Social Customs And Traditions In Korea
Customs And Traditions, Books On Customs
Family Customs in Korea
The vast changes that have swept Asia and the rest of the world in the latter half of the
20th century have naturally been felt in the day-to-day lifestyle of every Korean.
Traditional customs and more have undergone a great deal of change due to the rapid
modernization of society. Despite these changes, however, there are those who maintain
that Korea, for all its high-rise buildings, is still one of the most Confucian nations in
In the past, several generations often lived together, and many children were desired for
the future stability and security of the family. It was not unusual for the number of
people sharing one house to total a dozen people or more. In recent years, however, the
move to urban areas and popularity of new apartment-type housing has meant that newly
married couples tend to live on their own instead of sharing quarters with other family
members. This trend has given rise to an increasing number of nuclear families in Korea.
Traditionally, the eldest male of a family was regarded as the source of supreme
authority. All family members were expected to do what was ordered or desired by him.
Strict instruction were to be obeyed without protest. It would have been unthinkable for
children or grandchildren to place themselves in opposition to the wishes of their elders.
Obedience to one's superiors was deemed natural; in addition, filial piety in particular
was viewed as the most revered of all Confucian virtues. On the other hand, it was
understood that the patriarch of the family would be fair in all matters relating to the
discipline of family members.
The adage that a man must first seek his own development and manage his family
properly before he can seek to govern others reflects the principle tenet behind the ideal
of the Confucian social order.
Under this system, man has traditionally been given the responsibility of representing,
supporting and protecting his family. If he cannot wield this power and exercise his
leadership role wisely, he loses face as the head of the family. Order at home is
maintained through the principle of hierarchy in which children must obey parents, the
wife the husband, the servants the master.
Traditionally, the concept of filial piety was even reflected in Korean speech.
The Korean language is endowed with a complicated and elaborate honorific system.
Depending upon who the speaker is talking to, different word and verb usages are applied,
which accurately reflect his or her social standing with regard to the listener.
The individual Korean house, new or old, is built to protect its inhabitants from outside
elements. Generally speaking, it is somewhat low, with relatively small rooms and not many
doors or windows. Some of the rooms have ondol floors which are heated from under the
floor. This system of heating is so ingrained in Korean life that even the most
fashionable, Western-style houses built in recent years are, with few exceptions, provided
with a few rooms that are heated through the floor. Likewise, many Koreans still prefer to
sit and sleep on cushions and thick mats on the floor.
In a traditional Korean home, there is little furniture and seating is on the floor.
Bedrooms and dining rooms were not distinguished; a living room also functioned as a
sleeping and eating room. The room (anbang) used by the women of the house was located at
the back of the house and was used as a place for family gatherings. Not surprisingly,
this room was also equipped with wardrobes, bedding and other domestic paraphernalia. The
master of the house, by contrast, inhabited the front part (sarangbang) of the house which
was also used as a reception room for guests. If he was an educated man, his rooms were
equipped with a desk, shelves, books and a few cushions.
The traditional Korean dress, called hanbok, is more comfortable and suitable to
the traditional ondol lifestyle. Still today, many Koreans, particularly men, put on these
traditional clothes after returning home in the evening from work. Western style dress is
usually reserved as outdoor wear. However, on special holidays like Ch'usok and New Year's
Day, the entire family dress up in their finest hanbok.
Mealtimes at home bring the entire family together. The main dish is rice to which chapkok
or grains such as barley, millet and/or a variety of beans are often added. Soup is always
served and kimchi, a spicy, fermented cabbage, is invariably a side dish. Soy sauce, dried
pepper, red pepper paste and toenjang, or bean paste, are used for seasoning.
Koreans like traditional rice-based wine and enjoy drinks before meals. Entertaining
guests with traditional wine is customary. Although the repeated request to fill up an
empty or half-empty glass might be viewed as an annoyance by as Westerner, Koreans who are
not asked to fill their cup frequently would think it very rude on the part of the host.
Reciprocity in sharing wine in a congenial atmosphere is important to Koreans. During
these gatherings, the hierarchy of social relations between members of the part is still
maintained. Younger members of inferiors are not allowed to drink or smoke in front of
Korean Customs Among Kinship Groups
Among Koreans there is a strong bond between relatives and clan members. Adhering to
traditional family-centered principles, the extended family in Korea is the first place to
which people turn when they find themselves in trouble. In the past, brothers often lived
in the same household after marriage and, in some cases, even cousins occupied the same
house. Although such large families living under one roof together are rare these days,
family members often reside in the same neighborhood and maintain frequent contact. Those
who live far away tend to get together on special occasions such as a relative's marriage,
the 60th or 70th birthday, the birthday of a child, and on traditional holidays. At such
times everyone pitches in to assist with preparations for the ceremony.
Respect for one's ancestors is central to the family clan system. Special memorial
services for great-great-grandparents are conducted in the home on the anniversary of
their deaths, between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. For the fifth generation or beyond, services are
held once a year, on Ch'usok (the Harvest Moon Festival), the 15th day of the Eighth Moon,
or on a selected auspicious day. On this day, descendants gather at the ancestral tomb to
perform ceremonial rites. This memorial service is such an important event that even
distant family members travel long distances to participate.
Koreans maintain a great reverence for their family history and meticulously
record and update these genealogical records, which in many cases, go back several dozens
of generations. They also minutely record official ranks, achievements, royal citations,
the localities of tombs and other information.
When meeting for the first time, Koreans of the same family name must first decide whether
they are members of the same clan. If so, they must consult the genealogy to find how
closely they are related. Should one of them belongs to an older generation, respect must
be shown through the use of honorifics as well as certain usages of words that imply that
the two persons are members of the same clan.
Korea's Social Order
The Confucian social order is based upon the five human relationships (oryun) and it is
this concept that has long dictated Korean behavior to a large extent. The importance of
the Confucian social order in Korea can be observed especially on New Year's Day when,
after the usual memorial services for ancestors, family members bow to grandparents,
parents, older brothers, relatives, and so on in accordance with age. Young people may
even seek out the village elders to pay their due respect by bowing to them, even though
they are not related.
At meetings, social gatherings, or drinking parties, social order becomes an immediate
question: who should greet whom first, who should sit where, who should sit down first,
who should pour wine for whom first. Among close friends, those born earlier are treated
as elder brothers and sisters. Among acquaintances, one is expected to use honorifics to
those 10 years older than oneself. However, if the difference is less than 10 years,
people address one another as equals.
Korea's Social Relations
Under Confucianism, the proper relationship between the genders was also based on one of
the five human relationships (o-ryun)-that of husband and wife. This system does not aim
to subordinate women to men, but merely holds that both men and women have certain duties
to perform and a set of ethics to observe vis-a-vis the other. In its practical
application, this ideal, learned from an early age, affected not just husband and wife,
but virtually all relations between the genders.
From early childhood, children played and grew up segregated by gender as illustrated in
the adage: "Boys and girls at the age of seven should not be allowed to sit in the
same room." This was adhered to except in the case of brothers and sisters who
followed another set of ethics governing family relations.
The strict application of these rules resulted in severe restrictions on women, while
relative freedom was allowed for men. Women's behavior was dictated by the law of the
three obediences: obeisance to the father before marriage, to the husband upon marriage,
and to the son after the husband's death. Female submission to male authority was not due
to the perception of innate female weakness or inadequacy; rather, it had to do with the
strict separation of social spheres in the organization of society. The woman's role was
"within," that is, within the home which was her domain to control. The man's
role was "outside," and his concern was limited to the affairs of the state and
life beyond the confines of the home.
It was the woman's duty to care for the children, to help her husband with the farm work,
to prepare family meals, to make the family's clothes, and to create an atmosphere of
peace so as to better enable her husband to concentrate on the larger issues of society.
The female role was firmly established within the confines of the home and women were
expected to adhere strictly to that role.
Although strict observance of Confucian-inspired ideals is now a rarity, Korean men and
women are still conscious of their positions as expressed not only in their behavior but
in their speech as well. Love and affection between man and woman is rarely expressed
openly, not even between husband and wife. Likewise, just as there are special words and
honorifics for use between family members and friends, so there are a special set of words
used just between husband and wife as well.
Korea's Cooperative Organization
Kye, meaning agreement or bond, is a social organization based upon the principle
of mutual cooperation and aid with a specific objective. Although there are many different
types of kye, all of them collect dues and manage funds. One type of kye is the
wich'in-gye, literally meaning kye for parents. This kye is organized by those who have
aged parents in order to provide for their hwan-gap or 60th birthday celebration. This is
a special celebration for Koreans as few people in the past lived to be 60. With the
increased longevity in recent years, the 70th birthday anniversary is also often observed.
Children must honor their parents at this time with a large party. As it usually involves
many guests, food and entertainment, it is quite costly. In order to prepare for this
expensive event, money or rice is collected, either monthly or annually, to help each
member to defray the cost of the celebration.
Traditionally, people prepared splendid funerals as expressions of their filial piety, and
these also tended to be costly. To prepare for a parent's funeral, some people have formed
a sangjo-gye. In such a kye, not only are there monetary benefits, but kye members also
all pitch in to carry the bier, to serve as messengers, to dig the grave, etc.
Weddings also are expensive events as they not only entail the exchange of gifts and
dowry, including bedding, furniture and household utensils, but also several large parties
to entertain guests. This is often more than one household can afford so the wedding kye
The village kye is characterized by the admission of all villagers. It collects an
agreed-upon sum of money from each family and sometimes raises funds through collective
work such as ture (cooperative farming). The village kye has no specific purpose other
than helping villagers through unexpected times of need or building and repairing
facilities for the community.
Lately, kye characterized by monetary interests are becoming very popular among housewives
in large cities as they not only provide extra cash but also opportunities for getting
together, exchanging gossip and partying. The conventional kye, however, is based on
mutual aid and cooperation, with each member performing his duties as if it were his own
business. It is difficult to maintain a kye; if some members do not pay their dues or
renege on their duties, the kye will eventually fall apart. As such, for a kye work,
solidarity is a must.
Besides the kye, there are other cooperative activities-planting, the building of bridges
and roads, the digging of wells, shamanistic rites, etc. Whatever the case, people
participate with a spirit of cooperation and cheerfulness. Farm work by such collective
labor is called ture and historical records show that this custom appeared as far back as
the Shilla Kingdom. In Shilla villages, women and girls would gather on moonlit nights in
groups and compete in weaving. The ture weaving gathering is a good example of combining
work with play.
With the development of the textile industry, ture weaving disappeared, but in rural areas
the custom still exists and is associated with such tasks as the transplanting of
seedlings, weeding and rice harvesting. As this work needs to be done quickly and within a
certain time frame, village leaders must prioritize projects and the composition of the
ture. When the ture is underway, pennants and banners planted around the field identify
the work area. Music, the rhythm aiding in the collective movements of the workers,
usually accompanies transplanting and weeding. Going to and from the fields is accompanied
by much singing and often, a farmers' band.
When the communal work is completed, the total man-days and amount of work are calculated
and payment is made by the landowners. With this payment, a sum of money is added to the
village welfare fund, and a certain amount is usually set aside for a day of drinking and
Some of these funds, as well as donations, may be used for the financing of shamanistic
rites as it is believed that certain gods control certain functions of the community. It
is most important that all villagers take part in these rites, whether through actual
performances or observance. In some ceremonies, such as the rain rite, all the adults
participate; in others, only selected members of the community who are regarded as
ritually clean perform the rites.
Highly illustrative of the Korean spirit of cooperation are games and dances, such as
Kanggangsuwollae, mask dances, and tug of war, performed at festivals and on special
occasions. Another game is the Ch'ajon Nori or "juggernaut battle" in which
wooden vehicles are used for people to ride in and be pushed about. The preparations that
go into these events are extensive, particularly as much labor is required to cut, carve
and build the wooden vehicles.
Another event is the tug of war game, requiring the participation of entire villages. Each
village or township must make a straw rope of a prescribed thickness and length. On the
day of the contest, the team representatives, sometimes numbering as many as a hundred,
bring the rope to the chosen site. All of the ropes are then connected and the tug of war
begins. One side of the rope is considered female and the other side male. It is hoped
that the female side will win as it is symbolic of a good harvest.
Although many of these customs are disappearing, or revived solely for their recreational
or aesthetic value, they are representative of the Korean people, their customs and