Old Korea, Part 10

Old Korea, Part 10

Charles Dallet's 2-volume History of the Korean Church, published in French in 1874, is preceded by a 192-page 'Introduction,' which is in fact a description/ethnography of Old Korea as the French missionaries observed it in the middle decades of the 19th century.  

To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 


The translation of the 'Introduction' has thus far been entirely my own.  As far as I know, it is the first translation since one that appeared in the 1950s in a now-defunct American scholarly journal that is nowadays impossible to find.  In an effort to stimulate interest in this important work of history, and perhaps to attract the interest of a publisher or some Maecenas who might feel moved to fund a proper scholarly edition of it, I have decided to serialize the 'Introduction' on this blog, one section at a time.  

Its full title is 'Introduction to the History, Institutions, Language, Morals, and Customs of Korea.' There are fifteen numbered sections, which I'll refer to as 'parts.'  Part 10 appears below.  The others will follow in due course.  I present the text without footnotes, other than the occasional one that Dallet himself used.  For a proper scholarly edition of this work, numerous footnotes would evidently have to be added.  Interested, benevolent scholars with a fluent reading knowledge of both Korean and Sino-Korean are invited to lend their talents in exchange for a warm pat on the back, and, potentially, the satisfaction of seeing their names on the cover of a publication.  

For visual interest, I will insert such relevant images as I can find on WikiCommons, or my own photos.   

Translation note: I have not altered Dallet's romanization of Korean names, which is of course based on French phonetics.  Non-English words that are not names are italicized.

X Family -- Adoption -- Ties of Kinship -- Legal Mourning

The Korean is crazy is about his children, above all the boys, who in his eyes are worth ten times as much as the girls, and even they are dear to him.  One almost never sees instances of abandoned or exposed children.  Sometimes, in times of great famine, people dying of hunger are pushed to that extremity, but even then they try to give them away or sell them, and the first resources they can scrape together thereafter are used to repurchase them if possible.  They never think their family is too numerous, and, it may be said in passing, that the conduct of these poor pagans will be, on Judgement Day, the condemnation of those infamous parents who in our Christian lands do not fear to violate the laws of God and to outrage nature by sparing themselves the cares and fatigue of bringing up children.  A Korean, poor as he may be, is always happy to be a father, and even in destitution is able to find the means to feed and raise the family that God sends him.

The first thing that is inculcated in a child from the earliest age is respect for his father.  Any kind of insubordination towards him is immediately and severely reprimanded.  It is not the same with the mother.  She, according to the morals of the country, is nothing and counts for nothing, which the child learns only too soon.  He hardly listens to her and disobeys her almost with impunity.  In speaking of the father, the epithets em-trira or em-pou-hien are frequently added, which mean severe or formidable, and which imply a profound respect.  In contrast, the words tsa-tsin or tsa-tang, which mean good or indulgent, who is not to be feared, etc., are added to the mother's appellation.  This difference certainly has its roots in nature, but, exaggerated as it is in this country, it has become a deplorable abuse.

A son must never play with his father, nor smoke in front of him, nor assume an overly relaxed posture in his presence. In comfortably off families, there is a special apartment where one can be at ease and play with one's friends.  The son is his father's servant; he often brings him his meals, serves him at table, and prepares his bed.  He must salute him respectfully when leaving or coming back to the house.  If the father is old or sick, the son never leaves him for an instant, and sleeps not far from him in order to be able to take care of all his needs.  If the father is in prison, the son comes to install himself in the neighborhood in order to communicate with him easily, and bring him some comforts.  When this prison is the one at Keum-pou (1), the son must remain kneeling in front of the gate, in a designated spot, to wait day and night until his father's fate is decided.  When a culprit is sent into exile, his son is bound to accompany him at least along the whole route, and if the family's financial state allows it, he installs himself in the same place where the father is serving his sentence.  A son who encounters his father on the road must prostrate himself in the dust or the mud.  When writing to him, he must use the most honorific formulas known to the Korean language.  The mandarins frequently obtain long leaves in order to visit their parents, and if it happens that they lose their father or mother while on duty, they must then tender their resignations in order to devote themselves solely to rendering their final duties to the deceased, and they cannot exercise any official function for the duration of the mourning period.  No virtue in Korea is esteemed or honoured as much as filial piety, none is taught with more care, and none is rewarded more magnificently, by tax exemptions, by the erection of monuments or even temples, and by titles and public offices.  Extraordinary examples of this virtue are also fairly frequent, especially on the part of a son or a daughter towards their father.  They are more rarely met with towards the mother, which is caused by the prejudices of their upbringing, of which we have just spoken.

The adoption of children is quite common in Korea.  He who has no sons of his own must choose one from among his relations, and the main reason for this custom can be found in the religious beliefs of the country.  In effect, it is the descendants who must maintain the cult of the ancestors by keeping their spirit tablets, observing the numerous ceremonies of the funeral and of mourning, offering sacrifices, etc.  The preservation of the family is only a secondary goal of adoption. In addition, girls are never adopted because they cannot perform the prescribed rites.  On the other hand, the consent of the adoptee or of his parents is not at all necessary because it is about a religious and social necessity of which the government, in case of need, imposes acceptance by force.       

To be legally valid, an adoption must be registered at the Niei-tso, or tribunal of rites, but this formality has fallen into disuse.  It suffices for it to be done publicly in a family council, and recognized by all the relations.  The adopted child must be taken from among the relations on the father's side, which is to say among those who bear the same name, and, in cases where the family is very numerous, among those belong to the same branch.  It is necessary further that the adoptee be related in the unequal collateral line, but unequal by only one degree.  That is to say that a man may adopt his brother's son, or the son of his first cousin, and so on, but he cannot adopt his brother or a cousin, or their grandsons.  He who had a married son who died without children cannot adopt in his own name, but in the same of his dead son, and consequently, by virtue of the preceding rule, he must choose the grandson of one of his brothers or cousins, which is to say someone who could be the son of his son.  Most often, the adoptee is still a suckling infant, but there is no age requirement.  The adopted child owes his new parents all the duties of a son, and he has all the rights and privileges of a son without exception.  These adoptions, for the most part forced, lead to divisions within families and are the cause of a host of miseries.  It is quite difficult for the adoptive parent to love as his own the son of another, and for his part the adoptee, unsatisfied with his position, often misses his own parents.  In the upper classes, all the outward marks of the most lively affection are observed out of decorum in front of strangers, but among the common folk, disagreements and quarrels break out every day.  A legal adoption can only be broken by special permission of the tribunal of rites, and is quite difficult to obtain it.  When an adoption has been annulled, one is free to make another.  Adoptions, though covered by all the official forms, have never been recognized by the Church in Korea because they are most often imposed by force on the parents and the children.

There is another type of adoption which is not recognized by the law, and which does not confer any rights or privileges on the adopted child.  It takes place above all among the lower classes when people who do not have children, or have only daughters, raise someone else’s child in order to have someone to support them in their old age and infirmity.  This kind of adoption is accomplished without any outward formalities, and without restriction of name, relationship or family.  Only those who because of their poverty cannot find someone to adopt by the formulas that the law requires have recourse to it, and when they die, their property in the form of  their house, their furniture and other objects of petty value pass uncontested to their adopted child. 

In Korea, as in most of the countries of the Orient, family ties are much closer and reach much farther than among the European peoples of our epoch.  All relations to the fifteenth or twentieth degree, whatever their social position, be they rich or poor, learned or ignorant, public officials or mendicants, make up a clan, or a tribe, and, to put it more accurately, a single family of which all the members have mutual interests and must support each other reciprocally.  On the father's death, the eldest son takes his place, and he conserves the proprieties.  The younger sons receive donations of greater or lesser amounts from their parents at the time of their marriage, and in certain other circumstances, according to the custom, rank and fortune of their families, but otherwise all of the property stays with the eldest son, who is bound to take care of his brothers as his own children.  His brothers, for their part, regard him as their father, and if he is sentenced to prison or to exile, render him the same services that they would to their father.  In general, relations between relatives are very cordial.  The house of one of them is the house of all, the resources of one are more or less the resources of all, and all support the one among them who stands a chance of obtaining a job or of making money because all will profit.  That is the universal custom, and the law recognizes it, because one must pay not only the taxes and levies of one's nearest relations if they are in arrears, but also the private debts that they are unable or unwilling to pay.  The tribunals always find in this way, and it never occurs to anyone to complain or protest. 

"Recently," wrote Mgr Daveluy in 1855, "a young man of more than twenty years of age was brought before a mandarin for the sake of a few coins due to the treasury on his private account, and that he found himself in the impossibility of paying.  The magistrate, warned in advance, handled the affair in a manner that was much applauded.  'Why have you not paid up?' he asked the young man.  'I barely get by on my daily wages, and I have no resources.'  'Where do you live?'  'On the streets.'  'And your parents?'  'I lost them when I was a baby.'  'Is there no one left of your family?'  'I have an uncle who lives in such-and-such street, who lives off a small piece of land that he owns.'  'Does he not help you?'  'Sometimes, but he has his own expenses and he can only do a little for me.'  The mandarin, knowing that the young man was speaking this way out of respect for his uncle, and that in fact the latter was an old miser, very comfortably off, who had abandoned the poor orphan, continued to question him.  'Why, at your age, are you not married yet?'  'Is it so easy then?  Who would give his daughter to a young man without parents and living in misery?'  'Do you want to marry?'  'It's not the desire I lack, but the means.'  'Well, then, I'll take care of it.  You seem like an honest boy to me, and I hope to get to the bottom of this.  Think about how you are going to pay the small sum that you owe to the government, and in a little while, I will recall you.'

The young man withdrew, without quite knowing what it all meant.  The news of what had happened in open court soon reached the uncle, who, ashamed of his conduct and fearing some public reproach from the mandarin, hastened to take steps to get his nephew married.  The affair was quickly concluded, and a date was fixed.  On the very eve of the wedding, just when the groom's hair was being put up, the mandarin, who had secretly been keeping abreast of everything, recalled him to the tribunal and demanded the money for the tax.  The young man paid immediately.  'What!', said the mandarin, 'You hair has been put up.  Are you married already?  How did you accomplish that so quickly?'  'A good match was found for me, and since my uncle was able to help me a little, it's all settled, and I'm getting married tomorrow.'  'Very good, but how will you live?  Do you have a house?'  'I haven't looked that far ahead.  First I'll get married, and then we'll see.'  'But in the meantime, where will you lodge your wife?’  'I will find a little corner at my uncle's or elsewhere to stash her while waiting for the time I have a house of my own.'  'And if I had the means to give you one?'  'It's very good of you to think of me, but things will take care of themselves little by little.'  'But look here, how much would you need to establish yourself comfortably?'  'That's no small matter.  I would need a house, some furniture, and a little plot of land to cultivate.'  'Would two thousand nhiangs (about four hundred francs) be enough?'  'I think I could get by all right with two hundred nhiangs.'  'Fine, I'll think about it.  Get married, settle down, and in future be prompt about paying your taxes.'  Every word of this conversation was repeated to the uncle, who saw that he had to take steps to avoid becoming the laughingstock of the whole town, and a few days after his wedding, the nephew had at his disposal a house, some furniture and the two hundred nhiangs that the mandarin had spoken of. 

If this system of common interests and reciprocal obligations between members of the same family has its advantages, it does not lack grave drawbacks.  We have already pointed out several of them in speaking of public officials.  It is rare that in a numerous family there are not a few idlers, a few black sheep, who are incapable of keeping a job or earning an honest living, and who live off their near relations, stealing an ox from this one, a dog from that one, some linen from another, not to mention money and provisions, borrowing but never paying back, and taking by force what is not given to them in good grace.  Sometimes they go so far as to steal title deeds that they sell to their profit, or they even make counterfeit deeds that they mortgage to outsiders.  They are almost assured of impunity because not only do the morals of the country not permit giving a relative up to the law, but they oblige all of his relations to support and defend him if he falls into a mandarin's hands.  The neighbors, when they are not personally involved, cannot intervene; in fact, they are told to mind their own affairs.  The mandarins can hardly do anything about them, since there is no formal charge, and it would be impossible to find any witnesses in the culprits' families.  In any case, as a  general rule, a mandarin is a man who only, and with difficulty, bestirs himself to investigate and settle affairs when he cannot avoid them.  Where then to find one who for the pure love of justice would, out of the goodness of his heart, create difficulties or enemies for himself?  The only recourse for families in such cases is to take the law into their own hands.  One of the elders gives the necessary orders, others seize the culprit, confine him and give him a sound beating.  The latter does not have the right to defend himself, and if a little firmness is shown, he is obliged to change his behavior or to flee the province.  Unfortunately, it is rare for families to have the required perseverance, and these punishments, usually insufficient, only palliate the evil. 

Everything we have just said about kinship, its ties and obligations, should only be understood as germane to kinship through the father, which is to say between people who have the same name.  It extends as far as the twentieth degree, and does not, so to speak, have a legal limitation, while kinship on the mother’s side amounts to almost nothing.  From the second generation, one is no longer acquainted, does not help any more, and does not wear mourning.   

The number of family names is very small, a hundred and forty-five or a hundred and fifty at most, and many of those are not at all prevalent.  They all consist of a single Chinese character, except for six or seven that consist of two characters.  To distinguish the different families that have the same name, the name is added to what is called the pou, which is to say the name of the place the families originally came from.  If the pou is different, people are not considered to be related, but if it is the same, they are related in the eyes of the law and marriage is forbidden.  There are names like Kim and Ni that have more than twenty pou, which is to say that they are common to about twenty families of different origins.  We have indicated them in this history as being 'of the branch of this or that place.'  The family name is never used alone; it is followed either by a a given name, or by the word so-pang for young men, or the title sain-ouen for aged noblemen, the heads of families, etc.  These expressions correspond more or less to our words 'mister' and 'milord'. 

Other than these family names, there are the given names of each individual.  There are usually three of them, namely the childhood name, the common or vulgar given name, and the legal given name, to which must be added the nick name or sobriquet, and for Christians, the baptismal name.  The childhood name is given some time after birth, and everyone, except slaves and servants, uses it to address the person until his marriage; this name is a word in the vernacular language.  It is used alone or following the family name.  After marriage, it is never used again for men, except sometimes by their father, their mother, their tutor or other such people.  The common given name is given at the time of marriage.  It is used by superiors and equals.  Friends and acquaintances do not use any other, and it the most generally known.  Women's given names do not change at their marriage.  They keep their childhood name, or rather they no longer have a particular name.  They are generally designated by the name of their husband followed by the word, taik, madam, or koa-taik, madam dowager.  The legal given name is assigned sometimes at birth, but more often at the time of marriage.  It consists of two Chinese characters, and among the nobility, all those who descend from the same branch or stock must insert a shared character that changes in each generation so that by that character alone the number of generations of descent in the direct line from the founder, and the degree of relationship in the collateral line, are known.  This name is not used in everyday life, unless for dignitaries or highly placed men, but it is the only one that appears in public affairs, in civil contracts, in examinations, in legal proceedings, etc.  It is also used as the signature when writing an important letter.  Often this name, though inscribed in the genealogical records, or in the official registries of the state, is unknown to people who do not belong to the family, or who do not have frequent contact with the individual.  Ordinarily, the common people do not have a legal name.  Sobriquets are very common in Korea, and everyone can use them. 

Let us remark here that Korean etiquette forbids not only calling one's father, or mother, or uncles or any other superior by their name, but it forbids even uttering that name.  In such a case, well brought up people have recourse to various paraphrases.  The king's name, composed of two Chinese characters assigned by the court of Peking when it invests him, must never be uttered, and the people do not even know that name.  After the king's death, his successor gives him the name by which history will know him.   

A few words, finally, on legal mourning as it is observed in Korea, especially among the upper classes.  When a nobleman loses his father, his mother, or one of his near relatives, he is not free to grieve as he pleases; with regard to the time, the place, the method, and the duration of the mourning, he must conform to the conventions that are explained in detail in an official treatise published by the government.  To miss any important point would be to lose face, in other words to be dishonored to the point of not daring to show one's face anywhere.  One begins by placing the body of the deceased in a coffin of very thick wood, which is kept for several months in a special apartment, prepared and decorated for that purpose.  The common people who do not have the means for a special room for the corpse keep the coffin outside their house, and cover it with straw matting to protect it from the rain.  It is in the apartment of the deceased that one must grieve at least four times a day, and to go inside one must don a particular outfit.  It consists of a large grey linen redingote, shredded, patched and as dirty as possible.  It is belted with a rope the thickness of a fist, partly of straw and partly of yarn.  Another rope of a similar type, as thick as a thumb, is wrapped around the head, which is covered by a bonnet of grey linen.  The two ends of this rope fall forward onto each cheek.  Special shoes and stockings, and a thick knotted stick complete the outfit. 

Korean men wearing mourning garb in the early 20th century.  Credit: Cornell University Library via Wiki Commons.

In this garb, one goes into the mortuary chamber in the morning on getting up, then before each meal.  A small table loaded with various dishes is brought in and placed on an altar by the side of the coffin; then the one who is presiding over the ceremony, bent and leaning on his stick, intones funereal lamentations.  For a father or mother these lamentations are composed of the syllables ai-ko, which are repeated without interruption in a lugubrious tone for a quarter hour or half hour.  For other relatives, oi, oi is chanted.  The louder the lamenting voice and the longer the session, the more the mourner rises in public estimation.  Once the lamentations are completed, the mourner withdraws, the dishes are carried away, the mourning outfit is taken off, and he takes his meal.  On the new moon and the full moon, all the relatives, friends, and acquaintances are invited to take part in the ceremony.  These practices continue even after the burial, for two or three years, and, during this time, a self-respecting noble must frequently go to weep and wail on his parents' tomb.  Sometimes he passes the whole day and even the night there.  Examples are cited of those build a little house near these tombs in order to stay there for several years, and who thus acquire a saintly renown and universal veneration. 

This concludes Part 10.  Part 11 will appear sometime in the week of 23-28 April, 2017.

Posted on 19/04/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History, Countries, Korea 0

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