Confucian Ways of Life and Death

Man in funeral garb

In 1988, John and I taught in the same language school. When I observed his class a few days after I arrived in Seoul, he asked the students, “Now, when your father was young, did he have to do a deep bow each morning outside his father’s bedroom door?”

“Well, no, maybe not.”

“But your grandfather did, didn’t he?”

“Yes, of course.”

John had become more a participant in traditional and modern Korean culture than a great many Westerners have. Tradition seemed to hold a particular fascination for him, as it does for many unconventional people. He has carved out a niche for himself that is a place in-between cultures.

John’s Story

I came here in 1972 for Asian Studies. I had spent eight months in Japan, but I didn’t like it. It was so Westernized, and people were not friendly to foreigners. I met some Koreans there, and I seemed to hit it off with them. Part of it is my Irish-American background. Like the Irish, Koreans are loud, they love to read, they love to sing, they love to drink. They’re very emotional, they cry easily and laugh easily, they’re very quick-tempered, maybe even more so than the Irish.

I came to Korea and liked it immediately. I had to have a visa, so I enrolled in Yonsei University and studied Korean, but I actually learned to speak the language by living in a boarding house with the people, sleeping on the floor on traditional bedding, eating rice and kimchi. It was like a family. Everybody ate around one big table. All the other rooms were full of Korean students, so we’d go to school together, go out drinking together, go on dates together and study together. None of these people could speak English. So for me it was perfect. The hasuk-chip ajumma, the boarding-house auntie, taught me the language. I learned like a Korean child does, starting with simple words like “turn on the light, turn off the light” while somebody flipped the light switch.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet people who were so good and so caring and who shared so much with me. I just kept an open mind and accepted everything exactly like a child would. I also wasn’t afraid to try. I made all kinds of language mistakes, and made a fool out of myself and said bad words when I was supposed to say good words. I got laughed at a lot. People corrected me, but I didn’t care. I just went ahead. I also made a lot of cultural mistakes like crossing my legs, wearing glasses or smoking or wearing glasses in front of elders. Remember, this was 1972. When I got strange looks, I’d always say, “Obviously, I can tell by your expression I’m doing something wrong. So please do me a favor and tell me.”

Deep bows and funerals

I was very lucky to find a professor who was raised very traditionally and then sent abroad to study. He was expected to be able to function at two opposite poles of the spectrum—in the very modern and the very traditional world. The pressure made him kind of radical. He told me, “If you really want to learn Korean ways, come here two hours early every day and I’ll teach you the way my grandfather taught me.” That meant with a stick in the pure traditional Confucian way. He was just like a father to me, a perfect mentor.

He worked over and over on my traditional deep bow. It took three full days. When you do the deep bow, you face the person, look down at the ground, and very slowly bend your knees. First the left knee touches the ground, then the right, all very slowly, all the movements together in the same rhythm. Then bow very slowly from the waist, bending your head forward all the way down to the ground. Your hands form a triangular shape in front of your forehead, and when you reach the ground your nose fits into the space formed by your hands and thumbs. This is the man’s bow. Women kneel with the hands flat on the ground at the sides and turned away from the body and the chin tucked all the way under so that it touches the breast. The difference is the upper body is erect.

People used to bow right on the street. Now, in order to save their clothes, in public places people stand erect and bow directly from the waist with the hands at the sides. This is just sort of a half bow. Inside most Koreans still have the ondol floor, which you don’t walk on with shoes and which it’s proper to sit on or bow on. [This is a floor heated from below by a network of hot water pipes. On top the floor is covered with linseed oil paper.] If I were coming to visit my friend’s parents, I would say, “Please accept my bow, my greeting.” They would sit in some appropriate place, and I would face them and give the bow.

In Korea if you make a correct first impression this way, it opens all doors. And of course just by being accepted you feel more comfortable, you learn more, you adapt better, and you fit in. Bowing correctly is the mark of a good upbringing. So it helped a lot.

After I learned the full bow, I learned how to dance and sing the correct songs at a funeral. At the time I thought, “What in the world am I learning this for? This is not going to do me any good.” Until I went to my first funeral.

Woman in white hanbok and headscarf

A Korean man is buried in the place of his ancestors. A wife is part of her husband’s family and submits to her husband’s relatives’ wishes regarding the burial. The funeral starts in his home village, at the home of the relatives, with a big table of food and drink, many flower arrangements and a picture of the departed draped in black. Then the procession moves out to the countryside, to the site of the burial mound, with several stops for food and drink on the way, perhaps accidentally leaving a trail of flowers. Smaller funerals might be transported with cars and pickups, larger funerals in chartered buses. Unless the family is Christian, the burial is a Confucian rite, like ceremonies honoring the ancestors, in which only the men take part.

Making the funeral mound is part of the ritual. Someone will say a line of the chant, and then everybody repeats it. The chant accompanies the rhythmic packing of the earth to form the burial mound. The words are about the meaning of life and death, not really religious, but very philosophical. The dance is shamanistic. The practical purpose of the dance, which is done with a stick in your hand, is to pack the earth over the body or over the coffin. You hold the stick in your right hand, and as your foot comes down, you strike the earth with the stick. You repeat this over and over, going round and round in a circle. All the men form a circle, and you just go around and around over the person’s grave. That’s how these beautiful little mounds are formed. They don’t wash away because they’re so compact and tight from having been trampled. Layer by layer the dirt is put on, and the dance continues on for an hour or more until that phase of the mound-building is finished. After the mound has been made, it’s like an Irish wake. People get drunk and cry and talk about what a great guy he was, while the family is upset and crying. After a few months, more dirt is added to the mound.

Samnung Tombs. Those for ordinary people are a lot smaller.

The traditional funeral clothing is made from ramie, or hemp cloth. They used to wear a full hemp outfit, but now they’ll wear a hemp hat shaped like an upside down paper grocery bag. They’ll also wear a little patch of hemp cloth on the lapel for a week or so. The first son used to have to build a straw house and live by his father’s grave for three years. Of course nobody does that now, not even in the country.


Traditionally in a Confucian society boys and girls have to be separated from the age of seven—separate education, separate entertainment and socializing. There is still little chance for boys and girls to get together in Korean society. On the other hand, when they get into high school, it’s considered necessary for young men and women to learn how to socialize and to prepare for marriage or business or any other situation where the opposite sex might be involved.

The standard remedy for this is the “meeting”—they use the English word—a gathering set up for blind dates. There are different kinds, but the purpose of all of them is to learn to socialize with the opposite sex, not to find a marriage partner. Everybody’s very uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter whether you like the person you’re paired with or not, you have to be polite.

There are various ways used to pick a partner, like drawing numbers out of a hat. If you pick number 23, your partner is the other person with 23. You may be assigned a name. If you’re Romeo, you have to find Juliet, or if you’re Mark Anthony, you have to find Cleopatra. One modern version is for the men to take a personal object and put it on the table—a lighter or a ballpoint pen. The women are watching closely so they can pick up the object left by the man they want. Sometimes there’s a mad dash for one particular ballpoint pen. I’m laughing because I’ve seen that happen. Then everybody’s embarrassed, especially the girls. Of course, the owner of the pen feels great, but the rest of the guys feel like getting up and leaving. Sometimes the girls will look at all the guys and get into a huddle and say, “I want that one, OK, you take that one…” It’s obvious what they’re doing.

“Meetings” are usually very popular with the college freshmen, but after their first year students never go. I’m amazed that the system still exists because everybody talks about how stupid it is. There are more social opportunities here now than there used to be, various clubs and organizations at schools. You can go to an institute ostensibly to learn English or to operate a computer but actually to meet girls.

Interestingly enough, the girls seem more modern than the guys. No Korean woman will ever admit to this, but some girls go to discos to meet men. They put themselves in a situation where they can be asked to dance, where they can save face and not look easy. The difference from Westerners in singles bars is that they’re not looking for a lover or a sex partner or even a future marriage partner. They’re looking for a friend, a nice boy to go to the movies with or walk through the park with. They’re still rather innocent about it. Guys will go to a disco, sometimes to pick up girls but more often just to have a good time and drink with their buddies. If the guys ask the girls to dance, it’ll be, “Oh, oh, look at these terrible guys asking us to dance. You think we should? Well, OK, just one.” So it’s all very funny.

Young people are getting bolder under what is perceived as Western influence, but it would still be very unusual to just pick someone up. You have the “face” involved. Even if a girl has been watching a guy and has been hoping he would come over and try to pick her up, if it does happen, she’s still obliged to act shocked and refuse because she would look too loose or low-class if she didn’t.

In 1972, when I first came, nobody had a car. If we were walking somewhere my date would automatically set out three steps behind me. It shocked the hell out of me. I thought, “This is really being subservient. Talk about sexism, this is ridiculous.” But it was explained to me that this had nothing to do with me personally and that this was a face-saving device to present the image of not really being on a date, but just going to the same place as someone else. Walking side-by-side with the man was considered too forward. If she had walked with me it would have been considered insulting to both of us. Of course, male ego aside, it’s uncomfortable to have a conversation with your head turned over your shoulder to the person walking behind you.

I was dating some girls at Ewha, the top women’s university, and they would tell me right up-front, “We can have a date, but when we’re out on the street we have to pretend we don’t know each other. Someone might see me walking around with a foreigner and think I’m a prostitute or a loose woman.”

So we’d meet at a coffee shop and then say, “Let’s have dinner. Where should we eat?” She’d leave first, and then I’d meet her there. All that has changed now. You never see women walking behind men, and women have decided either they’re willing to date foreigners or they’re not.

When we got to the restaurant, there would be lots of personal questions. Because of the Confucian hierarchy, Koreans are constantly asking questions to help them place the other person’s social status. They will not let up. And they don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s the major sticking point in conversations between Westerners and Koreans. You’re expected to fire questions back at them. If you don’t, they assume you’re not interested in them, you don’t like them and you don’t care about them. Sometimes they’ll say, “Did I do something wrong?”  Particularly if you’re speaking in English because they’re unsure of what’s going on. My tactic was to do what everybody else did.


In the West, dating has its serious side in that it assumes the eventual goal is to find a marriage partner. Here dating and marriage are distinct, but nowadays it’s possible that if you continue meeting a person, you exchange phone numbers and you go out on dates, it may lead to marriage, particularly among the ordinary people. They tend to use a matchmaker only in case of an emergency—if they have a single child over twenty-five with no potential partner in sight. Among the more privileged people, dating is just going out and having a good time. There’s a separate ritual for finding a marriage partner.

This ritual is called the matsǒn, or meeting to arrange a marriage, which typically happens on Saturdays and Sundays in the early afternoon. The formalities usually take place in a hotel coffee shop because it can’t be too low-class or cheap, but you also don’t want to spend too much money. The preliminary arrangements have been made by a matchmaker or a relative, someone who knows both families, who goes to the house with different pictures and explains who this person is, what his background is, what school he graduated from, what his father does, all of that. Then both sets of parents and the son and daughter show up, all dressed up. They may have never seen each other before.

Then all six of them sit down and start asking each other very personal questions. “Where’s your hometown—what school did you go to—what does your father do—what are your hobbies—how many children are there in the family—what is your religion—what about the other children?’

Sometimes it will get into things like “Has your daughter ever had a boyfriend—does she now—what do you think about sex before marriage?” That’s very forward, but it’s considered the modern approach. Earlier people couldn’t ask about sex. ‘What type of a husband are you looking for–what type of a son-in-law are you looking for—what do you think a son-in-law’s duties are—what do you think a daughter-in-law’s duties are?” They ask about anything on their minds which they feel will affect not only the future marriage partner, but also his or her family.

Marriage is really considered a union of two families, not two people. The traditional way was for the two sets of parents to make the decision, but the modern way is to give both of the young people veto power. Then after the group discussion is completed, the parents leave or the two young people get up and go to another table in the same coffee shop and sit down and talk to each other. Their table is supposed to be out of earshot, and preferably out of sight of the parents. The parents will continue with whatever they want to talk about without the children present, and

the children will try—although it’s very uncomfortable—to get to know each other. They may go out for a date, probably on the same day.

Now there’s another little twist to this. Many times the girl or the boy or both will have a friend show up and sit at another table, preferably at a table near the group meeting, observing in order to give an opinion later. Often the parents know their children’s friends, but they pretend not to recognize them. Later the boy will ask his friend, ‘How does she look—what do youthink about her manners—does she seem innocent to you—interesting?” By the same token the girlfriend, who is sitting at another table, will be asked, “Does he look intelligent—does he look like an idiot—do you think he’d be a good husband?”

It’s fascinating to watch, much more interesting to watch than to describe. Everybody’s so uncomfortable, especially the young people. They’re supposed to sit there with their heads down and make furtive glances at each other and not interrupt their parents. Even when they get off on their own, they’re still uncomfortable.”Now—I’d say that after all these years, I’ve become a Korean ajǒssi [middle-aged man], and I’ve grown more cynical and less tolerant than when I arrived. But as you say, between two cultures, that’s what I am. It affects your whole life.