Popular view of the origins of the festival
Korean Full Moon Festival or “Chusuk”
Chusuk is a Korean festival celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar moon. During this festival, Koreans offer produce from the harvest as a token of gratitude to their ancestors for providing them with good fortune. Chusuk is also known as “Han Gah Wee,” which translates as “big and in the center.” This celebration indicates a significant day in the middle of the year. “It is a time of thanksgiving for the harvest and remembrance of one’s ancestors.” (Chusuk)
During this celebration special food is prepared including meat, fish and newly harvested fruits and vegetables as well as a soft rice cake known as songpyon. The celebration begins on the night before Chusuk and ends on the day after the holiday. This usually means a three day period of celebration when friends and family meet and get together. (Wong B.K.)
What is significant about the festival is not the celebration itself but the relationship of the festival to deeper religious meanings.
One of the most important of these is ancestor worship. For this reason the food is displayed in a ritualistic manner on a memorial table. Family members ritually bow to their ancestors and give thanks for the harvest. The family members also dress in a special way, in hanbok, or traditional Korean costume. (Chusuk)
This formality also points to the central thesis of this paper; namely that the paper is intended to explore the religious significance behind the events of the festival. The central aspect of the festival is the celebration and appreciation offered to the ancestors. The thesis that will be explored is the relationship of the festival to Shamanistic religious traditions as can be seen through ancestor worship.
There are many myths and folk tales surrounding the festival and the rituals performed. One of these folk tales relates to the circle dance performed during the festival.
Chuseok festivities also feature a circle dance, ‘ganggangsuwollaw,’ performed by women in the southwestern part of Korea. It supposedly developed from a trick women played on Japanese invaders in the 16th century by dancing around fires in the evening to make them believe their target was well defended.
Chang-Soo, K.) popular view of the origins of the festival is the following:
Chusuk originated from an event during the Shilla dynasty. King You Ree divided the women of six local towns into two groups and requested that they have a contest to see which group was better at weaving. The losing team would have to prepare and serve dinner and drinks to the winners and perform a sad traditional song. Despite this competition, both sides enjoyed afterwards the feast and celebration and in time the people changed the song’s context to take on a less somber tone. This event developed into what is now known as Chusuk. (Chusuk)
However, there are more ancient and substantial reasons for the importance of the festival and the traditions associated with it. The festival is in fact deeply connected to the foundations and roots of Korean religion. Korean spirituality is essentially Shamanistic in nature. The practice of ancestor worship also reflects part of the depth of the Shamanistic world which underlies the reasons for the festival.
Shamanism and Ancestor worship
The most important aspect to consider when trying to understand ancestor worship and its relationship to Shamanism in Korean culture, is the emphasis on the presence of those who have died in the world of the living. Shamanism was, and in some cases still is, an ancient form of religious belief and practice which believes that there are other dimensions to this world which are part of or co-present with our ordinary lives. The Shaman or “priest” is the one who can enter these different “worlds” and who can perform acts of healing in the state of trance. All Shamanic traditions emphasized that the ancestors were present and even unseen participants in the ordinary world. This gives some idea of the importance of ancestor worship and the concept of giving thanks for the help of the ancestors in the new harvest.
In Korea, as in other Far East Asian nations, emphatic respect is shown to elder generations, including the deceased generations. The latter, while deceased, are not necessarily perceived as having ceased entirely from involvement with the immediately visible generations on earth.
There are many variations to this belief and it has been adapted and even oppressed in some instances due to modern and Western influences over the years. However, the belief and sentiments attached to ancestor worship exist throughout Korean culture about ancestors who “remain somehow normally present and active among descendants.” (ibid) Therefore in Korean culture it is felt that one has an obligation to demonstrate respect towards one’s ancestors. “Just as one should demonstrate respect towards elder members of one’s immediately visible household and community, so likewise one has an obligation to demonstrate respect towards deceased members of one’s household and community.” (ibid)
In essence, the worship of the dead is based on the essential Shamanic view of reality in which the invisible world is co-present in the visible ordinary world of everyday activity. This relates to the ancestors and those who have passed from this plane of existence. “The fundamental belief is that we do not simply blink out of existence when we die, but take on an ethereal form and continue to exist. Not only do we continue to exist, we also maintain some connection to the world of the living. (Liminality. 2004)
In understanding the importance of the Chusok Festival it is important to understand that Shamanism is the underling and foundational religion of the Korean people. This is a fact that many experts agree on. “Scholars hold many different opinions about Korean shamanism, its character and components, but they agree on one thing, that shamanism represents the oldest stratum in Korean folk religion (Carter-Covell 1981; Covell 1986; Guisso-Yu 1988; Kendall 1987, 1988). (Hoppal)
In the above sense ancestor worship can also be more simply understood as a form of social propriety or “good manners’. If one takes into account the belief that those who have died are still actually present in everyday life, then the festival and its rituals towards ancestry are the same as bowing and showing respect to one’s elders in the community. A further reason for this custom of showing respect to the ancestors is that it is believed that this will bring good fortune. This is achieved by securing the benevolent attitude of ancestors who have been properly honored…just as one might seek to secure the favor of elders in one’s immediately visible household or immediately visible community, in order to obtain their good-will for one’s own prosperity and well-being: so likewise, one does virtually the same with regard to one’s ancestors who are perceived to be somehow here still present and somehow here still active.
Therefore the Festival of Chusuk is centrally concerned not just with a holiday and celebrations but with honoring the ancestors and participation in an ancient religious view of the world. “The holiday’s first duty is to the dead. Early in the morning family members attend a simple memorial service at home for their ancestors, or they go out to visit their family grave sites and public cemeteries in the countryside or in the suburbs of cities.” (Chang-Soo, K.)
Offerings are then made in front of the burial mound or the tombstone.
These rituals also have their origins in the ancient Confusion practice of paying homage to the departed souls.
The practice of ancestor worship and the jesa ritual (the sacrificial ritual during which food and drink are offered to the spirits of one’s ancestors) began in China as a Confucian practice and was later introduced to Korea. Confucianism did not originally deal with spirits and deities (it’s really more of a code of ethics than a religion), but ancestor worship came about when the Confucian concept of filial piety was applied to the basic belief in ancestral spirits. (Liminality. 2004)
However, it must be remembered that Confusion was deeply influenced by Shamanism. (ibid)
The Shamanic customs and rituals were subdued and often disregarded due to the influence of the Christian missionaries who came to Korea; but they have survived to a certain extent in the Chusuk Festivals and other rituals. Another aspect of the ancestor rituals is that they also have a social function and lead to the reunion of family and friends which creates the joyous spirit of the festival.
The Shamanic religious culture of Korea, as has been mentioned, was subdued and often repressed by influences from the West and from the encroachment of the modern world. In the early Chosun Dynasty, shamanism became a religion for the marginalized and was suppressed during the time of Japanese colonization. After independence from Japan the Koreans were heavily influenced by the rational and scientific thought of the West. The Western culture and views condemned the Shamanistic practices in the country. “… Shamanism suffered severe insults. These have continued until today, repeatedly masking and hiding a real identity.” (Chang-Soo, K.)
The Chusuk festival represents many aspects of Korean culture. It serves a social and a community function and is part of the heritage and traditions of the culture. In order to understand the significance and importance of the festival one has to understand the background of Shamanism. The essential purpose of the festival still remains embedded in the ancient culture of Shamanism and its central function is to ensure, though respect and worship, the success of the next harvest. “Koreans believe that if you take care of your ancestors, your ancestors will take care of you. In traditional agricultural society, the harvest was the most important event of the year, and it was vital to make sure it was a success.” (Liminality. 2004)
Chang-Soo, K. Korean Traditions:Major holiday draws millions to their hometowns. 2001. Accessed February 23, 2005. http://www.skynews.co.kr/skynews_main/ENGLISH/culture/culture_039.htm
Chusuk. 2003. Accessed February 20, 2005. http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:eQLTDtnigtIJ:www.columbiaksa.org/public_files/chusuk_info.pdf+Chusuk&hl=en&start=1
Hoppal M. SHAMANISM in a POSTMODERN AGE. February 23, 2005. http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol2/hoppal.htm
Liminality. 2004. Accessed February 20, 2005. http://www.liminality.org/archives/56/
Mousalimas S.A. Christianity and Shamanism. 2001. Accessed February 22, 2005. http://www.oxfordu.net/seoul/chapter3/index.html
Wong B.K. Chusok, February 23, 2005, http://www.familyculture.com/holidays/chusok.htm
The following image represents the community quality of togetherness and celebration that marks this festival
Image 1. Source: http://www.clickasia.co.kr/about/h815.htm
The festival is marked by the preparation of special foods.
Image 2. Source: ibid
Image 3. Playing folk games during the festival
Image 4. Distribution of Rice cakes
Image 5. Preparing for the Ancestor worship ceremony in Korea
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