Korean History 101: Chuseok (추석)

As we’re building up to Thanksgiving here in Canada, Korea’s own Thanksgiving holiday took place this past weekend. Chuseok (추석), as it’s called, is one of the three major cultural holidays in Korea, including Seollal (설날), or the New Year. Like most ancient holidays in Asia, Chuseok falls on a specific day of the lunar calendar: the 15th day of the 8th month. By the Gregorian or Christian calendar, this is usually in September or October. Because it takes place in the autumn, it’s a typical harvest festival — roughly the equivalent of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival or North American Thanksgiving. Chuseok is also called “Hangawi” (한가위), which means “Great Middle of Autumn”.

How a turtle started it all

According to popular belief, Chuseok originates 2000 years ago during the reign of the third king of Silla (신라), an ancient Korean kingdom. The king ordered a month-long weaving contest to be held between two teams, and the team that wove the most would be rewarded with a feast (called gabae, or 가배) and other prizes. Weaving was an important part of domestic life in pre-modern Asia. In fact, an old Chinese folk tale (later passed onto Korea) tells of a weaving girl and a cowherd, who fall in love but are tragically separated by the Milky Way. Every year a flock of magpies fly up to build a bridge so that the lovers may meet. (In fact, this story is actually the main part of another Korean holiday, called Chilseok (칠석) and celebrated about a month earlier, but I figured that was close enough to tell this interesting story.)

Another tradition has it that Chuseok was originally supposed to celebrate Silla’s defeat of its rival kingdom Baekje (백제). Legend has it that their king at the time, King Uija (의자왕), found a turtle with odd markings on its shell. His advisers told him that the markings meant, “Baekje full moon, Silla half moon”. This apparently meant that Baekje would fall and Silla would rise (presumably referring to the waxing and waning of the moons). This would certainly explain the continuing importance of moons during Chuseok. For example, the Chinese equivalent, the Mid-Autumn Festival, is often called the Moon Festival here in North America and some scholars think that Chuseok was adapted from ancient shamanistic rites celebrating the harvest moon.

It’s not known how well the king took this prophecy (presumably not well, being the king of Baekje) but at any rate it came true: Silla defeated both Baekje and Goguryeo (고구려) to the north and the Korean peninsula became Unified Silla.

Traditional celebrations (hint: pine needles and chores)

Like Thanksgiving, there are certain things that must be done during Chuseok. These include “charye” (차례), an ancestor worship rite that involves setting out food and incense for your ancestors. (Similar ceremonies are held on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death.) Traditionally, this took place at the graves of the ancestors, who were buried in grassy mounds. The food and alcohol, typically wine made from freshly harvested rice such as makgeolli (막걸리), were offerings in order to gain the ancestors’ blessings on the family from the afterlife.

However, in modern times, Koreans are rarely buried in these types of graves. So the “charye” rite usually takes place in the ancestral home (usually the one belonging to the grandparents, or some other older family member), where pictures of the deceased are placed on low wooden tables and the feast spread out before the pictures. The traditions of cleaning and visiting ancestors’ graves, are called “beolcho” (벌초) and “seongmyo” (성묘) respectively. Cleaning involves cutting the grass on and around the tomb and clearing weeds.

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This is the tomb of one of the royal family in Gwangju. Most ancestor graves look similar to this one, but much smaller.

So what kind of food is served during “charye”? It can vary from region to region, and even from family to family, but typically include Korean traditional staples such as japchae (잡채). The signature Chuseok food, however, are rice cakes known as songpyeon (송편). These are half-moon shaped (another reference to Chuseok’s origins), stuffed with a variety of fillings, and steamed over pine needles. Fillings vary from region to region: typical ones include pine nuts, red bean paste, sesame seeds, and honey (my personal favourite). Some seaside regions, however, use clams!

The pine needles are very important to get a good aroma and flavour! The “song” in songpyeon literally means “pine”. Tradition says that if the songpyeon is well made, the maker will be blessed with a handsome husband and/or a beautiful daughter. If it is poorly made, however, the maker will be cursed with bad luck! Pre-modern Koreans presumably took their food very seriously.

Unlike North Americans, who typically spend evenings after the big dinner digesting, Koreans have a variety of traditional games during Chuseok. These include seesaw, usually played by girls, which involve two girls jumping up and down on either end of a seesaw. It is thought that this game was very popular during the Joseon (조선) era, when girls were kept secluded and the high jumps allowed them to catch glimpses of people outside the walls of their home.

Other “games” include a traditional dance called “ganggangsullae” (강강술레) where women hold hands and dance around in a circle. The words “ganggangsullae” are usually chanted, thus the name. Apparently this practice originated with Admiral Yi Sun-shin (이순신), who told women to hold hands and dance around campfires in order to give the enemies the impression that the army had more people than it actually did. No word on whether it actually worked, but based on my own experience, modern Koreans rarely play these games on Chuseok now. They are more likely to be found at many cultural centres that hold Chuseok events, such as the National Museum and various national folk villages around the country.

Modern celebrations

Unlike in Silla, modern Koreans often live apart from their families in large cities far from their ancestral provinces and towns. Much like North American Thanksgiving, these Koreans now travel back to their family homes to celebrate Chuseok. In a small country of over 50 million, this inevitably creates a truly horrific traffic jam during the Chuseok weekend, to the point where some foreigners living in Korea warn each other (since they typically do not celebrate Chuseok) not to go out during those few days. In fact, in a survey conducted by the Gyeonggi-do Women’s Development Center, 20.3% of men listed “long-distance driving” as one of the greatest stresses about the holiday.

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A picture taken of the city Gwangju (광주), although not on Chuseok. Most people who live in Seoul return to older cities like this one and peripheral provinces to their ancestral homes.

What do women find most stressful about the holiday? You may have noticed that most traditional celebrations are done by women. Women make the songpyeon and other traditional foods, women play seesaw and ganggangsullae, and this is not too different from today. 48.9% of women surveyed listed “preparing food all day while my husband sits and watches TV” as the most stressful part of Chuseok. 13.6% of women listed “being nagged about not supporting my family enough” while 16.9% of men listed “my wife’s complaining”.

On a final note…

All in all, it looks like families are much the same anywhere in the world. Whether it’s Thanksgiving here in Canada, or Chuseok in Korea, holidays can often be a major source of stress. But as more and more people all around the world are living separately from their families, hopefully it is still worth it to make the trip every year to see them. And if nothing else, there’s always the food.

Sources: Visit Korea, asiasociety.org, Women in Korean History (Pae-yong Yi), “Koreans List What They Hate Most About Chuseok and How the Holiday Is Changing” (www.soompi.com), “A history of Chuseok” (Robert Neff, Jeju Weekly)

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