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Birth

From ancient times, Korean women have been encouraged to produce male children. In the past, prosperity was judged by the number of male offspring in a family. No matter how many daughters were born, the absence of a male child was grounds for divorce, and men often took concubines with the hope of fathering a son.

The idea of son preference is rooted deeply in the Confucian patriarchal system. It was the women's duty to produce a male heir to ensure the continuance of her husband's bloodline so that he can perform important ancestral rites.

As the birth of a son was considered a blessing from various spirits, many prayers and rituals were undertaken by women with the hope of receiving such a blessing. Women often prayed and made offerings to the samshin halmoni (grandmother spirit), the Big Dipper, mountain spirits, Buddha, and to certain rocks and trees considered to be sacred. According to the myth of Korea's founding, such an offering was made by the mother of Tan-gun, the founder of Korea, under a large tree before his birth. These shrines were usually visited and prayers offered in the dead of night or in the early dawn after certain ablutions had taken place. A woman might make such offerings for a period of anywhere between 21 to 100 days.

Of these spirits, samshin halmoni was most associated with childbirth, for not only did Koreans believe this spirit had a hand in the birth of children, it was also believed that it cared for the child's growth and rearing as well. Folding white paper or some clean straw in a corner of the anbang (used by the housewife room in the traditional Korean house), this make-shift shrine was used as a place for women to bring offerings and say their prayers. Only with the protection of samshin halmConi, it was believed, could an easy birth occur and the mother's quick recovery be assured. The Mongolian spot, or blue mark found on the buttocks of Asian infants was thought to be the place where the spirit slaps the infant to bring it to life.

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When pregnancy occurs, there are many rules and taboos that must be observed to ensure a healthy child and a safe delivery. The woman must not approach nor do anything considered to be unclean. She must not kill anything. She must be careful where she urinates and must not step over a straw rope, steal or do other mischievous things. If the woman does any of these things it is believed she will either have a difficult delivery, bear a child that may be retarded or diseased, or cause some other misfortune befalling the family. Also, there are many foods such as rabbit, squid, crab, eggs and peaches that are considered harmful to eat. It was thought, for example, that if the mother consumed a great deal of chicken, the skin of the child would be prickly like a chicken; likewise, if she ate a large share of duck meat, the child would walk like a duck. For the health of the child and the mother, all of the family members cooperated and saw to it that these taboos were enforced.

As the time of delivery approaches, the fireplace and holes in paper doors should not be repaired, and the family should not see a burning house as they are considered bad luck and will adversely affect the unborn child. To ensure an easy delivery, all doors are kept open, the husband's clothes are used as quilts, and clothes are borrowed from a woman who had an easy childbirth to cover the woman from the onset of labor.

There are various ways of trying to determine the gender of the unborn child. Some involve the physical appearance of the pregnant woman, others involve dream interpretation; still others involve complicated calculations based on the ages of the parents. If the mother dreams about horses, oxen, dragons, tigers, bears, or other large animals, she will deliver a male child. If she dreams of flowers or toys that girls play with, she will deliver a female child.

Upon the birth of a child, a straw rope, or kumchul, is hung across the gate to the house. These talismans are used to frighten away evil spirits as well as to warn people not to enter the premises, as a child has recently been born. The rope, twisted in a leftward spiral, is usually intertwined with pine branches and red peppers, signifying a male, or pine branches and charcoal indicating a female. This custom varies from region to region with seaweed, small rocks and pieces of paper often intertwined in the rope. The kumchul is usually posted for 21 days. If more children are desired, the placenta and afterbirth are burned under the eaves of the house. If no more children are desired, these are burned some distance from the house, usually in a clean, sunny place on the side of a mountain. The ashes are often scattered to the winds or in a river.

For seven days after childbirth, rice and seaweed soup are offered to the samshin halmoni during the mornings and evenings. These foods are then eaten by the mother to aid in her recovery. Special offerings are made on the 14th and 21st days after birth.

Family members are careful not to show their happiness over the birth of a child and do not speak of its beauty or health, as such behavior and speech are thought to make the spirits jealous, thereby causing potential harm to the child. To ensure that this does not happen, children are often given lowly nicknames like Dog's Dung, Straw Bag and Stonehead. Also, in order to keep the spirits happy, no animals are butchered and people in mourning and those who have seen a funeral are not permitted to enter the house. It is feared such behavior will bring the wrath of the spirits on the family, and especially, on the newborn child.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy


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