Korean Society: Civil Society, Democracy, and the State

By Charles K. Armstrong | Go to book overview

2


The problematic modernity of Confucianism

The question of “civil society” in Chosŏn dynasty Korea

John Duncan

Introduction

There has been an upsurge of interest in the past few decades in the relationship between Confucianism and modernity in East Asia. This began in the arguments about “Confucianism and capitalism” which have sought to overturn Max Weber's verdict on the incompatibility of Confucianism and capitalism and explain the exceptional economic success of the East Asian region in terms of certain “Confucian” values such as respect for authority and self-development through education. In the past few years this effort to understand the links between Confucianism and modernity has expanded to a much wider scope, as seen in the 1997 launching in South Korea of a new journal, Chŏnt'ong kwa hyŏndae, whose inaugural issue was devoted to the question of “Confucianism and Twenty-first Century Korea.” 1

One of the areas in to which this inquiry has now moved is politics. The attainment of somewhat more democratic regimes in such countries as Taiwan and South Korea has prompted a number of scholars to explore the possibility of what we might call “Confucian democracy, ” rejecting older notions about Oriental despotism and seeking antecedents of democracy in Confucian political thought and practice. With respect to Korea, the issue has been brought to the foreground by the recent debate in the pages of the Korea Journal between Cho Hein and David Steinberg. 2 It is my intention here to reconsider some of the arguments put forth by Cho, Steinberg, and some other scholars engaged in this debate in hopes of contributing to a more nuanced and historically specific understanding of the question of Confucianism and political modernity.

The plasticity of Confucianism

Before I turn to the examination of specific issues relating to the possibility of “Confucian democracy, ” I think it important to note that the debate on Confucianism and modernity in East Asia and in Korea is hardly new. It has been going for over a century, with protagonists from all across the political

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