The Value and Meaning of the Korean Family

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)

We American parents do not want to cling to our children. We fear we will cripple them emotionally, and they will not "make it" on their own. Most of us do not assume our children will support us when we are old, and most dare not expect to live with them when we can no longer care for ourselves. We require no specific obligations from our children beyond a vaguely defined respect that includes burying us. In our 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 agree that they, as individuals, should think of themselves as separate from their parents and families. The close family ties and dependencies valued so highly in Korea might seem unhealthy to us; we think a child's sense of autonomy necessary to mental health. To Koreans such autonomy 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 and raised them. This debt lies behind the idea of filial duty: treating parents respectfully at all times, taking care of them in their old age, mourning them well at proper funerals, and performing ceremonies for them after their deaths. Even fulfilling these duties, however, is not enough to repay the debt to one's parents. The full repayment also entails having children and maintaining the continuity of the family line. The continuity of the family is thus a biological fact which human society, in accordance with natural law, should reflect.

Man's existence does not begin with a cut-off point called birth. Nor does it end with death as a terminus. A part of him has been in continuous biological existence from his very first progenitor. A part of him has been living, in existence, with every one of the intervening ancestors. Now he exists as part of that continuum. After his death, apart of him continues to exist as long as his biological descendants continue to live.*

Koreans incorporate the fact of biological continuity into their family life according to ancient ideas of birth and conception. Mothers traditionally were thought to produce the flesh of their children, and fathers 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 life was harmonious could be peaceful and prosperous. The state, indeed the universe, was the family writ large—with the Chinese emperor, the patriarchal link to cosmic forces (through rituals he performed), and the Korean king his younger brother. This conception of the universities the warm feelings of attachment and dependence generated within the family to all human relationships. Confucians celebrated this link with a symbol of smaller circles within larger, the ever widening sphere of human relationships from the self, to the family, to society, to the universe.

Blood-ties make affection spontaneous among kin. Even beasts and fowl share this faculty with human beings. Kinship provides the primary interpersonal context in which a child learns to give and receive affection with other human beings. With this preparation, a child extends his network of human interaction with non-kin. A person who is capable of strong emotional involvement with others is regarded as possessing ample humanity. Intense emotion denotes powerful interpersonal commitment. Affection warms even the heart of the dead.It alleviates the numbing cold of a burial chamber. *

The Traditional Family

Though Koreans thought blood relationships natural and ideal starting points for good relationships outside the family, they never assumed that happy family life emerged spontaneously. Harmony and smooth flow of affection were seen as the result of proper patriarchal regulation of women and children. The family should be run as a "benevolent monarchy," the eldest male as household head. Sons remained home after they married, while daughters went to live with their husbands'families.

Although historically younger sons and their wives eventually split from their extended families after a few years of marriage, they lived nearby, socially dependent on their grandfathers, fathers and elder brothers. Eldest sons succeeded to the family leadership and inherited the bulk of the wealth. They did not leave their extended families because they were responsible for their aged parents. When their parents died, eldest sons adhered to complex mourning restrictions for one to three years, and conducted annual memorial ceremonies for their parents and other members of their family line. As long as there were sons to take over family leadership when their fathers died, families were maintained indefinitely.

Young children in Korea were (and are) indulged; toilet training was relaxed, and discipline began much later than in American families.Koreans felt there was no point disciplining children before they were old enough to reason. By the time a child reached six or seven,however, training began in earnest: parents began the strict separation of girls and boys, in accordance with Confucian ethics, and they trained children to use the respectful voice to those older or more socially prominent.

By the time he reached seven a boy knew that he must use the respectful mode of speech to his older brother, and he knew that failure to do so would result in swift and certain punishment. Boys from most families were taught to read and write the native Korean alphabet (Han'gul), and in many families, to read and write classical Chinese as well. Girls,however, were considered "outsiders who will leave the family," and the majority were not taught to read or write even the Korean alphabet. A girl by seven usually knew her position in the family was inferior to her brothers' because when she married she left the family.

Under the old family system parents arranged marriages without the consent of their children, either female or male. Since daughters left their parents to live with their husbands' families, marriage was often traumatic for them. New wives, of course, tried to please their husbands, but more important, they had to please their mothers-in-law.The mother-in-law directed the new wife in her housework and had the power to send the bride back home in disgrace if the bride seriously displeased her. Sometimes this adjustment was hard for the bride. A humorous Korean proverb says that a new bride must be "three years deaf, three years dumb, and three years blind." The bride should not be upset by scolding, better not to hear at all. She should not lose her temper and say things she might regret later, better not to talk at all. Since she should not criticize anything in her new house, she would be better off blind. Most daughters-in-law adjusted to their new lives because most mothers-in-law were glad to have a good daughter-in-law to help with the housework. Once the daughter-in-law had a son, her place in the family was secure.

The Confucian ideal of strict separation of males and females led to division of labor into inside and outside work. Men labored outside,taking care of major field crops, while women worked inside doing housework, spinning, weaving and cooking. Poor women had no choice but to work in the fields, at least occasionally, but the more elite a family, the more unlikely its women would be seen outside the house compound. Traditional Koreans glorified the modest gentry woman who died in a burning house rather than leave her seclusion.** Queen Inhyon, a model of feminine modesty for two centuries, sequestered herself to her private rooms after being wrongfully dethroned.

Although this division of labor was a matter of principle for the elite, ordinary people found it a matter of practical survival. For farming households, the inside-outside division worked well; women could stay home with their children while working. But where this division of labor undermined economic survival, other divisions were adopted—despite the loss of family status in deviating from theConfucian ideal. For example, in fishing villages on islands off the south coast of Korea, male and female roles were regularly reversed. In these nonagricultural areas, women provided family income by diving for seaweed, shellfish and other edibles. In other parts of Korea women sometimes earned a living as shamans, religious specialists who tended to the spiritual welfare of their clients by performing ceremonies for them.*** In either case, when females provided most of the family income, male and female roles could be reversed with men at home and women running the family.

Changes In The Family Structure Since 1960

After liberation from the Japanese in 1945, Korean scholars and lawyers revised Korea's legal structure. They revised family, as well as commercial, law to accommodate relationships more suited to the industrial society they hoped to build. Now most Koreans live in cities and work in factories or large companies and no longer farm. Large extended families, which cannot fit into crowded city apartments, are difficult to maintain. Since people often move to find work, eldest sons often cannot live with their parents. The New Civil Code of 1958legalized changes favoring these new conditions. Essentially, the new code weakened the power of the house head and strengthened the husband-wife relationship.

Today the house head cannot determine where family members live. The eldest son can now leave home against his father's will. Husbands and wives share the power to determine the education and punishment of the children. Children can decide on their own marriages, and parental permission is not required if they are of age. Younger sons leave their parents to form their own families when they marry, and the house head no longer has the legal right to manage all family property. Since implementation of the New Civil Code, all children have equal claim to their parents' property.

The marriage system had already changed by World War II. Some families allowed children to meet and approve prospective spouses. The experience of the politician Kim Yongsam during the 1950s is typical of marriages among non-traditionalists, even before the revision of the legal code.

Kim recalls that his family sent him a deceptive telegram informing him that his beloved grandfather was dying. Rushing home Kim found he had been lured into a trap. His family pressed him to do his duty as eldest son and marry immediately. Reluctantly he agreed to go with a friend of the family who had arranged visits to the homes of prospective brides-- three in the morning, three more in the afternoon. The woman he eventually married impressed him with her ability to discuss Dostoevsky and Hugo. Kim's parents were liberal but in the past 30 years children have gained even more control over who they marry.

Love matches are no longer frowned upon, but arranged marriages are still more common. Couples and their parents have formal meetings infancy tearooms to size each other up, and some go through dozens of these meetings before finding a partner. Even couples who marry for love often ask their parents to arrange the marriage to observe traditional good form.

Arranged marriages continue to be popular because young men and women in Korea find casual socializing awkward and often feel they lack the experience to choose their own partners. Although casual dating is now more common, most interaction between young men and women occurs in groups. Elaborate games like lotteries are sometimes used to match people; young Koreans find the potential rejection involved in asking for a date overwhelming. Arranged marriages also seem safe because the go-between clearly appraises the social backgrounds of the bride and groom. After their engagement, a couple will date so they know each other well by the time they marry. This pattern is so common thatKoreans assume that a young couple who date regularly will be married.

A study of the large city of Taegu done in the 1970s found that 83% of young married couples had arranged marriages. The husbands in arranged marriages and in love matches were about equally satisfied. Wives in love matches were only slightly more satisfied than those in arranged marriages.

In spite of the recent changes, fundamental characteristics of the traditional Korean family remain. Each person in the family still has a clearly defined role, each dependent on others within the family unit.Koreans adapt their traditional ideas of spiritual and biological interdependence within the family to new conditions. The modern short story, "Sufferings for Father and Son," by Han Keun-chan illustrates a specific case. A father picks up his son returning from the Korean War.At the railway station the father sees that his son has had one of his legs amputated. The father himself lost an arm during forced labor under the Japanese. Walking home they come to a stream. The father loads his son on his back and with one remaining arm, holds his son'sone remaining leg, and whispers, "you do what you can do by sitting,and I will do what I can by running about."****

The family still retains a male house head. Inheritance of family leadership still continues through the father's line, and sons still inherit more wealth than daughters. Children, especially eldest sons,are still legally responsible for the care of their aged parents. The division of labor within the family remains basically the same as before 1958. Men earn the living, and women take care of the house and children. Even when wives work outside the home, husbands usually think it embarrassing to help with housework, and sociologists have found that it is rare for husbands to do so, although some younger ones do help. However, even as we go to press, the situation in Korea changes rapidly, more and more women graduating from college and working outside the home. This change cannot fail to affect divisions of labor dramatically, especially in urban areas.

The structure or the family remains with only peripheral changes, more significant changes in potentia, because the core Confucian values that shaped it are still a great force in Korean life.


* See Hahm Pyong-choon, "The Challenge of Westernization," Korean Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 1982.

** See Laurel Kendall, "Suspect Saviors of Korean Hearths and Homes," Asia, Vol. 3, No. 1, May/June 1980.

*** See Youngsook Kim Harvey, Six Korean Women: The Socialization of Shamans. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1979.

**** See Hwang Soon-won, "A Glimpse of Humour in Korean Literature", inHumour in Literature East and West, Seoul: P.E.N. InternationalCongress, 1970.

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