[WHY] Business meeting or wedding? Korea's unique wedding culture
“It’s easier once you’re married because it says in the ledger how much your guest paid at your wedding, so you gift them the same amount in return at their wedding,” said Mrs. Choi, a woman in her 30s nearing her third anniversary since holding her 400-guest wedding in Seoul.
Rather than giving gifts, the monetary amount, generally ranging from 50,000 won ($38) to 300,000 won, is based on a relative and subjective assessment by the guest on how close they think they are with the hosts: oftentimes subject to miscalculation.
“Of course, the amount of money given cannot fully represent how much one values a friendship,” said Mrs. Go, who got married in Seoul in January. “But when I found out that a friend of mine paid me half of what I had paid at her wedding, I couldn’t but help question whether she doesn’t value our friendship as much as I do.”
It may not permanently damage all relationships, but it is a sticky situation that many wish to avoid if at all possible, hence the common preference among couples to keep a ledger.
For the older generations, the wedding gift money is similarly transactional in the sense that it fulfills their desire to reap what they have sowed.
“To put it in the simplest terms, weddings in Korea have been a give-and-take business,” said Cho Hee-jin, a sociologist based in Seoul. “There is this sense, especially among the parents of the bride and the groom, that they want to reap what they have sowed in giving to other people’s weddings for decades. They feel that their chance finally comes around when their son or daughter gets married.”
Giving money as gifts to a couple getting married is not a tradition unique to Korea. Some Italians do it, some Japanese and Chinese do it, as well as many others: and in some cases, the couples do choose to keep a record of the gifts or money given so they can also pay back accordingly in the future.
But the transactional nature at the center of Korean weddings, coupled with the often-curt ceremonies lasting less than an hour with no reception, do make the sacred occasion appear rather business-like.
Are Korean weddings more like an extravagant business deal?
The Korea JoongAng Daily talked to wedding planners, brides and grooms, and an ethnologist, anthropologist and a sociologist to figure out why that may or may not be the case.
History of wedding cash
“Before the late modern era [around the mid-1870s], there was no guarantee from the state for social protection, so it was up to the local community to preserve and be there for each other,” said Joo Young-ha, a professor of ethnology at the Academy of Korean Studies.
“So what happened at weddings was that the locals gathered at the ceremony would present the newlyweds with gifts, both in the form of objects and cash, to support them as they began a new household.”
The practice of keeping a ledger to record the gifts, so they can be paid back in kind, has been around since the 1392-1910 Joseon Dynasty, said Joo.
As Korea grew from being one of the poorest countries in the world before the 1950s into the economic powerhouse that it is now, the community-based social insurance was no longer a necessity.
But the wedding gifts, especially in cash form, continued, giving rise not only to the reciprocal cash exchange between hosts and guests, but also the monetary connotation behind wedding invitations.
“Say you have been bad at keeping in touch with some people, and then you send them a wedding invitation out of nowhere — that could easily offend them,” said Go. “Because on their end, it feels like you’re getting in touch with them just to go after their money.”
While weddings of public figures, such as those of former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun’s son and daughter, can go so far as to rake in around 150 million won each, some in their 20s and 30s say the ceremonies are not always about the money.
“It’s just part of the core identity of being a Korean — showing up to important occasions like funerals and weddings even if you don’t have the closest relations,” said Ms. Byun, a woman in her 30s who’s already attended over 20 weddings. “That’s what jeong [Korean word describing a close kindred spirit] is. Money is just a way to show your support and how much you care for them.”
Mrs. Kang, an American who got married in Seoul in December 2020, said the wedding gift money covered all of the expenses of her wedding, giving her a feeling of “being blessed and cared for” by both old and new families and friends she’s gained over the year of calling Korea her new home.
Part of the rote procedure at weddings in Korea has do with how the industry operates and the lack of options given to brides and grooms.
Wedding planners say there are three defining characteristics to most of the weddings they plan: They are held at a wedding hall, host about 200 to 300 guests and last about an hour.
“I would say that describes around 70 percent of the weddings I plan,” said Choi Mi-jin, who has been planning weddings for over a decade, with an average of 10 weddings a month.
Many of these wedding halls host one ceremony per hour, or every one and a half hours, with some halls leaving just 10 minutes between each for preparation time.
The number of guests is also set by the hall, some of which will take reservations only if the couple promises to bring 200 or 300 guests max, which can be a nerve-racking factor on its own given Korea doesn't have an RSVP culture for weddings.
The result is, unsurprisingly, a bit chaotic.
“We only considered the wedding halls that had an open slot for the very first ceremony of the day, because otherwise you would be sharing your guests with the other couples getting married before or after you,” said Mrs. Choi. “They would all get mixed up in the buffet hall, not to mention how we might be rushed out of the hall after the ceremony even though we would want to take time to take photos with the guests.”
Ceremonies at hotels usually span over a two-hour period, with tables and seats arranged on either side of the aisle so that guests can watch the ceremony as they eat.
Couples should expect to pay at least 5 million won to rent a space in a hotel, and between 50,000 won to 120,000 won per person for its catering services. In comparison, couples pay between 1 million won to 3 million won to book a wedding hall, and around 40,000 won to 50,000 won per guest for catering, according planner Choi.
Weddings hosted over several hours at a garden or a restaurant are no cheaper.
“People think small weddings mean smaller budget, but they’re quite mistaken,” said Mrs. Jeon, a wedding planner based in Seoul. “At wedding halls, the service is a package deal that includes catering, decorations and venue, including the flowers. And the cost would be shared among several couples getting married in the same hall that day, so you can expect to split the costs.”
In addition to renting a smaller venue, couples would have to plan and order services independently, with fresh flower decorations starting at around 5.5 million won, Jeon said.
"Not long after we started planning our wedding, we realized, probably as most couples do, that the wedding industry is very much built to induce couples to pay as much as they can," said Mr. Lee, a man in his 30s who got married in a wedding hall in Gyeonggi in July. "We once considered options for a small wedding, but gave up on the idea after learning how much more it would cost us."
Pyebaek and private photo sessions
At first glance, it seems Korean weddings lack the more private receptions and candid moments amid the business-like atmosphere, because these moments actually tend to happen behind doors.
Some couples, usually at the wishes of their parents, will hold a private reception with just the relatives in a separate room after the ceremony is over.
Pyebaek, a post-ceremony reception dating back to the Joseon Dynasty, was traditionally partaken in by only the couple and the groom’s parents or relatives, following the traditional emphasis on the male lineage.
The couple, clad in hanbok, or Korean traditional attire, sit together facing the relatives, who take turns offering words of blessing and advice.
The more dried dates they are able to catch, the more fertile the couple was believed to be.
The tradition, rooted in Korea’s once largely agricultural society and its needs, may still be relevant today because of its birthrate, one of the lowest in the world. The country's fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime, marked another record low last year, falling to 0.81.
In the cases where at least half, if not more, of the guests at weddings are acquaintances of the couple’s parents, the couples often invite their own friends to a separate get-together similar to a bridal shower or to pre-wedding photo session.
A separate offer for the to-be-wed couple is a package deal called “seu-deu-mae,” or a portmanteau of the beginning sounds of the words studio, dress and makeup. These services ensure the couple photographers, rented dresses and tuxes, full makeup and hairdos, both on the wedding day and during the pre-wedding photo sessions.
She and her fiancé just finished their photo sessions, over five hours, at a studio in Seoul last week, joined by some close friends.
No legal officiator
Despite the business-feel of so many weddings in Korea, a lot of couples don’t actually seal the deal, legally.
It’s long been a practice at Korean weddings to not have a legal officiator.
So legally registering their marriage is almost treated as an afterthought for many couples, with some even delaying it until they have to register their newborn child.
“We reported it two months after the wedding,” said Lee Bit-na, a woman in her 30s living in Suwon, Gyeonggi. “It was just some paperwork, and it didn’t require both of us be there in person. So I just did it on my own early one morning and then went to work.”
But more recently, when a couple makes their marriage legally official has largely depended on the couple’s strategy on landing a housing deal.
Koreans like to buy brand-new apartments by applying for a spot before they’re even done being constructed, because the value of the apartments are only expected to rise over time. The success of the application will depend on how many points the applicant has, based on a set of eligibility criteria.
With the growing number of single-person households in the country, the points-based system has become more conducive to them in recent years.
Although there are benefits for newlyweds as well, some couples are deciding to remain single on paper even after their wedding because they believe they will get a better deal out of a single-person-household application than a newlywed would.
"Housing is the main reason why we haven't reported our marriage yet," Mrs. Choi said.
Although it's unclear exactly how many couples are delaying registration of their marriage for this reason, they are considered to be one factor in the dropping number of marriage registrations. According to Statistics Korea, the number of newly registered marriages dropped from 239,000 in 2019 to 193,000 in 2021.
Trail blazers and nonsubscribers
When the circumstances are right, some brides and grooms do get to have what’s considered an unconventional wedding, or small wedding, in Korea.
Lee Kun-young and Yang Seung-won hosted 50 guests at their wedding ceremony in a restaurant in Daejeon, the city where they met, in August 2020.
Lee had known since she was in her teens that a small wedding was what she wanted.
The decision to keep the guest list short and sweet worked out because her father, who had recently retired from a conglomerate, said he’d seen more than a lifetime’s worth of conventional weddings of his colleagues.
“Luckily, my in-laws were also happy with this idea,” Lee said.
“Because you’re starting from scratch it really puts you in a spot where you’re constantly researching why a wedding procession includes a certain order of things, what meaning they hold, and where we want to place meaning,” Lee said. “Like, for instance, the couple’s cake-cutting ceremony: Until I did my research, I didn’t know that it was meant to signify that from this time on, the husband and wife will do even the smallest things together.”
With the freedom to design the wedding as they wished, Lee and Yang included a moment in the ceremony to introduce all the guests. They asked the groom’s grandfather to be the officiator. Lee’s mother-in-law bought her a $800 Fayewoo dress, something Lee wears every anniversary, and Yang’s father-in-law bought him a tux.
Experts say that more couples were able to experience unconventional weddings in recent years, partly due to the pandemic.
“The pandemic restrictions, which at different times limited the number of wedding guests to less than 50 or less than 100, forced society to experience smaller weddings, leading them to question if things were okay the way they were,” said Jung Heok-mok, a professor of anthropology at the Academy of Korean Studies.
“As a result, I believe we will see a widening of the spectrum of weddings,” he said. “On one end of the spectrum, there will be those who push the ceremony to be more extravagant, and on the other end there will be those who simply forgo the ceremony.”
Some celebrities like actors So Ji-sub and Lee Ha-nee, and rapper Gary in recent years skipped the wedding ceremony altogether, while other stars donated their wedding gifts to social causes. Actors Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin, who got married at the Grand Walkerhill in eastern Seoul in March, were estimated to have spent over 100 million won on their wedding.
A 20-something Latvian resident already married to a Korean said she will probably not consider holding the standard Korean wedding.
“In Latvia, traditionally weddings take place for two to three days,” she said. “I could settle for one whole day, but in Korea, the weddings I have been to take like an hour or two and feel very impersonal.”
Andrea, an American engaged to a Korean, said the wedding style would largely be dependent on what their family wants.
“We would probably want to go for a smaller or private wedding, but [my fiancé's] family seems to have a lot of friends, and he is the oldest son, so I think it may partially depend on their wishes,” said Andrea.
A special thanks to: Joo Young-ha, ethnologist, and Jung Heon-mok, anthropologist at the Academy of Korean Studies; Cho Hee-jin, sociologist; Choi Mi-jin, wedding planner; Mrs. Jeon, wedding planner; and brides or brides-to-be Ms. Andrea, Choi, Go, Jung, Kang, Lee and Lee, and grooms Mr. Lee and Jung for contributing to the story.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]