The night before Chuseok – Tomorrow is Chuseok. It is one of the two major Korean holidays, along with Lunar New Year, but it doesn’t lend itself to description in English quite as readily as Lunar New Year. A popular online Korean-English dictionary defines it as: “the Korean (version of) Thanksgiving Day; the Full Moon Festival; the Harvest Moon Day.” These three definitions, in my opinion, go from least to most accurate, but are still not satisfactory. It is definitely not the Korean Thanksgiving Day, because it occurs before the harvest, not after it. “Full Moon Festival” is too unspecific. “Harvest Moon Day” is the best of the bunch, but doesn’t get at the real meaning of the holiday.
Unlike the American Thanksgiving Day, which gives thanks for a bountiful harvest, the purpose of Chuseok is to pray for the success of the upcoming harvest. Many Koreans visit their ancestral graves (i.e., the graves of the family ancestors) on Chuseok to cut the grass and make sure the dearly departed are being taken care of. To put it crudely, the whole affair is a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” situation—Koreans believe that if you take care of your ancestors, your ancestors will take care of you. In traditional agricultural society, the harvest was the most important event of the year, and it was vital to make sure it was a success.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as merely “tradition.” After all, most modern Koreans are not farmers, and are not directly concerned with the harvest. They do have other concerns, though, and in modern Korea these replace the harvest. It might also seem strange for the primitive belief in ancestral spirits to persist in the modern age, but, just as primitive beliefs persist in modern societies around the world today, many Koreans believe in ancestral spirits and their power to affect the lives of the living.
At its very core, the belief in ancestral spirits is a fundamental human belief, and one that is not uniquely Asian. The fundamental belief is that we do not simply blink out of existence when we die, but take on ethereal form and continue to exist. Not only do we continue to exist, we maintain some connection to the world of the living. Take, for example, the Western idea that people can become angels when they die. This is not a Christian concept, but the result of indigenous beliefs being applied to newly introduced Christian doctrine. The fact that it still surfaces continuously in popular media (movie, television, books, etc.) is evidence of the remarkable resilience of the concept.
The Korean doctrine of ancestral worship is another manifestation of this concept—it is, in fact, the concept taken to its logical conclusion. After all, if those who are no longer with us can return and affect our lives, wouldn’t it behoove us to take care of them both while they’re here and after they’re gone?
The practice of ancestor worship and the jesa ritual (the sacrificial ritual during which food and drink are offered to the spirits of one’s ancestors) began in China as a Confucian practice and was later introduced to Korea. Confucianism did not originally deal with spirits and deities (it’s really more of a code of ethics than a religion), but ancestor worship came about when the Confucian concept of filial piety was applied to the basic belief in ancestral spirits.
It could be said that ancestor worship in Korea became so influential and predominant due to, in part, shamanism. Of course, Confucianism and shamanism influenced each other throughout the history of their coexistence, but shamanism exerted its greatest influence on Confucianism (at least in terms of ancestor worship) through its absence. When Confucianism was first introduced to Korea, it concerned itself mainly with politics and left the realm of religion alone. Later on, though, the ruling class sought to make Confucianism the predominant ideology, and this led to the oppression of both Buddhism and shamanism.
One of the basic ideas behind shamanism is that those who die unjustly or whose spirits are restless due to some grievance they held at the time of their death must be appeased or they will harm the living. The important difference between this shamanic concept and the Confucian ancestor worship concept is that spirits in shamanism are predominantly negative—i.e., they either harm you or simply leave you alone. When a family is plagued by ill fortune, a shaman will often be hired to appease the spirit that is doing the damage (this still occurs in Korea today). With the oppression of shamanism, though, adherents of shamanism were stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. They couldn’t perform shamanic rituals, and yet they couldn’t just let the spirits wreak havoc in their lives either. Confucian ancestor worship filled this void and firmly secured its place in Korean culture.
When Christianity was first introduced to Korea, there was a tremendous resistance to the new teachings (dubbed “Western Learning”). Most of the early Catholic missionaries, who arrived in the latter half of the eighteenth century (Protestant missionaries didn’t arrive for about another hundred years), were martyred, along with many of their converts. One of the main reasons for this persecution was that the missionaries believed that ancestor worship broke the first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” Deuteronomy 5:7, NIV) and forbade their converts from practicing the jesa ritual. This resulted in a government crackdown on all Christians.
Interestingly enough, the Catholic Church in Korea today allows its adherents to practice jesa. This does not surprise me, given the Catholic tendency toward syncretism throughout history. It is not just Catholicism, though—many Protestant denominations implicitly allow their adherents to practice jesa, and some allow it explicitly. In fact, the Yeouido Full Gospel Church, the largest Protestant church in Korea (and one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world), openly allows its members to practice jesa. Most likely, they view jesa as a cultural tradition rather than an actual act of worship. Arguments could be made either way, and I do not know the specifics of their doctrine, so I will not pass judgment.
On a more personal level, my wife’s family (extended family included) is Christian, and they do not practice jesa. However, on the anniversary of an ancestor’s death (i.e., the death of my wife’s grandmother and grandfather) and on Chuseok, we have “memorial services” where the whole family gets together for a big meal and a brief service in memory of the family ancestors. In other words, it follows the same pattern as the traditional Korean ritual, except without the actual sacrifice to the ancestors (i.e., jesa). I remember the first time I attended one of these services. As I sat there I thought, “Ah, they can’t practice jesa, so they have a worship service instead.”
My father-in-law leads these services. He is not the oldest of his brothers, but he is the most active in church (he’s an ordained deacon). I’ve always been impressed with how he handles the situation. External appearances aside, he manages to conduct the service without mentioning the family ancestors in a context that might be mistaken for ancestor worship. He selects a passage of Scripture to read and then gives a mini-sermon, during which he always applies the Scripture to our present lives.
My wife’s uncles, though, do not share my father-in-law’s convictions. They are Christian, but when they pray they say things like, “Heavenly Father, we are gathered here to remember our ancestors. Hold them in Your arms as we pray today.” I never really thought about it before, but I was discussing the issue with my wife the other day, and she pointed out the obvious contradiction in that type of prayer—her father’s generation is the first Christian generation in her family. As she put it: “No matter how much I may dislike saying this, our ancestors are not in Heaven right now.” According to the Bible, that’s true.
My wife’s eldest uncle on her father’s side, who has since passed away, was a remarkable man. I disliked him intensely when I first met him (I remember how he railed against the evil West and told me that I should do things “the Korean way”), but through the years I came to have a great respect for his strength and determination, and what he did to rise from poverty to success (taking care of his siblings along the way). He was not a Christian—he was an intellectual skeptic, and to the very end he adamantly refused to accept the faith of his younger brothers. Intellectual that he was, though, he still used to say things like, “We have prospered because we have taken care of our ancestors.” And he wasn’t just saying these things—they were beliefs that informed his entire life.
This should give some indication as to how widespread these beliefs are in Korea. They are embedded in the culture. Even those who may not “believe” in ancestral spirits will most likely observe the rituals anyway, because it is a cultural expectation, and because there’s no sense in asking for trouble, right? But even if it’s just a matter of hedging one’s bets, it still involves some measure of belief.
So that’s my take on the issue of ancestor worship, at least for now. It may have been a little disjointed, and it is neither complete nor (most likely) one hundred percent accurate. But with Chuseok tomorrow, I figured it was as good a time as any to talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately. To those of you here in Korea, have a good holiday (if you’re not already enjoying it). To the rest of you, well, there’s a full moon on Tuesday, so you can enjoy that. I’ll see you on the other side of this holiday week.