I am writing this blog as sort of a way to get my thoughts together before I have to speak eloquently (I hope) on the radio. In addition, this radio discussion will provide me with an example for my students for the Korean Folklore class I am teaching this fall. One of the main aspects of this class will be teaching my students how to explain Korean traditional customs in an engaging way in English. I chose that focus for two reasons (1). my students have varying personal experience and background knowledge of traditional customs. A few of them are from more traditional rural families, and have a much deeper understanding than my urban Christian students. Through focusing on explaining the traditions we manage to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable for lack of knowledge, or frustrated through reviewing too many things they know. (2). Even if you have the background knowledge explaining things in an engaging way is crucial for growing interest/ re-connecting Koreans to their traditions-- and through learning how to make it interesting in English I am confident my students will also be able to turn on friends and family members with their presentations. Just this Monday one of my students was visiting my office and she told me she repeats everything I say (presumably she means the interesting bits) to her mom, who is a teacher, so that her mom will teach it to Korean young people.
I am a virus. ㅋㅋㅋ
I am infecting Koreans around me with my own attitude that not all traditions should be forgotten.
Okay, first of all, did you realize that there is more than one kind of jesa? (제사)
Jesa -Ancestral Rites
Jesa is one of those terms that Western people hear Korean use, usually glossed as 'ancestral worship ceremony,' or 'ancestral veneration' and often they don't feel comfortable asking more. Especially when a Korean tells them they're really tired because they were awake in the middle of the night doing jesa for their grandpa or their mother. It can feel rude to inquire further. Maybe you did, though, because you're curious and you felt comfortable asking that Korean friend. Probably (unfortunately) you wouldn't learn that much-- and you might get confused because of the different types of jesa and the (somewhat) different activities and motivations behind them. You'd hear about preparing special food, offered on an altar, or at a gravesite, clipping some grass, bowing, and probably an excuse about how your friend's uncle (father's oldest brother) or grandfather is the person who really knows all about it, that your friend just follows along as instructed.
The big types of jesa are gije (기제 or 기일제사), charye (차례), and sije (시제).
With these three the type you need to sensitive about with your friend is gije -- this is the one that is done on the death anniversary for close relatives. So this might be for your friend's grandmother this week, and two month's later your friend's family might be doing it for his dad, or it could be the next week-- it all depends on when someone died. If the death is pretty recent then it is certainly a sad occasion -- getting together with family and memorializing that dear departed family member. Asking who the gije was for, and how long since he/she passed on would help you assess whether your friend might need some extra emotional support.
Charye is the type of jesa that is done at Chuseok. It's jesa for the relatives of 4 generations (count this from the generation of the family head, so if your friend has a living paternal grandfather this is counted from grandfather). Therefore a memorial tablet should be placed on the charye table for each of those relatives, usually in couple sets following the male line (paternal great grandparents, great great grandparents...). Of course, if by chance someone has died of a generation below the family head (paternal grandfather is alive, but father is dead), then father's tablet should be included on the table, too. So charye includes the recently passed, as well. Because charye is for 4 generations it is sometimes called sasanje (사산제).
Charye is held four times per year according to the Zhuzi Jiali (주자가례 in Korean), the family rituals of Zhu Xi (12th century, Chinese, the thinker whose brand of Neo-Confucianism became most dominant in Korea's Joseon Dynasty). The four times for charye are Chuseok, Seollal, Hansik, and Dano (or sometimes at Dongji (winter solstice), instead of one of the other four, depending on the family).
So charye is actually literally tea (cha) and rye (ceremony). But don't let your mind go to some orientalist representation of a Japanese tea ceremony-- alcohol is offered (and drunk) during Chuseok. It's earthy, it's gritty, it's real, it's Korean. It's not refined and exclusionary at all. To do charye at Chuseok you usually go take care of your grave site the weekend before (or a couple weekends before, because a lot of grave sites are located on little backroads that can get jammed up if everyone goes right at the same time-- or these days some people will just ask a couple family members to do it, and not perform the grave maintenance as an act of humility because humility be damned compared to the horrible inconvenience of visiting a tomb somewhat near the hometown that probably most people in the family don't even live in any more.) This grave site maintenance (벌초) generally means clipping the grass and uprooting any weeds. So on Chuseok the family goes to the grave and bows with offered food and drink, but the elaborate table with offerings is at home. So the grave site ceremony is called Chuseok seongmyo and the ceremony at home, which usually takes place first on the morning of Chuseok is Chuseok charye.
Foods for the different charye, sije and gije vary by time of year of the ceremony and by region of the country. For Chuseok special foods include songpyeon (송편) -- specifically the type of songpyeon stuffed glutinous rice cakes that you make with pine needles in the steamer. It may be made with the new rice, and theoretically an unmarried woman who made pretty songpyeon was going to find a good husband, while a pregnant woman making pretty cakes would have a beautiful daughter (if you are wondering if in son-obsessed Korea this meant that you didn't want to even engage in making songpyeon at Chuseok if you happened to be pregnant, you'd be sort of right. After the cakes were cooked, if you sampled a cake and it was undercooked, you were having a girl, and if it was cooked completely, you were having a boy). In Jeolla Province they have a traditional offshoot to Chuseok charye called olbe simni (올베심리)-- the offering of prematurely harvested rice (rice that isn't fully ripe). Other important foods at Chuseok include Taro Soup (토란국), skewered mushrooms (화양적), and skewered egged and breaded veggies and meat (느름적).
This graphic explains a somewhat standard table for charye. The back is to the north wall, notice that the west side and east side are carefully explained on the graphic. At the very back, the four things there are the ancestral tablets with the names of the deceased. The first row has noodles, rice, soup and songpyeon or ddeok. The second row has meat, savory pancakes, tofu, and fish. The third row has a meat soup, tofu soup, and fish soup. The fourth row has a different type of fish, then vegetable side dishes, soy sauce, and even a sweet rice called sikhye. The fifth row has different types of fruits and nuts and snacks. Then there is the table for ritual incense and alcohol. This is usually a lower and much smaller table. Female descendants are on the west side (left) and male on the east side. If someone is officiating and talking through the whole ceremony, pouring drinks, reminding people how many bows to do, etc. they will be at the east corner of the little table.
Sije, a ceremony that few Korean families still observe, is the jesa that is done for the 5th generation and onwards back into the past. Sije can be held either on Hansik (Cold Food Day-- in April) or during the 10th lunar month (two months after Chuseok). Sije has several other names-- including 시사, 시향, 묘사, 묘전제사, 세일제, and 세일사. This ceremony is held regularly once per year at the tomb site, traditionally, although these days it is more common for people to eschew going to the tombsite. If sije is held on Hansik it is possible for charye and sije to be held four times total, whereas if sije is in the 10th lunar month there would be five ceremonies-- four charye and one sije.
So those are the three main types of jesa, but it gets even more complicated!
Jesa is Confucian culture, so of course we also have a Buddhist version, called daeryejae (다례재), usually held in the temple to honor monks who have passed, and of course the Won Buddhists always insist that they are not the same as the Buddhists, so they have a jesa just a little different than other groups.
The Catholics have long realized the importance of accepting jesa as a way to harmonize with Korean culture, and the Catholics also prepare their jesa a little differently. Naturally, instead of placing the names of deceased family members on the jesa table, the Catholics place a cross at the center back (so that you are not bowing down to dead people, but to the Lord).
The Protestants long prohibited any kind of jesa. To make it possible for some Protestants who are good Koreans and want to honor their ancestors, but don't want to "worship" them because that would be sacrilegious, there is the hybrid ceremony called chudosik (추도식). There is a good article in English on the topic by a guy who seems to have no idea how to spell his own name. Hung Chull Jang. I'd guess that's 장흥철 but...
Chuseok (beyond Jesa)
So Chuseok itself is actually celebrated on August 15th according to the lunar calendar. (The 15th is always full moon, the 1st is the new moon). The name Chuseok means Autumn Evening, and other terms for the holiday include 가재, 가재일, 가위, 한가위, 중추, 중추절, and 중추가절. To tell you the truth I've only ever heard people use (han)gawi, and jungchu before, but the book I am referring to as I write this paragraph listed those other names, too.
At Chuseok people didn't just cook a lot and bow to the deceased ancestors, they also would predict the harvest (rain=poor crop yields, clouds obscuring the moon completely was a bad sign, but a totally clear night was a very bad sign for barley farming.)
People would dress up at Chuseok in Chuseokbim (추석빔)-- special clothes and accessories. (설날 clothes are called 설빔, 단오 clothes are called 단오장). The clothes would be new, or maybe really well laundered. Because this was right before the cold season started, these clothes would be the new set of clothes to wear for the winter, often quilted 마고자 (a jacket) or a 두루마기 (long coat down to the knees). The special clothing for girl children would include the classic top with striped sleeves and a red skirt.
The alcohol associated with Chuseok is gabaeju (가배주)ㅡ if you were getting excited about trying a new type of Korean alcohol you'd not previously had, sorry. This was just sort of the generic name for the alcohol available at Chuseok, the only thing special about it was that it might be made from the brand new crop of rice.
Ganggang Sullae (강강술래) is one of the key arts performed at this annual festival-- not that it was ever performed everywhere in Korea until more or less the modern era, though. This art is from the south coast of Jeolla Province. It is a circle dance, generally performed by a group of women (only). The dance steps and the accompanying song are not that difficult, what is difficult is constant flow from one type of pattern to another, including some special ones where the ladies form a bridge out of their backs and another walks along the bridge-- all while continuing the song in a classic folk song style where everyone sings a chorus and individuals sing each verse. Traditionally performed outside on the night of Chuseok (under that big moon), it is also performed at Daeboreum in some parts of Korea.
Particularly because it is preserved most actively on Jindo Island and the adjoining mainland, it is often associated with Admiral Yi Sunsin (the turtle boat guy-- the guy in the middle of the street in armor at Gwanghwamun). Some scholars try to link them together, but there is no credible evidence.
Ganggang Sullae is usually divided into three parts by speed of the accompanying drumming. There may be games inserted within the performance such as 개고리타령, 남생아놀아라, 고사리 꺽자, 쥔쥐새끼놀이, 청어엮고 풀기, 기와밟기, 덕석몰이, 꼬리따기, 문지기놀이, 가마등, 수건놓기, and 외따먹기. Each of these games has a connection to some sort of traditional activity, and in a long, full-length performance (usually just once per year), all these parts can be seen but otherwise the entire list will not be performed. Most scholars believe that the entire dance was performed to bring the gods pleasure, but that the deeper religious significance has been forgotten. The art is protected under Korea's Cultural Property Protection Law as Intangible Cultural Property #8.
Chuseok itself is an agrarian festival-- most of the various activities associated with it were connected somehow to the land and agricultural life. One such is geobugi noli (거북이놀이)-- the turtle dance/game. The turtle costumes were made from millet stalks, and usually two people would get inside the turtle's top shell and walk from home to home with a turtle leader and people playing pungmul music. The head of each house was to invite the turtle and troupe inside to play and dance, and the troupe would wish for the long life and prosperity of the family who lived in that house. The household should also feed and provide drinks for the performers. Apparently this tradition is still alive nearby where I lived in Gyeonggi Province, but to the best of my knowledge it's only a re-enactment, now. Also it's worth noting that the turtle, as a long life creature, was associated with these prayers for long life of villagers. A very similar practice elsewhere in Korea was called sonoli (소놀이) with pungmul and two people inside a cow costume. Another activity was a weaving game, called gilssam noli (길쌈놀이). And having sossaum (소싸움) or ox fights was also common. Don't worry the oxes fought each other, they weren't goaded like in the European style. These fights are still going on in places like Cheongdo in Gyeongsangbukdo.
For me what is interesting is two other performances-- that of Bak Cheomji noli (박첨지놀이), and that of Songpa Sandae Noli (송파산대놀이).
I am going to start my first day of my Korean Folklore class with Bak Cheomji's tale. We'll be reading the story in translation. So this story is actually a puppet play with 9 human characters, a temple, a serpent, a hawk and birds, as well as the funeral flag bearers, carpenters, funeral casket bearers, and the mourners. The puppets in Korea are manipulated from below, generally on a single rod. The play is performed by two groups-- by the Namsadang group (and then it's generally called Ggokdu Gaksi Noleum), and by a group from Seosan. The story is the same, but the Seosan version is registered as regional cultural property for Chungcheonnamdo, instead of as a national one like the multi-act Namsadang (National Treasure #3). The puppet play, like most of the mask dance dramas, is not very complimentary to the upper class yangban, and particularly addresses the 처첩관계 -- the relationship of wife and concubine. In the regional version Buddhism looks pretty good-- fervent prayers to Buddha give the character Sogyeong his sight back-- but in the Namsadang version Buddhism is more heavily criticized.
Of course the characters are quite rude to each other. Here's a passage from the Namsadang version where old Pyo Saengwon is reunited with his old wife (a common scene in mask dance dramas, too). The old man criticizes the appearance of the old woman.
꼭두각시: Do you know why this has happened? I must tell you. To look for you, I climbed a steep mountain in Gangwon Province where I ate acorn jelly. That is the reason by face has changed to its present appearance.
표생원: What? What are you talking about? You! You harlot! Are you trying to tell me that you have so many pockmarks on your face because you ate acorn jelly? I ate mounds of corn and acorns when I was coming to 산수갑산 from 백두산 in 함경도. But I don't have a single pockmark on my face. My face is as smooth as if it were planed. What an absurd and hollow liar! [pauses] However, if a dragon appears out of a small ditch, we must still call it a dragon. And even if the guardian of a temple is made of straw, we must still call it the guardian of the temple. According to this logic, I must now admonish 돌몰이, my concubine, to greet my wife. [He brings them together]. Well. Wife. Let's stop talking nonsense. We must discuss our future. You have already passed your sixtieth birthday. I am eighty years old and poor. In addition, we don't have a single child. What a great failure! Aren't you sad about this, too?
꼭두각시: I haven't seen you for many years, but this has been the cause of my worries.
[translation by Oh-Kon Cho in his excellent book Traditional Korean Theatre]
Songpa Sandae Noli was a mask dance drama often performed during Chuseok festivities. But I have written about it repeatedly in the past, so I won't go into it more here. [Some previous posts on Songpa Sandae Noli 1 2 3 although those won't be particularly basic information].
[To write this post, in addition to a large number of things stored in my brain that I accessed, I also used the Encyclopedia of Korean Seasonal Customs, published in 2007 by the National Folk Museum of Korea, and I've been reading a very nice book called 제사와 차례.