Confucianism in America

It takes a strong value system for an individual to survive in a whole new environment, endure an unhappy marriage, and overcome bankruptcy. These hardships are what the protagonist of Kim Ronyoung's Clay Walls, Haesu, has to experience. Throughout these events, Haesu's value system becomes greatly altered. She has been raised as a traditional Korean woman who follows the teachings of Confucius, which stresses the importance of one's role and duties in society. However, under the influence of American values, Haesu also assumes the role of a woman in America--as an individual. Both Confucianism and American values help Haesu go through the many challenges of her life. As a woman who has been raised under Confucian principles, Haesu demonstrates loyalty towards her country, respects her parents and teaches the same virtue, filial piety, to her children, and displays loyalty towards her family in her role as a woman; on the other hand, she also learns to respect her individualism here in America.

Haesu demonstrates Confucian virtue by being loyal to her country. First, as a Korean who is forced to leave her homeland because of the Japanese occupation, Haesu never loses hope of returning to Korea. Although everyone is trying to come to America, Haesu saves money in the hope that one day she will be able to return to her beloved country. Secondly, Haesu joins two patriotic clubs that are concerned with Korean independence: first the National Association of Koreans, then the Koreans for Progressive Reforms. She serves as a secretary for both of the organizations, and she squeezes time out of her busy schedule to take part in the clubs' meetings. Lastly, Haesu resents the Japanese because of what they did to Korean people. She prohibits her daughter, Faye, from going to her friend Jane's house because Jane is Japanese. "...the Japanese were so cruel and there was no freedom," (212) says Haesu, preaching to her children. These acts of loyalty toward her country help Haesu maintain her cultural identity in America while giving her a direction in life to follow.

Another Confucian principle that Haesu follows is "filial piety," a virtue that she also instills into her children. Haesu marries Chun solely out of respect toward her parents' decision. She neither likes Chun, nor does she think that he, being a poor farmer, is worthy of this marriage. She is "committed for life to a man she [does] not love"(12). Despite all her dissatisfaction, Haesu never considers leaving Chun. Other examples of her respect towards her parents occur when Haesu returns to Korea and lives with her mother. She does not always agree with her but she never disobeys her. For example, Haesu feels that her mother should not be too strict and demanding towards her maid, Juna; still, Haesu never contradicts her mother's attitude towards Juna. Haesu further teaches these exemplary virtues to her children, so that they grow up completely respectful and obedient to their mother, unlike most American children. The principle of filial piety propels Haesu and her children to respect their parents, and by doing so their families are able to stick together through good and bad times.

Likewise, the Confucian principle that stresses loyalty to family helps Haesu go through her hardships. As a woman in a Confucian family, she has to have "skill with hands" and the "ability to serve others' needs." She displays those qualities perfectly when she is forced to work as a seamstress when her family encounters financial problems. She learns the skill "all during [her] childhood in Korea," because they believe that women need to be skillful with their hands. Another aspect where Haesu shows loyalty toward her family is her willingness to stay with Chun despite the fact that he "rapes" her, has an affair with another woman, and gambles away all their savings. Haesu has always stayed with her family, making meal after meal for them, taking care of the family's everyday needs. Without the level of commitment towards her family as exalted by Confucius, her family would have easily fallen apart.

Though a strong follower of Confucianism, Haesu learns the importance of individualism here in America. For example, towards the end of the novel, when Chun is starting to consume their savings in gambling, Haesu says to him, " If you lose, it will be over between us"(174). Also, she no longer stays in the house all day doing housework as a traditional Korean housewife does; she takes time to pursue her own interests such as movie watching and shopping. Most importantly, her individualism motivates her to find a job of her own when the family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Although Haesu still follows Confucian principles, she discovers her individualism in America. Haesu's attainment of her independent spirit allows her to respect herself as a woman, which in turn gives her the will to survive--for herself.

Many of Confucius' philosophies are considered old-fashioned and useless in our modern day society, but Haesu never would have survived the crises in her life without these principles to show her the way. By being loyal to her country, Haesu has a direction in life--to support her country, to preserve her culture. By fulfilling the rules of filial piety, Haesu is able to hold her family together through a series of tragedies. But without the American value of individualism, Haesu might have to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of the values that Confucianism dictates so strongly to her, which is to fulfill the needs of her family thoroughly. Instead, by following both ancient wisdom--Confucianism--and modern values, Haesu comes through her trials, builds a successful family, and grows as an individual. Although Confucianism has its faults, Haesu proves that it undeniably is still a valuable philosophy. With the proper balance of Confucianism and individualism, one can very well survive in this chaotic world.