Family and Social Life in the Cities

South Korea Table of Contents

Contemporary urban family and social life in South Korea at the start of the 1990s exhibits a number of departures from traditional family and kinship institutions. One example is the tendency for complex kinship and family structures to weaken or break down and be replaced by structurally simpler twogeneration , nuclear families. Another closely related trend is the movement toward equality in family relations and the resulting improvement in the status of women. Thirdly, there is a movement away from lineage- and neighborhood-based social relations toward functionally based relations. People in the cities no longer work among their relatives or neighbors in the fields or on fishing boats, but among unrelated people in factories, shops and offices. Finally, there is an increasing tendency for an individual's location and personal associations to be transitory and temporary rather than permanent and lifelong, although the importance of school ties is pivotal. There is greater physical mobility as improved transportation facilities, superhighways, and rapid express trains make it possible to travel between cities in a few hours. Subsidiary transportation networks have broken down barriers between onceisolated villages and the urban areas. Mobility in human relations also is becoming more apparent as people change their residences more frequently, often because of employment, and an increasing proportion of the urban population lives in large, impersonal apartment complexes.

Matchmaking was a big business in Seoul and other cities in contemporary society; coffee shops and lounges often were crowded on weekends. In a change from traditional society, prospective brides and grooms held scores of interviews, son pogi, before deciding on the companion they would like to date-for- marriage. Many of these young men and women changed their minds after these dates and the process began again. Yonae, or "love match" marriages occurred with increasing frequency.

Contrary to the Confucian ideal, the nuclear family consisting of a husband, wife, and children is becoming predominant in contemporary South Korea. It differs from the traditional "branch family" or "little house" (chagunjip) for two reasons: the conjugal relationship between husband and wife tends to take precedence over the relationship between the son and his parents, and the nuclear family unit is becoming increasingly independent, both economically and psychologically, of larger kinship groups. These developments have led to greater equality among the family units established by the eldest and younger sons. Whereas the isolated nuclear family was perceived in the past as a sign of poverty and misfortune, the contemporary nuclear family is often viewed as being a conscious choice made by those who do not wish their privacy invaded by intrusive relatives.

Economic relations between the generations of a single family changed radically in the transition from traditional rural to modern urban society. In the past, the male head of the patrilineal family controlled all the property, usually in the form of land, and was generally the sole provider of economic support. With the development of modern industry and services, however, each adult generation and nuclear family unit has become more or less economically independent, although sons might depend upon their parents or even their wife's parents for occasional economic assistance--for example, in purchasing a house. Because urban families usually live apart from their paternal in-laws, even when the householder is the eldest son, the wife no longer has to endure the domination of her mother-in-law and sister-in- law. In many cases, the family is closer to the wife's parents than to the husband's. The modern husband and wife often are closer emotionally than in the old family system. They spend more time together and even go out socially, a formerly unheard-of practice. Yet the expectation still remains that elderly parents will live with one of their children, preferably a son, rather than on their own or in nursing homes. This expectation could change in the last decade of the century, however, with the expansion of health care and social welfare facilities.

Outside the nuclear family, blood relationships still are important, particularly among close relatives, such as members of the same tangnae, or mourning group. Relations with more distant relatives, such as members of the same lineage, tend to be weak, especially if the lineage has its roots in a distant rural village, as most do. Ancestor rites are practiced in urban homes, although for fewer generations than formerly: the majority of urban dwellers seem to conduct rites only in honor of the father and mother of the family head. As a result, there are many fewer ancestors to venerate and far fewer occasions to hold the household ceremonies. In some ways, however, increased geographical mobility has helped to preserve family solidarity. During New Year's, Hansik (Cold Food Day in mid-April), and Ch'usok (the Autumn Harvest Festival in mid-September), the airplanes, trains, and highways in the late 1980s were jammed with people traveling to visit both living relatives and grave sites in their ancestral communities.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress