Rereading the Spirit of Seonbi, scholars of the Goryeo and Joseon periods
The spirit of Seonbi is a cultural gene of Koreans. Historically, Koreans have thought highly of the spirit of Seonbi, have respected Seonbi, and wanted to become one. The leader group of Confucian civilization in East Asia was the Sadaebu . The Sadaebu put their effort into building their character through reading and then made a foray into a public office. The virtues that the leaders, i.e. the Sadaebu class should follow have encapsulated in Seonbi Spirit.
If so, is there still a spirit of Seonbi in this society? Do leaders who play a major role in Korean society have the spirit of Seonbi? According to a survey conducted by the 'Korean Cultural Exploration Team (The Asan Institute for Policy Studies․ National Cultural Institute) in 2014, Korea is no longer a society driven by Seonbi Spirit. Most of the respondents of the survey said that the spirit is still needed, though most of the leaders in the country such as high ranking officials and CEOs do not seem to honor it.
Korea is often called a country that has achieved a miraculous economic development and democratization within a short period of time. Millions people around the world share the so-called K-culture now. The Korean pop culture has become highly contagious around the world. This is why a growing number of people are arguing that we need to re-develop and re-define Korea's sophisticated spiritual culture.
Like many of the countries that experienced rapid industrialization during the modernization period, Korea has lost much of its traditional cultural heritage. Korea already has become a country that records a much higher 'Contemporary Culture Index' than the 'Traditional Culture Index' among OECD countries (Samsung Economic Research Institute's survey on National Brand Index, 2012).
We often raise our voice about re-creating or re-developing tradition. But the spirit of Seonbi is the one that really needs to be re-created and re-developed. It is the spirit that has been chipped away little by little, but needs to be retrieved. Joseon was a country driven by Seonbi. Seonbis are those who constantly study for one's self-discipline, make their way into public offices to rule people when the time comes, and uphold their principles and beliefs. InTELigent and honorable Seonbis who serve their life for public values and principles had a virtue that we who chase money and power and lead selfish life do not have. Seonbi is an ideal human character.
Historically, society was healthy when Seonbis were treated fairly and when the spirit of Seonbi worked. Conversely, when the Seonbi class was incompetent and the spirit failed, the destiny of a country and the lives of the people were in jeopardy. During the modernization period when the East and West changed hands over the hegemony of world order, the Seonbis in Joseon were short of grit and knowledge. They failed to cultivate a new spirit of the era and did not properly accommodate Western civilization and science. In short, they were in a state of 'Galapagos Tortoise Syndrome'. This is why they were swayed by the Western Powers and were destroyed by the Japanese Imperialism that promptly chose to keep pace with the western civilization. Cultural complex toward western society comes from this reason. Like the case of 'modern boy', Koreans were busy catching up with the West, abandoning their traditional cultural heritage. Christian spirit and mammonism replaced Seonbi Spirit. It is common knowledge that the overthrowing of Confucian order has made South Korea's rapid growth in the 20th century possible.
Then, what is the true nature of Seonbi Spirit? What did so many Seonbis do to stop the overthrow? - More importantly, what didn't they do? Why was women's leadership, which accounts for half of the society's members, under the radar all along? Furthermore, why do we now need Seonbi spirit that has been abandoned so far?
With these questions in mind, let's take a look at the spirit of Seonbi and Seonbi itself. As some people argued, we are living in a time where everyone should try to become Seonbi. This is why we need to take a look at a new model for seonbi that is suitable for the spirit of global citizenship. Is the comment of a philosopher who argued that there should be new seonbis among women, NGO leaders, servicepersons, Christian leaders and Buddhist leaders a hope or an expression of crisis awareness?