Historical Perspectives on Chuseok, and some questions about “tradition”

JoongAng Daily articles on Chuseok (in pdf format)

Yes, here are a few articles on the Korean Harvest Moon festival called Chuseok. It’s on right now, and today’s newspaper had some interesting discussions about the history and context of Chuseok. Did you know it was once basically a competition day when women tried to outdo one another in weaving, dancing, and singing. Of course, there was also feasting.

There’s also something quite interesting in the same article I’m describing, titled “Chuseok Drudgery not for queens”, that mentions periods in history when dangerous situations sometimes caused Korean royalty to abstain from the (now required yearly) pilgrimages to ancestral hometowns for the Confucian ancestor-honoring ceremonies. In fact, before Confucianism affected the holiday it seems it was more of a plain old harvest festival. Confucianism seems to have had two major effects: to create the ancestor-honoring tradition, and to make the holiday a hell for women.

I’ve heard some ajumas (married women, often housewives but not always) speak with dread about these holidays. The inordinate amount of cooking and household preparation involved often creates enormous amounts of stress, often compounded by the knowledge that one’s husband’s mother is likely to scrutinize (and unfortunately all too often, criticize) everything that the wife has prepared. I’ve actually heard of Chuseok being a time of nervous breakdowns for women.

But not all families are like that. The family I visited all rose early, though the mother rose earlier than the others by several hours… but it was a fairly harmonious time, at least as far as I could tell.

Still, what I find endlessly interesting is how focused people are on what a “traditional” Korean holiday is… but how old is tradition? If China was an oppressor, why is the Chinese element in Chuseok still so ascendant? It reminds me of an argument I had with a student once. He was explaining how awful and offensive it was that, during the Japanese occupation, Koreans were forced to cut their hair. He said that no Korean ever would accept Japanese values. He said to me outright that all changes in values were wrong, especially if they came from outside Korea. I asked him why he hadn’t grown a queue like his forefathers, since the Japanese domination was now long over. He didn’t have much of an answer. It reminds me of a quote I have pasted aside for another discussion on another blog, actually, but here it is:

…the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes into contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same cases which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

We always seem to want to use tradition to justify things, and Korea is no exception. Yet our real lives are so far from anything like the really traditional world.

Is there any tradition that is not, in its traditionalness, mainly myth? I am trying to think of one. I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “Historical Perspectives on Chuseok, and some questions about “tradition”

  1. Yes, it’s somewhat ironic that I have never imagined how far it goes back. But I definitely know how American Thanksgiving day is originated. What a shameful it is! My thought regarding your another question is that we Koreans do not seem to consider Chinese as an ex-Oppressor even though they were arrogant historically.

  2. Ah. Well, I have noticed that most people don’t think that way…. but some of my Koreans friends talk about China very realistically… saying that China was as much of an enemy to Korea as Japan was… One guy I know even claimed China had all kinds of evil conspiracies running in Korea (some of his examples sounded pretty unrealistic, but… I suppose one never knows).

    As for history, I guess all that historical study that kids do in school is about of the same kind I had to do in middle school and high school… I knew something about World War II once I graduated, but I didn’t know much about Rome, about the British Empire that most of the English-speaking world was once part of, about Asia, or even about my own (local, as in Saskatchewan) cultural history. I knew about the Riel rebellion, but only because teaching about Natives and Metis in Canada was fashionable then. Nobody told us of Riel’s mental breakdowns or religious fanaticism, either.

    Still, I am surprised that Korea doesn’t look toward China unfavorably. There seems to be a kind of strong respect, more than anything, and a kind of optimism that China will someday be very powerful and lead the world. I don’t know if this optimism is tied to the hope of the end of American domination of the world, a kind of fellow-Asian pride, or the wish for a more amicable alliance with the world’s hegemon (and maybe a little reunification feeling has something to do with it…).

    But I’m sure, over all of it’s history, China has done Korea almost as much bad as Japan did.

    By the way: I think it’s likely that most of us know the popular American myth of Thanksgiving, but of course Europeans were celebrating the harvest all the time, all the way back to the time when agriculture first showed up. The American story shows a wonderful picture of unity between the Puritans and the Indians, but I’m not sure how much that reflects actual history. The Puritans seem to me to have been likely to be scared of the Indians and thinking of them as “dirty savages”; so it’s not hard for me to imagine the Puritans only using alliances to aid them in surviving the new and harsh environment of North America. Similarly, I doubt the Indians were so convinced that peace and brotherhood with these new strange people would be so easy. And, of course, all the Indian Wars after never get mentioned in the Thanksgiving story. They don’t really need to, because after all, they lost. And anyway, the bounty and freedom that America celebrates at Thanksgiving was only available because they lost. So the holiday is, implicitly, a celebration of their loss of the war.

    But that never gets mentioned. Wonder why…?

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