JEONGEUP COUNTY, South Korea — A pig's head sits on an offering table. Men in light-green robes and black hats pour liquor and light incense.

They are venerating a ninth century scholar and poet, Choe Chi-won, at a Confucian academy established in his honor over 300 years ago.

The academy, Museong Seowon, in this southwestern county of South Korea, incorporates traditional wooden architecture and sits in a picturesque setting, emphasizing humanity's harmony with nature. Academies like this across the country — known in Korean as seowon — have long served as rural education centers for the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius and other illustrious men.

But now a woman is breaking a new path. Historian Lee Bae-yong was the first woman to preside over a spring ceremony at the Museong Seowon in April, after having previously presided over a fall ceremony at another academy. Only in recent years have these institutes even allowed women in at all.

"This represents the recognition that there's no difference between men and women," Lee tells NPR after leading the ceremony, dressed in traditional garb, "and that women, too, can serve in the ceremony, if they're qualified."

Today, South Korea is a modern economic and cultural powerhouse. Yet it lags behind some other advanced nations when it comes to women's equality in areas like work, salaries and politics. For centuries, the male-dominated Korean society confined women to the home, denying them of education and employment — and intellectuals in Asia have long said Confucian ideology largely set the foundation for this. Now, some South Koreans are trying to fix gender inequality at the country's cultural roots.

Confucianism has an enduring influence

Confucianism started in China and was imported to Korea and Japan around 2,000 years ago. It has its own temples and rituals, but it is more a philosophy than a religion.

While there are few visible signs of it the street, Confucianism is widely seen as having enduring influence in South Korean values, including in areas of family and education.

During the academies' heyday, Confucianism was Korea's official ideology, and only prominent men presided over the highly symbolic ceremonies.

That has begun to change. The woman presiding over the recent ceremonies, Lee, is a former president of Ewha Womans University in Seoul. She has championed the listing of the seowons as UNESCO World Heritage sites and has written about the place of women in traditional Korean society.

Feminists and Confucian scholars are hopeful that Lee's role at the ceremony is more than just a gesture.

"I want to believe that it will have an impact on gender-related awareness in modern Korean society," says Kim Seseoria, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University's Institute of Confucian Philosophy and Culture in Seoul. "Even if it isn't intended, it can also create a momentum for resistance to, or escape from, traditions," she adds.

Hwa Yeong Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who specializes in philosophy and women's studies, agrees. "Confucianism must be reconciled with feminism," she says. "That is really a desperate thing we need for Korean women."

Neither Kim nor Wang are proposing totally rejecting Confucianism, as that would sever cultural roots.

"I also identify myself as a Confucian," says Wang. "There is a great deal that Confucianism can still teach us to become a better human."

Wang says that Confucianism stresses cultivating morality and spreading it to the family, the nation and the world.

Hopes for a new reading of Confucius

Instead, Kim and Wang suggest reinterpreting Confucius and the work that recounts his words and thoughts, called the Analects.

"We can try tweaking the way we read the Analects, for example, and not strictly following the traditional way," Kim says.

That includes reinterpreting some basic beliefs of Chinese and Korean philosophy, such as the division of natural forces into yin, representing female, negative and dark, and yang, representing male, positive and light.

Traditionally, yang was seen as the superior and dominant force. But some scholars have argued that the concept of yin and yang was at one time more complementary than hierarchical.

"When we search for the sources of gender equality, we do have sources," Wang says. "We can go back."

Kim says, "We can also pay attention to how female historical scholars understood and referenced Confucian texts."

Take the 18th century Confucian scholar Im Yunjidang. According to Wang, she argued that women, too, could seek to cultivate morality and become sages, just like men. "She declared that, though I am a woman, still, the nature I originally received contains no distinction between male and female," Wang says.

Now, as Confucian academies are revived in South Korea to teach young students about traditional culture and etiquette, these scholars hope the seowons will help reinterpret Confucianism to promote gender equality.

The Museong Seowon is one academy that's beginning to give women a say in how this traditionally male-only institution is run.

Lee Bae-yong supports these efforts, though she does not identify herself primarily as a feminist.

"I always stress humanism over feminism," she explains. "I value the leadership of mothers that embraces and coexists, as both men and women come from a mother."

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.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report.

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