Modernization and Nationalism in South Korea

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Is it possible to preserve traditional Korean culture as South Korea continues to modernize and Westernize?

In the 21st century, modernity is often equated with capitalism-industrialization, though the concept is more complex than that. The idea of modernity can be defined on sociological, political and cultural platforms. Modernity is a powerful notion, a departure from tradition; driven by political, social and economic developments. It is the acceptance that progress is inevitable. Because this departure from conventional, cultural practices is essential to the implementation of modernization, many societies have struggled with breaking from tradition in an effort to modernize, to varying degrees of success. The difficulties to preserve culture while modernizing has been particularly prevalent in eastern Asian cultures -- especially those that have been affected by the deeply conservative thinking of Confucianism -- after they adopted the concept from the post-feudal West. Emerging countries such as South Korea are especially burdened by trying to strike a happy balance between their traditional culture versus the prospects of modernization. Couple this with Confucianism plus the Korean peninsula's self-imposed policy of isolationism in previous centuries, which resulted in limited contact with foreign innovation and one would expect South Korea to struggle bitterly to modernize while maintaining its traditional customs. However, tools such as Korean Nationalism, the influence of Confucianism and the impact of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula enable Korean society to better preserve and protect their culture while entering the modern world as a dynamic nation.

South Korean culture can be tough for an outsider to grapple with. Though it has imported Chinese elements, it has also been shaped by the nation’s unique experiences with shamanism. If you just skim the surface, it is a very Westernized place. The youth has wholeheartedly embraced globalization. If you take away the signs in hangul script, parts of Seoul could be mistaken for New York, London, or Berlin. Though South Korea has adopted elements from other cultures, they are determined to preserve their own. Many of the unspoken rules that govern daily interactions have not been changed from centuries past, come from the Chinese ethical/philosophical system Confucianism, which Korea adopted when it was a member of the Sinosphere. Followers of Confucianism, are governed by a system of virtues. Filial piety (孝; xiào) is considered among the greatest of these virtues. It must be shown to the living as well as the dead, hence ancestor worship, which is called jesa (제사) in Korean. Ancestor worship contributed to the conservative thought of Confucianism. Cultures that engage in ancestor worship are going to be conservative. They will not find new things attractive because that will challenge the ancestors. In contrast, Westerners perceive change as natural. Without the weight of a continuous history and the conservation of Confucianism, Westerners seemed more likely to look ahead. Western view of the future expected tangible, long-term progress. Western history is more fluid.

Unlike its neighbor China, Korea’s history is not a trap. It is not a set of rigid traditions that prevent the country from modernizing, but Koreans are intent on protecting and passing on their culture. Having a conservative ideology at the core of society such as Confucianism will ultimately help protect

Korean culture.
Korean ethnic nationalism (한국민족주의) -- a political ideology and a form of ethnic identity that is prevalent in modern Korea -- is another way Korean society is guaranteeing that Korean culture is preserved. It is based on the belief that Koreans share a unified bloodline as well as a distinct culture. It is centered around the idea of minjok (민족), which can be translated to “nation”. The majority of the Korean population continues to identify...
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