▲ Korean village life, circa 1910-1920. Robert Neff Collection
During the Joseon period, the average Korean peasant’s life was filled with uncertainty and despair. Subject to the fickle environment, which often devastated crops through floods and droughts, and the greediness of the yangban (noble class), who stole profits through draconian taxes, peasants often struggled to make ends meet. It is no wonder that they sought solace and financial relief through the establishment of “gyes” – mutual support associations. These associations were generally made up of friends and neighbors, but at times relative strangers with similar interests and goals were also included.
These gyes were related to all aspects of life, including death. In the 1890s, Daniel L. Gifford, an American missionary, recalled that while on his way to attend church one day he encountered a fellow missionary’s Korean servant “with a fantastic tissue-paper headgear on his head, and a native lantern in his hand, in a group of similarly furnished men, outside a house where a funeral was to be held.” The deceased was not of the servant’s family but he was a member of a funeral gye in which associates pledged to carry lanterns and supply materials needed for funerals when a fellow member died.
Funerals in the past, as they are today, were fairly expensive affairs, and sometimes families joined gyes to which they contributed a certain amount of money each month as a form of funeral insurance – when a gye member died the funeral expenses were paid from the fund.
But not all gyes had dark connotations – some were established to celebrate the future. There were gyes that helped pay for annual events like purchasing the ingredients needed to make kimchi and paying for feasts during Chuseok and Lunar New Years holidays. Other gyes were oriented towards paying for the festivities of manhood and marriage.
Young scholars in the countryside also established gyes to help pay for their civil service exams. These exams were extremely important for anyone wanting to go into politics and were held at the royal palace in Seoul. The participants not only had to pay for their writing materials, food, and lodging but also, in many cases, the high cost of renting suitable clothing while in the capital. Additionally, provided that they passed the exams, they also had to pay the great expense of celebrating their academic success.
Gyes were able to make a profit for their members by functioning as banks – although judging from the interest rates, loan sharks might be a better comparison. The gyes’ treasuries were loaned out to individuals, often outside of the gye, who needed money and were willing to pay the very high interest rate – usually 20 to 50 percent – the latter percentage being more common than the former. It is interesting to note that these loans tended to be for 10 months with the understanding that the debt would be paid in full prior to the Lunar New Year. Defaulting debtors experienced the wrath – often physical – of the entire gye.
Gyes continue to be a part of society that the average foreigner is unaware of unless married to a Korean. Often groups of women form their own little gyes and contribute a certain amount of money each month. At a certain point a member, usually chosen by lots, receives a large sum of money. It is understood that everyone continues to contribute their monthly dues and that all members of the gye, one by one, will receive one of these lump sums of money. Occasionally, an unscrupulous individual will join a gye and contribute only until they receive their large sum of money and then quietly quit thus cheating their fellow members. Fortunately, this is a rather rare occurrence as gyes are generally formed amongst close friends and neighbors.
Men, too, have their own gyes. Some young men pool their money together so that they can rent a small apartment to be used as a sanctuary from the disapproving eyes of their parents and, in some cases, their wives. Just as in the past, others use the money to pay for a monthly or even weekly men’s night out. But some of these male gyes adhere to the nobler purposes of the past – namely to assist members when their families suffer illnesses or sudden deaths.
The American missionary in the 1890s noted that all of these Korean gyes had one thing in common – “the trait of mutual helpfulness in time of need.” It is good to see that some things have not changed in Korea.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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