▲ Left, a Korean wedding procession circa 1910 - 1920. Right, a wedding photo circa 1920 - 1930. Photos courtesy Robert Neff Collection
Tears of happiness are often shed at weddings but during the Joseon era, tears were shed for other reasons: fear and sadness. The married couple was usually quite young — sometimes even children — and their wedding was generally arranged for political and financial reasons rather than love.
Silk for the bride’s dress was provided by the groom’s father and was conveyed to her at night by a small procession of the groom’s friends. It was customary for this procession to be set upon by a group of men from the bride’s home and a mock battle would ensue. Although it was suppose to be a sham battle, real blows were often dealt and there were occasional deaths. The reasoning for this battle is unclear because if the groom’s side lost he would suffer bad luck and if the bride’s side lost she would suffer misfortune and unhappiness. Not a great way to begin a marriage.
On the day of the wedding, the groom, dressed in his finest, goes to the bride’s home on horseback. He is preceded by two men, one carrying a white umbrella and the other, dressed in red, carrying a goose. The goose represented fidelity because geese were believed to mate for life.
Did you know?
Yeobo is a common term of endearment between couples in Korea but do you know what it really means? According to Isabella Bird Bishop, an intrepid and elderly English traveler, it was used by the husband to his wife and meant — “‘look here’ which is significant of her relations to him.”
At this point the groom usually had his first glimpse of his bride but she was unable to see him. One Westerner wrote: “A queer object she [the bride] is to our thinking. Her face is covered with white powder, patched with spots of red, and her eyelids are glued together by an adhesive compound.” Guided by attendants, the bride would bow to the groom twice and he would bow to her four times and thus the wedding was completed. According to one source, wedding papers were also exchanged — the groom’s document bore the print of her thumb in red wax while the bride’s document bore the groom’s seal. The bride is alleged to have “guarded her marriage certificate as her life” because the groom could not remarry until he had his paper back.
These weddings were quite expensive. Unlike the banquets of today, each guest was given their own small table full of food and drink — all paid for by the bride’s family. In the 1890s, a “very cheap wedding costs 75 yen” and to have several daughters was considered a severe financial strain.
After the initial ceremony, the groom ate and drank with his friends for a short time before returning to his father’s house to prepare for his bride’s arrival. The frightened young bride, with eyelids still sealed, was then borne to her parents-in-law’s home on a chair ornamented with red, covered with leopard skin, and accompanied by a group of lantern bearers. When she arrives, she bows four times to her parents-in-laws and then is taken back to her own parents’ home where her makeup is removed and her eyes unsealed. Her husband arrives later and stays the night — returning the following morning to his own home. This was repeated over the next couple of days. It is on the third day that she goes to her parents-in-law’s home to stay for good — “absorbed as one of his [the groom’s] mother’s inferiors.”
Silence was considered to be an admirable trait of a wife and the wedding day was no exception. It was expected for her to be absolutely silent and to not even make a gesture other than the ritual bowing. To do otherwise would result in embarrassment and shame to her family. Her husband, instead of helping her maintain her silence, would taunt her and try to trick her into speaking. “It may be a week or several months before the husband knows the sound of his own wife’s voice, and even after that for a length of time she only opens her mouth for necessary speech.” While this may have been so at the beginning of the marriage it did not last long — there are a number of stories of Korean wives giving their all-too-deserving husbands frequent tongue lashings.
As stated earlier, most of these marriages were arranged and had little to do with love, but if a man was rich enough he often had a concubine — a woman he chose and often loved much more than his wife. The concubine may have had the husband’s attention but it was the wife who ruled the house.
Not all of these marriage brokers were on the up and up. In the early 1900s, a marriage broker arranged a wedding between a young girl from a well-to-do family and a young handsome man. Apparently some of the girl’s relatives went to visit the prospective groom at his house to verify the broker’s claims and were very impressed. The young man was obviously affluent, well-dressed, and lived in a wonderful house. An elaborate wedding was held and then the young groom took his wife to his true home — “a wretched house where his father and mother and a large family lived huddled together like rabbits in a hole. The deception was a most cruel one, for the girl had been accustomed to a life of comparative luxury.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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