Online course: The Psychology of Korea

This article by Dr. Luke Kim is part of a series designed to teach families about Korean culture.

korea"If we were to describe the predominant ethos of Americans -- those values which influence their social, political and personal life -- we would name individual freedom, independence, self-reliance, privacy and fun. Western psychology has been more interested in the individual person and his or her individual psychology, ego structure and psyche than in community.

However, psychology and consideration in what constitutes mental health developed differently in Asia. Due to the traditional Asian feudal and/or agrarian village society, people lived and worked in close proximity. Their economic, social and emotional lives were interdependent. Allegiance to each other was very important. The best interests of the group take priority over the interests of the individual. Emotional bonds of mutual help and support are necessary. Harmony is valued. The necessity of a group ethos was further reinforced by Confucian teachings, which are primarily concerned with human relationships.

Likewise, the ideology of freedom, independence, individuality and privacy was not developed in Asian societies. Individuals did not exist alone or independently but rather as a part of their extended family and collective network. With this orientation, it is difficult to define one's identity without reference to the collective identity to which an individual belongs.

Because Asians have historically been more conscious of group identity than of personal identity, Asian psychology has concentrated more on the area of human relations than on the psychology of the individual.


In both Japanese and Indian psychology, the group mentality is known as a porous ego, with the individual ego and the family ego interacting with each other. This porous ego would be regarded as undesirable or pathological by the Western psychology, which stresses the importance of the individual ego being protected by firm and strong ego boundaries. However, in the American society, people are increasingly fearful and distrustful of each other, and the institution of marriage, family values and sense of community are declining. This declining tendency may be attributed, at least partially, to the predominant ideology of individualism.

In recent years, it has been recognized that there is a danger in dichotomizing cultures into individualism and collectivism in a black-and-white manner. It not only clouds our understanding of the otherwise very complex interactions of the two orientations but also inevitably leads to our making good/bad comparisons. The following is my attempt to describe some of the more important Korean ethos that have greatly influenced Koreans and their social and interpersonal behavior, especially in the "old days." They are: jeong, haan, chaemyun, noonchi, palja and muht.

This mention of the ethos of the old days needs an explanation. There is indeed a rapidly changing ethos among Koreans, due to rapid Westernization, industrialization and urbanization. People are becoming more individualistic and less collectivistic in recent years compared with 40 or 50 years ago, at the beginning of Westernization in Asian countries after World War II. Korean/Asian people are now in a blinded or confused transitional stage, and the ideology of individualism with emphasis on materialism is taking a strong hold in Asian countries. Therefore, the validity of the traditional Korean ethos described below is weakening in the present day:


Jeong versus Love
The Negative Side of Jeong
The Four Phases of Haan
Haan and Symbolism
Haan and Hwa-Byung
Haan and Religions

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