(48) Choson’s Year-End Parties, Rituals

By Yang Sung-jin

With only three days to go, the year 1998 is trudging its trouble-ridden way to a close. Ultimately, people will remember this year for the economic downturn, widespread unemployment, North Korean infiltration and the endless haggling of politicians, amongst others. Let’s not forget gangster-turned monks fighting for money instead of salvation.

On the other hand, they may try to “forget” the tumultuous twelve months of 1998 at dreaded yet nevertheless popular, year-end “poktanju” (boilermaker) parties. There are aptly — and wrongly — called “mangnyon-hoe” (忘年會: year-‘forgetting’ party in Korean).

So the year’s troubles are forgotten and everything starts over afresh? Not a chance. You’ll just end up with the tequila hangover and alcohol-drenched liver. Alas, all the nightmarish troubles of the year won’t budge from your memory.

On Dec. 19 of 1425, King Sejong observed such a reckless year-end drinking binge by officials. “How many people were impeached for drinking recklessly in groups?” the king asked. Official Chong Hum-ji answered, “Countless, Your Majesty. Every government-affiliated agency makes it a rule to hold a ‘pulri-yon’ at year-end.”

“Pulri-yon” (分離宴) is the word for today’s “mangnyon-hoe.” It means a feast designed to “separate” the passing year from the forthcoming one. The hitherto unknown term was first discovered by Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Research Institute in the course of a search of the “CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty.”

“Compared with ‘mangyon-hoe,’ which means forgetting and denying whatever happened in the year, ‘pulri-yon’ is a neutral term,” Lee said.

Yet this neutral word did not prevent Choson officials from engaging in heavy drinking. Deeply worried, King Sejong said, “I heard the reckless drinking in groups is most widespread this year.”

Separate, not Forget

In fact, drinking is only a small part of what Chson era citizens thought should be done in the year-end period. Numerous articles in the Annals refer to many tasks aimed at wrapping up the year’s activities and making plans for next year.

In 1411, the State Council reported to King Taejong, “Those who passed the state examination to become military officials are likely to remain idle. They should be required to study military textbooks year round and sit for tests that will be used for year-end assessments.” The king granted the request.

In 1429, the Ministry of Rites called for King Sejong to adopt a measure to help ailing people who were unable to afford medical treatment. “First, let local governors determine who’s sick and poor in their own districts. Then they can ask doctors and shamans living in the same quarter to help the sick people free of charge. At year-end, give them a tax break in proportion to the number of their free patients,” the ministry said.

King Sejong knew well that consideration for the needy is a must, especially at the end of the year. He said in a directive in 1430, “I once thought we should abolish the ritual of invoking a blessing. But in retrospect, it’s not for me but for the entire nation to decide. I searched through ancient documents and found that rituals invoking a blessing from heaven started from time immemorial. So, I didn’t change the ritual ceremony.”

In 1449, King Sejong faced opposition from officials with regard to the state-level offering at a temple. The State Council claimed, “It is said that a ritual of offering will take place in Hungchon Temple, a plan which has no precedent and therefore should be abandoned.”

But the king rejected their call, saying “Rituals to express gratitude to heaven are common not only in the court but also among the lay people. What’s the harm in conducting the ritual, anyway? `Yonchonghwanwon’ has the same purpose.”

“Yongchonghwanwon” (年終還願) refers to a Choson government ceremony in which a written prayer for a blessing upon the king addressed to ghosts and Buddha was placed in a temple at the beginning of the year and retrieved at year-end.

Pray for the Nation

Back in 1410, King Taejong took great care with the yonchonghwanwon ceremony in order to make it sacred as ever. “Around the yongchonghwanwon, the venues should be clean and sacred. Let monks make some renovations, not because I respect Buddha but because the ritual does more good than harm to the nation,” the king said.

Another essential ritual for the year-end period was fireworks. In 1412, King Taejong ordered the Military Procurement Agency to set off fireworks at Indok Palace, where the king, the queen, ranking court officials and their wives gathered together on New Year’s Eve.

A specially designed stage was set up in the palace compound every year for the fireworks. In December of 1477, the fireworks led to an accident which killed four people, traumatizing King Songjong and his officials.

“I feel deeply troubled that people were killed due to the fireworks. Therefore, I want to end the practice of holding fireworks display,” the king announced.

In response to the king’s proposal, officials Yun Sa-hun and Kim Kuk-kwang said, “Because the machines are already in place, there is nothing to worry about as far as the fireworks display is concerned.”

Official Kang Hee-mang also called for continuing the custom: “It’ll be a great waste of money if we stop the display at this point.”

But Lee Kae-son had a different idea, saying “The fireworks display in the rear of the palace are a diversion, not an essential need. Moreover, people died as a result of such a display. Such displays should be stopped immediately.”

The court dispute led to fierce arguments among officials. In the end, King Songjong, though upset over the accident, did not stop the fireworks from taking place.

Later, kings did not always follow King Songjong’s lead. King Chungjong, for instance, called off the year-end fireworks, citing a shortage of state budget funds in 1508.

Similarly, the generally festive year-end mood was suspended when the nation suffered a natural disaster in 1541. On Nov. 24 of that year, King Chungjong canceled the year-end ritual of Choyongmu, a dance supposedly effective in driving off evil spirits.

“It has been a custom of the nation to stage Choyongmu at the year-end. Since natural disasters hit our country recently, hosting the festive dance ceremony is far from appropriate.”

In 1764, King Yongjo also showed the same pity for the needy. The king heard that local administrations planned to force people to pay back the grain they had borrowed by year-end, a move sure to be a burden to the long-suffering populace. Feeling sympathy for the debt-ridden public, King Yongjo ordered the local administrations to postpone the due date — a true “royal” blessing to wrap up the year.