Why Ancestral Rites Should Continue

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Why Ancestral Rites Should Continue

According to government authorities, an estimated 26 million people are expected to travel to their hometowns during this year's Ch'usok holidays, the Harvest Moon Festival falling on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The endless lines of people trapped on the highways are not refugees crossing national borders to flee from occupation forces, nor are they slaves being transported to work on sugar cane farms in a colony somewhere. In fact no one is luring or forcing them to move. I simply cannot overlook this truly amazing migration of millions of people that takes place so naturally each year at nobody's bidding. A riot would have followed if a dictator had ordered such a move. It is not as if these people are facing the threat of persecution like that which propelled the "Great Exodus," nor of plundering or vandalism. Yet the procession of people returning to their homes becomes longer and longer, almost in direct proportion to the growing cry that the globe is now a village and everyone's home: a paradoxical development in this age of globalization. It is therefore with a glad heart that I watch modern Koreans succumbing to the deeply buried homing instinct in all of us.

One of the national slogans Koreans revered throughout the 1960s was "modernization." The call to follow its banner was just as great as today's chorus for globalization. The so-called rural exodus, which attracted the farming labor force en masse into urban areas during the industrialization process, was a requirement of the times that was difficult to defy. As a mark of the pain we suffered in this process, many of us still remember the poverty-stricken shanty towns in the outskirts of the large cities. With an economy boasting the longest working hours and one of the worst industrial hazard records in the world, Koreans gradually managed to escape from the brutal fear created by hunger. Only then did we have the time to take stock of our barren lives in the cities. Today, many of us dream of making an "urban exodus", to escape from the fetters of massive ferro-concrete buildings and from our fellow urbanites whose hearts appear to have become as hard as concrete. It is not as easy as it sounds to make that escape, however.

Ch'usok celebrates the harvest and shows our gratitude for its abundance. There are duties to observe, however, in order to make this national festival really meaningful. Returning to the land where one was born and raised signifies returning to the mother's warm bosom. The great migration that always takes place during the Ch'usok holidays is perhaps a sort of apology for that secret longing to give up everything to return home to the simple life, and a way of compensating for that longing. This is why there can be no condemnation even if Ch'usok ends up being a feast where descendants gorge themselves on food and drink, on the pretext of paying homage to ancestors at their graves and through ancestral rites. Honestly speaking, how can we feel an attachment to or filial piety for our grandfathers and grandmothers who died several generations ago? "Jesa," the Confucian ancestral rite, is a "group meeting" of the living held under the guise of remembering the dead. This is why we have to be thankful for the wisdom of our ancestors who had the foresight to provide us with the opportunity and the procedures.

I do not wish to find fault with the Westernized style of Jesa some people perform today, which involves only the effort of laying a bouquet of flowers and the singing of a hymn. But I cannot help feeling indescribably bitter when some people pay an early visit to the graves of their ancestors, well in advance of the traffic congestion, and then make plans to spend the Ch'usok holidays vacationing in an exotic resort. Some people even go so far as to order "ceremonial meals for two ancestors" from an agency who will perform the Jesa in their stead. I am well aware of the costs of preparing for the rites, not to mention the efforts women have to make. But isn't that what life is all about? My complaints could be taken as the senile laments of an old man whose offspring may soon be commemorating him with a Jesa, but I would still like to see the custom of performing ancestral rites preserved.

by Joseph Chong

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