▲ A Jeju traditional wedding in 1954. Photo courtesy Kim Yu Jeong
It’s spring, as gloriously evidenced by cherry blossoms swirling through the air like so much fragrant pink snow. Naturally, our thoughts turn to weddings.
Jeju’s traditional wedding ceremony, like so many of its indigenous customs, disappeared during the Japanese colonial period. And with the subsequent 1948 massacre and Korean War, this and many other cultural traditions were not to be recovered.
While some claim to have traditional weddings today, they are in the style of the mainland rather than that of this island, as corroborated by scholar and social critic Kim Yu Jeong.
“Jeju’s people were too poor for elaborate ceremonies,” he recounts.
Traditionally, the wedding process was held over 3 days and consisted largely of festivities and symbolic gestures which signified the uniting of two families.
Preceding the wedding, the potential bride was determined by the groom’s family. They typically sought healthy and hard-working young women, especially diving women who were capable of economic independence. Also preferred were women from large families as they were considered to have a more congenial disposition than that of an “only child.”
“People from coastal villages didn’t marry those from the mountainside,” according to Kim, who also emphasized that those from the west did not want to marry ‘easterners’ because of the prevalence of snake worship in the east and belief that the relationship with the snake god was passed from mother to daughter.
It was also taboo to marry a mainlander, though an exception was made for political exiles from “yangban” or aristocratic and similar families.
Though these exiles typically already had a wife and children at home in the mainland, they were sought after for marriage to young Jeju women. When their period of exile was over they returned home, taking their Jeju-born children with them but leaving their brides behind.
According to Kim, the women typically did not want to leave Jeju, but their families thought the children would have a chance for a better life in the home of a yangban.
While these women were not discriminated against by Jeju society, they were not expected to marry again.
In mainland tradition, when a woman left her home she also left her family entirely, becoming a member of the husband’s family – even though she was not included on his family registry. In Jeju, this was not the case. Brides joined their husbands’ families but retained a relationship with their family of origin as well – and were welcomed home should the marriage end.
In addition, even though the son and his new bride might live with his family, it is Jeju custom then and now – again, unlike the mainland – for the new couple to maintain distinct quarters and even prepare and consume their meals separately, thus establishing some measure of autonomy.
On the first day of the wedding, the bride and groom each held separate celebrations with their families of origin. A hog, butchered in a highly-specialized way, was equally distributed on skewers, with extra portions going to family members who helped prepare it.
The second day represented the ceremony itself, during which the bride symbolically left her home to join her groom and his family, and the families exchanged gifts.
These gifts typically consisted of three quilts each, made from the cotton of their own farmland – and reduced to one quilt only in a majority of families who could afford no more. In the wealthiest, the groom’s family would also give farmland to that of the bride.
On the final day, “for two families,” the couple returned to the bride’s home to spend one day there together. This custom differs entirely from that of the mainland.
A special “wedding box” was created by the son and his family to be presented to the family of the bride. It contained a letter of declaration in which the groom’s intentions for marriage were formally made known to the father of his bride.
This box was traditionally made of wood from the zelkova tree. However, as this wood was expensive, that of the cherry tree was often substituted.
The box was wrapped in silk to represent fortune and tied with a thread to indicate longevity. Prior to this, however, the same silk and thread were wrapped around a ceremonially-prepared rice cake and brought to the local “dang” or shamanic ritual site beneath the village’s central tree.
The groom’s family told everything about the son to the “simbang,” or shaman, and presented the wrapped rice cake, which the shaman then threw against the sacred tree. If it stuck to – was accepted by – the tree, the marriage was deemed fortuitous. The silk and thread could then be used for the wedding box, and matters proceeded.
The groom ceremoniously transported this wedding box to the bride’s home, carrying it on horseback, box in front of rider. This custom is one of the few remaining today, albeit vestigially: a wedding box is still used and is transported to the wedding hall on the front of the groom’s car.
Following the individual family celebrations on the first day, during which the letter for the wedding box was written by the groom and his family, the second day – considered the actual wedding day – began with ancestral rites.
Subsequent to the rites, the groom and his family representative or “usi” – typically an older sister or aunt – traveled to the bride’s home. There he presented the wedding box to the family, the letter ritually inspected.
The groom and his usi were then ushered into a special room where the groom was served food by the young men of the bride’s family while the usi supervised.
The groom returned home with his bride, who was also then provided with a special room in which she was served by the young women of the groom’s family under the supervision of her usi. She then distributed some of the food to children in the family to help ensure a fortuitous and fertile marriage.
A wedding portrait was taken which included members of the groom’s family, guests, and the new bride – and, in all but the wealthiest families, the wedding ceremony at this point was complete.
The bride changed into clothes made by her mother-in-law then greeted each guest in turn and gave a small gift, usually “beoseon” or traditional shoes. The guests gave gifts to the new couple as well, typically money or textile.
Following the gift-giving, the bride returned to her special room which overlooked the granary, a view thought to bring good fortune to the marriage. She remained there for the rest of the day while the groom, family and guests continued their celebration.
On the third and final day, the bride, groom, and groom’s father traveled back to the home of the bride’s family where they were served a meal and spent the night. The groom’s remaining family members and the wedding guests meanwhile continued their festivities.
This, too – a return to the bride’s home – differs from mainland customs and likely indicated that she remained a member of her original family as well.
The traditional three-day wedding ceremony was not permitted during the colonial period of the early 20th century and did not survive that 35-year absence. Only the tiniest remnants, primarily use of the wedding box, remain today.
(Interpretation by Koh Yu Kyung)
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju Island.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.net)
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