South Korea Social Life and Customs

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Filial piety (hyo in Korean; xiao in Chinese), the second of the Five Relationships, defined by Mencius as affection between father and son, traditionally has been the normative foundation of Korean family life. Though its influence has diminished over time, this relationship remains vitally important in contemporary South Korea. Entailing a large number of reciprocal duties and responsibilities between the generations of a single family, it generally has been viewed as an unequal relationship in which the son owed the father unquestioning obedience. Neo-Confucianists thought that the subordination of son to father was the expression, on the human level, of an immutable law of the Cosmos. This law also imposed a rigidity on family life.

Family and lineage continuity traditionally was, and to a great extent remains, a supremely important principle. This reflects Mencius's view that of all possible unfilial acts, to deprive one's parents of posterity is the worst. Historically, the Korean family has been patrilineal. The most important concern for the family group was producing a male heir to carry on the family line and to perform ancestor rituals in the household and at the family gravesite. The first son customarily assumed leadership of the family after his father's death and inherited his father's house and a greater portion of land than his younger brothers. This inheritance enabled him to carry out the ritually prescribed obligations to his ancestors.

Ancestor worship was, simultaneously, a social ethic and a religion. In some ways, it was the most optimistic of faiths. It taught that deceased family members do not pass into oblivion, to an afterlife, or, as the Buddhist believe, to rebirth as humans or animals in some remote place, but remain, in spiritual form, securely within the family circle. For traditionally minded Koreans, the presence of the deceased could be an intensely real and personal one. Fear of death was blunted by the consoling thought at even in the grave one would be cared for by one's own people. Succeeding generations had the obligation of remembering the deceased in a yearly cycle of rituals and ceremonies.

Traditionally, the purpose of marriage was to produce a male heir to carry on the family line and not to provide mutual companionship and support for husband and wife. Marriages were arranged. A go-between or matchmaker, usually a middle-aged woman, carried on the negotiations between the two families involved who, because of a very strict law of exogamy, sometimes did not know each other and often lived in different communities. The bride and groom met for the first time at the marriage ceremony, a practice that ended in the cities by the 1930s.

The traditional Korean kinship system, defined by different obligations in relation to ancestor worship, was complex. Anthropologists generally view it in terms of four separate levels, beginning with the household on the lowest level and reaching to the clan, which included a large number of persons often spread over an extensive geographical area. The household, chip or jip (see Glossary) in Korean, consisted of husband and wife, their children, and if the husband were the eldest son, his parents as well. The eldest son's household, the stem family, was known as the "big house" (k'unjip), while that of each of the younger sons, a branch family containing husband, wife and children only, was known as the "little house" (chagunjip). It was through the stem family of the eldest son that the main line of descent was traced from generation to generation. The eldest son was responsible for rituals in honor of the ancestors, and his wife was responsible for producing the all-important male heir.

The second level of kinship was the "mourning group" (tangnae), which consisted of all those descendants of a common patrilineal forbearer up to four generations back. Its role was to organize ceremonies at the grave site. These rites included the reading of a formal message by the eldest male descendant of the tangnae progenitor and the offering of elaborate and attractive dishes to the ancestral spirits.

Similar rituals were carried out at the third level of kinship organization, the lineage. A lineage might comprise only a handful of households, but in some cases included hundreds and even thousands of households. The lineage was responsible for the rites to ancestors of the fifth generation or above, performed at a common grave site. During the Choson Dynasty, the lineage commonly possessed land, grave sites, and buildings. Croplands were allocated to support the ancestral ceremonies. The lineage also performed other functions: the aid of poor or distressed lineage members, the education of children at schools maintained by the p'a, and the supervision of the behavior of younger lineage members. Because most villagers were members of a common lineage during the Choson Dynasty, the p'a performed many of the social services on the local level that are now provided by public schools, police, and social welfare agencies.

The fourth and most inclusive kinship organization was the clan, or, more accurately, the tongjok (surname origin group). Among ordinary South Koreans, this was commonly known as the pongwan, or "clan seat." Members of the same tongjok shared both a surname and origins in the generally remote past. Unlike members of the smaller kinship groups, however, they often lacked strong feelings of solidarity. Important tongjok include the Chonju Yi, who originated in Chonju in North Cholla Province and claimed as their progenitor the founder of the Choson Dynasty, Yi Song-gye; and the Kimhae Kim, who originated in Kimhae in South Kyongsang Province and claimed as their common ancestor either the founder of the ancient kingdom of Kaya or one of the kings of the Silla Dynasty (A.D. 668-935).

Approximately 249 surnames were used by South Koreans in the late 1980s. The most common were Kim (about 22 percent of the population), Li or Yi (15 percent of the population), Pak or Park (8.5 percent), Ch'oe (4.8 percent), and Chong (4.2 percent). There are, however, about 150 surname origin groups bearing the name Kim, 95 with the name Yi, 35 with the name Pak, 40 with the name Ch'oe, and 27 with the name Chong.

In many if not most cases, the real function of the tongjok was to define groups of permissible marriage partners. Because of the strict rule of exogamy, people from the same tongjok were not permitted to marry, even though their closest common ancestors in many cases might have lived centuries ago. This prohibition, which originated during the Choson Dynasty, had legal sanction in present-day South Korea. An amendment to the marriage law proposed by women's and other groups in early 1990 would have changed this situation by prohibiting marriages only between persons who had a common ancestor five generations or less back. However, the amendment, was strongly opposed by conservative Confucian groups, which viewed the exogamy law as a crystallization of traditional Korean values. Among older South Koreans, it is still commonly thought that only uncivilized people marry within their clan group.