Saturday, April 30, 2005

This Courtesy and Discourtesy

Park Hyun-mo, professor of political science at the Academy of Korean Studies, has recently written an article in the JoongAng Daily on "History's lessons for Korea's future," and he presents a couple of noteworthy quotes.

The first presents Korea's reaction in 1832, when the British East India Company sent one of its ships, the "Lord Amherst," up China's northern coastline seeking new markets. This ship appeared off the coast of Chungcheong Province and requested trade negotiations. It received this reply from Lee Min-hoe, the magistrate of Chungju:

"As a vassal state of China, our country cannot engage in relations with foreign states on our own. So please bring some documents indicating that you have been in contact with China."

The second quote presents what I take to be the Chinese emperor's flattery of Korea for deflecting the British request:

"Joseon is a good vassal state, well-versed in the ways of courtesy."

By "courtesy," the good emperor meant Korea's proper deference to China within a Sinocentric imperial system grounded in a Confucian understanding of the correct hierarchical relations between juniors and seniors.

This story exemplifies what I previously (and half in irony) called "The Iron Law of Korean Thinking." Recall the words of Professor Kim Kyung-won, former ambassador to the United States

"Korea traditionally . . . pursued a policy of acknowledging the order of rank and hierarchy that starts with China at the top . . . . Korea could not imagine equality among countries, and international order was thought to mean a system of rank and hierarchy just like domestic order."

The United States took China's place and thus was treated for many years by Korea with the courteous deference due to Korea's senior. But the U.S. isn't a Confucian country and has never known how to treat Korea with the Confucian sense of courtesy that Koreans feel is due to a junior. Consequently, Koreans feel constantly aggrieved by America's 'discourteous' treatment, confusing informality for disrespect.

Let me give an indirect example.

Some years ago, I was teaching in a provincial university in Korea, and my mother came to visit. The professors in my department treated us to lunch at a nearby restaurant. In the course of a relaxed and humorous conversation over the meal, I happened to make an offhand, ironic remark to my mother about the great things that she would see me accomplish in future years "unless I die first."

Immediately, my Korean colleagues became grim-faced and told me, "That is the worst thing that you can say to a parent."

My mother and I just looked at each other. She was somewhat puzzled, but I knew the Confucian ethic, i.e., that a son is morally bound to outlive his aged parents and care for them, so I realized what I had done 'wrong.' I hadn't planned to offend Korean courtesy and wouldn't have uttered the expression if I had reflected first.

At the same time, I have to admit that I didn't care. I'm not Korean, I have a different ethic of courtesy, and I didn't feel guilty -- and certainly not 'ashamed.'

That, of course, is precisely the problem . . . for Koreans. And hence for Americans. Not sharing the same ethic of courtesy, we talk past each other. Americans grow annoyed at Korean 'obtuseness,' and Koreans at American 'shamelessness.'

By contrast, the Chinese know what to say to Koreans . . . and how to say it. China is the proper "elder brother."

America is just a crude elder step-brother -- and maybe not even elder.


At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would agree but also caution against a tendancy in both Korean and non-Korean interest in Korean traditional history that argues Korea was somewhat like a pseudo-colony in its relationship to China. At different times, Korean rulers sought to redefine the relationship - both technically within the Confucian framework and in the cooresponding real elements in the relationship like tribute, trade, "technology" transfer, and so on. It has been some time since I read about this, so I forget the exact details, but it was something like at times Korea argued with China to have their place bumped up from "nephew" to "younger brother" or so on.

And even in the Choson period, you can find evidene of Korea seemingly high handed toward China when it came to the Wang Yang Min's reformation of Neo-Confucianism --- this reformation didn't take hold in Korea like in China, and high level Korean scholars would openly criticize the changes in China and the Chinese government.

Too often when I've heard Koreans, especially younger Korean adults, talk about their historical relationship to China, they treat it not far from how they think about the Japanese colonial period in the 20th century....

At 4:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, you're probably right. I'd respond more fully to your interesting comment, but I'm handicapped at the moment.

At 6:50 AM, Blogger Plunge said...

Wonder post. It took me back to my time living in Korea. Too often we don't look for the reason behind actions, we just take offense.

Hope you don't mind, linked to your article on my site. I also added some other questions, ones to which I don't think there is anything historical to back the behavior, just rudeness.

Anyway, I always love reading your blog.


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