[Column] Without change, ancestral rites will disappear

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[Column] Without change, ancestral rites will disappear

Lee Ji-young

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Another holiday season has passed. It was the first Lunar New Year in three years without a gathering restriction. Compared to previous holidays tainted with domestic discord and violence triggered by stress and conditions, this year’s holiday passed more smoothly.

Choi Young-gap, chairman of the Sungkyunkwan Confucian Association Headquarters — a gathering of Confucian scholars across the country — is nervous every time he celebrates the Lunar New Year and Chusok holidays. He feels that if the culture does not change, it will disappear.

Since assuming his position last June, Choi came up with two hit ideas as the country celebrated the two holidays. Last year, he held a press conference before the Chuseok holiday and declared, “Jeon [pan-fried food] doesn’t need to be included in the ancestral rites.” And before this Lunar New Year, he issued instructions on the proper way to bow with the keywords, “bow with your hands on the belly.” These are the fruits of the Sungkyunkwan Ritual Establishment Committee, which he chairs.

Choi, the 24th generation descendant of Choi Deok-ji (1384-1456), who served as a senior official handling court protocols in the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), is a Confucian scholar. While serving as head of the Sungkyunkwan Education Center, Choi created the Ritual Establishment Committee and began to systematically organize Confucian rituals such as Goyu, the rite of conveying thoughts to the family graves or Jongmyo Shrine, and Seokjeon, the service to the Confucian saints.

I wondered why he took the lead in simplifying the holiday rituals. I met him at the Yurim (Confucian) Hall in Myeongryun-dong, Seoul, on the afternoon of Jan. 21, when people started to return to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday.

“I thought we were too late. We did not see reality objectively. We were complacent and insensitive. I thought it would be simply a complaint from some women doing hard work for their husbands’ ancestral rites. But in the generation under 60, men also refused to take the initiative in their ancestral rites. I was surprised to see that they just don’t want to go against their parents while they are alive,” Choi said.

His unconventional recommendation to stop the efforts to make jeon for the holiday was a strategic move to break the “old” image of Confucianism. He thought the ancestral rites would be the most effective target for a revamp.

He was right.

He found the basis in Confucian scriptures. The Book of Rites says, “Major courtesies should be simple.” Kim Jang-saeng, master of the study of rites in the Joseon period, also wrote, “It is not a courtesy to use oily food for the ancestral rites.” Yi Hwang and Yun Jeung, both great Confucian scholars in the Joseon Dynasty, also left a teaching not to use fried cakes and jeon for ancestral rites. The table for the ancestors is already simply prepared in the head family of Yi Hwang.

Korea’s Confucian experts already knew this all along. Then why did they neglect the suffering of housewives who had to make jeon at every ancestral rite of their husband? Choi admitted, “We didn’t change the etiquette that was passed down for a long time. Even if it is late, I would continue to study and announce the corrections in our Confucian rituals.”

I asked him if there was any opposition or controversy within Confucian circles over the simplification. “Confucianism is treated as the main culprit of gender and generational conflicts, but the core of Confucianism is the courtesy to respect and care for others. Confucian scholars in Korea are also active in simplifying holiday traditions. In fact, a survey on ancestral rites conducted in July last year showed that 41.8 percent of the Confucian scholars cited ‘simplification’ as the most needed improvement, higher than 40.7 percent of the general public,” he said.

For the ancestral rites, he says a “two-track” approach is needed. By proposing a simplified model, the general public should have less burdens while the original form of the tradition should be preserved at a national level in a form of intangible cultural asset and world cultural heritage. “While Confucianism came from China, only Korea continues the ancestral rites. There are currently less than 10 families among the head families around the country that hold ancestral rites in the traditional way.”

I asked him the reason for keeping the ritual culture. He said, “In Confucianism, ancestral rituals are not an ominous event but a celebration. The original intention was for families to get together and have a good time. The power of uniting the family and clan, the smallest community, is displayed at the time of crisis and becomes the basis of the community spirit.”

His claims were reasonable throughout. I also asked about the order of visiting families for holidays. The issue of spending most of the time with the husband’s family during the holiday was addressed in the million-selling book “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” and drama “No, Thank You.”

“It’s not Sungkyunkwan’s role to advise where to go first. Couples should consider that as in-laws are also their parents, they are free to go where they please after discussing the matter. Last Chuseok, I visited my wife’s family in Seoul first, and for the Lunar New Year, we went to my family in Muan first.”
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