'Ancestors skipped ancestral rites during pandemic'

The 'Hawa illok,' written by Ryu Eui-mok, notes that the people of Hahoe Village in North Gyeongsang Province discussed and concluded to not perform rites on Chuseok due to a smallpox outbreak in the village on Aug. 14, 1798. / Courtesy of the Korean Studies Institute

By Kwon Mee-yoo

As COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to countries around the world, the way Koreans commemorate traditional holidays might also be affected by the pandemic.

Chuseok, one of the country's two main traditional holidays celebrating the harvest season during which families gather to hold ancestral rituals, is drawing nearer but the number of COVID-19 infections here is not falling.

Typically, millions of people join an exodus to their hometowns, clogging highways; but the annual event faces challenges as the government is urging them to refrain from visiting family members or their ancestors' graves to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Yu Sae-rom, a curator at the National Museum of Korea who organized the "Fighting Epidemics in the Joseon Dynasty" exhibit, said ancestral rites were taboo when an epidemic broke out in the kingdom.

"According to Paegwanjapgi, a collection of Joseon miscellany written by Eo Suk-gwon under King Jungjong's reign, in the Joseon era, it was believed that the goddess of smallpox spread infectious diseases. There were several actions that were taboo so as not to offend the goddess of smallpox, which included holding ancestral rites and banquets, attending funerals and offering hospitality to strangers, as well as avoiding honey, oil and fishy and dirty food," Yu explained.

"The goddess of smallpox was known to be jealous and holding ancestral rites was considered taboo since it was serving another god. Prohibiting memorial rites during a pandemic was applied to commoners and aristocrats alike."

Evidence of not performing ancestral rites during a pandemic is also found in private documents. The Korean Studies Institute unveiled historical diary entries from its collection, suggesting that the people of the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom, who are known for their respect for the Confucian order and holding ancestral memorial rites, skipped such ceremonies during disasters such as epidemics.

"There are examples of spending national holidays briefly or even skipping ceremonial rites in cases of great crises. We should dispense with Chuseok ceremonies this year, drawing on the wisdom of our ancestors," said Kim Mi-young, a researcher at the institute.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, measles and smallpox were prevalent, disrupting the lives of people. In the "Veritable Records of Hyeonjong," in 1668 many people died from infectious diseases around the country with measles and smallpox claiming the highest number of deaths.

An excerpt from "Chogan Ilgi" (Diary of Chogan), Treasure No. 879 written from 1580 to 1584 by Joseon-era scholar Gwon Mun-hae of Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, documents on Feb. 15, 1582: "I felt sorry (for ancestors) that we cannot perform ancestral rites due to the epidemic." Another diary entry from two days later reads, "My great-grandson began to suffer from measles," hinting that the infectious disease broke out around the same time.

An entry in "Gyeam Illok" (Diary of Gyeam), written by another scholar Kim Yeong from Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, reads, "We stopped ancestral rites on Dano (a traditional holiday that falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar) due to the epidemic," dated May 5, 1609. In a May 1 journal entry, Kim wrote "An outbreak of measles is very near," suggesting he canceled the Dano rites to prevent the spread of the disease.

In "Hawa illok," written by Ryu Eui-mok of the Pungsan Ryu clan based in Hahoe Village in North Gyeongsang Province, an entry on Aug. 14, 1798 notes that the villagers discussed and concluded not to perform rites on Chuseok due to a smallpox outbreak in the village.

Kim Du-heum wrote in his "Illok" on March 5, 1851, that he could not perform ceremonial rites due to smallpox running rampant in the country.

"In Korean tradition, people did not hold ancestral rites when there were worries in the family such as funerals or illness. The commemorative rites should be performed in a clean state, but the infectious disease situation was considered unclean," Kim said. "However, the biggest reason to give up all family functions including ancestral rites was to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. We should be able to do the same as our noble ancestors did in trying to take measures against epidemics."

Kwon Mee-yoo meeyoo@koreatimes.co.kr

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