Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Value and Meaning of the Korean Family

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)

We American parents do not want to cling to our children. We fear wewill cripple them emotionally, and they will not "make it" on theirown. Most of us do not assume our children will support us when we areold, and most dare not expect to live with them when we can no longercare for ourselves. We require no specific obligations from ourchildren beyond a vaguely defined respect that includes burying us. Inour old age we often try to ask as little as possible from them,preferring independence to "being a burden."

Most Koreans find this bewildering and inhuman. Most would not agreethat they, as individuals, should think of themselves as separate fromtheir parents and families. The close family ties and dependenciesvalued so highly in Korea might seem unhealthy to us; we think achild's sense of autonomy necessary to mental health. To Koreans suchautonomy is not a virtue. "A life in which egos are all autonomous,separate, discrete and self-sufficient [is] too cold, impersonal,lonely and inhuman." *

Children incur a debt to their parents who gave birth to them andraised them. This debt lies behind the idea of filial duty: treatingparents respectfully at all times, taking care of them in their oldage, mourning them well at proper funerals, and performing ceremoniesfor them after their deaths. Even fulfilling these duties, however, isnot enough to repay the debt to one's parents. The full repayment alsoentails having children and maintaining the continuity of the familyline. The continuity of the family is thus a biological fact whichhuman society, in accordance with natural law, should reflect.

Man's existence does not begin with a cut-off point called birth. Nordoes it end with death as a terminus. A part of him has been incontinuous biological existence from his very first progenitor. A partof him has been living, in existence, with every one of the interveningancestors. Now he exists as part of that continuum. After his death, apart of him continues to exist as long as his biological descendantscontinue to live.*

Koreans incorporate the fact of biological continuity into their familylife according to ancient ideas of birth and conception. Motherstraditionally were thought to produce the flesh of their children, andfathers to provide the bones. As bone endures longer than flesh,kinship through males was thought more binding than through females.Even today men pass on membership in their clan to their children,while women do not. Thus, although maternal second cousins may marry,no one with any degree of kinship through males, no matter how remote,can. More than Japanese and Chinese, Koreans adhere to traditionalConfucian principles of family organization. Confucius (6th centuryB.C.) and his followers taught that only a country where family lifewas harmonious could be peaceful and prosperous. The state, indeed theuniverse, was the family writ large -- with the Chinese emperor, thepatriarchal link to cosmic forces (through rituals he performed), andthe Korean king his younger brother. This conception of the universeties the warm feelings of attachment and dependence generated withinthe family to all human relationships. Confucians celebrated this linkwith a symbol of smaller circles within larger, the everwidening sphereof human relationships from the self, to the family, to society, to theuniverse.

Blood-ties make affection spontaneous among kin. Even beasts and fowlshare this faculty with human beings. Kinship provides the primaryinterpersonal context in which a child learns to give and receiveaffection with other human beings. With this preparation, a childextends his network of human interaction with non-kin. A person who iscapable of strong emotional involvement with others is regarded aspossessing ample humanity. Intense emotion denotes powerfulinterpersonal commitment. Affection warms even the heart of the dead.It alleviates the numbing cold of a burial chamber. *