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Efforts are being made to fix South Korea's gender inequality at its cultural roots

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When it comes to high tech and cultural exports, South Korea is a powerhouse. But it lags behind when it comes to women's economic earnings. Many experts blame it, in part, on Confucianism. That's an influential philosophy in East Asia. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of some women and men who are trying to fix gender inequality at its cultural roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Visitors gather for a springtime ceremony at the Museong Seowon. It's a more than 300-year-old Confucian academy with classical wooden architecture nestling at the foot of a hill dotted with ginkgo trees. The academies have served as rural centers of education, teaching Confucian philosophy and ethics and honoring illustrious men of learning. This academy honors a scholar and poet named Choe Chi-won, who lived over a thousand years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

KUHN: In one of the halls, men in traditional robes and caps make ritual offerings of food, liquor and incense to Choe. But for the first time in Korean history, a woman presided over a springtime ceremony at this academy. Lee Bae-yong is a former president of Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She says her ceremonial role broke a glass ceiling for women.

LEE BAE-YONG: (Through interpreter) It represents the recognition that there is no difference between men and women, and that women, too, can serve in the ceremony if they are qualified.

KUHN: Confucianism spread from China to Korea and Japan around 2,000 years ago. It has its own temples and rituals, but it's more a philosophy than a religion. You don't see many visible signs of Confucianism on the street, but some people believe it is still visible in Korean people's values, such as those dealing with family and education.

HWA YEONG WANG: I believe that Korean people and Korean culture are very much rooted in Confucian ideas.

KUHN: Hwa Yeong Wang is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University. For more than a century, intellectuals in East Asia have criticized Confucianism for creating a hierarchy that places men above women. In traditional Korean society, women's roles were confined to the home. They were denied education and employment. Wang argues that you can't fully understand the experience of women in Korea without understanding Confucianism.

WANG: Confucianism must be reconciled with feminism. That is really a desperate thing we need for Korean women.

KUHN: Kim Seseoria, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, is cautiously optimistic that Lee Bae-yong's role at the academy was more than a symbolic gesture.

KIM SESEORIA: (Through interpreter) I want to believe that it will have an impact on gender-related awareness in modern Korean society. Even unintentionally, it can create a momentum for resistance to or escape from traditions.

KUHN: But Hwa Yeong Wang points out that Confucianism also encourages people to cultivate morality and spread it from the individual to the family, the nation and the world.

WANG: As a Confucian, we always try to focus on what humans can do here and now and at the same time, for myself, self-cultivation to become a better person.

KUHN: Scholars Kim and Wang don't think Confucianism should be discarded because that would sever Koreans' cultural roots. Instead, they think Confucius and the book based on his words and thoughts called "The Analects" should be reconsidered with more input from women.

KIM: (Through interpreter) We can try tweaking the way we read "The Analects," for example, and not strictly following the traditional way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

KUHN: Wang and other scholars also hope that the Confucian academies can help reinterpret and update Confucianism. After decades of neglect, some academies have been revived to teach young students about traditional culture and etiquette. And the Museong Seowon is beginning to give women a say in how this traditionally male-only institution is run. Lee Bae-yong supports these efforts. She does not, though, identify herself primarily as a feminist.

LEE: (Through interpreter) I always stress humanism over feminism. I value the leadership of mothers that embraces and coexists, as both men and women come from a mother.

KUHN: She certainly wants higher status for Korean women, but she also describes a broader vision of a humanist renaissance in an age of materialism and hope in a time of pandemic.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jeongeup County, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.