its clash with modernity: Is this situation, a commercial ferry boat, more like a classroom setting, in which the teacher cares for the students’ well-being? Or is this an economic exchange between buyer and seller, in that form of western transparency and loss of a person-to-person exchange of services? This uncertainty may be a reason why the crew, thinking in an instant, represents one aspect of this clash and the parents, in reflection, have a different reaction. It is two manifestations of what now comprises that clash that is today’s culture.

    Thanks for writing this piece, whoever you are. It’s vastly superior to any TV coverage I’ve seen over here in the states. My heart goes out to everyone in Korea who is suffering through this. I hope this is a catalyst of some kind, not necessarily for change, but for some individual and societal self-reflection.

    1. I hope this event is a catalyst for sweeping change too, and the initial sense is that there are going to be changes, possibly big. I think you ask excellent questions here, and i share your sense of the ways that the struggle to adapt traditional codes tests the limits of what Confucian ideals, as formerly constructed, can handle, though my own understanding of its subtlety is admittedly quite poor. The diffusion of responsibility and accountability in modern states is a stumbling block, but I’m optimistic that there is still room for some meaningful version of these ideas to continue to have force. Thanks for reading and for the thought-provoking comment!

  8. Thank you for visiting my blog and linking me here. I have read many arguments where all the blame is put down to Korea’s culture.. Thankful to see your well argued post which will hopefully give those who are thoughtlessly blaming Korean culture some more insight into Confucianism.

  9. Malcolm Gladwell wasn’t the only one to conclude that senior deference played a role in the Korean Air accident (and many other accidents and near accidents) – Korean Air officials came to the same conclusion and spent a lot of time and money retraining Korean Air pilots, copilots and other staff, firing those who could not make the change. The idealistic Confucianism described in many parts of this report is not the Neo-Confucianism that exists in Korea, by the way. Some of the ideals are shared, but the implementation, as many Korean scholars and citizens have been observing in recent weeks, is lacking. Not just westerners are considering the role cultural beliefs and behaviors played in the tragedy, and from the reactions of many Koreans, it appears aspects of Korean culture are being called out and that we may be witnessing a key moment in the natural change of Korean norms. Culture is not static, and cultural critique, whether from outside the culture or within it, is part of the process of cultural change. Blaming all the sadness on culture is, of course, short sighted, but so is pretending that culture did not play a part in it. Neither is analyzing the role culture plays “bashing” that culture or implying that a different culture is “better.” All culture is a series of social compromises – a necessary and necessarily imperfect set of instructions to help people in a society function with each other. As such, all cultures have areas of beauty, areas of reason, areas of weakness, and all cultures are constantly changing. Major events like these are often signals of watershed change.

    1. I agree with everything you say here. I don’t think culture analysis per se is unwarranted when trying to understand events of this kind; it certainly is warranted, and I didnt mean to suggest it was all the fault of Malcolm Gladwell either. It’s something of a meme among Western expats in Korea to ascribe every aspect of modern Korea -from the way they manage companies to the way they navigate shopping carts in Costco – to an overapplication of Confucian ideals, and I’ve been privy to those musings long before I ever heard of Gladwell’s theory. I’m just reacting here to one particular narrative that is both fairly common and way off the mark: that Koreans are somehow prone to a kind of mindless and unwarranted deference, and are thus helpless in cases like these unless they start “thinking”, and that the failing in these cases belongs to the side of the social contract that got it right.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Good job on sounding smart and thinking through everything to make a point. Too bad the reality of the situation is completely different.

  11. This article was on-point. Thanks for leaving a comment on my post and pointing me towards your enlightening article!

  12. A great article. Interesting how you bring to light this aspect of Confucianism in regards to the Sewol Ferry incident. I tend to focus on the institutions that cause such accidents (being a political science major) so this was very enlightening overall

    1. Thank you, Sejoon. The institutional angle is one that I would be interested to hear more about. I’m sure there is going to be a lot there that will change when all of this is settled. Thanks for commenting and reading!

  13. I’m gonna call bullshit on several points. First of all, culture dictates how people act. Korean culture embraces two things for certain, deny the obvious if it doesn’t fit comfortably, and second panic when the realization comes about that what’s denied is actually happening. Then there is the fact that safety has never been something Koreans train for. Fire escapes are rare. Life guards are the stupidest ones on the beach, or at the swimming pool. Doctors still believe that a breeze causes a cold, and that babies should be swaddled in 100 degree heat. So yeah, culture has a lot to do with it. As it does everywhere. Gun and America. Nothing to do with culture?

      1. No worries. I just wanted to say, I was quite impressed with your take on the issue. I think some people are just too quick to tear into others and either can’t recognize a well written opinion piece, or just won’t admit it.

  14. Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written piece, though I think the post title and some of the terminology used in the article could save further confusion by clarifying: “How More REAL Confucianism Might Have Saved…” As it is, unless one pays attention and reads this piece carefully, one is likely to misunderstand what the author here is really saying.

    As it is, I think it’s mostly an issue of context and terminology because when most people do criticize Confucianism, it is precisely that lack of a more reciprocal system they are criticizing—meaning that the people below are expected to comply and submit but the people above don’t return that with an equal amount of responsibility and accountability. This is what people are really criticizing, badly practiced Confucianism, not authentic Confucianism per se. But since they don’t know what real Confucianism is, they’ll just call it that.

    Moreover, I too would offer the opinion that although true Confucianism is actually a beautiful, systematic philosophy in its way, as in most human societies that philosophical ideal is not fully realized. Therefore, Westerners’ criticism is valid to the degree that even though they don’t know any better than to call it “Confucianism,” they’re actually criticizing a badly practiced form of it without knowing what else to call it. (It’s just like when people confuse true Christian philosophy, for example, with what often passes as “Christianity” practiced by many denominations and sects these days).

    1. Re: “As it is, I think it’s mostly an issue of context and terminology because when most people do criticize Confucianism, it is precisely that lack of a more reciprocal system they are criticizing”

      Not sure I can agree with this. If that were true, you would see more Western writers pointing out what I just pointed out: that the captain was clearly not acting in a way that you would expect if were a true Confucian. However, nobody points that out, and blames the “obedience” for the problems – which is just one side of the equation. If anyone is criticizing the lack of a reciprocal system, it is Korean observers, not Westerners.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. This is what people are really criticizing, badly practiced Confucianism, not authentic Confucianism per se. But since they don’t know what real Confucianism is, they’ll just call it that.

      It is not even a badly practiced Confucianism. The reciprocal system is at the heart of Confucianism; any system without reciprocity is not Confucian at all, much like any religion without Jesus is not Christianity at all. Failure to recognize this indicates that people simply have no idea what Confucianism is. And if they don’t know what it is, they really should just keep quiet about it.

      1. Ha! You argued your self into a logical hole, TK – If they have no idea what it’s about, how would they know to keep quiet, especially people who think they know all about ‘blind obedience’ and deference?

        1. I think at a certain age we (ideally) develop a sense of what we don’t know. Are you seriously suggesting that someone who has never learned about Confucianism must necessarily be unaware that there’s a lot he or she doesn’t know about it? I’m not saying there aren’t people like that: I believe they’re what Socrates called “fools”. But there are many others who are aware of the limits of their knowledge and qualify their statements accordingly.

  15. I agree completely with all the values of Confucianism all good. Most, if not all, can be found even in the bible. Where Confucianism fails, however, is in the area of assuming that man is inherently good, and because of this goodness, men in positions of power will react not selfishly but in the best interests of others. Confucianism would work perfectly in a perfect world. Unfortunately for all of us we are not there yet. How many of you live your lives like you actually BELIVE that man is good. In this world at this time it is dangerous and even foolish to live as if we belive this. We know all to well the truth.

    1. My (admittedly limited) understanding of Confucianism is not that man is inherently good, but that we are amenable to improvement, hence the emphasis on education. If thats true, I dont think you need a perfect world for it to function, but merely a world in which the society shares that commitment to ongoing self-examination and correction.

    2. Where Confucianism fails, however, is in the area of assuming that man is inherently good, and because of this goodness, men in positions of power will react not selfishly but in the best interests of others.

      That is simply not true. Read the Analects.

  16. Great article, B. Yes, I totally agree most western commentators have a faulty, shallow understanding of Confucianism, and the “blind obedience killed those kids” argument simply doesn’t match the facts of the situation. Still–I question the logical tautology that “if Confucianism doesn’t work, it’s because its practitioners aren’t REALLY practicing TRUE Confucianism.” I know the point of your article isn’t to defend Confucianism. But as 3rd Bass and MicahM pointed out, many religions/philosophies throughout history, whatever their intentions, end up mandating hierarchy, cementing power, and justifying abuse. At what point does one stop arguing that the gross corruption of the medieval Catholic church or the horrors of 20th century Communism came about because people just weren’t following the teachings of Christ / Marx closely enough? What checks does Confucianism place upon an un-virtuous leader except some vague concept of shame? The rebellious son, the uppity wife, the disrespectiful peasant, on the other hand, usually get “shamed” by a literal boot to the head. At least Western democracy takes the corrupting force of power as a given and works to control it via concrete political and social mechanisms.

    1. Re: “What checks does Confucianism place upon an un-virtuous leader except some vague concept of shame? ”

      That’s a great question and I don’t really know the answer. As you correctly note, my intention was not to argue for the superior virtue of Confucian-based systems in cases like these, only to get people to both check their assumptions and to revise one particular misunderstanding. To take a stab at it though, I do know that Confucianism empowers the subordinate to “remonstrate with” their superiors when they are deemed to be derelict in their duty. However that plays out in actual practice, that injunction seems to admit at least some sort of official censure or removal from office.

    2. What checks does Confucianism place upon an un-virtuous leader except some vague concept of shame?

      Read 소학 (Book of Small Learning,) which outlines step-by-step guide of what one can do in a family setting. In case of a ruler-subject, read Mencius for guide on appropriate circumstances for open rebellion.

  17. Talking about how Confucianism should be executed socially once it has passed from the page through the wringer of human nature is like talking about how Communism should work while ignoring that same human nature effect. Eventually, Communism becomes some shade of Stalinism or Maoism or what-have-you.

    Philosophies and ideologies are all well any good to talk about, but the way they actually work in the real world of short-sighted, greedy humanity is the only thing of any real relevance.

    1. My intention wasn’t to talk about how Confucianism “should be” executed; my intention was to counter a particular cultural explanation that says in essence: 1) Confucianism is all about mindless deference, and 2) because of this deference, many people died. The suggestion that more Confucianism may have helped was put forth to challenge this popular assumption and misunderstanding, and to say that if you are going to blame Confucianism, you can’t merely point to one side of the equation (the obedience) as if that were the whole story; you have to at least acknowledge that if we are to employ Confucianism as a lens to understand this, you have to account for the Captain’s actions using the same metric, and many people weren’t doing that. It was never meant to be an argument for instituting a more pure version of Confucianism and naively hoping for the best.

      1. And my point is that “Real Confucianism” exists only on a page as a wistful thought. So whether people understand “real” confucianism or not is irrelevant really a the aspect of Klown kulture that they are referring to as being partly to blame for the fatalities on the Sewol is oft labeled “Confucianism”.

        Perhaps we should re-name it “Konfucianism”? The Klowns have cherry picked various aspects of neo-Confucianism in such a way as to let them shit all over everyone in a totally excusable way.

        We can wax poetic about “the way Confucianism is meant to be”… or “how people are misunderstanding the label of ‘Confucianism’ that they attach to these deaths”, but why? Konfucianism is no doubt largely to blame for those kids dying, and it is Konfucianism that people talking about the Sewol are probably referring to. They might not understand the pure philospohical intent of a man who died 2500 years ago, but who does? They aren’t referencing that as much as they are referencing the real-world, not-2500-years-old application of Konfucianism in modern Korea by Klowns.

  18. Fantastically-written, well-argued, thoughtful piece. Thank you for giving a different and much-needed perspective on this issue! I wish every Westerner (who’s opinionated on this issue) would take the time to read this.

  19. Fantastically-written, well-argued, thoughtful piece. Thank you for giving a different and much-needed perspective on this issue! I wish every Westerner (who’s opinionated on this issue) would take the time to read this.

  20. Confucianism and Neo Confucianism aren’t the same thing, are they? Didn’t King Sejong start Neo Confucianism, and (among other things), set conditions for women in Korea back light years? I thought I understood that Neo Confucianism has had the more recent influence on Korea and her culture, and it’s very different from Confucianism.

    1. I’m not an expert on either; but I thought it important to point out what they are NOT, ie. a one-way system of automatic, unthinking, (and often unwarranted) compliance. Thanks for commenting.

  21. Thank you for articulating this for Koreans as individuals and as a whole. It is a great tribute to the victims– they did not die because of a flawed culture. They died because of human err and human emotion. They were human beings. Not obedient, mindless objects who were paralyzed by their filial piety. Had this played out differently with passengers attacking each other to save themselves, the Western media would still be playing the Confuscianism card against the victims as well. The focus of this tragedy should not be on the Confuscious culture but rather on the humanity of the situation. It is humbling, complex and transcends culture.

    1. Re; “They were human beings. Not obedient, mindless objects who were paralyzed by their filial piety.”

      This is probably my biggest problem with these types of erroneous cultural explanations: they rob the victims of their humanity and their agency.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Stacey!

  22. Forget about Confucianism, what about Crazy Christian Cults?

    “Along with Yoo, many senior employees of Chonghaejin Marine including the captain of the doomed ferry are devout members of the Salvation Sect. Investigators suspect that the sect is a financial foundation for Yoo and his business entities.

    “Reports said that Yoo began his businesses to help members of his religious group to gain jobs and to increase his personal wealth. He reportedly made business funds from church members’ offerings and investments, and took out loans with his church’s real estates being held as collateral.”

    Source: Source:

  23. On Confucianism – I know not. Having taught 14 years in South Korea, I assume I understand little. Gladwell has a point on strict authority. People lose face if they do not follow their seniors directions and they are ‘cast out’ from the group if they continually disobey.
    The students probably moved in many different directions when panic set in – I don’t think they were looking to obey until they die – human nature is universal! However, the parents and the norms in Korean society don’t ‘think’ to educate a great deal about safety and safety procedure – hopefully this might be an outcome. The ferry may have been overloaded x 3 as well.
    Generally, Korea became very paradoxical for me. They copy the West and claim ownership (Samsung-Apple) but miss some important steps along the way. When you copy, you miss all the work that went into the project to that point – the foundations of the work itself – going for the quick fix. They train their own captains/pilots on ferries, built from their own docks, but the seamanship manual is memorized and/ the safety is elided (San Francisco airport and shipping lanes in recent years).
    Other things, like men in general – you would meet some kindest friendliest men in Korea (read normal) – but there was always this sense of one-up-manship with others. If a man had any status or oposition, he would let you know who was in charge – in some pathetic way in which he though he was being smart.The captain’s actions of ‘running away’ would be typical…- paradoxically, if he caused shame to his family as a result, he would suicide – one of the crew has already. It is ingrained in Korean men to behave in certain ways in certain situations – if you do not speak the language fluently, I do not think anyone is going to get under these happenings).
    I do not think the problem is with Confucian, as we cannot take a diachronic view – and the effects would be too far reaching to record accurately. Both sides of the argument are legitimate however, in lieu of the multiple accidents that have surrounded South Korean for the last 15 years. Continual gross negligence or an inherent social problem – your choice?

  24. Reblogged this on Sleeping Mountains and commented:
    Traditional cultural values – those aspects that Europeans and North Americans often see as most foreign – inform Asian countries’ social contracts even today. When problems arise, it is these differences that are so often blamed by media. Bosmosis makes a good point that foreign cultures should be evaluated on their own terms. His post points out that it was not blind obedience that brought about the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16th, but the responsibility of authority figures, another integral part of Confucianism, that was lacking.

  25. I revived my dormant blog to repost this. Thank you for such an insightful post. My concern is, however, that problems are always pinned on those aspects of a culture that are most foreign to the observer. The idea that “I don’t understand the problem, so those things that I don’t understand about the situation must be the source of the problem,” does not seem logical to me. Is it really Confucianism that caused this accident? I hardly think so. The comment by King Baeksu suggests that the problem was a Christian cult, but that only makes sense if the captain was indoctrinated to handle the situation just as he did. Can’t we talk about negligence, which is all over the Japanese news here in Tokyo, and draw lessons from that very familiar cause of problems?

    1. “Can’t we talk about negligence, which is all over the Japanese news here in Tokyo, and draw lessons from that very familiar cause of problems?

      Yes, I agree. The fish rots at the head, as the saying goes, and Chonghaejin Marine owner Yoo Byeong-eon has a very dodgy history of fraud, corruption and even murder allegations (see the Odaeyang mass suicide-murder incident of 1987, of which he was involved). Evidently he leveraged his cult to expand his business empire over the years, and history shows that cults have little interest for the cares and concerns of outsiders; in this respect, the focus on Confucianism here is really a big distraction as far as I’m concerned. I also find the title of this post repeating the same error of sweeping cultural essentialization: “The West’s Confucian Confusion.” Really? The entire West thinks this way? That’s quite a breathtaking claim.

      1. You can’t spell everything out in the title (maybe titles are essentially essentializing?), but I think I clearly qualified who I was talking about in the first sentence, where I refer to “many Western observers”. I should note that a lot of Western writers have been getting it right – I refer to one of them in the piece (Dorof). And the reason why “West” appears in the title at all is because the unqualified “excessive obedience” argument is largely not being made by Koreans, who seem more fixated on what they’ve done to let those kids down, faulty regulations, lack of oversight, corruption, what-have-you. I agree that the focus on Confucianism is a distraction, and I’m trying to correct that a little bit if I can. Thanks for the comment, my friend.

  26. Seeing Korea as a Confucian society is akin to viewing NK as a communist society. Juche is not the system that Marx wrote about. It’s true that there are some Koreans who expect the president to be a Confucian ruler, but is ‘reciprocal duty’ really what most Koreans are angry about? I feel the furor is simply about the people who failed miserably at their job, and that’s not a unique Confucian value.

    1. Good point thk. I would add that anyone who has worked as a teacher in South Korea (as I have for about 15 years) is well aware that Korean teenagers are not “mindlessly obedient” – quite the contrary. And as I pointed out in the article, the actions of the Captain and likely of the company heads were not Confucian in any way, shape or form, yet there remains this odd temptation to paint the country as hopelessly and thoroughly Confucian every time something goes wrong.

    2. I’m glad you brought up North Korea, because it provides another good example of Confucian Confusion: the masses of foreign commentators (and some Korean ones too) who describe North Korea as “Confucian” because it a) uses patriarchal dynastic succession (I guess Confucius was big in medieval Europe too) and b) promotes unthinking fealty to the leader, which I confess is something I’ve missed in my reading of Confucian classics. Sam Crane has written some good takedowns of these ideas.

  27. Like the article, but it really seems that you tend to agree with the western journalists- it’s just the way that terms are defined that you disagree with. In my opinion, the confusion aspect of the culture did not have anything to do with the disaster, but the Korean culture of work related training, or lack thereof, did have a significant impact.

    Every single one of the employees on the ship that survived has said that they had no idea what to do when the disaster struck and panicked. In part this is due to negligence on the companies behalf, as well as Korean business custom, that dictates bonding of employees and general subservience to the company is far more important than actual training. This is not exclusive to the shipping industry, it happens everywhere in Korea- people are vastly under-trained for their jobs.

    This has gotten better in a few areas, namely airlines and banking, but that is largely due to outside interference and the pressure that negative publicity has brought.

    Let’s just hope that this kind of disaster sparks a new kind of reverence for training. However, I am, unfortunately, not holding my breath.

    1. I think there is reason for optimism; to take one pertinent example, I understand that protocol and safety regulations at Korean Air improved greatly after having a horrible safety record for many years. An event of this magnitude is sure to result in changes up and down the line. It will take time though; I agree you should maintain your normal breathing rate while this process plays out. Thanks for the comment!

  28. I think that this tragedy could have turned out differently had it happened in an age where we did not have cell phones. I believe the students might have taken more initiative to save themselves had they not had a cell phone to distract and occupy them as the captain told them to stay put. This can apply for adults too, but more so for the students who assumed there were others who were responsible for them on the ship, like their teachers, etc.
    I know this is not a blanket statement as there were students who disobeyed and were hence rescued, but it’s an interesting idea. Are zombie-fied by our phones so much that even in a disaster we’re still glued to them?

    1. That’s one of the more novel theories I’ve heard. Not sure if it holds water, though I will say that I suspect the world would be a better place in general without cell phones. I managed to live 32 years or so without one, and I recall being OK. Thanks for the comment.

  29. The writer may have a point. It isnt Confucianism that is the problem (well it is kinda) but how Koreans have accepted it and interpreted it. There is a well-known saying: to be “more Catholic than the Pope”. Well this certainly is the case with Korea and Confucianism. At times, Korea seems more Confucian in a number of ways than the Confuciansim’s place of origin – China. Respect for authority, superiors, and seniors is especially strong in this country and though Confucianism suggests otherwise, this sense of respect and obedience has become so strong that often it is prioritized above all else, not to mention that it also carries an one-sided and unconditional aspect. In other words, that the basic mindset of Koreans strongly urges them to blindly obey the authority, the elderly, and those of superior status even though the core Confucianism may not be all about blind, unconditional, and one-sided obedience. Decades of colonization under the Japanese did not help alleviate this tendency. Nor did several decades of dictatorships help either. And certainly, the type of education Koreans receive from childhood that tells them to constantly obey and conform without question did not help much. Thus, as the writer points out, Confucianism in the purest form may be beneficial; however, Confucianism in a more Korean context is not so helpful nor effective in such cases of accidents . So should Confucianism be blamed once again? My answer. Yes and no. It depends.

  30. I don’t dispute that Koreans show a lot of deference to elders and that this is part of the Confucian legacy, but the idea that it trumps instinctive self-preservation is ludicrous, as I’ve tried to argue here – particularly if we are talking about teenagers. Anyone who has worked as a teacher in South Korea (as I have for some 15 years) can tell you that ‘blindly obedient’ is not the phrase that leaps to mind when asked to describe a room full of Korean adolescents.

    Thanks for the comment.

    1. I cant agree more on that one. It s just that I have very strong feelings against the typical Korean mindset influenced by Confucianism which really has gone too far to be considered as Confucianism. Contrary to what Confucianism is really saying, responsibilities, duties, respect does not apply to everyone but is often one-sided. Those of “lower” status must obey and respect those of “higher” status in all circumstances without question regardless of whether they actually deserve such unconditional obedience or respect and people call this a duty. From a very young age, people are exposed to this extreme hierarchy and taught to obey and conform. Besides the extreme inequality and inflexibility involved, Confucianism in Korea therefore significantly reduces an individual’s ability to think critically or to think for oneself. Indeed, Korea has been going through modernization and these tendencies have weakened. But such a mentality is still there, embedded in the Korean society.
      So because of my beliefs on Confucianism (in Korea), I was naturally inclined to raise objections when I first saw your writing. I understand that the recent accident and the aftermath of the event involve a great variety of problems and factors. We see a captain abandoning his ship without his passengers and a government with such loose regulations and inspections of matters so crucial to the safety of its own people (this is a different topic about how Korea is willing to do anything and sacrifice everything for economic benefits). And I do agree that the instict for self-preservation is powerful. It isn t so wise to blame everything on Confucius either. However, if we were to consider the role Confucianism played in the accident, I believe it to be more negative than positive. It was an emergency situation in which every minute and second can mean the difference between life and death. An exceptionally strong natural tendency to obey the reduced capacity to think for oneself, may be one of the factors why the students or any other victims on the boat for that matter missed their chances to save themselves from death.

      1. Contrary to what Confucianism is really saying, responsibilities, duties, respect does not apply to everyone but is often one-sided.

        Then it’s not Confucianism, is it?

        Which leads to…

        However, if we were to consider the role Confucianism played in the accident, I believe it to be more negative than positive.

        What role? There was NO Confucian role in the accident, because there was no Confucianism.

        Let me expand the point: the reciprocal obligations within the hierarchy is the heart of Confucianism. It is what “Jesus is son of God” is to Christianity. If there is a religion that does not claim that Jesus is a son of God, that religion cannot be Christian. Likewise, if there is philosophy or pattern of behavior that does not involve reciprocal obligation, such philosophy cannot be Confucianism, and such behavior cannot be referred to as Confucian.

      2. As I (and others like Dorof) have tried to argue, before you start blaming culture for the victims’ inaction, you have to take several other things into account: 1) it may not have been possible for many of the passengers to move, 2) following a captian’s orders in an emergency is not necessarily a cultural tendency but a human one, 3) it may not have been obvious to the teenage passengers that the ship was going to sink in the early minutes of the unfolding tragedy,etc. In short, there are an few too many compelling and pertinent pieces of counter evidence you need to explain before you can make that claim.

        Another point I don’t make in the piece that I might have is that the “obedience” of Korean high school students tends to be overstated in Western media, who just as often fawn over them when the subject is education. As anyone who has worked as a teacher in South Korea (as I have for 15 years) knows, that stereotype of the overriding tendency to obey is waaay overblown.

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