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Young Koreans abandon outdated ancestral rituals for simple gatherings

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Children learn how to bow in a traditional way at a childcare center in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, on Tuesday. [YONHAP]
Children learn how to bow in a traditional way at a childcare center in Cheongju, North Chungcheong, on Tuesday. [YONHAP]

Charye, a centerpiece Korean ancestral ritual that involves putting up to 30 dishes of food out for ancestors, is fading away as young Koreans opt for simpler family gatherings during national holidays.

Food for the charye table, which can take up to days to prepare, is made entirely by the women in the family while men literally just sit and engage in trivial chitchat.

Such unfair division of labor has been criticized as a sore spot of Korean tradition and was cited as the biggest cause of divorce by 268 women surveyed by a dating agency in January.

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Charye usually takes place on the anniversary of a family member’s death or on major national holidays, such as the Lunar New Year and Chuseok harvest holidays.

But charye rituals are becoming a minor occasion, a trend accelerated by the change in people’s views.

Lee Si-eun, 32, said she and other women in her family were freed from the arduous traditional formalities after her mother declared that “she has had enough” in a family meeting three years ago.

Lee’s family agreed that the women have needlessly gone through trouble for charye preparations and decided to dine out instead.

The change has “deepened the holiday spirit,” Lee said.

Of the 4,000 people surveyed by Lotte Members between Sept. 4 and 5, 56.4 percent said they have no plans to perform the ritual in the upcoming Chuseok harvest holidays, just like Lee’s family.

Another survey of 942 people by the Rural Development Administration showed that 39 percent did not put food out for ancestors during last year’s Lunar New Year holidays. Nearly 66 percent said they performed the ritual in 2018 and 45 percent did so in 2020.

People shop for fruit at a wholesale market in Suwon on Sept. 18. [NEWS1]
People shop for fruit at a wholesale market in Suwon on Sept. 18. [YONHAP]

Families unfettered by traditions and customs would choose to end charye practices to ease the physical and psychological burden on their new daughters-in-law.

“Grandfather was adamant about maintaining the old ways at first but he eventually yielded and accepted the change after 10 years of convincing,” said another 32-year-old surnamed Koo.

The pandemic was another factor that watered down the Korean tradition by raising the bar on family visits. Health authorities put a cap on the number of people allowed in a private gathering under the pretext of disease prevention.

“Charye was naturally unserved because relatives could not meet up during the pandemic,” said a 30-year-old surnamed Han.

“A get-together meal with relatives a week ahead of the break and each family spending the holidays on their own has become the norm.”

The increase in women’s economic activity is also regarded as a reason for fewer charye tables since they were able to be more vocal about the unfair roles.

The employment rate for women reached an all-time high of 54.7 percent in August, narrowing the gender gap in the employment rate to an all-time low of 17.2 percentage points.

With Korea leading the world in terms of plunging birthrates, the traditional way of living is expected to diminish as well.

The trend spurred organizations founded to protect and preserve traditional Korean culture to suggest simplified versions of the charye table in recent years.

“Ultimately, we wish to continue traditional customs free of family disharmony and dispute,” said Sung Kyun Kwan, one of the largest traditional associations in a statement in January.

BY NA SANG-HYEON, SOHN DONG-JOO [sohn.dongjoo@joongang.co.kr]