Confucianism

The West’s Confucian Confusion: How More Confucianism Might Have Saved the Sewol

In the wake of the Sewol Ferry tragedy, Korea’s Confucian culture comes in for yet another round of two-bit analysis. This is my take on why many Western critics have it backwards.

SWEET PICKLES & CORN

W henever a tragedy strikes Korea, many Western observers can’t resist the urge to attribute it to Korean culture. This tendency owes much to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, in which Gladwell attempted to pin a fatal 1997 Korean Air crash in Guam on Korea’s Confucian-inspired practice of showing deference to one’s guam1 seniors. Since Outliers , Confucianism is the prime suspect in just about every Korean disaster short of an earthquake, so when the Sewol ferry sank in waters off Jindo on Wednesday April 16 th , taking with it over 300 young Korean souls, I braced for the wave of western cultural critique.

I wasn’t disappointed. Writing for the South China Morning Post, Andrew Salmon wondered whether the accident was made worse by Confucianism. Salmon noted that in the initial minutes of the accident, the captain ordered passengers to stay where they were, and most of them obeyed “even as…

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