[OUTLOOK]Chuseok drudgery not for queensThe three biggest traditional holidays in Korean culture are Seolnal, the lunar new year; Dano, the spring festival and Chuseok which falls this year on Sept. 11 by the solar calendar. Sometimes Hansik, marking the 105th day after the winter solstice, is also added to the list.
Chuseok is also called Hangawi in Korean, and is recorded as having been celebrated as early as the fifth year of the reign of King Yuri (28 A.D.) of the Silla Dynasty.
At the time, historical records say, King Yuri divided the women of the six administrative sections of Seorabeol, the capital, into two teams led by two women belonging to the royal family.
The women would compete in their weaving skills from July 16 to Aug. 15, and the side that lost the competition would prepare food and drinks for the other side.
Dancing, singing and games also marked the month-long competition, according to the ancient record “Samguksagi,” or “The History of the Three Kingdoms.”
Chuseok was transformed from a weaving, singing and dancing festival when Confucianism was introduced to Korea. The most important element of the event became the rites for dead ancestors and a demonstration of filial piety.
As recorded in “The Chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty,” Chuseok in those days was the time for noblemen to offer a feast to their parents; those whose parents were already deceased would visit their ancestral burial site to perform rites.
Of all the people of the Joseon Dynasty, the two that most waited for Chuseok were the king and the queen dowager. Although absolute in his power, the Joseon king was not allowed to leave his palace freely.
To the king, Chuseok was a heaven-sent opportunity to leave the palace and venture outside, if only to visit the royal burial sites and offer official ancestral rites. The queen dowager would also eagerly anticipate Chuseok because she would be the guest of honor at a dinner called “jinyeon,” also known as “jinpungjeong,” a grand feast of food, singing and dancing that the king would arrange for her.
But it was not every year that the king and queen dowager would be allowed their delights during Chuseok.
In years when the kingdom had been struck by a famine or another natural disaster, both the visits to the burial sites and the feasts would be postponed or canceled to show penitence to the heavens.
The palace records of Aug. 4 of the 14th year of the reign of King Jungjong contain the following sentence: “[The king] ordered the halt of all feasts in the six administrative government agencies during Chuseok, so as to be careful of any heaven-sent disasters.”
If feasts in honor of living parents were canceled, that meant that visits to the burial sites were also out of the question. When King Jungjong, who had missed his chance to visit the burial sites for several years in a row, tried to visit the relatively closer site called Gwangreung, the third-highest minister of state warned him that there was a plague in northern Pyeongan province and that the stars were showing ominous behavior.
“When there are calamities such as this, wouldn’t it be better to refrain from going out and follow heaven’s advice?” King Jungjong is recorded to have replied, “I shall stay quietly meditating and hope to answer heaven’s rebuke.” He gave up his plan to go to the tombs and stayed in his palace.
What meaning does Chuseok hold in Korean society today?
Has Chuseok, once a feast for women, not become a time when women slave away in the kitchen, while husbands enjoying the full-time subservience of their wives that they could only dream about at other times can idle the hours away playing cards?
Has it also not become the time of year when the grown-up children can take their own children for a trip abroad and forget about their elderly parents at home?
Has it also not become a time when politicians and bureaucrats are stubbornly going their own way, fearless of heaven’s rebuke and indifferent to whether the current calamities are their own doing or someone else’s?
Let’s hope that this year’s Chuseok will become a day when, as in the past, the women and not the men are the guests of honor, a day when all children honor their parents as in the Joseon Dynasty.
Let’s hope it will also become a time when all politicians and bureaucrats fear the heavens.
* The writer is a historian. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Deok-il