[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]'Tis the season for rites and food

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]'Tis the season for rites and food

In the fall of my first year in Korea, when I knew only a little of the Korean language and knew even less about traditional customs, a co-worker of mine told me he would be away for a few days because he was going to the "big house" for Chuseok.

Chuseok is the Korean harvest moon holiday, which will be celebrated this year on Sept. 21.

Of course, I knew immediately that he couldn't possibly mean that he was being thrown into a federal penitentiary, but it took a bit of asking around and looking things up before I figured out that "big house" was just a colloquial way of saying jongga and that "jongga" is an extremely important concept in this highly Confucian society.

Among all the homes of the various members of an extended family, the jongga is the one belonging to the eldest son of the eldest son and so on in direct patrilineal descent. The jongga is where ancestral rites for up to four generations of deceased forebears takes place.

An example may make this clearer. Say you are the eldest son and you have a younger brother. In principle you will continue to live at your father's house even after you marry, and when he passes away, you will not only be responsible for conducting ancestral rites for your father but will also have to take over any ancestral rites that he had been responsible for.

That is, if Dad was also the eldest son, you'll be in charge of your grandfather's rites as well. This can link back as far as your great-great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, your younger brother moves out when he gets married, and he doesn't have to hold any ancestral rites at his home. To him, your house is the "big house" and he comes there for special holiday and commemorative-day rites.

When he dies, however, his oldest boy will have to hold rites for him, which will make your younger brother's house a sort of "branch" jongga. Your home will remain the jongga for the rites for earlier generations.

Being a jongga family wouldn't be so bad if Chuseok were the only day of the year when ancestral rites were held.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Because there are different kinds of rites and because they are held on both certain holidays and on the anniversary of the death of the person being honored, a fourth-generation jongga may have 10 or even more occasions to conduct ancestral rites throughout the year.

This is especially hard on the women of the house, who have to prepare all the necessary foods, drinks, ceremonial utensils and table settings and be ready to host a houseful of nephews, nieces, cousins, and in-laws for at least part of the day. Some visitors from far away may even need to be put up for the night.

These extra duties, along with all the other burdensome responsibilities of having to live with your parents-in-law, helps explain why Korean women don't commonly regard any eldest son as prime material for wedlock.

The general term for ancestral rites in Korean is jesa, and jesa are classified into three types: gije, sije and charye.

"Gije" means "commemorative rite." A gije is held only once a year, on the anniversary of an ancestor's death, traditionally beginning at midnight but nowadays more often starting at eight or nine o'clock in the morning. It is the most important of the three types of ritual.

Sije, or "seasonal rites," are the only ones conducted not at home but at the grave site. In most families, sije are held only twice a year, but some stricter -- and generally wealthier -- families that consider themselves descended from Korea's old yangban upper class conduct these graveside ceremonies four times annually.

The ancestral rites held in the morning on Lunar New Year's Day and on Chuseok are called "charye."

This word literally means "tea ceremony," but the name is misleading because tea is not used in the ceremony, at least not in its current form.

Interestingly, the true tea ceremony used by Koreans is written with the very same Chinese characters but is usually pronounced "darye." The charye ritual is basically a somewhat simplified version of the gije.

About a year after my first encounter with the expression "big house," I wound up rooming at a large jongga in a village north of Daegu.

Although I lived there for nearly two years and saw many of the family relatives come and go on holidays and commemorative days, the rites were always conducted behind tightly closed doors with outsiders barred, arousing my curiosity as to what was going on in there.

I eventually found out, and will describe the rituals and how they've changed in modern Korea in next week's column.


The writer is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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