Korea’s wedding traditions are changing along with society during past decades.
Wedding was always one of the most blessed tradition in Korean culture and no matter if it was during Joseon Dynasty or 21st century!
Although the typical quick and mechanized modern-day Korean wedding may seem unromantic, for much of history Korean tradition hardly factored the couple’s relationship into the equation at all. Rather, the emphasis was on the political, symbolic and economic consequences of the union. Contrary to what historical dramas may imply, it was simply the joining of two clans, heavily rooted in Confucian values, rituals and symbolic gestures. As a general rule, the peeking glances at the groom-to-be and the tearful pleas to be married to so-and-so that are depicted so often in films and dramas owe far more to fiction than history.1
While blind dates (소개팅) arranged through family and friends, may be the most common way for young Koreans to meet today, things were drastically different during the Joseon Dynasty. The matchmaking process often took place through an official matchmaker or marriage broker who evaluated the families’ criteria. Their reputations, financial assets, physical appearances and achievements would come to the forefront and, when the decision was becoming serious, the parents of the prospective spouses would meet. As with many arranged marriages, at no point would the two people getting married actually meet each other. Many brides even had their eyes glued shut during the ceremony and could not see the grooms’ faces until it was over.
The betrothal was considered complete when the groom’s family sent an official letter of proposal to the bride’s family and the bride’s family responded with a letter of acceptance (same stress feeling level as getting university acceptance letter!). The groom’s family would write the husband-to-be’s year date and time of birth according to the lunar calendar (사주) on a piece of white paper of precise measurements, folded five times evenly and ceremoniously wrapped. The bride’s family would use the 사주 of the two candidates to make sure the match was propitious, meaning that there was sufficient marital harmony (궁합). Using the 사주, the fortuneteller would also advise on setting a date, a process called Napchae (납채).
Once the date was set, the last necessary pre-wedding ritual would be the exchanging of gifts. The groom’s family would gift the bride’s family with a large box (함), which would have three components: the marriage papers (헌서), red and blue fabric (채단) and gifts for family (헌수). Of these gifts, the family gifts, was by far the most important as it contained the groom’s seal. For a woman, both her status and her life depended on remaining married and many women were even buried with their 헌수.
Weddings were a large, costly affair involving a feast (대례). This ceremony took place at the home of the bride. Everyone in the village would come and admire all the sights and colors. The groom would approach the house on a horse, with his attendants nearby, and maintain a stoic face at all times. Upon arrival, the groom would present a wild goose to the bride’s mother on a small table. A geese were known to mate for life, this gesture was symbolic of the groom’s fidelity.
Afterward, there was a bowing ceremony in which the bride and groom would be in each other’s presence for the first time. The groom would stand at the east end of a wedding table while the bride stood at the west end. The bride would bow twice to the groom, who in turn would bow once.
The bride would return to her parents’ home, where the husband would visit for the first three nights. On the third visit, the bride would go to live permanently at her husband’s house.
While upper-class men (양반) were able to remarry, women had to stay loyal to their husbands until death.
As Christianity began to take root in Korea, new-style wedding (신식) began to emerge in the 1890s. Around this time, child marriages were banned, in 1907, the legal age of marriage was 17 for boys and 15 for girls. This new style wedding of that time is so much resemble to the modern wedding style of Korea these days. Brides are walking along the church while keep their dad’s arm and going forward to the groom, and they swear to be loyal to each other until death.
Nowadays, wedding traditions in Korea are much more show off to each other. The bridal dress, wedding hall, arrangements, even the dinner menu and buffet meal are all like competition among couples. Couples are like to held their weddings in a large convention centers with somewhere between 100 and 300 guests. The couples rent Hanbok (Korean traditional clothes) as well as Western-style wedding outfits, and women hire professionals to do their hair and makeup. Typically, photographer is hired a few months in advance, and elaborate wedding photos are taken in a variety of settings and poses. At the wedding itself, two tables are set up outside the doors (one for the bride and another for the groom). Guests are expected to give congratulatory money to the couple in the form of crisp, clean bills in white envelopes.
By the way, recently, more couples prefer to have smaller weddings and they prefer to tie the knot infront of close relatives and friends rather than 300 guests’ eyes. They hire talented wedding planners and held their little ceremony in a garden with few guests and simpler cake and buffet meal. However, I find this kind of wedding style more romantic. The best part of it is, its completely personalized and gives a great experience and memories.
If you are so curious about this wedding style, then simply search “How to have a DIY wedding on Jeju Island” or “How to do your own makeup”.
Finally, no matter which style you will choose for you’re the most memorable event of your life, I wish all of you to live happily ever after.
1- KOREA monthly magazine of tourism & cultural organization, September 2016