Korean Family Customs - Main
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Kye, meaning agreement or bond, is a social organization based upon the principle of mutual cooperation and aid with a specific objective. Although there are many different types of kye, all of them collect dues and manage funds. One type of kye is the wich'in-gye, literally meaning kye for parents. This kye is organized by those who have aged parents in order to provide for their hwan-gap or 60th birthday celebration. This is a special celebration for Koreans as few people in the past lived to be 60. With the increased longevity in recent years, the 70th birthday anniversary is also often observed. Children must honor their parents at this time with a large party. As it usually involves many guests, food and entertainment, it is quite costly. In order to prepare for this expensive event, money or rice is collected, either monthly or annually, to help each member to defray the cost of the celebration.
Traditionally, people prepared splendid funerals as expressions of their filial piety, and these also tended to be costly. To prepare for a parent's funeral, some people have formed a sangjo-gye. In such a kye, not only are there monetary benefits, but kye members also all pitch in to carry the bier, to serve as messengers, to dig the grave, etc.
Weddings also are expensive events as they not only entail the exchange of gifts and dowry, including bedding, furniture and household utensils, but also several large parties to entertain guests. This is often more than one household can afford so the wedding kye is popular.
The village kye is characterized by the admission of all villagers. It collects an agreed-upon sum of money from each family and sometimes raises funds through collective work such as ture (cooperative farming). The village kye has no specific purpose other than helping villagers through unexpected times of need or building and repairing facilities for the community.
Lately, kye characterized by monetary interests are becoming very popular among housewives in large cities as they not only provide extra cash but also opportunities for getting together, exchanging gossip and partying. The conventional kye, however, is based on mutual aid and cooperation, with each member performing his duties as if it were his own business. It is difficult to maintain a kye; if some members do not pay their dues or renege on their duties, the kye will eventually fall apart. As such, for a kye work, solidarity is a must.
Besides the kye, there are other cooperative activities-planting, the building of bridges and roads, the digging of wells, shamanistic rites, etc. Whatever the case, people participate with a spirit of cooperation and cheerfulness. Farm work by such collective labor is called ture and historical records show that this custom appeared as far back as the Shilla Kingdom. In Shilla villages, women and girls would gather on moonlit nights in groups and compete in weaving. The ture weaving gathering is a good example of combining work with play.
With the development of the textile industry, ture weaving disappeared, but in rural areas the custom still exists and is associated with such tasks as the transplanting of seedlings, weeding and rice harvesting. As this work needs to be done quickly and within a certain time frame, village leaders must prioritize projects and the composition of the ture. When the ture is underway, pennants and banners planted around the field identify the work area. Music, the rhythm aiding in the collective movements of the workers, usually accompanies transplanting and weeding. Going to and from the fields is accompanied by much singing and often, a farmers' band.
When the communal work is completed, the total man-days and amount of work are calculated and payment is made by the landowners. With this payment, a sum of money is added to the village welfare fund, and a certain amount is usually set aside for a day of drinking and relaxing.
Some of these funds, as well as donations, may be used for the financing of shamanistic rites as it is believed that certain gods control certain functions of the community. It is most important that all villagers take part in these rites, whether through actual performances or observance. In some ceremonies, such as the rain rite, all the adults participate; in others, only selected members of the community who are regarded as ritually clean perform the rites.
Highly illustrative of the Korean spirit of cooperation are games and dances, such as Kanggangsuwollae, mask dances, and tug of war, performed at festivals and on special occasions. Another game is the Ch'ajon Nori or "juggernaut battle" in which wooden vehicles are used for people to ride in and be pushed about. The preparations that go into these events are extensive, particularly as much labor is required to cut, carve and build the wooden vehicles.
Another event is the tug of war game, requiring the participation of entire villages. Each village or township must make a straw rope of a prescribed thickness and length. On the day of the contest, the team representatives, sometimes numbering as many as a hundred, bring the rope to the chosen site. All of the ropes are then connected and the tug of war begins. One side of the rope is considered female and the other side male. It is hoped that the female side will win as it is symbolic of a good harvest.
Although many of these customs are disappearing, or revived solely for their recreational or aesthetic value, they are representative of the Korean people, their customs and values.
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