Site icon

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.

Exit mobile version