Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Korean Identity: Confucian 'Disharmony'?

Four Contemporary Korean Plays
Lee Yun-Taek
(Image from Amazon.com)

In my essay on Korean identity, which I've referred to numerous times recently and which I'm still fine-tuning, I delineate Confucianism's hierarchically arranged system of obligations for personal relationships and then make the following claim:
A society organized by these Confucian duties will . . . be strong in vertical obligations but weak in extended horizontal relations. Because strangers in such a society lack personal relationships, they will seek to ascertain their relative status for proper hierarchical interaction, and the at times attendant jostling for position can foster disharmonious relations.
In a play by Lee Yun-Taek, "O-Gu: A Ceremony of Death," which I was duty-bound to read for the Daesan Foundation last month, I came across the following dialogue of subtle jostling between "Seok-Chul," a male shaman performing the ceremony-of-death rites, and "Condoler 1," a relative of the dead person:
Seok-Chul: (Kneeling down and making a great bow to him.) I am a professional here to mourn as the chief mourner.

Condoler 1: (Instantly bowing, with a smile on his face.) I am the eldest grandson in the head-family of Lee at Yoeju and one of the relatives of the dead, (Handing Seok-Chul his name card.) . . . Here we go; I am a man of no special significance.

Seok-Chul: (Taking the name card and reading it.) General Director of the Union for Liberty, Jongno District Branch Office; Executive Committee Member and Director of Relationships in the Buddhist Order for the Defense of Korea, Jongno Branch . . . uh, I didn't recognize that you're a man of high position. (Lee Yun-Taek, "O-Gu: A Ceremony of Death," Four Contemporary Korean Plays, page 70)
The interaction probably speaks for itself, but the translators offer a footnote:
Koreans rely heavily on business cards in order to determine who a person is and, thus, determine how they should behave. Education and titles are especially important information on business cards. In this case, the organizations and offices held are fictitious, designed only to impress an unknowing recipient and amuse the audience. (page 88)
The "Buddhist Order for the Defense of Korea" is an especially amusing touch, I find. Humor aside, the interaction depicted by the playwright is recognizably Korean, namely, the jostling for positional status, initiated by Seok-Chul in his emphasis on his 'professional' standing as 'chief mourner' but trumped by the Condoler's standing as both a 'General Director' and an 'Executive Committee Member'. Seok-Chul humbles himself, but if he had been clever enough to recognize the Condoler's bluff and mount a challenge, some 'disharmonious relations' might have followed.

And the disharmony can at times become extreme, occasionally even breaking out into disagreement as vehement as the physically jostling fights observed from time to time in Korea's National Assembly.

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At 1:41 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

"The "Buddhist Order for the Defense of Korea" is an especially amusing touch, I find."

This is not as simple a bit of humor as you may think.

During the Imjin War, the great buddhist son monk/master Seosan, who I believe may have been the Buddhist national preceptor or at least officially designated leader of the meditation monks for a while, organized a corps of warrior monks to fight the Japanese invaders.

During the Park Chung Hee regime (and afterwards?), monks also were part of a national defense militia.

Both developments drew on the tradition of state protection buddhism established during the Koryo dynasty.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I had heard rumors of that . . . probably read it somewhere a few years ago when I was working my way through a book on Korean history.

The humor has several layers, apparently.

Jeffery Hodges

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