By Yang Sung-jin
Until recently, many unfortunate men and women were denied their legal right to marry each other only because their surname and its geographical origins were the same.
The trouble-ridden legal restrictions placed on couples with the same surname and family origin have now been removed, but the outmoded obsession with avoiding marriage to members of the same kinship dies hard.
Whenever possible, conservative elders will still take to the streets to protest against the government’s revision of the related law, dubbing it a “preposterous violation of the decades-long marriage tradition.”
During the Choson Kingdom, marriage between people of the same surname and family origin attracted harsh punishment, consisting of 60 cudgel strokes and a forced divorce. Those who dared to get married to close relations faced capital punishment.
In fact, this longstanding tradition prohibiting marriage among relatives did not originate on the Korean peninsula. The peculiar custom actually came from ancient China.
King Chungson of the Koryo Kingdom (r: 1308-1313) adopted the Chinese custom and issued ban a on marriage among relatives. But the prohibition was not that extensive.
Only the upper-class were subject to the restriction at that time, largely because it was only aristocrats who were allowed to have surnames, while ordinary citizens went along without family names.
Therefore, surnames were a relatively minor factor in marriage. Given that different family origins existed under the same surname, one’s geographical origin was regarded as vital for defining who was related and who wasn’t.
But things began to change as soon as the Choson Kingdom replaced the Koryo. The scope of the ban was dramatically expanded and even the maternal family line was subject to the prohibitions.
Marriage restrictions did not stop there. The Choson period’s strict class system left no room for marriages between people of different social backgrounds.
A particularly unthinkable match was that between a male slave and the daughter of a yangban (Choson aristocrat).
In addition, offspring of concubines suffered disadvantages in selecting their spouses. Parents also had to consider their political factions in marrying off their children.
At the same time, widows were pressured not to remarry. Although there was no legal restriction on the remarriage of widows, the Choson government resorted to an indirect regulation: offspring of widows who had remarried were banned from taking the state examination, virtually marking them as social outcasts.
Much of the hard-nosed interference by the government regarding marriage was attributed to the Choson dynasty’s paternalistic social structure.
Unlike previous kingdoms, the Choson adopted male-oriented marriage customs, giving up the centuries-long tradition under which a husband lived in his wife’s home.
The original traditional marriage custom had various advantages. Most notable was that brides could take time in preparing a dowry while their husbands lived in the same house.
That is why traces of the female-oriented marriage tradition are still found in the relics of the early Choson period.
But Confucian scholars vigorously opposed and criticized this traditional pattern of marriage in favor of a male-oriented system. As a result, brides had to prepare the dowry in a short period before the wedding ceremony, which was a greater burden.
Conservative Choson rulers and aristocrats viewed love affairs as “dehumanizing.” They sanctioned only arranged marriages via a matchmaker. It was an alliance between two families, excluding the couple themselves from the marriage plans.
Once two families had exchanged opinions about forming an alliance through the marriage of their offspring, the initial task on the part of the prospective bridegroom’s family was to send a sort of spy to the bride’s house.
The family history and other sundry facts could be collected through other channels, but the bride’s personality and appearance had to be checked in person.
But investigating the looks and manners of an unmarried girl was nothing if not tricky during the Choson period.
Female relatives or sometimes the future mother-in-law ventured out to the village where the bride lived. They often disguised themselves as wandering saleswomen or just benign visitors, in a bid to look at the bride in person.
The most important aspect of the bride’s appearance was whether she looked fit to bear “sons” after marriage — this involved a crucial face-reading which could determine the whole future of the family.
There were specific criteria in identifying women who were likely to bear sons Interestingly, desirable characteristics included a thick shoulder, red complexion of the palms, a deep navel, a buxom belly and flat hips.
The investigative face-reading, however, was not enough for the bridegroom’s family to make the final decision to tie the knot. Choson people also consulted with fortune-tellers to determine the success of the marriage.
Fortunetellers first examined the saju, or four pillars, of the prospective spouse. These are the year, month, day and hour of one’s birth, according to the lunar calendar.
If the saju was satisfactory, the fortuneteller was asked to divine the “kunghap” (marriage horoscope) to determine whether the man and woman were a harmonious match.
The superstitious kunghap custom is still popular, providing a living for countless fortune-tellers.
The real legacy of the Choson dynasty’s distorted marriage customs, which discriminate against women while placing a heavy emphasis on the bearing of sons, has survived in modern Korea. Just look at a classroom at the local elementary school and check the ratio of boys to girls.