In S Korea, a town of Kims, an un­usual shared history

Mod­ern­iza­tion turn­ing Korean vil­lages into a fad­ing tra­di­tion

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

NON­SAN, South Korea: Many of his stu­dents are Kims. So are his fel­low teach­ers, an el­e­men­tary school alum­nus and the own­ers of restau­rants and pubs that he pa­tron­izes in his small farming vil­lage. Lots of Kims in his neigh­bor­hood, too. Such is ev­ery­day life for Kim Sun Won, who, ob­vi­ously, is a Kim too.

He’s lived all his 70 years in a tileroofed home in a clan vil­lage, sur­rounded by peo­ple who share his con­nec­tion to an il­lus­tri­ous an­ces­tor from cen­turies ago.

Other clan vil­lages in South Korea are dom­i­nated by Hwangs, Yuns and many other names.

“This is the house where my fa­ther, grand­fa­ther, great-grand­fa­ther and great-great-grand­fa­ther lived,” Kim said, walk­ing down a small hill dot­ted with his an­ces­tors’ tombs and grave­stones. “I’ve never wanted to aban­don my home­town.”

Mod­ern­iza­tion is turn­ing the vil­lages into a fad­ing tra­di­tion. Dozens with at least 100 clan mem­bers re­main, but there were once hun­dreds. The oth­ers have been lost to the frenzy of con­struc­tion across much of the coun­try, and to young peo­ple leav­ing small-town life for big­ger op­por­tu­ni­ties in Asia’s fourth­largest econ­omy. An­ces­try does not have the pull it once did for some, per­haps be­cause some Kore­ans gen­er­a­tions ago gained their pres­ti­gious sur­names by buy­ing them, not through birth.

For Kim, how­ever, an­cient fam­ily ties re­main as tan­gi­ble as the large earthen tombs be­hind his house.

As a direct descen­dant of 17th­cen­tury Con­fu­cian scholar Kim Jangsaeng, the 70-year-old holds about 15 me­mo­rial ser­vices per year for his an­ces­tors at his home, a re­spon­si­bil­ity he calls his “des­tiny.”

“I don’t mind liv­ing near the tombs,” said Kim Sun Won, a re­tired lo­cal civil ser­vant in the city of Non­san who now teaches fil­ial piety, the life of Kim Jang-saeng and lo­cal history at a tra­di­tional Con­fu­cian school. “I feel se­cure here be­cause I have the sup­port of all my fam­ily clan mem­bers here.”

Clan vil­lages thrived un­der Con­fu­cian, tra­di­tional value sys­tems that prize fam­ily con­nec­tions, fil­ial duty, re­spect for an­ces­tors and re­gional ties.

In Kim’s Yeon­san vil­lage there are now about 130 house­holds as­so­ci­ated with his fam­ily clan, but there are many more non-Kim house­holds. A gen­er­a­tion ago, Kim said there were about up to 300 clan house­holds, mostly ex­tended fam­i­lies. Clan vil­lages are usu­ally made up of peo­ple who share prom­i­nent an­ces­tors: Royal princes, top of­fi­cials, revered schol­ars. The vil­lages pre­serve an­ces­tral shrines and reg­u­larly hold me­mo­rial ser­vices by burn­ing in­cense, offering food and liquor at al­tars and deeply bow­ing.

‘Our pride’

In Paju, a city near the North Korean border, two vil­lages are home to dozens of peo­ple with the sur­name Hwang who claim as an an­ces­tor Hwang Hui, a 15th-cen­tury prime min­is­ter renowned for his moral in­tegrity and right­eous­ness.

“He’s like our re­li­gion,” said Hwang You Yeon, a 69-year-old res­i­dent in one of the two vil­lages where Hwang Hui spent most of his post-re­tire­ment years. “He’s our pride.” Last spring, the Hwangs made head­lines when they con­fronted a rul­ing-party law­maker who al­leged Hwang Hui took bribes and com­mit­ted adul­tery. The law­maker apol­o­gized af­ter the Hwangs threat­ened to cam­paign against him.

Th­ese days, it’s largely the el­derly who live in vil­lages as­so­ci­ated with their clans. Young peo­ple mi­grate to cities, and while some even­tu­ally re­turn, oth­ers with dif­fer­ent sur­names have moved in too.

In some cases high-rise apart­ments have changed the char­ac­ter of once-ru­ral vil­lages. In a nearby Paju vil­lage, seven out of 10 house­holds were once as­so­ci­ated with a Yun fam­ily.

Now the num­ber is about three in 10. “In those times, there was less in­di­vid­ual ac­tion. Young peo­ple to­day are spoiled. Aren’t they?” said Yun Hoon Duk, a res­i­dent in the Yun vil­lage. “We had grown up with our grand­fa­thers, un­cles and neph­ews ... so we nat­u­rally learned the rules of eti­quette.”

The clan clus­ters re­veal a fas­ci­nat­ing fea­ture of South Korea, where a hand­ful of sur­names far out­weighs the rest in pop­u­lar­ity. More than 20 per­cent of the coun­try’s 50 mil­lion peo­ple are Kims, from two for­mer South Korean pres­i­dents to the South’s only Olympic fig­ure skat­ing gold medal­ist.

All Kims do not be­long to the same clan. They are di­vided among about 350 “bong­wans” that are as­so­ci­ated with par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tions. Kim Sun Won, for in­stance, is a Gwangsan Kim, named af­ter a southern town where his first an­ces­tor is be­lieved to have set­tled. Gov­ern­ment sur­veys in 2000, the most re­cent cen­sus data avail­able, showed there were 286 South Korean sur­names and 4,179 bong­wans. The dom­i­nance of a few sur­names is closely linked to Korea’s feu­dal and Con­fu­cian history and the legacy of Ja­pan’s col­o­niza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula from 1910-1945. Sur­names were usu­ally re­served for no­bil­ity and roy­alty un­til the 18th cen­tury, when some bank­rupt aris­to­crats al­lowed com­mon­ers to be added to their ge­nealog­i­cal books, called “jokbo,” in re­turn for money.


There are no of­fi­cial records on how many com­mon­ers got sur­names, but it’s be­lieved to be sig­nif­i­cant be­cause ram­pant poverty and the lack of ef­fi­cient state sur­veil­lance sys­tems made the forgery of jok­bos wide­spread.

Dur­ing the Joseon Dy­nasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1910, the aris­toc­racy grew from less than 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion to as much as 70 per­cent, in large part be­cause of forged jok­bos, said Park HongGab, an ex­pert on Korean sur­names at the state-run Na­tional In­sti­tute of Korean History. When Ja­pan col­o­nized the Korean Penin­sula in the early 20th cen­tury, it forced ev­ery Korean to have a sur­name. Slaves took their mas­ters’ sur­names and the poor of­ten picked ones used by high-level aris­to­crats: Kim, Lee and Park.—AP

PAJU: Hwang You Yeon, left, points at his fam­ily’s two-vol­ume ge­mo­log­i­cal book writ­ten in 1723 at a mu­seum com­mem­o­rat­ing one of his prom­i­nent an­ces­tors in Paju, South Korea. His­toric clan vil­lages keep cen­turies-old ge­nealog­i­cal books that they say have been handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. —AP

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