May 24, 2024

By Mark Peterson

If Koreans are going in the direction I think they are going, they may find themselves recognizing the family head and the lineage association head, the jongson, in the person of a woman. This idea may seem so heretical that I’ll be kicked out of the country, but I think it’s going that way.

The head of the lineage in the late Joseon tradition has been the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son for as many generations as they have records for (and then a little more in some cases). To those used to the “bu-gye” system, the patrilineal, male-dominating system, the idea of a female jongson sounds preposterous. I’ve mentioned the idea to some of my older, traditionally minded friends, and they discount the idea as out of hand. But others, including the head of the Confucian organization in Korea, cock heads a little to the side, shake off lingering doubts, and say well maybe I’ve got a point there.

Not that Koreans need to follow anything at all from the West or America, but if they are looking for alternative social and familial structures and if they look at family organizations in the West, they will see that some of the heads of families, extended family organizations, are, indeed, women. Linked to family organization, in Korea and the West, is the idea of genealogy, or family history research. And some of the most active researchers are women.

And why should that not be the case in Korea? Well, the biggest reason is that the surname group, and family association (“jongchinhoe” or “hwasuhoe”) in Korea has been dominated by men. Women are tangential members of their husband’s lineage, but the women are not fully included — for one thing, they don’t change their name to the husband’s name. Westerners are always struck by the fact that Mr. Kim is married to Mrs. Lee. And for Koreans, there are cases where Koreans are struck with the unusual situation of Mr. Kim being married to Mrs. Kim, but the couple will quickly point out that the two Kims are different, they have different origins or “bon’gwan.”

What has been the purpose of the family association? In Korea, there are two — publishing the jokbo, the family genealogy tables, every 30-40 years, and organizing periodic ceremonies for the ancestors. To the West, the purpose has largely been to facilitate family history research. In Korea, the staff at the office are almost always all men (with a young “secretary” to fetch tea and run errands). Where are the women officers?

If Korea continues to go the way it is going and abandons the bu-gye system of male dominance, perhaps we will see women in the family association offices. Like in the West, women are just as interested in family history as men, and in many cases, even more so. I mean many of the family organizations in the West are run mainly by women.

What will it be like if Korean women come to the point of being interested in, and actually doing the research on the multiple family lines? The way it is now, the men of a lineage run the show — they do research for the next edition of the printed jokbo and organize the upcoming ceremonies at the gravesites and in lineage halls.

The whole situation is in flux now. The ceremonies are being greatly simplified and even abandoned. Will Korea reach the point of putting flowers on the graves rather than food offerings?

I was curious several years ago to find several family associations had a subordinate organization called the “(family name) Youth Association” or “Cheongnyeonho.” When I looked into it, the “youth” were men and their wives in their 50s, not in their 20s, who were organized to do the cooking for the ceremonies. Those officiating at the ancestor ceremonies were men in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and their wives were getting too old to prepare the food, which, of course, in the old, old days was prepared by slaves. No more slaves, now, somebody has to prepare the food, so the old men turned to the wives of the next generation — those in their 40s and 50s. I haven’t seen the “Youth Association” signs much lately — I wonder if they have all gone to catering outlets?

At any rate, as Korea has abandoned many of the trappings of Confucianism, I wonder if they are going in the direction of family history research by women as well as men. And I wonder if women will advocate for family history research on both sides, all sides, of the family — like they do in the West.

As Korea changes, and abandons some features of Confucianism, and adapts others, will we indeed find female heads of families — yeoja jongson? I wonder.

Mark Peterson ([email protected]) is a professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


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