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Ancestor ceremonies today

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By Mark Peterson

After writing about modern "jesa" ― ancestor ceremonies in today's Korea ― it occured to me that many readers do not understand much about ancestor ceremonies, either today or yesterday. Korea readers will largely know from their own experiences, but the foreigner has probably only read about "ancestor worship" and has not attended a ceremony. Let's look at the ancestor ceremonies briefly today.

Last week I wrote about visiting the Gwangsan Kim ceremony in a modern hotel with some of the traditional trappings of the ceremonies and some new features ― such as holding the ceremonies in a hotel ballroom.

For those who have never attended a ceremony in Korea, it might be worth taking a minute to learn more about the ceremonies. First, they are the heart of Confucianism ― the core ceremony in Confucianism. Oft times one reads about "ancestor worship," but that phrase is misleading. One performs the ceremony at home for close relatives who die, and there are ceremonies for those ancestors of greater and greater distance, but no one is really worshipping the ancestor. Such terminology crosses a line that confuses the reader about Christian worship or Buddhist worship ― which are truly worship ― and the Confucian practice that is not so much worship as it is "veneration" or showing respect to the deceased. Thus many students of Confucianism prefer not to use the word worship.

In an age when many Koreans are Christians, to review the history of the Christian-Confucian conflict is worthwhile. When Christians first came to Korea, the Catholics in the eighteenth century, they saw their religion as antithetical to Confucianism, and insisted that Christians should not do the ancestor ceremonies. My good friend Don Baker at the University of British Columbia has written about Paul Yun, the first Korean martyr who chose to face the ire of the state rather than perform the ceremonies for his deceased father; for which he was executed. Subsequently Christians, particularly Protestants have taken a more measured look at the practice and have decided it's not really worship, unless you think your ancestor has become a god ― a claim Confucians do not make. Therefore, you can worship Christ on Sunday and show your respect to your deceased ancestor as well. And some Catholics have come around to that point of view.

Still, to be sure, there are some Catholics and even fewer Protestants who have drawn a line in the sand and have said they will not participate in "ancestor worship"; but far more have said it is not worshipping the ancestor, it's only showing respect, and thus they will perform the ceremonies.

On a practical level, the ceremonies perform a major and important function. They bring the descendants together. They are a kind of lineage glue that brings kinsmen, close cousins and distant cousins together for bonding and mutually advantageous cooperation.

I've attended ceremonies where everyone is introduced to each other and there are always the "regulars" who attend every time, or nearly every time. And there are the occasional attenders who come intermittently, and there are the newcomers who have come for the first time. At one ceremony I remember one newcomer who said, "My father always attended (and he said his name and the "regulars" nodded and repeated the name), but he died last year, so I think I should start attending the ceremonies now." Other newcomers have said, "I didn't care about the ceremonies when I was younger, but now I'm getting closer to meeting the ancestors, and I know many of them now, I think I should start attending the ceremonies."

This is another thing that I found in the Palace Hotel Ballroom with the Gwangsan Kim family. They introduced everyone. And I had the impression that there were the "regulars" and the "newcomers."

For a long time people have said that they thought the ceremonies would die out with the old men who attend the meetings. But I've been watching it for over 50 years now, and it's not dying out. Younger men become older men and they start going to the meetings. And the ceremonies have not died out.

They have changed though. Rather than meeting at the ancestral hall, or at the grave ― I shouldn't say "rather" because they still do that ― in addition to, let me say, they are meeting in modern settings and doing the same reaffirmation of their standing in their lineage groups. And as at the Palace Hotel, they do all the ceremonies, except for the ceremony of bowing and making offering to the ancestors. Critics have always said the ceremonies are more for the living ― and that seems to be the case today as well.

Mark Peterson ( is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.


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