Chuseok and veneration of one’s elders

Bomi Yoon


By Yi Woo-won

The Chuseok holiday was so pretty and enjoyable against the gorgeous autumn. Some people say it’s similar to Thanksgiving Day. Maybe somewhat, but not quite. The highlights of Chuseok are: a big gathering of family members from across the country at the ancestral home, abundant preparations of food and the memorial ritual to invite the deceased family ancestors ― popularly known as “charye” in Korean. But before the ritual, there are two more essentials: “beolcho” (tidying the gravesites and “seongmyo” (visiting the ancestors at the graves with offerings).

Charye, the time-honored elaborate ceremony is associated with one of the ethical teachings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), i.e. ancestral worship. Traditionally, the food for charye is prepared by the female members of the family, but offered to the ancestors by male members, bowing deeply onto their knees. Yet, the principles seem to be a bit flexible nowadays. In contemporary Korea, the vast majority of people seem to believe that their deceased ancestors are still part of their family and their spirits have the power to influence the affairs of the living.

Confucius was a great philosopher and scholar-teacher, whose moral guidelines were based on peace and social harmony. His teachings advocated, among many things, loyalty to the state; the proprieties and love within the family; respect for one’s elders and ancestor worship. Confucius placed the foremost emphasis on “filial piety” or “xiao” in Chinese and “hyo” in Korean, the virtue of respect for one’s parents and by extension for elders and ancestors. He taught his disciples that “filial piety” is the root of all virtues, from which grow other proprieties.

Confucianism had extensive influence in Korea during the Yi Dynasty, suppressing the development of Buddhism during the Goryeo period. Its teachings of moral conduct pervaded every aspect of life in traditional Korean societies. Besides, the Confucian moral ideology was so readily accepted and followed faithfully by most of the Korean people that historically, the Chinese often referred to Koreans as “the white-clad courteous people of the Orient.”

However, under the rigid Confucian doctrine of ethics and social stratum, Korea had turned into a male-dominant society, in which the status of women was extremely restricted and lowered. A woman was expected to produce a son to maintain the family genealogy. Education for women was generally discouraged and remarriage was disapproved for women, while it was encouraged for men when the previous wife produced no sons. I assume these traditional beliefs and customs had prevailed until my parents’ generation.

About a decade or so ago, I had an unexpected arrangement to meet my former high school student at Waegwan train station. He was coming all the way from Seoul just to see me, saying he had missed me. He said he would wear a light blue jacket to make it easy to recognize him. It was a great surprise to meet him, but hard to believe. It was back in 1957, more than half a century before that I had taught him. It was shortly after I had started teaching at a night high school in Daegu after the Korean War. He said he was now 80 years old; I’m just a few years older.

I found my former student Keon-bae in his blue jacket, but he was a total stranger to me. (He used to be the class monitor in my senior class.) Yet we were so happy and hugged tightly, looking at each other again and again, trying to recall the images of those bygone years. It was close to lunch time, so I walked with him to a restaurant across the station square.

When we arrived at the restaurant, he rushed to the corner of the room and brought a cushion, asking me to sit down. I knew immediately what he was up to and tried to stop him, but it was too late. He had already started giving me the most courteous bow by kneeling on the floor – a traditional decorum for reverence from a student to his former teacher. I was so deeply moved by his truly sincere politeness that my eyes suddenly glistened with tears. Half a dozen customers who were there all stood up, clapping their hands to us admiringly.


Yi Woo-won ( lives in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province, and has been writing since 1986.

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