The formalities of growing up

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The formalities of growing up


Illustration by Baek Bo-hyun

The master of ceremonies approached one of the adolescents at the coming-of-age ceremony. In his hand, he held a black hat known as a bokgeon.

“You are now indeed a fully grown man,” said Lee Chung-seung, placing the hat on the young man’s head. “Wash away the heart of a child and learn a man’s state of mind. Aspire to greatness.”

Kim In-hwan, 20, then bowed deeply and Lee once again proclaimed that Kim had become a man.

“I pledge that I will fulfill the necessary duties of a fully grown man with the proper rights and sanctities,” Kim said, his head bowed.

After receiving the bokgeon, the man-to-be was offered a sip of rice wine and was given a pen name in Chinese characters referencing a virtue, such as “respect” or “honesty,” and then given a fake topknot, a throwback to the days when Korean men wore their hair in that style. The coming-of-age ceremony was taking place at Seoul Namsan Gugakdang in Pil-dong, central Seoul, for young adults who were turning 20.


Kim In-hwan (kneeling), 20, receives his first “official” glass of rice wine at the inaugural monthly coming-of-age ceremony at Seoul Namsan Gugakdang in Pil-dong, central Seoul.[YONHAP]

“I bow in thanks to my ancestors and parents for raising me until this day,” Kim intoned at the formal occasion, the first following an agreement between the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts and the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family to hold joint ceremonies every month as part of a drive to reinvigorate an age-old custom that has dwindled in popularity in recent years.

When you “officially” become an adult these days, you are more likely to get a bunch of roses or excessive amounts of alcohol in a bar with your friends than submit to a formal ceremony involving different hats and Confucian customs.

Yet in the past, coming-of-age was one of four rituals boys and girls would experience in their lifetimes, the others being ancestor worship, marriages and funerals.

In the olden days, there were different ceremonies for boys and girls held at different hours on the same day. The most important part for young men in upper-class yangban families was gwallye, when the man’s hair was tied in a topknot and he put on a gat, a traditional cylindrical hat woven from horsehair, for the first time. He would also wear durumagi, a full-length traditional Korean jacket, and sip his first drop of alcohol.

For male commoners, the custom was more straightforward: They were forced to pick up a heavy stone to test if they could cope with the responsibilities of adulthood.

The ceremony for girls was called the gyerye. Like the boys, girls had to change clothes several times, bow to elders and receive a pen name. But they drank tea, not wine, and had to fix their braided hair with a binyeo, an ornamental hairpin, as seen on historical TV dramas.

In fact, these customs didn’t die out as long ago as most people expect. They survived through to the first half of the 20th century, and even as recently as 1973 the former Commission of Youth Protection made every third Monday in May a special day for celebrating the journey to adulthood.

But the custom gradually died out as a fixture on the calendar, and the new monthly ceremonies in Pil-dong are the first regular attempt at reviving the culture.


Young men and women take part in a coming-of-age ceremony in City Hall Plaza, central Seoul. [JoongAng Ilbo]

“The new monthly ceremony is very meaningful because it shows the possibility that a lost tradition can be revived and become part of everyday life once again,” said Seong Youn-ho of the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs.

Seong works on another project aimed at breathing life into coming-of-age ceremonies, the traditional ceremonies at Seoul City Plaza and Gyeonghui Palace that the Seoul city government has also been holding since 1985. In addition, the national government gives 20 million won ($14,500) per year to regional community centers and schools that hold coming-of-age rituals.

Others involved in the new monthly ceremonies on Namsan in the capital insist the ceremony is an important step for young people to take as they approach adulthood.

“The traditional coming-of-age ceremony is a rite of passage that proclaims the initiation of being an adult,” said Han Nan-young of the Seoul Foundation of Women and Family. “It’s a must to rejoice together on your 20th birthday and think about the social responsibility you hold as an adult.”

And the ceremony has to be treated with the appropriate degree of solemnity. “Ten participants [at the monthly Namsan ceremonies]are ideal,” said Kwon Kum-ja, the vice president of the Korean Youth and Women Culture Council. “If there are too many, the ceremony will become too superficial. The ritual is more than a simple event - it’s a transition in life.”

Youngsters like Choi Jee-hyun who took part in the ceremony at Seoul Namsan Gugakdang said society needed rites like the coming-of-age ceremony, and she bemoaned the way traditional customs were fizzling out.

“Honestly speaking, friends my age don’t care much about tradition,” Choi said. “For example, we hardly wear hanbok [traditional Korean clothes] anymore.”

For Choi, the ceremony was important because she had to endure something physically painful.

“It hurt when a binyeo [hairpin] was put in my hair, but I realized I had to put up with this kind of pain to truly become an adult,” she said.

Ryeo Moon-pil of Sungkyunkwan, Korea’s oldest institution of Confucian learning, located in Jongno, Seoul, fully supports the new monthly ceremonies, emphasizing that young people need to respect the importance of adulthood. Sungkyunkwan was founded in the 13th century and teaches Confucian values and holds courses on traditional manners.

Similar ceremonies are still practiced in other countries today, such as in Japan where the rites date back hundreds of years. Most towns would have a boardinghouse for teenagers, and when youngsters entered they couldn’t go home before they got married. Though the boardinghouses don’t exist anymore, the significance of their role remains.

In addition, Japanese teenagers about to turn 19 follow traditional rituals at their local prefectural offices every Jan. 15, a national holiday in their country since 1948. On this day, the government sends you a postcard saying, “You are now fully an adult.”

Further afield, the Ethiopian Hamar tribe won’t give its members a formal name until they have gone through the ceremony. Instead, they get called names like “donkey.” The test goes like this: When you turn 12, you have to leap over a row of cows. If you fail, you’re the butt of jokes for the rest of your life. If you succeed, you earn the respect of the community and become a man.

This month’s ceremony takes place next Thursday at 5 p.m. at Namsan Gugakdang. Anyone born in 1989 is welcome to apply, including foreigners (, 02 810-5056). The deadline is tomorrow.

By Lee Eun-joo Staff Reporter []
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