Confucianism in contestation: The may struggle of 1991 in South Korea and its lesson

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This article seeks to present an alternative approach to understanding the politics of East Asian democratization with a special focus on South Korea. Taking the May Struggle of 1991—the largest political upheaval since the June Uprising of 1987—as a case study, it examines how Confucian moral rhetoric and practices were peculiarly employed (or exploited) in a series of authoritarian–democratic confrontations. It argues that Confucianism was neither in itself an obstacle nor an unquestionable contributor to the democratization of Korea; rather, it furnished both authoritarian and democratic sides with symbolic weapons cultivated in the Korean tradition of “Confucian moralpolitik”. By seeing Confucianism as a set of semiotic practices, the article problematizes the contemporary discussion of “Confucian democracy” that heavily glosses over its contrasting dimensions by either idealizing or distorting it. In conclusion, it contends that democracy is a constant struggle and that the future of Korean democracy depends on how it identifies and promotes potentially democratic cultural practices while curbing anti-democratic ones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-68
Number of pages20
JournalNew Political Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009 Mar

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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