Weddings: Korean Ways to Tie the Knot SPECIAL FEATURE 5 Marriage, a Garden for Old Dreams of Love and Happiness

In the midst of the historical turmoil of the early 20th century, the notions of new literature and free love provided important undercurrents of social discourse among Korean intellectuals. Well into the modern era and through the period of industrialization, novels portrayed a motley collection of love affairs and marriages between individuals who either supported or resisted social conventions.

With the start of the new millennium, Koreans were exhilarated by the first ever inter-Korean summit since the country’s division in the 1940s and by the resultant June 15 North- South Joint Declaration. Overwhelmed with joy, over and over again they watched the footage of the leaders of the two Koreas holding hands and hugging each other in front of the runway trap at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. As they voiced their ardent hopes for reunification, an outburst of related discussions overshadowed other issues. In such an atmosphere, literature received little attention. “Marriage is a Crazy Thing,” a provocative novel by Yi Man-gyo, seemed destined for the purgatory of obscurity when it was published in May that year, though it had been awarded the Today’s Writer Prize. However, it was adapted into a film of the same title in 2002. Then, in 2006, “My Wife Got Married” by Park Hyun-wook was published, another inflammatory novel on marriage, which also won a literary prize and was turned into a film. Only then followed a rush of articles and critiques dealing with subversive ideas on marriage as a social phenomenon.

Marriage is a Crazy Thing?
Some critics considered extramarital affairs as a “new code of deviation and marriage” while others expressed contempt for literature dealing with the subject, claiming, “Adultery novels are rubbish.” Nevertheless, readers were both alarmed and fascinated — alarmed by one woman who cheats on her rich doctor husband to maintain her relationship with her former lover, a part-time college instructor, saying, “I’m feeling less and less guilty as time goes on. It’s just like living a life a little busier than others” (from “Marriage is a Crazy Thing”); and fascinated by the outrageous wish of another woman who argues, “Did I ask for the stars? Did I ask for the moon? I’m just asking for another husband!” (from “My Wife Got Married”). Using the cynical tagline “Are you sure? Do you really believe you can stay in love with just one person?” the film version of “My Wife Got Married” disclosed the hypocrisy of monogamy, ahead of French economic and social theorist Jacques Attali who predicted that monogamy would be but a memory by 2040, saying, “Monogamy has rarely been honored in practice; soon it will vanish even as an ideal.” Many readers and moviegoers were amazed by the stories of mundane life infused with fictional assumptions.
From a more academic perspective, the significance of these works lies in the fact that they tested the plausibility of a new genre involving the reappraisal of marriage, separating the subject from the traditional forms of fiction, such as personal growth stories and autobiographical novels, in which marriage is used as an important narrative factor. If counted from Yi Gwangsu (1892–1950), modern Korean literature took a whole century to expand marriage to the realm of a literary discourse that addressed the institution squarely and raised questions about it. In the new landscape created by the shift in paradigm, Korean readers found, however briefly, a sense of relief and freedom from the yoke of the rigid institution that was like a second skin.
In broad terms, Koreans’ spiritual culture is manifested in four ceremonial occasions of life: coming of age, weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites. Established almost 600 years ago, when Confucianism took root as the country's ruling ideology, these four ceremonies have been more than just rituals to Koreans. They have been an essential part of social order, wielding an enormous influence over their lives. The model for the protocols of these rites was the Chinese classic “Family Rituals of Zhu Xi” (Zhuzi jiali). With the Confucian manual as a reference, and incorporating local customs and practices, Koreans compiled their own rules for royal rituals in the “Five Rites of the State” (Gukjo orye ui), which was included in the “National Code” (Gyeongguk daejeon), a book of the highest law during the Joseon Dynasty.
While the ritual manual of the royal family was adopted by other social classes as the highest set of rules for all other occasions, the wedding was an exception, perhaps because it required the agreement of two families. Specifically, the practice called chinyeong was not scrupulously observed due to the economic burden involved in having the groom go to the bride’s house for the wedding ceremony and then bringing her back to his own family home to live (often represented in traditional wedding scenes featured in introductory materials on Korean culture).

Confucian Marriage Traditions
For a considerable part of the early Joseon Dynasty, most commoners preferred the old marriage rituals and customs dating back to the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.–A.D. 668), which allowed them to choose their own spouses, and the husband to live with the wife’s family (serving as a valuable source of labor) until their children grew up. Besides, dramatic love affairs that led people to risk their lives also happened among the aristocracy and nobility, as described in some ancient stories: Princess Pyeonggang of Goguryeo in the sixth century refused a marriage arranged by her father and chose to marry Ondal, known as a dim-witted boy from a poor family; and death could not separate Yi Saeng and the girl from the Choe family in “Student Yi Peers over the Wall” (Yisaeng gyujang jeon), included in the “New Stories of the Golden Turtle” (Geumo sinhwa), Korea’s first collection of stories in classical Chinese, written by Kim Si-seup (1435–1493). To sum up, commoners of the Joseon Dynasty had not followed the complicated Confucian wedding rituals until the 18th century, when advanced agricultural techniques and active trade brought them prosperity. Interestingly, those who had accumulated wealth were now eager to catch up with the aristocracy and observed the more rigorous rules of the “Family Rituals of Zhu Xi.”

From left: “Pretending to be Happy (The Woman)” by Yang da-hye. 2014. Ink and color on silk, 69.5 x 53 cm; and “Pretending to be Happy (The Man)” by Yang da-hye. 2014. Ink and color on silk, 69.5 x 53 cm.

As shown in the process of matchmaking, the people of Joseon regarded marriage not as a union of two individuals but of two different families and regional customs. The two families had to be of similar social standing and their needs and values had to be finely adjusted for mutual harmony. This meant the process was discreet and serious, but often it was too lengthy and complicated, naturally inviting abuse. Above all, ostentatious spending on empty formalities was escalated by the competitive pride of the two parties. Yi Deok-mu (1741–1793), a scholar of the Silhak (Practical Learning) school, deplored the “corruption of ethics and morality among the general public who consider the birth of a daughter as the family’s misfortune because it will take a great amount of money to marry her off with a large collection of household gifts. So some people console parents bereaved of a young daughter by pointing out that they won’t have to spend so much money in the future” (from Sasojeol, or “Elementary Etiquette for Scholar Families”).

Also problematic was the fact that matchmaking was largely the decision of the parents, not the couple. The novelist Yi Gwang-su, mentioned above as the starting point of modern Korean literature, was himself the victim of an arranged marriage that ignored the wishes of the persons to be married. Pointing out how matchmaking and arranged marriage could fail, he spread the notion of romantic love through his novels.

Marriage in Modern Korean Literature
In his essay “On Marriage,” Yi Gwang-su criticized the contemporary custom of parents having their own way with their children’s marriage as follows:
“One proposes, ‘Give me your girl to be my daughter-in-law,’ and the other responds, ‘Okay, I’ll take your boy to be my son-in-law.’ They laugh and drink a cup of rice wine, and the marriage takes effect, deciding the fate of two people for the rest of their lives. But marriage should be a contract made between an adult man and a woman of their own accord.”
Suffering from his own unhappy marriage to a perfect stranger, Yi advocated marriage for love, women’s independence, and gender equality. In his 1917 novel “The Heartless” (Mujeong), the first full-length modern Korean novel, the author highlighted women’s self-awareness and liberation from traditional ethics and norms through the heroine Park Yeong-chae, who attempts to remain faithful to her lover by killing herself.
Another novelist, Kim Dong-in (1900– 1951), portrayed “modern girls” of the 1920s who advocated free love and their internal contradictions caused by the lack of independence to support such liberal sexual consciousness. In “The Sadness of the Weak,” Kim describes the ordeals of a modern girl named Kang Elizabeth, orphaned and alone, who works as a child's governess and has an affair with the child's father, Baron K.

Fearful and nervous, youths in Korea today hover around, peeking into the garden with an old sign that reads “love and happiness.” Given that various alternative forms of family have been suggested, marriage may not be the only vaccine that can keep the garden healthy and sound.

Marriage in the Industrialization Period
In Korean literature, a new portrayal of marriage for love began to appear in the 1970s, a period of relative stability and prosperity for Koreans brought by rapid economic growth and their collective passion for education. In her 1976 novel “Swaying Afternoons,” Park Wan-suh (1931– 2011) offered a lucid depiction of the 1970s, the age of the “vulgar middle class,” who had risen from nothing to be successful, but only in the competition to accumulate wealth. The novel revolves around the three daughters of a successful small businessman, depicting what each of them holds valuable in a marriage and how they are crushed by the reality of Korean society encountered through married life.
The eldest daughter, Cho-hui, refuses to live like her parents, who had to endure unspeakable hardships to escape poverty, and chooses an “indecent man of wealth” in his 50s over the man she loves. In the end, however, she ruins her life by having an affair with her former lover. On the other hand, the second daughter, U-hui, marries the man she loves but finds herself bound by mundane chores, like emptying her mother-in-law’s chamber pot, talking about love “as if it were a magic spell.” She realizes that her future will be “weary with poverty, like a dingy motel room.” The youngest daughter, Mal-hui, watches her two sisters with sympathy and contempt. The smart girl finds herself a man both rich and lovable, and moves overseas to get away from home. Until today, the love and ambition of these three women has been a typical theme of Korean television dramas.
While Park Wan-suh succeeded in sketching the social conditions of her time through the popular portrayal of marriage, Oh Jung-hee, born in 1947, provided a more fundamental and thoughtful picture of married life in “The Old Well” (1994). The narrator is an ordinary middleaged woman who finds herself no longer “talking about last night’s dream” with her husband, but only sharing “trivial household concerns, food, and sex.” One day, she meets an old flame, whom she has secretly missed and longs to “go somewhere private and lay there with our bodies all entangled.” However, she parts with him, “relieved to see the boat coming to take us back to the safety of the places from where we came.” Later, she happens to learn about his death, but all she can do is to “fold the laundry, make kimchi with the cabbage soaked in salt water the whole afternoon” and “cook for my son’s lunchbox, and exchange jokes watching TV with my husband.” She returns to her daily routine, recollecting the old well saturated with the mystery of life and death and the old house filled with forgotten memories. Finally, she weeps alone, realizing that she is doomed to “keep on surviving in the swamp of the everyday, embracing the shadow of deaths in this world, the countless souls that have disappeared with the passage of time.”

Awaiting New Insights into Marriage
No other institution is as replete as marriage with secrets about the ignorant and clumsy, the dismal and pathetic nature of human relationships. Ever so persistently, it plays up the contrasts between family and individual values, between “you” and “I,” between reason and emotion, and between man and woman. Fearful and nervous, youths in Korea today hover around, peeking into the garden with an old sign that reads “love and happiness.” Given that various alternative forms of family have been suggested, marriage may not be the only vaccine that can keep the garden healthy and sound. At least, if solitude is not the answer, we must know more about each other — and about human nature, for that matter. This will allow us to overcome fear, which instigates enmity, and ease the grip of capitalism, which drives us to relentless competition.

Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic
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