When he looks out from the time-frozen world of South Korea’s oldest private Confucian academy, Park Seok-hong sees the rest of the country “turning into a realm of beasts.”
He points to recent news reports as evidence: young people swearing at elderly passengers in the subway and children jumping to their deaths to escape bullying or the pressure of hyper-competitive school life.
“We may have built our economy, but our morality is on the verge of collapse,” Park said. “We must revitalize it, and this is where we can find an answer.”
Park is chief curator of Sosu Seowon, a complex of 11 lecture halls and dormitories that first opened in 1543 in this town 160km southeast of Seoul.
In South Korea, where “Confucian” has long been synonymous with “old fashioned,” people like Park have recently gained modest ground with their campaign to reawaken interest in Confucian teachings that emphasize communal harmony, respect for elders and loyalty to the state — principles that many older South Koreans believe have lost their grip on the young.
In the past five years, a steadily increasing number of schoolchildren — as many as 15,000 a year — have come here for a course on Confucian etiquette.
Elsewhere, about 150 other seowon, or Confucian academies, have reopened for similar extracurricular programs, National Association of Seowon executive director Park Sung-jin said.
“I came here so Grandpa will scold me less,” said Kang Ku-hyun, a sixth-grader from Seoul.
On a recent Monday, Ku-hyun’s mother had hustled him and his sister onto a bus. After a three-hour drive, the bus disgorged 40 elementary school pupils here for a “seowon stay.” For three days, the children sampled the life of Confucian students of old, receiving instruction that has long disappeared from the official school curriculum, including dinner and tea table etiquette and the proper ways of addressing one’s parents.
KNEES ACHE FROM KNEELING
“My knees ache from so much kneeling,” Ku-hyun’s sister, Kang Chae-won, 10, said after practicing deep bows from her position on the floor. “If nothing else, I learned how to bow properly. Grandpa will be pleased.”
Seowon stays are part of a broader trend that emerged about a decade ago in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, when South Korea suffered economic setbacks and rising unemployment and suicide rates. At the time, many people felt a keen sense of loss for the values that they believed had sustained older South Koreans through much greater hardships following the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
In recent months, South Korea has also been gripped by soul-searching after half a dozen students who had been bullied at school took their own lives. A series of suicides by soldiers has also shocked the country, which depends on a conscript military to guard against North Korea.
To address this unease, Buddhist temples have begun offering “temple stays,” where city dwellers attempt meditation and poise. South Korean Marines run “survival camps,” where schoolchildren crawl through obstacle courses in a regimen designed to instill comradeship and perseverance.
Despite his dire warnings, Park does not go so far as to argue that the current school system should be replaced by Confucian academies, but he believes that it can learn a lot from the seowon.
Centuries ago, carefully selected boys from across Korea lived secluded lives on this campus surrounded by pine trees, a creek and a pond. They read Confucian classics and recited poems about nature. They began and ended their days by visiting a shrine where Confucian sages were venerated. They bowed twice, head touching the floor, before answering their teacher’s questions on the day’s reading.