Preserving Korean family traditions in 21st century

Preserving Korean family traditions in 21st century
Lee Pang-soo, a ninth-generation descendent of Lee Sang-jeong, a prominent 18th-century Joseon scholar, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province.

ANDONG, North Gyeongsang Province - In his beautiful old "hanok" property in a famous traditional village, there is a shrine to Lee Pang-soo's distinguished ancestor Lee Sang-jeong.

Every morning, the 64-year-old pays respect to his ancestor - a prominent 18th century scholar - before leaving the house. He does the same when he returns home at night. The two visits are his daily rituals and delight.

"It gives me peace of mind," Lee said. "It feels like I am being disciplined to be a better person."

Lee is a ninth-generation descendent of the celebrated Joseon era scholar and the head of one of the most historic families in Andong.

In 2002, the Lee clan became the first to donate family artifacts to the Advanced Center for Korean Studies in Andong by entrusting its entire collection of 2,890 antiques, many of which relate to the teachings and philosophy once shared by their ancestor.

"(Knowing that they are safe,) I sleep so much better now," Lee said.

Mostly texts written by Lee Sang-jeong and printing woodblocks, the relics have been an important source of research for scholars. The Korean government in February recommended the country's Confucian printing woodblocks, including those from Lee's clan, for inclusion in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

According to Park Soon, a senior researcher at ACKS, the blocks reflect the very consciousness of Joseon scholars who sought to realise an ideal society in Confucianism.

It is no surprise that Lee's clan produced so many of those blocks. The clan is considered one of the most important Korean "jongga," the prestigious households descended from distinguished ancestors through the eldest son of each generation.

The households have more than 500 years of history, carrying over their ancestors' traditions that follow the neo-Confucian principles of the late Joseon era.

Jongga's traditional practice of ancestral worship, as well as its heavy emphasis on scholarship and ethics, have been considered one of the greatest cultural legacies of Korean Confucianism.

North Gyeongsang Province boasts more than 120 jongga properties, including Lee's, that are designated as national and provincial assets.

But being the head of a jongga in the 21st century is not easy. It means having to constantly navigate Chinese characters to study your ancestors' teachings and skip work to hold countless ancestral worship rituals and family gatherings.

"I have to say it's a lot of pressure," Lee said.

"In the past, being the eldest son of a jongga was considered a full-time job. It can't really be a job now, and you have to somehow make time to take this responsibility."

Born in Andong, Lee was educated in Seoul and lived in Daegu for many years before returning to his family property in Andong about six years ago. While living in Daegu, he would visit his Andong home at least three or four times a month to perform "jesa," a memorial service for his ancestors.

His wife also had a lot of duties, having to provide and serve vast amounts of food for frequent family gatherings and guest visits, as well as jesa and other ancestral rituals. Home-cooked jongga meals are still considered the finest traditional Korean cuisine today.

"I have a tremendous respect for my wife," Lee said, adding that his daughters don't want to marry into a jongga family because they have seen the hardships endured by their mother.

"And I also feel indebted to her. I was born into this family but she didn't have to choose this life."

As the eldest son of his jongga, Lee is obligated to perform ceremonies for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, as well as his great-ancestor Lee Sang-jeong. There are about 60 jesa ceremonies to hold every year. He always attended, even on weekdays, when he was living in Daegu and Seoul.

He was also expected to attend whenever important guests visited his Andong home. One of the best known jongga traditions is to pay respect to one's guests and offer them finest food and hospitality.

"I would so often have to tell my boss, 'I have to go home tonight. I have a jesa to attend,' when he needed me to do something," Lee said.

"And he would tell me, as a joke, 'You sure have a lot of ghosts in your family.'"

Lee, who studied economics at university, started studying Chinese classics about 20 years ago, to better understand his ancestor and scholar Lee Sang-jeong's works. He hopes his 27-year-old son, who is majoring in biotechnology, will do the same one day.

"I just felt like I needed to learn and be prepared so I could at least answer questions whenever people call me about the work of my ancestor Lee Sang-jeong," he said. "That's what I expect my son to do as well."

Although he never studied Confucianism in school, his ancestor's Confucian teachings left in writing ― to be humble, frugal and respectful to both children and elders ― are what remind him of who he is and provide directions in his everyday life.

The influence is almost spiritual, he said, as it motivates him to focus his mind to behave properly. Being a descendent of a Joseon scholar means to be a serving person, with a sense of integrity and respect, he said.

"My friend, who is a pastor, recently told me, 'What's the point of keeping the books of one's family tree nowadays? Isn't it more efficient to simplify things now?'" he said.

"But it is the remaining record of our history. … The lives of our ancestors in the past can show us where we should be heading in our future. We become purposeless without our tradition."

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