South Korean Culture
& Traditions

round-mud-coffinsRound-shaped mud coffins made during the Three Kingdoms period at the National Museum of Korea [Photo: Abbie]

Korean Culture & Society

South Korean Culture article is an introduction to most aspects related to the Korean culture and anything about the people and society.

As an introduction, it helps make you get some ideas and background of this culture. Most of the contents here are based on my personal experiences, knowledge, and impressions. Therefore, there are limits in descriptions in various aspects you will discover.

Despite the limits, I will describe various cultural aspects that are useful and with balance perspectives on the topic. As a blog (and website), please feel free to make constructive comments below the page.

Now, let me start describing the South Korean culture with...

The Family

The family unit is an integral part of South Korean life and traditions. The family is an essential part of Korean culture and plays the most prominent role in Korean life.

The roles per family member affect how the family will become in the future. The father is traditional the head and plays a significant role in terms of supplying the economic needs, daily consumption, education, among other necessities.

With the recent development of the modern world, many wives started to support the family not only in taking care of the children and keeping the house but also in earning a living to support the financial needs, especially on school tuition fees, and other expenses.

Arranged marriages are common
Although this is debatable, traditionally, Koreans do an arranged marriage to secure the lives of the couple and their family. However, this arranged marriage practice is fading slowly.

Instead, young couples try to get married using online dating sites to find their future partners. Some find their partners through an introduction by friends.

What is sad about marriage in South Korea is that the younger generation is not willing to get married especially, women.

Most young Korean people prefer to keep their single lives longer and maybe decide to marry later. This is due to the preference for becoming successful in their careers, among other reasons, to remain single.

Women, especially, want to stay single for the rest of their lives, saying that getting married is burdensome in various aspects. The burdens prevent them from pursuing their dreams and being happy.

However, despite the recent thoughts and actions of the young Koreans, traditionally, they are supposed to get married. That married life is basically arranged by their parents or relatives to ensure their better family lives.

Marriage and divorce
Marriage seems to be regarded by society as a rite of passage. You complete a life cycle if you get married and have children.

However, due to various reasons, not all marriages in Korea are successful. Recently, there are many cases of divorce.

This is becoming common although society still despises people who are in such a situation. See the percentages of marriage and divorce here.

Patriarchal Lineage
Traditionally, the father of the family carries the links of his ancestors, just like most of the families in other countries. The husband hands over his family name to his children.

When they marry, the wife does not change her family to her husband's family name. She keeps her maiden name after marriage.

Also, traditionally, it is the eldest son who inherits the property and other inheritance of the family. However, this has been changed through new laws that give both male and female children inherit property equally.

Traditionally, it is also the eldest son, who bears the responsibility to his family. Such duties include supporting the younger siblings in providing financial and other necessities, including taking care of older parents.

Food Culture

Koreans eat rice just like most Asian cultures do. In Korean cuisine, you can find vegetables (cabbages, carrots, etc.), meat (pork, beef, chicken, mutton, etc.), and fish and seafood products.

Koreans traditionally eat rice and side dishes three meals a day. Of course, this has changed due to international influence on diet patterns.

Among the side dishes (banchan), 'kimchi' (fermented vegetables of various sorts) is the most important one. It is considered the national dish and is being the main side dish at most meals.

korean-culture-foodEarthern jars preserve and ferment Korean food ingredients traditionally

The side dishes or banchan, usually come in many dishes and play the main food even without the main dish (such as a lump of meat or whole fish). Of course, they always come with the main dish but depends on the economic situation or order of the person.

Fundamentally, one can consider a hearty complete Korean meal if there is rice, soup (doenjang, kimchi chigae or any soup), and side dishes. Traditionally, it is also Korean culture to sit on the floor when dining.

At various forms of social gatherings and ceremonies, Korean food comes in bulk. You can enjoy them at weddings, birthdays, and even during special holidays and festivals, including...

  • Chuseok (Thanksgiving),
  • Sol Nal (Lunar New Year), and
  • Jaesa (Honoring the Ancestors).

Social Stratification

During the kingdoms and more traditional Korean culture in the past centuries, there was a highly structured social stratification. Generally, one can either be in a royal or government official family line or an ordinary citizen.

Such a situation was highly defined during the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Goguryeo, and Baekje). Due to the inequality in various respects, many ordinary people resisted and organized resistance groups to seek for better and equal treatment from the royals, nobility, and government officials.

However, when the reforms on family lineage in 1894 (Kabo Reforms), the traditional gentry has changed. Koreans since then consider themselves to be of the middle class.

Now, you will be considered a middle class when you are well-educated and successful in your chosen career. This is how you earn respect but not anymore in the traditional stratified society.

Your family background, education, wealth, job, among other features of successes, earn you respect from everybody, and raises your social standing.

The symbols of your success and social status will be seen through your fancy and large house (or an expensive apartment), expensive cars, clothing and fashion, membership to elite clubs.

Above all, to be educated at the top universities, including Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Ewha Woman's University, and Korea University, automatically raises your status and gain respect from everyone.

The Korean language itself defines one's status in society. The hierarchical and honorific forms of the Korean language tell who you are talking to and how you address the person.

If you are talking to your superiors or elders, you are supposed to use the honorific forms at the end of the sentence (suffixes). And you can also expect that your superiors will talk to you in non-honorific forms.

However, situations, personality differences, values, and all other features play in the use of both honorific and non-honorific language use.

In addition to language use, a younger Korean is expected to honorific forms as part of Korean culture and etiquette.

Women and Men's Roles

The traditional Korean culture sets that men are more superior in terms of decision-making and roles in the family and society at large.

Through time and various features of development, such unequal gender roles have changed in general. It is legally inscribed in the Korean constitution the equality of both sexes.

Organizations and institutions are still mostly influenced by gender and age differences. Male mostly become the heads, although women started to hold higher offices recently.

 47.7% of adult females worked outside the home (1998)
 Women occupied 2.3% of provincial and local seats in (1999)

Women, traditionally and even up to the present, are dominating the Shamanism and traditional beliefs, while they have minimal roles and hold lower status in Christian and Buddhist religions.

Still, women, in general, are expected to be submissive, especially in public settings, and even in informal gatherings. Of course, things have changed to some degrees and cannot be compared in the past.

Due to the expected traditional roles, males are lesser independent as they are expected to support their family, especially on finance. On the other hand, females can be considered more independent than males do.

Parenthood & Family Responsibilities

Like all or most cultures, Korean culture emphasizes taking care of their little children as primarily the responsibility of the parents. Hiring other people to take care of an infant is not common; however, some recent family can hire nannies to do the job.

Parents are expected to teach their children on various cultural and traditional values including, filial piety, obedience, respect for elders, cooperation, among others.

Parents also teach their children about gender roles, which are encouraged in early childhood, not only in the family but also at schools.

The Korean society, traditionally, prefers sons than daughters. However, this traditional way of thinking has started to change in the last decades. Sons used to receive the best attention from parents and the highest education.

The son (and daughter) receive an education with the support and depends mostly on his parents. Getting married is also very much tied to the parent's consent and support for the sons.

Freedom of Religion & Beliefs

The legal foundations of the country support religious freedom and other traditional beliefs and practices.

South Koreans join religious groups and institutions including, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, Christian Protestantism, and Catholicism.

South Korea still practices traditional worships and beliefs, including Shamanism, ancestral religions, Confucian rituals, and worships in nature.

In particular, Confucianism still has an influence or still is influencing Korean society in various respects. It culturally affects both the political and social spheres of the Korean culture.

Special Holidays & Major Celebrations

Koreans celebrate two main national holidays each year. They stop working at offices and other daily jobs to spend time with family and relatives to observe Sol Nal (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Harvest Thanksgiving).

The celebrations will run from four to five days, depending on which day the holidays fall during the week. It is a Korean culture to visit their homes at least twice a year.

The celebrations are usually expected to happen between families and close relatives. Sons and daughters have to travel to their hometowns where their parents reside to celebrate.

Culturally, children and their families come together and bring home some special gifts for their older parents. Lucky for those whose parents are not living far from the children's houses.

Usually, family members prepare their own food for the next few days. The celebration usually involves eating, drinking, family games, picnics, exploration of attractions, among others.

For the Chuseok, public celebrations, including games, festivals, and public performances, are available for all to experience and see.

korean-cultureIt is a traditional Korean culture to wear 'hanbok' during special holidays and events, such as weddings, birthdays, etc.

Arts, Recreation, Trends & Popular Culture

Ancient Arts

In terms of aesthetics, crafts, and recreational aspects, South Koreans have developed their own trends and popular culture.

Indeed, the country has some historical influences from its neighboring countries, including China and Japan. Such influences have helped to create the people their own ways of expressing arts, entertainment, and other recreational conveniences.

First, let me tell you about the traditional and ancient arts, such as ceramics, stone sculptures, which still somehow influence the thoughts of some remaining artisans in society.

What I found quite interesting are the arts and artifacts left behind by the cultures of the past Three Kingdoms (Silla, Goguryeo, Baekje) and the later Unified Silla Kingdom. During those periods, you will also learn that there were smaller states (such as Buyeo, Gaya, etc.).

You can still see their excellent art products at any museum in the country, especially at the National Museum of Korea, where most of the original artifacts are being exhibited and preserved.

buyeo-sculptureBuyeo Period Art - Bear Sculpture

Museums & Galleries

One of the things I noticed is that South Korea has many buildings for museums and galleries. Both buildings could be private or government establishments.

The differences between the two are that galleries rely mostly on arts and new local talents whose works and achievements are being displayed in those buildings. On the other hand, Korean museums include almost everything, including contents related to those at the galleries, such as paintings.

Each region's city, usually, has a national museum such as in Gwangju City, Gyeongju City, Seoul, Chuncheon, Busan City, among others. Establishing museums and visiting them is part of the Korean culture.

Typically, museums have varied themes, such as agricultural, arts, and miscellaneous items. However, museums in Korea could also be regional or area-specific.

Area specific implies that a particular museum houses items that are peculiar and specific to the area alone. For example, the National Museum of Gyeongju houses only items found or excavated from Gyeongju City's royal tombs.

Music

Music is one of the significant changes that has ever happened in South Korea. Although the traditional Korean music still leaves on and would probably won't disappear (such as the Arirang and other classic songs), it is evident that the Korean pop songs have their own way of pushing it to the top.

The Korean pop song culture, known as the K-Pop music, has changed not only the young Korean generation but also the world's younger generation who are being influenced by the Hallyu (or the 'Korean wave').

Locally, Psy's "Gangnam Style" song has popularized worldwide Gangnam District as a trendy, classy, and fancy area where high-society people shop and is equated to Paris, London and other major cities in the world.

k-popGirl-group K-Pop

Cafes & Fast-food Shops

I believe that South Korea is one of those countries that have the most cafes and coffee shops. It is one of the phenomena of changes that I have personally witnessed. They are in almost every corner of the cities and towns.

Cafes and fast food services are becoming the most common features you can readily access in Korea. They are not only practical but also inexpensive compared to the traditional hotels and established restaurants where one spends time and relax.

Most people, young and old, meet at the coffee shops or cafes. Many young students go there to study, do homework, and meet friends at the same time. Doing things difficult to do at home, office, or school at a cafe is now a new Korean culture!

New Cultural Spaces

Vast public and private business spaces that serve the public and guests have been spreading since in recent decades.

Nowadays, you can find various places that provide people relaxing and entertaining facilities. They can be indoor or outdoor. Such sites include colossal theme parks, environmental parks, natural parks, botanical gardens, hiking courses, and mountain trails.

What I love most in this culture is that they are actively doing physical exercises such as hiking in the mountains--provincial and national mountain parks.

It's not surprising to see why most Koreans are slim fit, and active! It's a Korean culture to be slim!

Now, there is so much to say about Korean culture. However, I will limit this article's scope as an introduction.

Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoy it, please share it with your friends and family members.

I hope you'll enjoy your travels.

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