Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries


ITO Abito

The Republic of Korea (R.O.K) has made remarkable economic progress in recent years through highly organized industrialization. In this connection an important question has arisen: What kind of cultural identity can best serve to integrate the Korean people socially identity can best serve to integrate the Korea people socially in the years to come?

Shortly after its liberation from Japanese rule, the R.O.K experienced national division and internal disturbance. At this juncture it had to find a way to achieve rapid technological and economic development apart from social integration of the nation in terms of its traditional culture. As a result, though the R.O.K has come to play a leading role among economically developing nations, the problem of social integration in the nation as a whole, remaining to be settled, has given rise to considerable tension and disharmony. On the one hand, rapid urbanization and industrialization, accompanied by emphasis on technology and economic efficiency, have led to the appearance of a new life-orientation that finds expression in a new social stratum. In particular, the adherents of Christianity, who live mainly in the cities. Who tend to belong to this stratum, and who presently constitute about thirty percent of the population, exercise considerable influence in social, economic, and political dimensions. On the other hand, the traditional life-orientation represented by Confusian ethics and folk culture is in a critical situation even in rural areas, and symptoms of threat to social integration are evident throughout the nation.

This paper will consider, therefore, the three following matters: (1) the new life-orientation and social stratum, (2) the critical situation in and new awareness of traditional culture, and (3) the search for and prospect of a synthesis of the first two.

1. The new life-orientation and social stratum

Among those who may be considered bearers of the economic development of Korea in recent years, those who come from rural areas and from a comparatively young generation play and important role. The majority received their education in the rural situation and in recent years have established residences in downtown urban areas or in industrial area apartment complexes. This group consists of unskilled and skill-developing factory workers, shop employees, and service industry workers, most of its members being second or third sons of nuclear families. For the most part they are "commoners" who have no direct connection with the Confucian life-orientation or with yangban culture. In addition they are people who, by moving to the city, have separated themselves from traditional communities with their patterns of everyday culture and folk religion, people who lack, therefore, a sense of cultural identity. It is this stratum that has contributed greatly to the success of Christian evangelistic activities in recent years. Their lives, based on family and individual ability, show increasing evidence of Christian influence while, on the other hand, they show decreasing evidence of influence form Confucianism and related traditions.

Another example of a new social influence is that of the while collar stratum, made up of highly educated urban, middle and upper class office workers and executives, civil servants, educators, and the like. Here too Christian influence is strong. Most of these people live in Western style houses or apartments in exclusive residential districts; both they and their children tend to have received university-level education either in Korea of abroad. They are proud of belonging to an elite group and of living a modern life, manifest rather clear-cut attitudes toward Korean culture as a whole, and exhibit confidence and optimism with regard to the future of the R.O.K. Like the ordinary people mentioned above, they have few ties with traditional culture, many rejecting it categorically. Thus they affirm Christianity and Buddhism as "genuine" religion, view Confucian ancestral rites with indifference as a matter of "custom," and deny folk religions such as shamanism and community festivals, labeling them "superstition."

Still another example is that of the elite socioeconomic stratum oriented to the economy, technology, and short-range benefits. This stratum is doubtless most closely connected with the military.

The new life-orientation, then, is taking root not only in the new elite stratum which is based in the city and in industry and which is close to the centers of economic and political power, but also in the stratum of ordinary people caught up in the pressures of daily life. The spread of this orientation signifies a separation from traditional culture.

2. The critical situation in, and new awareness of, traditional culture

The R.O.K. has yet to undertake a serious critique of Confucianism. It is perhaps distinctive in that it maintains its deep-rooted Confucian traditional while at the same time promoting urbanization and intensive industrialization. As mentioned above, however, the Confucian life-orientation has become increasingly erratic in the urban situation, thus giving rise to a growing bifurcation between urban and rural life. Among elderly people of the former yangban class, the sense of crisis is pronounced, but no longer do they seek, on the basis of Confucianism, to play the active role they did during the period of Japanese dominion. One phenomenon worthy of mention is isshinkyo, a group that emphasizes indigenization as a way of coping with this crisis, thus calling for a revision of the Confucian way.

In addition to the fact that Confucian scholars have tended to ignore or disparage folk culture apart from Confucianism, members of the new elite stratum of recent years have tended to deny them as obstacles to modernization. Particularly in connection with the promotion of economic development in the Semaeull movement, cultural phenomena such as village festivals and shamanistic rites have sometimes come under attack.

The role played by folklorists, who regarded this social climate as a crisis for folk culture and who sought to develop a new appreciation of folk culture and to work for its modernization, is particularly to be mentioned. As a result of efforts by the Korean Anthropological Society and the Korean Ethnographic Society, a ethnological museum was established, a national survey of folk customs was undertaken, intangible cultural treasure were sought out and identified, a ethnology convention was held, etc. In such ways a new awareness of folk culture was promoted, and in the late 1970s this developed into a veritable ethnological boom. Folk entertainments have been a taken up into middle schools and high schools as extracurricular activities, and originally agricultural music and dance in particular, as a symbol of folk culture, is speading throughout the nation. Again, the study and practice of masked drama, beginning at Seoul University, rapidly spread to other universities as well, arousing a new spirit among student bodies as a symbol of social solidarity -- at times issuing in large assemblies and demonstrations. Yet even though activities carried on in relation to ethnology, folk art conventions, and educational institutions have given rise to a new awareness of, and a new symbolization for, the folk culture legacy, in actual life, community festivals and shamanistic practices, together with many other customs, are rapidly disappearing. It appears that the folk culture boom continues even as folk culture encounters serious decline.

In addition, some new religious groups propose a positive revaluation of traditional folk beliefs or make use of them in symbolic form. Among such groups, the organizations in the dankun stream in particular have taken up the cause of ethnic identity and become newly active since the mid-1960s. Several bodies, such as the Dankun Sunenkai, the Kankun Subokai, the Society for the Commemoration of 4300 Years, the Kenseikai and others, aim at the enhancement of cultural identity through the propagation of dankun faith and the erection of dankun shrines, but their efforts often fail because of the lack of solidarity among the various groups.

3. The search for the prospect of a synthesis

Traditional Korean society manifested, as Takashi Akiba long ago pointed out, a rather sharp cleavage between the life-orientation of the upper-class yangban and that of ordinary commoners. The yangban, absolutizing Confucianism, looked down on or ignored folk religion, but the coexistence of the two strata was made possible by their division into two social ranks. The new life-orientation developed in the cities in connection with the rapid social change of recent years, however, has exercised a profound influence even on agricultural village society through the Semaeull movement and other media. Members of the rural elite, quick to respond to the modernization and industrialization policy of the central government, played a leading role in abolishing or discontinuing traditional belief and practice, some in token of symbolic support for modernization, others in token of loyalty to the Semaeull movement. This resulted, on the one hand, in the diffusion of the Semaeull movement throughout the country as a new spiritual movement and, on the other, in the rapid destruction of the basis for cultural identity that existed in the traditional culture.

In the Christian world, discussions of indigenization assumed importance beginning in the 1960s, and the some attempts were made to reinterpret the dankun myth and thus to incorporate it in a positive way. Even today this myth is widely elaborated in a new religious movements, particularly in the Christian stream. Moreover, as may be seen in urban industrial-mission evangelistic activities and in its grappling with concrete social problems, Korean Christianity has taken on a character of its own; in addition some churches, because, of the highly nonconformist activities of their pastors, have developed fanatical followers. All in all, Korean Christianity is a phenomenon with many faces.

As for new religious organizations, many advocate the political reunification of northern and southern Korea, the integration of religious world views, the idea of cultural independence, and a reappraisal and utilization of the dankun myth.

With regard to political leadership, policies such as enhancement of the spirit of the great general (General Yi), reestablishment of the hwarange spirit and the organization of youth, the Semaeull movement and the like also aim at the integration of the nation. The dankun element is also noteworthy in that under former President Park there was once a plan to erect a dankun statue in Seoul's Nanzan Park, but because of opposition the plan came to naught.

As for the world of scholarship, attention should be drawn to Korean culture studies (Kankokugaku) that seek the principle of cultural integration in traditional culture. Here the Institute for the Study of Culture and Spirit is coming to play a central role.

Christianity has played an important part in the rapid social change of recent years and has come to be recognized as a powerful social influence. To neglect it in considering the social integration of the nation would be quite impossible. At the same time, however, Christianity is undeniably and imported religion. Not only does it lack a foundation in traditional Korean culture, there is also a wide gap between its life-orientation and that of Confucianism as well as of folk culture. The fissures in the life-orientation of traditional society, because of urbanization, industrialization, and the spread of Christianity, manifest new gaps and elements of instability. The possibility of synthesizing the two through the development of effective cultural symbols seems increasingly unlikely. Cultural integration, rather than being based on cultural identity, is more easily achievable on the basis of externally oriental political symbols such as anti-Communism and anti-Japan, and this background in turn tend to render the long-range cultural-studies approach ineffectual.