The Korea Herald


Chuseok, women and the silent revolution


Published : April 6, 2010 - 12:49

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As society changes, women in younger generations call for recognition and equality

The Chuseok holiday, Sept. 17-19, is a precious time of year for sharing and giving thanks to ancestors for the year`s harvest although for many married Korean women, it has traditionally been a time of domestic suffering.
Chuseok, like other traditional holidays, has long been a source of pain to married women, since they have to spend the entire holiday preparing Charye-sang, a feast set to honor ancestors, while their husbands spend the day idling, leaving all the work to their wives.
But society is slowly changing. Young Korean wives mostly in their late 20s and early 30s who are not as submissive as previous generations of married women are pursuing a "silent revolution" in their families.
These women are better educated and career-oriented which has lead to a shift in the understanding and playing-out of family dynamics. Articulate and aware of the male-dominated hierachy in the home, this generation of young wives and mothers are determined not to repeat the life patterns of their mothers who lived to serve their families needs.
Lee Jung-ah, a 29-year-old publicist, finally secured the freedom to enjoy her Chuseok holidays like other young married and working women in Korea after having a serious conversation with her mother-in-law last year which led to the unusual agreement of reducing housework by ordering Charye-sang through an online shop.
"Ordering ready-made Charye-sang," Lee says, "has set us free from the kitchen, and brought us back into the family circle."
And The Silent Revolution doesn`t stop there.
Last year, her mother-in-law even allowed her to take a vacation with her chinjung family, or maiden family during the last Chuseok holiday, on the understanding that it was the only chance for her to take a break with them.
"I was afraid of how my mother-in-law would react to my suggestion at first because I knew that it would be hard for her, especially at her age, to accept. But, it was a mutual understanding between two women that ended the unnecessary suffering of women in our family. We feel that we should not be obligated to do all the housework, but also have the right to enjoy holidays with other members of the family," said Kim.
The internet is also enabling some of Chuseok`s most important rituals to be transformed. For example, a family-cemetery managing company located in Daejeon, two hours from Seoul has started to offer an online-based service to families who have difficulties to visit the cemetery during holidays.
Families are able to carry out Jesa, a traditional memorial service through the Cyber Memorial Zone (, operated by Daejeon Metropolitan City Facility Management Corp., an affiliated public company of Daejeon municipal government.
Usually family members dressed in traditional costumes perform the service either at home or at the family grave site, but as some Koreans reinterpret old customs and the number of days for Chuseok are fewer than in previous years, greater numbers of families are to visit the web site instead of visiting the cemetery, said the managing company.
Via the Cyber Memorial Zone, each family can pay their respects to the deceased and even prepare virtual Charye-sang, with a computer click.
Increasing numbers of Korean families are also holding family rituals in front of the "Internet-ordered table," reducing the painstaking efforts of women in the family.
There are about 10 cyber service firms operating business across the country with various choices of Charye-sang that can be delivered to homes by paying between 200,000 won ($190) and 500,000 won ($490).
To further remedy the pressures upon housewives, civic groups have called for staggered homecomings, simpler meals and more fun activities that involve all family members. Some people have already gone further, holding online family rituals while taking vacations abroad.
Families are also now letting women take part in the ceremony. According to an internet poll, 61 percent of women in Korean families are now making a formal bow of gratitude to their husbands` ancestors too, although fundamentalist say, this is against tradition.
In reaction to the older generation`s concerns that such progressive actions could possibly diminish traditional values, Shin Kyung-ah argues that women taking part in the ceremony or simplifying the content of the feast have nothing to do with ignoring tradition.
"Traditionally it is the spirit and the respect given that is highlighted in the ritual process, not the formal behaviors," said Shin Kyung-ah, an active scholar in gender issues.
"If women had to suffer in order to keep that burdensome formality, it is the time to let it go," adds Shin.
In a divergence away from Korea`s deep-rooted Confucian culture in which housework is seen as a woman`s duty, ambitious drives to break down barriers between men and women were actually initiated 8 years ago by several women`s organizations resulting in public campaigns encouraging families to reserve a `happy day` for every member of the family.
The campaign slogans listing several ways to make Chuseok more pleasant - such as "Let wives also take a rest on Chuseok holidays" and "We are looking for beautiful husbands" - have catalysed substantial changes within Korean families by making them aware about how unfair it is leaving women to work for entire holidays.
Despite these changes in society, experts say that it is still not enough.
"It is time to establish roles for the modern family and spread the idea that daughters or wives are equal to sons or husbands through TV dramas or other entertainment programs," said Ahn Byung-chul, president of Korean Family Studies Association.
However, Yoon Young-ock, says women in young generations have to demonstrate the will to do some good for the family.
A 53-year-old woman who has a son married to a full-time accountant last year said that although she understands her daughter-in-law`s stressful double-life as a wife and career woman, the attention given to the family falls far short of her expectations.
"She helped me for about an hour to prepare dishes, and then took a nap saying that she`s too much tired while I worked all day long," said Yoon.
However, The Silent Revolution sounds like a fairy tale to married women in their late 30s or 50s. "Holiday blues" caused by the heavy labor of setting and clearing tables seems to be a ritual experience for this sandwich generation, that has slipped between the progressive young generation and a conservative older generation who are afraid of change.
Yoo Young-eun, a 39-year-old housewife, who married the second son of the family ten years ago, said that her generation wants to voice their demands for reducing the burden on her shoulders, but men are less sympathetic to the appeals of women her age compared to those in younger generations.
Yoo remembers when she burst into tears after she realized her husband feels no obligation to help her. "He made excuses and excuses all the time, saying sorry, instead. I feel like I am the only one suffering during holidays," said Yoo.
Shin Kyung-ah says, that according to her research, supported by the Gender Equality Ministry, more than 90 percent of men out of 800 respondents said that they are willing to help their wives but feel uneasy about working in the kitchen while their parents are watching them.
"I feel sorry for my wife during the traditional holidays, but there is no way to help her out because first of all, my mother wouldn`t let me do anything," said Na Jung-keun, 36, who has been married for 6 years.
Family experts urge husbands to be more active in enabling change by holding family meetings to discuss how to share necessary duties such as shopping and cooking letting all members of the family, including women, attend rites for ancestors, and visiting the families of their wives.
"Chuseok will become a different holiday if women are equally treated and all family members make the effort to understand and share women`s burdens," said Ahn Byung-chul, professor at the department of communication at Hanyang University.

By Cho Chung-un