Superstition and traditions in Korean society during Confucian times, and a walk to a heavenly retreat













We are in the region of Gyeongju, where there are two well preserved historic UNESCO villages from the Joseon Dynasty era (1500-1600 AD), called Hahoe and Yangdong Villages.

We spent a few days exploring the region, and I am adding here a few things that I learnt about life in Korea during Confucian times.

Confucian thought system stretched from the early Silla Dynasty (57 BC– 935 AD), all the way through to the Joseon Dynasty, and many customs have been integrated permanently into Korean society, and are now part of the contemporary culture.

Confucianism was a system of thought that came to Korea from China, where it originated.

Buddhism came into Korea during the mid Silla period, and it prohibited and reversed some of the earlier Confucian traditions.

In the later years of the Silla period, Confucianism was revived around Korea, and it got stronger during the Joseon period.

Confucian academies spread across the country.
Many of them still stand today, and are in great condition, in this region.

A Confucian academy is essentially a boarding school where kids were educated with the strict code of living that the Confucian thought system advocated.

Many of the traditions, practices and celebrations from the Confucian system are great and lovely, while others must have been impossibly depressing for those who lived in those times.
Of course since they knew no other way, they did not know what they were missing and did not rebel.

One of the traditions that comes to my mind when I write this is the rule to keep all women inside the house.

In fact, the very name for a woman was translated to: “The indoors person.”

Women were kept indoors ALL THEIR LIVES!, with the exemption of twice per year, when they were allowed to go for an outdoors, all woman get-together and picnic.

The picnic was held in a scenic area by the river at the foot of a mountain, and no men nor children were allowed to disturb the women.

It was a single day event which happened twice a year, in which women socialized with other women from their own family, and had the opportunity to meet other women.
They recited poetry, played games and played music.
Otherwise, women never left the family compound.

A more charming practice that originated in the Confucian era, is the celebration of birthdays.

The 1st and 60th birthdays of a person’s life were considered to be the most important birthdays in their lives.

On his or her first birthday, the child, dressed in traditional Korean clothing, is seated in front of a table piled with food and objects.

The child is urged to pick up and play with one of the objects.

The family observe the child carefully and look for clues that will lead them to predict the child’s future.
The prediction is based on the type of object that the child is attracted to, or fascinated by.

If the child picks up a comb, he may become a beautician. (Probably a money oriented family, or an academically oriented family, would not even PUT a comb or a hairbrush on the table, for fear that their kid will become a hairdresser….)

If the child plays with a drum, he might be a musician.
If the child picks up money, she will be rich.
If he picks up a book, he will be an academic or a poet.
If he picks up food, he will be a chef, a cook or a government official.

The 60th birthday of a person is even more important, since it represents the completion of a zodiac cycle.

The zodiac cycle has twelve animals it, one for each year.
It also has those animals associated with the five elements (wood, fire, water, earth, and metal).

This means that when a person is twelve, she has completed the first cycle in her life.
At the age of 24, two cycles will be complete.
At 36, three cycles,
at 48, four cycles
and at 60, five cycles and a first full completion of the five elements of the zodiac has been completed.

Thus the sixtieth birthday is considered the most precious.
The birthday person is seated in front of a table full of food, sweets, drinks and the person’s most beloved treats.
It is a veritable feast, and all the family members gather to offer their love, respect, and best wishes for a long life.
Money in a small envelope is usually the customary gift.

Women in the early Silla Confucian era, dressed with an outer cloth garment, that covered their whole bodies, as a sign of modesty.

In general, after eating the evening meal, women and men, even husbands and wives, DID NOT socialize with each other, as it was forbidden in Confucian society.

Men socialized with other men, sat and discussed life and poetry, philosophy, politics, or plotted war strategies.

Unlike in recent times in which a women marries and move into her husband’s family, and her name is permanently erased from her family’s records and added to her husband’s family records, in some villages during the Joseon period, it was customary for a man to move into his wife’s family clan, and to integrate into her clan’s village.

The historic villages of Hahoe and Yangdong, are both clan villages.

If you think about it, this means that if you were born in that era, you were to be born, grow up and live your whole life surrounded by your own relatives.

In remote places where transportation was unavailable or very costly, many people never left their own village, nor knew anybody who was not related to them.

If I think about our contemporary societies, this would be unheard of, and a bit of a nightmare, if you ask my opinion…

Health and healing were governed by healers who administered herbal medicine.
There were hundreds of known herbs that were kept in a medicine chest and were made into potions, teas, or soups, to heal the sick.

Shamanistic rituals were very much a part of the Confucian society.
Shamans were either spirit possessed people, or those who inherited the profession from their parents.

Shamans were believed to be able to perform rituals to appease the spirit world, and thus prevent natural disasters and diseases from happening.

Every house in Confucian times had a family shrine.
On the shrine, “Spirit Tablets” were kept for the previous FOUR generations.

There was a spirit tablet for the departed parents, the grandparents, the great grand parents and the great great grandparents.

Those tablets on the shrine were often worshipped.
Some of the daily family’s meal would be put on the shrine, and major worship rituals took place a few times per year.

The first ancestral worship was on the occasion of the annual date of each ancestral death.

Then there was a worship with offerings to the spirit of the departed on the morning of each special holiday, like New Year’s day.

Then there was an annual celebration at the ancestral tombs, where the bodies of the relatives were buried.

The family invited the spirits of the departed to visit the ‘spirit tablets’ at the family shrine, where they light incense, offer rice cakes, food, fresh fruit, drinks, and chestnuts peeled and steamed.

The spirits also are summoned when a person wished to keep the spirits of her lineage informed of events that happened in their lives since the parental lineage departed, to keep them abreast as to how the family was doing in general.

When I read this fact, I had a chuckle, imagining a frustrated mother and housewife, going daily into the shrine room, to summon the spirits of the grandparents, great grand parents, her parents and the great great grandparents, just to moan and to complain about how the kids never visit,……How she never got to see the grand kids….. How the grand kids forgot her birthday….. How Kim got an “F” on a test… And how her best friend Li Song was always complaining about her arthritis and never letting her finish a sentence….

Then my mind carried me to the spirit world, in which I imagined the spirits of the ancestors getting bored to a second death, by all the trivia…

I imagined how they argued amongst themselves about who would agree to be summoned to listen to the daily dirge and to the litany of complaints….

At funerals, the body was placed in a coffin and carried to the tomb by the mourners, in a large and beautifully decorated sedan chair.
The funeral procession also included a smaller sedan chair, which was made to carry the SOUL of the departed.

In Confucian Korea, education was highly valued, poetry and literature were encouraged, and art and civil service were prized.
Paper making, especially from the Mulberry tree, was highly advanced in early Korea and other countries imported it for its high quality.
Man’s four best friends were considered to be his ink block, the stone on which the ink block was grated to produce ink, a brush and mulberry paper.

Red ink was only used when sealing a document or a letter.
It was never used to write a living person’s name, because the color Red was associated with death.

In each culture on earth, there are superstitions about the use of lucky and unlucky numbers.
In some countries in the West, it is the number 13, and many elevators will not have a 13th floor in the building.
For Korea, it is the number 4.

The number 4 (pronounced “Sa” in Korean) is considered to be an unlucky number, because it sounds like the word “death” (Sa-mang).

Even nowadays, many buildings in Korea do not have a fourth floor, and the floor numbers jump from the third to the fifth.
In some cases when the building does have a fourth floor, the elevator button may show the fourth floor as an “F” instead of a “4”.

When I was a kid, we heard stories about a snake that will come into our room to eat us if we did not take a shower, brush our teeth and wear clean Pajamas (we also heard a contrary story in which in an orphanage, all the kids were sparkling clean as they got into bed, to ensure that the mythical snake would not eat them, only little Dan was so stinky, that the snake ate all the sweet smelling kids and left stinky Dan alone).

Well… In Korea, kids are told that if they whistle at night, a snake would come into their rooms.
It is also not considered feminine to whistle, and it is believed that women who do whistle will experience bad luck.

The photos that I have added to this post, include our visit to the Mukgye-Seowon, an old Confucian academy, a visit to the Andong Folk history museum, where we learnt about life during the Confucian times, and photos from a surprise visit to a heavenly retreat, that Jules found on an intuitive whim.

It was the retreat of a poet, a scholar and an official, called Bobaekdang (his pen name was Gim Gye-haeng), who retired in his later years to live in a beautiful mountain sanctuary.

He built a small, modest, yet charming house in this glorious location.
It sits on the rocks among waterfalls and natural rock pools, surrounded by blossoming trees, elegant pines and fragrant flowers.

His retreat was in alignment with his vision and belief that people should live in harmony with nature, meshing together, until there is no separation between the two.
Thus the serenity that is inherent in Nature and that is the Nature of all of Life, flows uninterruptedly into both.

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