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The Value and Meaning of the Korean Family

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)

A Korean family portrait. (bloodcurdlingscreams 2.0/flickr)


Changes In The Family Structure Since 1960

After liberation from the Japanese in 1945, Korean scholars and lawyersrevised Korea's legal structure. They revised family, as well ascommercial, law to accommodate relationships more suited to theindustrial society they hoped to build. Now most Koreans live in citiesand work in factories or large companies and no longer farm. Largeextended families, which cannot fit into crowded city apartments, aredifficult to maintain. Since people often move to find work, eldestsons often cannot live with their parents. The New Civil Code of 1958legalized changes favoring these new conditions. Essentially, the newcode weakened the power of the house head and strengthened thehusband-wife relationship.

Today the house head cannot determine where family members live. Theeldest son can now leave home against his father's will. Husbands andwives share the power to determine the education and punishment of thechildren. Children can decide on their own marriages, and parentalpermission is not required if they are of age. Younger sons leave theirparents to form their own families when they marry, and the house headno longer has the legal right to manage all family property. Sinceimplementation of the New Civil Code, all children have equal claim totheir parents' property.

The marriage system had already changed by World War II. Some familiesallowed children to meet and approve prospective spouses. Theexperience of the politician Kim Yongsam during the 1950s is typical ofmarriages among non-traditionalists, even before the revision of thelegal code.

Kim recalls that his family sent him a deceptive telegram informing himthat his beloved grandfather was dying. Rushing home Kim found he hadbeen lured into a trap. His family pressed him to do his duty as eldestson and marry immediately. Reluctantly he agreed to go with a friend ofthe family who had arranged visits to the homes of prospective brides-- three in the morning, three more in the afternoon. The woman heeventually married impressed him with her ability to discuss Dostoevskyand Hugo. Kim's parents were liberal but in the past 30 years childrenhave gained even more control over who they marry.

Love matches are no longer frowned upon, but arranged marriages arestill more common. Couples and their parents have formal meetings infancy tearooms to size each other up, and some go through dozens ofthese meetings before finding a partner. Even couples who marry forlove often ask their parents to arrange the marriage to observetraditional good form.

Arranged marriages continue to be popular because young men and womenin Korea find casual socializing awkward and often feel they lack theexperience to choose their own partners. Although casual dating is nowmore common, most interaction between young men and women occurs ingroups. Elaborate games like lotteries are sometimes used to matchpeople; young Koreans find the potential rejection involved in askingfor a date overwhelming. Arranged marriages also seem safe because thego-between clearly appraises the social backgrounds of the bride andgroom. After their engagement, a couple will date so they know eachother well by the time they marry. This pattern is so common thatKoreans assume that a young couple who date regularly will be married.

A study of the large city of Taegu done in the 1970s found that 83% ofyoung married couples had arranged marriages. The husbands in arrangedmarriages and in love matches were about equally satisfied. Wives inlove matches were only slightly more satisfied than those in arrangedmarriages.

In spite of the recent changes, fundamental characteristics of thetraditional Korean family remain. Each person in the family still has aclearly defined role, each dependent on others within the family unit.Koreans adapt their traditional ideas of spiritual and biologicalinterdependence within the family to new conditions. The modern shortstory, "Sufferings for Father and Son," by Han Keun-chan illustrates aspecific case. A father picks up his son returning from the Korean War.At the railway station the father sees that his son has had one of hislegs amputated. The father himself lost an arm during forced laborunder the Japanese. Walking home they come to a stream. The fatherloads his son on his back and with one remaining arm, holds his son'sone remaining leg, and whispers, "you do what you can do by sitting,and I will do what I can by running about."****

The family still retains a male house head. Inheritance of familyleadership still continues through the father's line, and sons stillinherit more wealth than daughters. Children, especially eldest sons,are still legally responsible for the care of their aged parents. Thedivision of labor within the family remains basically the same asbefore 1958. Men earn the living, and women take care of the house andchildren. Even when wives work outside the home, husbands usually thinkit embarrassing to help with housework, and sociologists have foundthat it is rare for husbands to do so, although some younger ones dohelp. However, even as we go to press, the situation in Korea changesrapidly, more and more women graduating from college and workingoutside the home. This change cannot fail to affect divisions of labordramatically, especially in urban areas.

The structure or the family remains with only peripheral changes, moresignificant changes in potentia, because the core Confucian valueswhich shaped it are still a great force in Korean life.


* See Hahm Pyong-choon, "The Challenge of Westernization," Korean Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 1982.

** See Laurel Kendall, "Suspect Saviors of Korean Hearths and Homes," Asia, Vol. 3, No. 1, May/June 1980.

*** See Youngsook Kim Harvey, Six Korean Women: The Socialization of Shamans. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1979.

**** See Hwang Soon-won, "A Glimpse of Humour in Korean Literature", inHumour in Literature East and West, Seoul: P.E.N. InternationalCongress, 1970.