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Worldwide Locations

The Value and Meaning of the Korean Family

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)


The Traditional Family

Though Koreans thought blood relationships natural and ideal startingpoints for good relationships outside the family, they never assumedthat happy family life emerged spontaneously. Harmony and smooth flowof affection were seen as the result of proper patriarchal regulationof women and children. The family should be run as a "benevolentmonarchy," the eldest male as household head. Sons remained home afterthey married, while daughters went to live with their husbands'families.

Although historically younger sons and their wives eventually splitfrom their extended families after a few years of marriage, they livednearby, socially dependent on their grandfathers, fathers and elderbrothers. Eldest sons succeeded to the family leadership and inheritedthe bulk of the wealth. They did not leave their extended familiesbecause they were responsible for their aged parents. When theirparents died, eldest sons adhered to complex mourning restrictions forone to three years, and conducted annual memorial ceremonies for theirparents and other members of their family line. As long as there weresons to take over family leadership when their fathers died, familieswere maintained indefinitely.

Young children in Korea were (and are) indulged; toilet training wasrelaxed, and discipline began much later than in American families.Koreans felt there was no point disciplining children before they wereold enough to reason. By the time a child reached six or seven,however, training began in earnest: parents began the strict separationof girls and boys, in accordance with Confucian ethics, and theytrained children to use the respectful voice to those older or moresocially prominent.

By the time he reached seven a boy knew that he must use the respectfulmode of speech to his older brother, and he knew that failure to do sowould result in swift and certain punishment. Boys from most familieswere taught to read and write the native Korean alphabet (Han'gul), andin many families, to read and write classical Chinese as well. Girls,however, were considered "outsiders who will leave the family," and themajority were not taught to read or write even the Korean alphabet. Agirl by seven usually knew her position in the family was inferior toher brothers' because when she married she left the family.

Under the old family system parents arranged marriages without theconsent of their children, either female or male. Since daughters lefttheir parents to live with their husbands' families, marriage was oftentraumatic for them. New wives, of course, tried to please theirhusbands, but more important, they had to please their mothers-in-law.The mother-in-law directed the new wife in her housework and had thepower to send the bride back home in disgrace if the bride seriouslydispleased her. Sometimes this adjustment was hard for the bride. Ahumorous Korean proverb says that a new bride must be "three yearsdeaf, three years dumb, and three years blind." The bride should not beupset by scolding, better not to hear at all. She should not lose hertemper and say things she might regret later, better not to talk atall. Since she should not criticize anything in her new house, shewould be better off blind. Most daughters-in-law adjusted to their newlives because most mothers-in-law were glad to have a gooddaughter-in-law to help with the housework. Once the daughter-in-lawhad a son, her place in the family was secure.

The Confucian ideal of strict separation of males and females led todivision of labor into inside and outside work. Men labored outside,taking care of major field crops, while women worked inside doinghousework, spinning, weaving and cooking. Poor women had no choice butto work in the fields, at least occasionally, but the more elite afamily, the more unlikely its women would be seen outside the housecompound. Traditional Koreans glorified the modest gentry woman whodied in a burning house rather than leave her seclusion.** QueenInhyon, a model of feminine modesty for two centuries, sequesteredherself to her private rooms after being wrongfully dethroned. 


Although this division of labor was a matter of principle for theelite, ordinary people found it a matter of practical survival. Forfarming households, the inside-outside division worked well; womencould stay home with their children while working. But where thisdivision of labor undermined economic survival, other divisions wereadopted -- despite the loss of family status in deviating from theConfucian ideal. For example, in fishing villages on islands off thesouth coast of Korea, male and female roles were regularly reversed. Inthese nonagricultural areas, women provided family income by diving forseaweed, shellfish and other edibles. In other parts of Korea womensometimes earned a living as shamans, religious specialists who tendedto the spiritual welfare of their clients by performing ceremonies forthem.*** In either case, when females provided most of the familyincome, male and female roles could be reversed with men at home andwomen running the family.