Family duty: a tradition and a curseNONSAN
Lim Young-suk hasn't slept all night. She's spent the last 32 hours in the kitchen, preparing meals for an ancestral worship ceremony for her husband's clan, the Gwangsan Kim. According to the Korean saying “chulga ouein,” which means a married woman is no longer part of her parents’ family, the duties and ceremonies of the Kim clan are now Ms. Lim’s business. It was the night before the ceremony, and Ms. Lim’s business was certainly booming.
It is three o'clock in the morning in this township in South Chungcheong province, a village so old it is renowned as the site where a famous Baekjae general died in battle against the Silla Kingdom and Tang China.
At the home of Kim Seon-oh, 54, Ms. Lim’s husband, and men who had been playing cards for hours wake up from a long nap. It's still murky outside and bitterly cold. Ms. Lim is the only person truly awake in the darkness. She switches on the gas stove.
In her kitchen, Ms. Lim was overseeing four rice cookers. She has two pots of beef soup boiling on a portable gas range in the laundry room, plus huge plastic containers of cold soup outside on the balcony. She has rock codfish with their stomachs slit open dripping blood in the sink, and baskets of rice cakes sitting on the stool covered in kitchen towels.
“There’s an old saying that the family head of a clan is poor because they spend all their money on food,” says Ms. Lim light-heartedly. “I should've known that.”
Mr. Kim is the eldest son of the head family, a jongson, of the populous Gwangsan Kim clan. He is the 13th descendant of Kim Jip (1574-1656), a Joseon scholar whose family was originally from Gwangsan, South Jeolla province, and who moved to Nonsan before the clan gradually spread across the country.
The unique family history of her husband makes Ms. Lim a “jongbu,” which means the wife of a clan head, but for most Korean women it’s a fate to be avoided ― the notorious amount of housework and strict manners they must adopt means few girls are willing to marry clan heads.
Times have changed and families like Mr. Kim’s conservative and tradition-bound clan are increasingly rare. Most clan heads try to keep the rituals simple and few stay in the hometowns of their ancestors. The Gwangsan Kim are an exception.
The clan is considered one of the most distinguished in Korea due to the number of outstanding scholars the family has produced. It’s the only clan that has a father and son enshrined in Munmyo, a renowned sanctuary in northern Seoul that guards the spirits of major Confucian scholars. Kim Jip and his father, Kim Jang-saeng, are both enshrined there.
Every month, a flock of male descendants of Kim Jip visit Mr. Kim's house and spends the night to participate in the ceremony to honor their ancestory. The ritual is held around 4 a.m., based on an ancient belief that spirits return to their graves after the cocks crow.
Aside from the dozen yearly ceremonies, Ms. Lim must prepare massive family meals for every major holiday, when Ms. Kim's relatives come from across the country to pray at Kim Jip's shrine, which is located next to her house.
In a Confucian society, being a jongbu is a big deal with big status. It is considered beneath a jongbu to greet guests at the door or to bow, even to their elders. Visitors who want to talk to a jongbu must come to their room to speak in person. The sheltered nature of their lives is itself a symbol of dignity based on the Confucian notion of the ideal woman.
Korea is far less of a Confucian society than it used to be, but some elements of the jongbu mentality have survived.
Less than a decade ago, a family of servants lived next door to the Kim house and helped out with the family work. Mr. Kim eventually told the servant family to leave and move far away. “We can’t see each other, because I can’t start speaking to you in honorifics,” he said.
Mr. Kim, 54, still calls elders in his family without honorifics, an unusual right in a culture in which age judges the structure of hierarchy.
Nowadays, being a jongbu is considered more of a hassle than a benefit, especially if the clan is as large as the Gwangsan Kim.
Once a man becomes a jongson, he is expected to live in the town of his ancestor and in the clan house. He is the guardian of the family shrine and must honor its spirits. This is also expected of Ms. Lim’s son, who at 27 is a college student in Seoul.
“I wonder if he’ll ever find a woman,” she says. “Who knows, they say love is blind.”
These heavy expectations can easily crush an individual’s dreams. Mr. Kim’s father, for instance, was an intelligent man who graduated from Meiji University in Tokyo. Once he graduated, however, he had to move back to Nonsan.
“I think the whole situation left him deeply discouraged, with a sense of failure,” says Kim Yong-woo, a relative. "You can only imagine. All his friends from Meiji became ministers and national assemblymen. And there he was, working as a journalist at a small-town newspaper."
Mr. Kim’s father died drunk when he was hit by a train in front of his house. He was 47. His son, Ms. Lim's husband, was 15.
Mr. Kim’s mother prevented him from going to college on the theory that he would only wind up feeling as depressed as his father had after losing his college dreams to his family duties.
Ms. Lim met her husband when she was 25. It was a marriage arranged by their parents. She said her mother, who was against the marriage at first, warned her that things would not be easy.
“If I had really known, though,” she says, “I would have thought twice before marrying him. I didn’t. But I guess that’s life.”
By 4 a.m., the screens that form the backdrop for the ritual have been spread out and the incense is lit. The men have put on their robes.
By early noon, about 20 people have come. It might have been the cold weather, she says. Usually anywhere from 30 to 50 people come. “They come in snow or rain,” she says, smiling.
Ms. Lim is almost, but not quite, done with the work for the ceremony. She starts to prepare a table for the guests. Once the worship ritual is over, the guests will have an early breakfast and head home. Others stay until noon to meet their relatives.
“They wonder how I do it,” Ms. Lim says, smiling, “I just do it, because they’ve done it too.”
by Park Soo-mee
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