Confucian Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism in Korea: The Significance of Filial Piety

By Lew, Seok-Choon; Choi, Woo-Young et al. | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Confucian Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism in Korea: The Significance of Filial Piety


Lew, Seok-Choon, Choi, Woo-Young, Wang, Hye Suk, Journal of East Asian Studies


Confucianism has been considered mainly to have had a negative influence on capitalistic development since Max Weber's theory on non-Western societies became widespread. However, in this article, we champion the positive role of Confucianism and attempt to explain Confucianism as providing fundamental "significance" to social development by imbuing it with religious significance. We present the self-sacrificing work ethic and zeal for education that characterizes Confucianism as having become the foundation for Korea's economic growth. In particular, we examine the religious significance inherent in the Confucian value of "filial piety" and illustrate how the value came to be a powerful economic motivator during the process of industrialization. The religious tendency of filial piety, which attempts to "remember" and "represent" one's ancestors, acted as an important spiritual ethos in Korea's social development centered on economic growth. Filial piety did not stop at being an ethical standard; it was the fundamental basis for macrosocial dynamism that was closely linked to the development of capitalism in Korea. KEYWORDS: filial piety, remembrance and representation, familism, ancestor rites, Confucianism

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MAX WEBER (1930 [1920]) PRESENTED A REMARKABLE ANALYSIS OF THE social effects of religious values. In this sociological canon, Weber indicated that value orientation in Protestant Christianity contributed to the formation of a "diligent" work ethic, which was characteristic of modern Western capitalism. However, Weber went on to say that the spontaneous development of capitalism could not be found in non-Western societies for the reason that religious values imbuing economic motives for development were missing (Bellah 1957). A typical example cited was Confucian culture in China (Weber 1951 [1920]), but Korean society was not an exception (Tu 1991; Cha 1992; Park 1994).

This raises questions on Weber's perspective of Confucianism and seeks theoretical foundations for an alternative argument involving the Confucian value of filial piety (xiao in Chinese, hyo in Korean, and kou in Japanese). The point of the argument is not criticism of Weber's theory of capitalism but of his interpretation of Confucianism. We suggest that the developmental significance of traditional values may be found by exploring the psychocultural effects of filial piety on the economic orientation of the people. Some may criticize that it is difficult to find economic impetus in filial piety--the former being the crystallization of instrumental rationality and the latter a purely normative virtue. Moreover, others would be skeptical about such efforts since the mere existence of an economic impetus in filial piety never guarantees spontaneous capitalistic development.

Paradoxically, however, support for this work is found in Weber's discussion on Western Europe. Although it is admitted that "Weber's last theory of capitalism" (Collins 1980) is predominantly institutional and involves a sequence of causal conditions, the emphasis on religious ideas and motivations that are specific to Western Europe is central. We do not deny that the development of capitalism is contingent not only on psycho- cultural orientations but also on various structural conditions and sociopolitical institutions. Nonetheless, within the context of these macrosocial determinants, there is still ample room for a causal relationship between cultural beliefs, work ethic, educational achievement, and--through those mechanisms--economic growth.

In this context, we explore in this article the "religious" aspect of filial piety to demonstrate the economic effects of this value orientation. In particular, filial piety is assumed to have a distinct and far-reaching religious significance that cannot be found in any other Confucian values (Taylor 1990). Filial piety is a mechanism specific to Confucianism that deals with the issue of death and immortality.

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