Social work researcher explores how Confucianism oppresses women

Growing up in a region of the world that’s steeped in the ancient traditions of Confucianism, Sung Hyun Yun never gave it a second thought when his mother explained to him that he didn’t need to be in the kitchen helping with the dishes because he was a boy.

“It was very natural to accept gender-based norms and behaviour,” said Dr. Yun, a professor in the School of Social Work, who was born and raised in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city.

It wasn’t until he moved to South Carolina to pursue a master’s degree and became immersed in western culture that he began to recognize differences in the way women are treated and how gender roles vary.

“It was culture shock,” said Yun, who will deliver a lecture for the Humanities Research Group this afternoon called A Critical Perspective on Confucianism: From Yin-Yang Harmony with Nature to Oppression Toward Women.

Yun maintains that Confucianism, an ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius around 500 BC, is largely responsible for instilling cultural values in many Asian countries. Confucians taught that a virtuous woman was supposed to be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage and to her son after her husband died. Confucianism eventually evolved into a more mystical, cosmological way of thinking and at one time was the official state ideology of China.

Yin and yang, the cyclical binaries that characterize the discipline, literally refer to the sunny and shady side of the mountains, Yun said, and represent the differences of light versus dark, hot versus cold, or Heaven versus Earth. Over time, Confucian scholars began to associate yang with positive male attributes and yin with more negative female ones, he said. But he’s quick to point that it’s not entirely without merit.

“Confucianism has a lot of good ideas about how people can live together in harmony,” said Yun, a Humanities Research Group Fellow.

However, some of those ancient attitudes persist, he said. When he moved to Georgia to begin doctoral studies, he worked as a domestic violence prevention coordinator at an Asian community centre where he worked with perpetrators of violence against women. He said their attitudes about the role of women were consistent with Confucian traditions.

“They think they can do whatever they want and their women should have to listen to them,” he said.

Yun recently submitted an article on the subject to the Journal of Social Work and hopes it will help practitioners better understand their clients who may have been indoctrinated with some of these attitudes about gender.

“We are a multicultural society,” he said. “When a social worker sees a client from an Asian country and their behaviour is in conflict, probably Confucianism should be addressed because that’s where they would have learned their ideas about male and female relations.”

Yun will deliver his lecture in the Freed-Orman Centre at Assumption University at 3:30 p.m. today. He’ll appear tomorrow on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on UWindsor researchers and airs on CJAM 99.1 FM, Thursdays at 4:30 p.m.