Ancient heart still beating strongly amid technology

18th September 1998 at 01:00
The tiger economy of Korea might seem Westernised,but the people still findsustenance in their roots, writes Keith Howard.

At New Year, and during the annual harvest festival period, the motorways radiating out from Seoul are known as "parking lots". Journeys that might normally take a couple of hours last a day. Tickets for trains and buses are sold out weeks in advance. These are the festivals when everybody returns to his or her birthplaces. Thirty years ago, 80 per cent of the population lived in the countryside and scraped a living. Today, 80 per cent live in the cities, working in manufacturing, government or the service industries. The modernisation of Korea has been swift, but a Korean's heart remains in the mountains and valleys of his or her birth.

In rural Korea, all generations of a family shared a house and helped with planting and harvesting crops. Women had six or more children, partly to counter high infant mortality but also to ensure that parents would have someone to look after them when they retired. Each family lived on the same land that it had owned for many generations. Parents decided who a son should marry. Local elders decided on an appropriate punishment for anybody who misbehaved. Seoul, the seat of government, was a long way away. A strict social hierarchy, institutionalised and governed by Confucianism, regulated behaviour.

Confucianism set in stone an ethical code in which the king was absolute, and within the family a wife would never question the authority of her husband, nor a son his father. Age was of fundamental importance: the eldest son alone inherited the family property. Daughters had very low status. Few girls went to school until after the founding of the republic in 1948. Many lived their lives without being known by their names: they were referred to only as "the sister ofI", or "the wife ofI", or "the mother ofI " Life has changed. In the cities most people live in small apartments that can house just a nuclear family. Today, parents have just one or two children, partly because of better medical care and a drive on contraception to cut the birth rate, but also because many wives now have jobs. The social network provided by clan relations has been replaced by friends made in school, during army service or at work.

But at New Year and the harvest festival those who have moved away from the villages for education or work put on traditional costumes and visit their parents. They bow deeply before the father and mother who gave them life, fed them and clothed them. They visit family graves on nearby mountain sides, where they offer food and pray to four generations of ancestors.

Within the new, Koreans cling to their past. Every Korean knows their clan roots and can produce books, known as chokpo, that record famous ancestors and situate them within the extended family tree. Two Koreans who meet for the first time will bond by trying to find something in the past that links their families, such as a war in which the ancestors of both fought alongside each other. More than 50 per cent of Koreans still enter into "arranged" marriages. Hierarchy remains important. Company offices in Seoul have desks arranged in rows with junior workers seated at the back and their elders, the managers, at the front. And, despite the success of corporate Korea - the likes of Samsung and Hyundai -Koreans still consider farming a crucial industry.

They continue to resist the opening of Korea to imported food, forced on them by recent world-trade agreements. They celebrate events according to the lunar calendar - the calendar that is critical for farming. New Year, then, is lunar New Year, normally falling in early February. Birthdays are remembered according to the lunar calendar, and the biggest occurs on one's 60th birthday, the hwan'gap. Koreans, like the Chinese, talk of being born in the year of one of 12 animals (the tiger, rat and so on) and one of ten heavenly characters. Every 60 years the same animal and heavenly characters coincide, hence it is considered a time of rebirth, when the cycle is completed. Typically, after inviting families and friends to celebrate his or her hwan'gap, a Korean will retire from work.

Koreans are also proud of their cultural heritage. Old buildings, statues, paintings and other artefacts are preserved as "Tangible Cultural Assets". The government has also, since 1964, designated performance arts, martial arts and crafts as "Intangible Cultural Assets", in effect promoting them as cultural icons in an attempt to protect Korea's national identity from encroaching Westernisation. Intangible Cultural Assets are not objects that can be touched like buildings and statues. They are instead skills possessed by individual people; the ability to sing songs, for instance, or make a beautifully lacquered box. The people who still possess these skills are paid a stipend, roughly half the average salary, to demonstrate their artistry and pass their skills on to succeeding generations.

Today, wherever Koreans gather, it is clear how successful this system has been. Our television screens often show student demonstrations and workers' strikes, but these are always led by a percussion band, a style of music and dance that, until recently, could be heard in every Korean village. Koreans may seem ultra-modern as they work on computers or build cars and ships but they have not forgotten their past, or their special identity.

* Keith Howard is senior lecturer in Korean studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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