▲ An ancestral rite on Chuseok. Photo courtesy Jeju Folklore & Natural History Museum, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
One of the most important Korean holidays is Chuseok. This year it falls on Sept. 12, a Monday, which means a very long holiday and, for many Koreans, a long and harried exodus to their hometowns to be with family and friends.
As part of the celebration, ancestors’ graves are repaired, the grass upon them cut, and small offerings of food and drink offered to their spirits. Afterwards the family engages in various activities and games. Traditionally, girls played neoltwigi (seesaw) – which not only gave them the thrill of being propelled up into the air but also provided them with the opportunity of snatching a quick glimpse of the streets and neighboring yards (girls lived a relatively secluded life during the Joseon period). It also provided the boys with an opportunity of seeing their faces as the girls were wafted into the air.
Another Chuseok activity is the Ganggangsullae Dance. At night the women and children, dressed in their finest clothing, hold hands and form a large circle representing the full moon. This tradition dates back to the Imjin War (1592-1598). Admiral Yi Sun-shin instructed a group of Korean women to make campfires on the mountainsides and then dance and sing around them in an effort to deceive the Japanese army into believing that the small Korean army was much larger than it actually was. His cunning plan worked.
For males, archery and ssirum (Korean wrestling) were very popular Chuseok activities. Not only did they provide the men with the opportunity to demonstrate their manliness but also gave them a chance of winning a prize of rice, cotton or even a cow.
In the recent past, hwatu, a card game, enjoyed immense popularity, but now the younger generation is more likely to elect to spend their time at the movies or in a PC bang (computer game room).
It isn’t clear to what extent Chuseok was celebrated throughout the ages. Very few, if any, of the Westerners residing in Korea during the late 19th century made any mention of Chuseok. William Elliot Griffis, one of the early experts on Korea, merely notes that “on the fifteenth day of the eighth month sacrifices are made offered at the graves of ancestors and broken tombs are repaired.
From the little that we know, Chuseok dates back nearly 2,000 years ago. Silla’s third king, Yuri (24-57), is credited with beginning Chuseok as a competitive festival. According to popular legend, the women of the kingdom were divided into groups for a period of one month – beginning on the 16th day of the 7th month and ending on the 14th day of the 8th month. During this period each team weaved as much cloth as they could. The team that made the most cloth was declared the winner and was treated to a great feast of food and alcohol provided by the losing team.
Naturally enough, many of the primary dishes during this holiday are made from the newly harvested crops. Chief amongst the festive foods is songpyeon.
Songpyeon is a type of rice cake – similar to tteok – that is shaped like a half-moon. These rice cakes are brightly colored and filled with sesame, beans, chestnuts, honey and various grains and then steamed over a layer of pine needles. There are variations, depending on the region, in which other ingredients may be used includ-ing acorns, pumpkin and clams.
Like Chuseok, the history of songpyeon is unclear but apparently the first mention of it dates back to the Goryeo period (918-1392) and may have the root of their origin as a memorial to a prophecy of the past.
According to the Chosun Ilbo (Sept. 22, 2010), the wrapping of the songpyeon resembles a full moon but once the stuffing is placed inside and folded it takes on the appearance of a half moon. According to legend, during the reign of the King Uija (641-660), the final king of Baekje, a turtle was discovered with strange markings upon its back. The wise men of the court determined it to mean that “Baekje is the full moon and Silla is the half moon” and that it was a sign that Baekje would fall. The prophecy was soon realized when Silla defeated Baekje. Since then the half moon has come to be associated with a bright future.
The five primary colors of the Chuseok songpyeon represent the desire to succeed in one’s studies and to live an exemplary life. According to tradition, those who make and shape the songpyeon well will meet a handsome man in the near future or will be blessed with beautiful daughters. Those whose songpyeon fails to achieve the desired color and shape are said to bring bad luck.
Although tteok is generally not an important part of the Chuseok meal it does deserve a mention because of its historical and mythological significance. As mentioned earlier, King Yuri is credited with the first Chuseok, but there is an interesting story concerning how he became king. Apparently Yuri’s father, King Namhae (4-24) favored his son-in-law, Talhae, over his own son. On his deathbed he wanted to give the throne to Namhae but Namhae, suggested that he and Yuri each bite into a large piece of tteok and their teeth imprints counted – the one with the most teeth would be given the throne. Yuri won. Later, on his own deathbed, he turned the throne over to Namhae.
The rabbit is also associated with ttoek and the full moon – especially this year, the Year of the Rabbit. According to Korean legend, the rabbit can be seen on the full moon pounding rice into tteok.
A story from the past
Just after the Korean War, a lot of refugees from North Korea were homesick and desired to return to North Korea for Chuseok. This is a story that circulated in Busan in 1954 during the Chuseok period.
“A 30-year-old refugee had left his wife and son behind when he fled south in 1950. His longing for them became unbearable, and he began the long journey northward on foot, smuggling himself across the demilitarized line into Communist-held territory.
He reached his home near Pyongyang disguised as a beggar. Dirty, bearded, ragged, he was not recognized by his wife. He watched her while she gave him food and water and finally exclaimed in despair:
“Can’t you recognize me? I am your husband.”
“Now I can recognize you,” the wife said. “But it can do no good now. I am married to a Chinese officer.”
The husband argued with his wife in vain, then gave up and came back south, bringing his son.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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