[FOUNTAIN]Growing Up, by the NumbersLast year, controversy surrounded the movie "ChunHyang (1999)," directed by Im Kwon-taek, a cinematization of Korea's traditional folk tale about love beyond the boundaries of social class.
Lee Hyo-jung, then a high-school freshman, was cast in the leading role as ChunHyang. Because she was 16 years old at the time of the shooting, the same age as ChunHyang, the Commission on Youth Protection took issue with a sex scene in the film. Finally, producers of the film had to cut a large part of the scene to end the controversy. People were all the more surprised by the fact that, contrary to the general perception of ChunHyang as an adult, the character was only 16 years old.
But she is a minor only under the current standard. In past times, she would have been an indisputable adult. According to Chu Hsi's Family Rituals, a 12th-century Chinese manual for the performance of cappings, weddings, funerals and ancestral rites, men were to undergo a capping ceremony between ages 15 and 20, the first of the four most important rites of passage. A boy wore his ponytailed hair in a knot and put on a black horsehair cap, while a girl had her hair done up in a chignon with an ornamental hairpin through it. After this coming-of-age ceremony boys and girls were treated as adults and received concomitant respect. So according to the custom of those days, the "hot" romance between ChunHyang and her noble boyfriend posed no problem. Indeed, Juliet in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was 15 years old.
In modern society, it takes longer to come of age, and most civilized cultures consider an affair with a 16-year-old illegal. Different countries have different definitions of the age of majority. Germany, France and most U.S. states set it at 18, Austria at 19 and Japan at 20. In Italy adulthood comes at 21.
Korean law uses different definitions of adulthood. Under a law modeled after Japanese law, one comes of age at 20, with the rights and duties of an independent person. He can vote and join a political party. He is free to enter into marriage or sign contracts. In Korea, a man must join the military. But the Youth Protection Law defines adulthood at 19 or older, and thus collides with the practice of selling alcohol and cigarettes to underage university students.
The government reportedly plans to lower the age of majority to 19. It may be right to do so, considering that even middle-schoolers are often physically larger than their parents. The plan would have an impact on society as laws are rewritten. Politicians seem to be interested in the readjustment because it would increase the number of people with voting rights. Who will benefit from more young voters?
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo's Berlin correspondent.
by Yoo Jae-sik