Culture Etiquette

From bowing to receiving with both hands. YUGYO – Ideology of the Koreans.

YUGYO – Ideology of the Koreans – WHY DO KOREANS DO WHAT THEY DO?

Are you a PC user or a Mac user? On the outside, all computers look pretty much the same – they all have a motherboard, a RAM, a hard disk, a keyboard, a mouse… and many more, but what makes them different from each other is what’s on the inside – the software, or the operating system that governs the overall aspect of the computer (the hardware, resources, and user experience).

And when it comes to human civilization, the same can be said. While we are composed of the same parts, it’s the national philosophy instilled in the people that sets one apart from one another, like the operating system of a computer. In East Asia, the countries that belong to the so-called “Sinosphere,” or “Chinese-character cultural sphere, a grouping of countries influenced by the Chinese culture, adopted Confucianism, or yugyo 유교 in Korean, as their core philosophy. Developed by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the principles were accepted as an essential system of ethics and moral codes, and have been the backbone of the society, serving as the basis for a wide range of fields, including the national system, politics, policies, philosophy, as well as the law and order.

Common People Bowing to Yangban (nobles) Kim Deuk-sin1754/1822
Common People Bowing to Yangban (nobles) Kim Deuk-sin1754/1822

Simply put, it’s not just a philosophy but a civilization itself. And the biggest reason why it was preferred as the governing ideology is that it values hierarchy, obedience, filial piety, and loyalty – a perfect set of ingredients necessary for running a centralized government. Among such countries, Korea embraced yugyo more than any other country, adopting the fundamental concept of Confucianism as early as in the Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC – 668 AD), and reaching its zenith during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). They lived by the teachings and held them sacred. Now that we covered the background information, let’s learn what they are because you will gain so much insight into understanding why Koreans do what they do!

YUGYO – Ideology of the Koreans – Samgang oryun 삼강오륜 (Three Cardinal Principles and Five Ethical Norms)

A yugyo term referring to the code of ethics and practices that must be observed between the king and subject, the parents and children, the husband and wife, the adults and children, and friends.

Oryunhaengsildo 오륜행실도 
Painting album of the illustrated stories exemplifying the five Confucian virtues Academy of Korean Studies
Oryunhaengsildo 오륜행실도
Painting album of the illustrated stories exemplifying the five Confucian virtues Academy of Korean Studies

Three Cardinal Principles

1.Gunwishingang 군위신강 (君爲臣綱):  Focuses on chung 충 (loyalty). It’s fundamental for a subject to serve its king.

2.Buwijagang 부위자강 (父爲子綱): Focuses on hyo 효 (filial piety to parents). It’s fundamental for a son to serve his father.

3.Buwibugang 부위부강 (夫爲婦綱): Focuses on yeol 열 (faithfulness to husband). It’s fundamental for a wife to serve her husband.

Five Ethical Norms

1.Bujayuchin 부자유친 (父子有親): There should be intimacy between parents and son.

2.Gunshinyueui 군신유의 (君臣有義): There should be a sense of righteousness between the king and his subjects.

3.Bubuyubyeol 부부유별 (夫婦有別): There should be a distinction between husband and wife.

4.Jangyuyuseo 장유유서 j(長幼有序): There should be order between an adult and a child.

5.Bunguyushin 붕우유신(朋友有信): There should be faith between friends.

The modernization efforts in the 19th century caused the existing yugyo order to collapse considerably because Korean reformists blamed the misinterpreted and often abused yugyo customs for falling behind other advanced countries, and saw them as a major hindrance to the growth of the Korean society. Some of them are:

Strict Hierarchy: Difficult to question superiors means loss of opportunities for possible innovation/improvement and slower decision-making processes.

Looking Down On Commerce and Favoring Scholars: Disrespect for manual labor, commercial and materialistic activities slowed down the progress in the field of natural sciences.

Patriarchal Society: Gender inequality leading to limited career opportunities for women and an uneven balance of domestic responsibilities. 

Preferring Family/Personal Ties Over Formal Legality: Nepotism, factionalism, regionalism lead to corruption.l  Collectivism: Prioritizing the interest of a group at the expense of an individual’s.

For this reason, in modern-day Korea, yugyo also carries a negative connotation for something outdated. But like the operating systems that improve through constant updates and patches, Koreans also have been effectively maintaining a society built upon the core yugyo values through accepting and making necessary changes. Let’s take a look at some of the examples of the unique things Koreans do that are based on yugyo customs!


“A Boy And A Girl Should Not Sit Together After They Have Reached The Age Of 7”

You’re watching yet another “time-slip” Korean drama. This time, Seho, a boy from modern-day Korea, accidentally gets sucked into a time portal while looking for a place to pass water in the distant forest. Hours later, he finds himself in the Joseon Dynasty era. While struggling to go back, he finds a beautiful girl around his age and they start to develop feelings for each other. When Seho takes up the courage to hold her hand in the middle of the street market, she hurriedly shakes his hand off, saying, “I was taught that a boy and a girl should not sit together after they have reached the age of 7!” and the camera zooms in on Seho’s face which has turned bright red. 

Sunday worship at Jeongdong Church in Seoul at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. There are women on the left and men on the right sitting in the chapel.
Sunday worship at Jeongdong Church in Seoul at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. There are women on the left and men on the right sitting in the chapel.
Kookmin Ilbo DB

This cliché is based on the yugyo notion namnyeoyubyeol 남녀유별 男女有別 (“There should be a distinction between male and female”) which dictates the differences in the duties, roles, and space between genders. Stemming from the idea is namnyeochilsebudongseok 남녀칠세부동석 男女七歲不同席 – “A boy and a girl should not sit together after they have reached the age of 7,” which some argue that the original meaning was not to have a boy and a girl over the age of 7 share the same bed, but whichever you choose to follow, their purpose was identical – solidify the gender roles, not to create gender inequality but to strengthen the social and domestic responsibilities so the society can maintain its structure. 

Do Kyung-soo & Nam Ji-hyun @ 100 Days My Prince (tvN, 2018)

As shown in modern-day Korean dramas, the idea surely seems way outdated – young Korean couples are not afraid of PDA (Public Display of Affection), although their parent’s generation would still find it uncomfortable and raise an eyebrow! If you could choose between the two versions of Korea, which one would you choose?

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