The Traditional Family and Kinship

North Korea Table of Contents

Filial piety (hyo in Korean; xiao in Chinese), the first of the Five Relationships defined by Mencius, had traditionally been the normative foundation of Korean family life. Historically, the Korean family was patrilineal. The most important concern of the family group was to produce a male heir to carry on the family line and to perform ancestor rituals in the household and at the family gravesite. The first son customarily assumed leadership of the family after his father's death and inherited his father's house and a greater portion of land than his younger brothers. His birthright enabled him to carry out the ritually prescribed obligations to the family ancestors.

The special reverence shown to ancestors was both a social ethic and a religion. Koreas were taught that deceased family members did not pass into oblivion, to a remote afterlife, or, as Buddhists believed, to rebirth as humans or animals in some remote place; rather, they remained, in spiritual form, securely within the family circle. Even in the early 1990s, the presence of the deceased is intensely real and personal for traditionally minded Koreans. Fear of death is blunted by the consoling thought that even in the grave one will be cared for by one's own people. Succeeding generations are obligated to remember the deceased in a yearly cycle of rituals and ceremonies.

The purpose of marriage was to produce a male heir, not to provide mutual companionship and support for husband and wife, even though this sometimes happened. Marriages were arranged. A go-between or matchmaker, usually a middle-aged woman, carried on the negotiations between the two families involved; because of a very strict law on exogamy, these two families sometimes did not know each other and often lived in different communities. The bride and groom met for the first time at the marriage ceremony, a practice that was gradually abandoned in urban areas before World War II.

The traditional Korean kinship system, defined in terms of different obligations in relation to the reverence shown to ancestors, was complex. Anthropologists generally view it in terms of four separate levels, beginning with the household at the lowest level and reaching to the clan, which included many geographically dispersed members. The household, chip or jip, consisted of a husband and wife, their children, and, if the husband was the eldest son, his parents. The eldest son's household, the stem family, was known as the "big house" (k'nchip, or k' njip); that of each of the younger sons, a branch family containing husband, wife, and children only, was known as a "little house" (chag nchip, or chag njip). It was through the stem family of the eldest son that the main line of descent was traced from generation to generation.

The second level of kinship was the "mourning group" (changnye), which consisted of all those descendants of a common patrilineal forebear up to four generations back. Its role was to organize ceremonies at gravesites. These included the reading of a formal message by the eldest male descendant of the changnye progenitor and the offering of elaborate and attractive dishes to the ancestral spirits.

Similar rituals were carried out at the third level of kinship organization, the lineage, p'a. A lineage might comprise only a handful of households, or hundreds or even thousands of households. The lineage was responsible for rites to ancestors of the fifth generation or above, performed at a common gravesite. During the Chosn Dynasty, the lineage commonly possessed land, gravesites, and buildings. Croplands were allocated to support the ancestral ceremonies. The p'a also performed other functions--aiding poor or distressed lineage members, educating children at schools maintained by the p'a, and supervising the behavior of younger lineage members. Because most people living in a single village were members of a common lineage during the Chosn Dynasty, the p'a performed many social services at the local level that, in the 1990s, are provided by state-run schools, public security organs, and the state system of clinics and hospitals.

The fourth and most inclusive kinship organization was the clan or, more accurately, the surname origin group (tongsng). Members of the same munjung (extended family) shared both a surname and origins in the generally remote past. For example, the Chnju Yi, who originated in Chnju in North Chlla Province (in contemporary South Korea), claimed, and continue to claim, as their progenitor the founder of the Chosn Dynasty, Yi Sng-gye. Unlike members of smaller kinship groups, however, they often lacked strong feelings of solidarity. In many if not most cases, the real function of the surname origin group was to define groups of permissible marriage partners. The strict rule of exogamy prohibited marriage between people from the same tongsng and tongbon (ancestral origin) even if their closest common ancestors had lived centuries earlier. Confuciansts regarded this prohibition, which originated during the Chosn Dynasty, as a sign of Korea's civilized status; they believed that only barbarians married within their own clan or kin group.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress