Weddings: Korean Ways to Tie the Knot SPECIAL FEATURE 1 Traditional Weddings, Past and Present

A traditional wedding ceremony at Korea House is indeed very traditional and at the same time very modern. Not only have time and space been compressed, people who would never have sat down together in the past — the respective families, relatives, and guests of the bride and groom — are now gathered in the same place for the wedding ceremony and the following reception.

The bride and groom sit to the west and east of the high wedding table covered in red and blue cloth, facing each other, in a traditional wedding ceremony held in the courtyard at Korea House in central Seoul.

One Saturday at noon, the day is rather cold but the sun is shining bright and the sky is clear and blue. At Korea House in downtown Seoul, a cultural showcase run by the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation, the courtyard is filled with people. A marquee and folding screen have been set up in the center. On the stone base of one of the surrounding wooden halls, seven musicians in beautiful traditional attire take their places, giving the space a formal yet glorious ceremonial air. On the ground covered with matting, a high wedding table has been positioned before the screen with a small, low table on either side, to the east and west. The table for the groom is that on the east, which stands for yang (positive energy) and man, while the table for the bride is that on the west, which stands for yin (negative energy) and woman.

Wedding in a Classic Courtyard
Arranged on the high wedding table are some plates of food such as dates and chestnuts as well as a miniature pine tree and a bamboo plant in pots. A hen and a rooster are placed underneath the trees. The food on the table may vary from one region to the next, but common items are dates and chestnuts, which symbolize wishes for longevity and many children. The evergreen pine tree and resilient bamboo stand for loyalty and fidelity. Though it is the middle of the day, two candles, blue and red, stand on the table, also as symbols of yin and yang. In the past, when weddings were commonly held at night, candles were absolutely necessary. But even in modern wedding halls where dazzling chandeliers hang from the ceiling, you will still see these candles on a table. And the weddings generally start with the mothers of the bride and the groom entering the hall together and lighting the candles.
Back at Korea House, south of the wedding table chairs are laid out in rows, as at any other wedding. On one side sit the guests of the groom and on the other side the guests of the bride. A lot of other people stand, crowding the yard. Some are standing because there are no spare seats and others are foreign tourists, but a large number of them have come just to hand in their envelopes containing gifts of cash, greet the bride and groom and their family members, and hurry away before the ceremony ends. While a preference for small weddings is growing, most weddings in Korea are still big events that many must attend with a cash envelope in hand. That’s why a wedding invitation in the mail is sometimes considered a bill to pay.
Finally, the nice and portly officiant arrives, dressed in a long white coat and high black hat, and takes his place on the northern side of the table. In recent times, when a minister or priest does not preside over the wedding, this role is performed by one of the groom’s former teachers or a friend of the parents, a respected figure of good standing in society. But in a traditional wedding, all that was needed was someone to read the order of proceedings, so in most cases an elderly neighbor who could read literary Chinese presided over the ceremony. Today’s officiant is a professional host registered with Korea House who sometimes presides over ssireum (Korean wrestling) competitions. At last, he opens the large folding fan on which the order of proceedings is written and solemnly announces the start of the wedding by saying, “Haeng chinyeongnye.” In case the crowd might not understand the archaic Sino-Korean expression, he explains that the groom will now proceed to greet his bride.

Greeting the Bride at her House
Under Confucian tradition, chinyeongnye is the rite in which the groom goes to fetch his bride and bring her to his home for the wedding. The “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” from the early period notes: “In the traditions of our country, the groom goes to live at the bride’s house and his children and grandchildren grow up in the home of their maternal relatives,” and “Unlike the Chinese, we do not have the custom of the groom taking the bride back to his family home to live. Hence, men regard their wife’s maiden home as their own and her parents as their own parents, calling them mother and father.” As Confucian influence grew and took hold in Joseon, Neo- Confucian scholar-officials argued that since man is yang and represents heaven and woman is yin and represents the earth, women should obey their husbands and go to live at their husband’s home after marriage. That is, the man should not go to his wife’s house to live when married, but bring his wife to his own parents’ home.
The royal family first led by example, then encouraged the common people to practice chinyeong as well, and send the bride to live at the groom’s home. Sometimes this marriage custom was enforced, but with little success because marriage is not only about where the couple will live. Many other social systems also come into play, such as inheritance of assets and the holding of ancestral memorial rites. Hence a compromise was made and the custom of ban-chinyeong (“half-chinyeong”) was established. That is, the wedding ceremony was held at the bride’s home, and after living there for some time the married couple went to live at the groom’s parental home. Indeed, various compromises were suggested. At first they lived at the woman’s maiden home for three years, but it is said this period was later shortened to only three days. The officiant earlier announced the start of chinyeong, but it seems Korea House has been appointed as the bride’s home for today’s wedding ceremony.

Bride and groom exchange three cups of liquor in the “rite of unifying the cups,” which signifies the union of the two as one.

When the musicians begin to play, the officiant uses the classical Sino-Korean words and modern Korean to announce that “the bridegroom will enter, as well as the goose-father.” The goosefather is a friend of the groom’s who serves as his attendant carrying the wooden goose to be presented to the bride’s family as a gift in a rite called jeonanrye. The goose is used as a wedding gift because it is known to come and go according to the seasons (or the flow of yin and yang) and to mate for life; thus it is considered a symbol of fidelity.
Before long, the groom’s party enters the yard from behind the opposite building. The groom is dressed in a crimson official’s robe and black scholar’s hat, the uniform of a high-ranking official of the Joseon Dynasty. As Joseon was a Confucian state, the ideal for men was to pass the state exams and become a government official. So, on their wedding day, even men of the commoner class were permitted to wear an official’s uniform. Leading the groom are two young boys, one carrying a red lantern and the other a blue lantern. This is a feature that was adapted from the flower girls and page boys of Western-style weddings.
The officiant calls out the following procedures: “The groom will go to the bride’s house and lead her to the wedding ... The groom will go down on his knees and place the goose on the table ... The groom will stand up and bow twice.” As before, he speaks the original Sino-Korean words, then gives the modern translation and an explanation when needed. Next, the groom gives the goose to the mother and father of the bride, who are seated inside the hall at the front, and makes two deep bows. This ends the goose-presenting rite. The groom turns and heads back for the courtyard and, according to the celebrant's instructions, the bride appears from inside. She is dressed in a red skirt and light-green jacket and has a jeweled coronet on her head.

This wedding costume is a copy of the ceremonial dress of upper-class women of the Joseon period. Like the groom, the commoner bride was permitted to wear these clothes on her wedding day as it was meant to be the most joyous and important day in her life.

Arrival of the Couple for the Ceremony
Now the wedding party comes down the stairs into the courtyard with the lantern-carrying boys in front, followed by the groom and then the bride. This procedure, too, is a slight variation on the entry of the groom first and then the bride in a modern wedding. The groom stands on the eastern side of the wedding table and the bride on the western side. They wash their hands as a symbol of purifying body and mind, then bow to each other. This rite is called gyobaerye (“bow exchanging rite”), signifying a promise to spend their lives together. While it is not uncommon these days for couples to get married after the woman gets pregnant or gives birth, in pre-modern times, when marriage was decided between two families rather than the couple concerned, the rite of exchanging bows was when the bride and groom saw each other for the first time. The bride, with the help of her attendants, first bows twice to the groom, who then bows once in return. Once again the bride bows twice and the groom once. Though the celebrant explains that woman is yin, which equals even numbers, and man is yang, which equals odd numbers, it is likely that young female guests wondered why the bride has to bow twice as many times as the groom.


For Koreans, marriage used to be the most important occasion in life. The harmony and union of man and woman — of yin and yang — was a part of the shamanic cosmology and worldview long before Confucianism. Men and women had to marry; failure to do so was considered a great misfortune. In the agricultural society of Joseon, local officials sought out men and women who had not married and found a match for them. If yin and yang are not in harmony and heaven is filled with lingering regrets and grudges, it was believed the flow of heavenly energy would be disordered to possibly bring drought and famine. The modernday influx of brides from Southeast Asia to marry Korean men in the countryside who are unable to find wives is not unrelated to this line of thought. The custom of arranging a spiritual marriage for young men and women who die unwed still continues to this day. One of the tales handed down from antiquity is that the most fearful ghosts are the spinster ghosts and bachelor ghosts who died before they could marry.

Today, however, the proportion of young Koreans who say marriage is not necessary has risen to well over 50 percent; the annual number of marriages fell below 300,000 in 2016 for the first time in 40 years. Some argue that economic factors such as the impossible cost of housing are to blame for young people delaying or even giving up on marriage and the rising marrying age. The average age of first marriage rose by five years for both men and women over the past 15 years. Terms such as “old miss” or “daughter past the marrying age” have disappeared into the past.
Korean marriage customs underwent great change during the Joseon Dynasty when Confucianism was upheld as the governing ideology. Then, with the introduction of Christianity in the process of the nation’s modernization, the so-called Westernstyle wedding became the vogue, but with a celebrant other than the minister or priest presiding over the occasion. The wedding venue also shifted from the bride’s home to a church or wedding hall.

Laid on the wedding table are plates laden with foods such as dates and chestnuts, a miniature pine tree and a bamboo plant symbolizing loyalty and fidelity, and a red candle and a blue candle. Traditionally, a live hen and a rooster wrapped in red and blue cloths, respectively, were placed on low tables underneath the main table, but today replicas are used instead.

The discussion of the marriage between the two families concerned (uihon) is still carried out, but the wishes and preferences of the two people concerned have become much more important. Even specialized matchmaking companies have emerged. As the man is yang, no matter what people really believe, the marriage proposal letter and the groom’s four pillars (time, day, month, and year of birth) are sent by the groom’s family to the bride’s, a procedure called napchae, and the bride’s family sends a letter notifying the groom’s family of the wedding date, a procedure called yeongil — two customs that continue to this day, though they are often omitted.
In the nappye procedure, when the groom’s family sends gifts to the bride in a chest, it was customary in the past to send silks or other fabrics for the bride to make her wedding clothes. Amid Korea’s rapid economic growth, however, jewelry such as rings and necklaces were added to the chest. Just a decade or so ago, the spectacle of the groom’s friends going to the bride’s house to “sell the chest” was not an unusual sight. One friend served as the “horse” and wore a dried-squid mask on his face and carried the chest on his back while another friend was the “coachman” who directed the horse. When this party of friends neared the bride’s house, they would claim they could go no further with such a heavy chest, whereupon the bride’s family and friends would emerge from their house with food and drink and money to give them the energy to put on a spurt and enter the house with the chest. They would pretend to argue back and forth, one side refusing to budge and the other side cajoling them to come inside. Sometimes, the playfulness of the groom’s friends would go a bit too far and voices would be raised.
Moreover, there was an old custom of teasing the groom. When the groom arrived at the bride’s home for the wedding, the young men of the village or young male relatives of the bride would test his suitability with various tricks and pranks. Originally practiced on the bride’s side, the teasing of the groom is these days often the job of his own friends.

Union Sealed with Three Cups of Liquor
When the bowing ceremony is over, the main part of the wedding begins: hapgeunrye (“rite of unifying the cups”). The bride and groom drink three cups of liquor during the ceremony. The celebrant explains that the first cup represents a vow to heaven and earth, the second cup is a vow of tying the knot, and the third is a vow to love each other and stand by each other for life. The cups for the third vow are made from the two halves of a split gourd; after the couple have exchanged their liquor cups and made their vows, the two halves are joined together again. This is meant to show that the man and the woman are made for each other and that the two are now joined as one. Traditionally, the gourd was decorated with red and blue threads and hung from the ceiling of the newlywed’s bedroom to keep watch over them. In the course of their lives together, when the couple had problems they were meant to look at the gourd and think again. As such, in a traditional Korean wedding, there were no spoken vows or exchange of rings. The bride and groom simply faced each other and bowed, then looked at each other over cups of liquor. In this way, they quietly promised to spend their lives together.
Next, the officiant announces that the newlywed couple will bow to each set of parents and to the guests. This procedure, called seonghollye, is also borrowed from modern weddings. The officiant then signals the end of the wedding, advises the couple to love each other, raise their children well, be grateful and dutiful to their parents, and be useful members of society, and lastly thanks the guests for taking time out of their busy lives to witness the wedding. It’s a very short speech in the manner of the celebrant at a modern wedding.
The traditional wedding has come to an end at Korea House, but yet another ritual awaits at most modern wedding halls. In a room set aside for this purpose, hyeongugorye (“rite of presentation to the parents-in-law”) takes place. Traditionally, this rite in which the bride formally greeted her in-laws was performed after the first night spent at the groom’s family home (in the case of chinyeong) or after the first three nights spent at the bride's family home (in the case of ban-chinyeong). But it has been incorporated into the wedding ceremony these days.

In a traditional Korean wedding, there were no spoken vows or exchange of rings. The bride and groom simply faced each other and bowed, then looked at each other over cups of liquor. In this way, they quietly promised to spend their lives together.

After the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom face their parents and guests to bow before them as an expression of gratitude. This ceremonial practice comes from modern weddings.

The norms of Korean marriage and family life have been criticized for their dominant patriarchal tendency. But changes in recent times seem to indicate we are going back to the days of early Joseon, before Confucian ideology became so strongly rooted. Among newlywed couples, relations with the woman’s family and relatives seem to be growing stronger than relations with the man’s family and relatives. And, as far as the man is concerned, there is increasingly less distinction made between his own parents and his wife’s parents when it comes to the rules and customs for funeral rites. In terms of inheritance, legally there is no distinction between sons and daughters. In modern Korea, it seems the wedding is not so much a solemn rite in which the bride and groom vow to spend their lives together, but rather a kind of performance: one event in the process of marriage that can be freely arranged with new inclusions and exclusions or reconfigured from scratch.

Han Kyung-koo Cultural Anthropologist and Professor, College of Liberal Studies, Seoul National University
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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