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Click Into the Hermit Kingdom (96)

Festering Regionalism Comes From Faulty Foundation of Genealogy Book 

By Yang Sung-jin


A narrow perspective, once held inside a person, does not do much harm. But if it is actively shared and reinforced by a group of people as in the case of racial discrimination, problems multiply.

For all the denials, Koreans tend to favor such narrow perspectives at critical moments. In the upcoming parliamentary election in April, commentators need not get a prophet's license to say that the guys-from-my-hometown-only regionalism will take the center stage.

All the historical facts show that Koreans stubbornly favor those who are closer in genealogy maps than others, however remote it may be.

Few is more illuminating than a clan genealogy as an item to deconstruct the faulty myth of regionalism. Most families still cherish the old books of genealogy as a source of identity, tradition and honor, but factual foundation is at best suspicious.

Ask Koreans about their genealogy books and family origins, nine out of ten would say their forefathers were kings, queens, high-ranking officials, or at least very famous figures.

That is a very good reason to have a measure of pride but today's historians do not accept the face value of genealogy books.

It was during the Choson period when a clan genealogy book settled as an explanation of one's precious family history. At the time, the central government was grappling with the many conflicts of interest and fierce power games played by the royal families.

King Taejong, for instance, struggled hard to grab the throne while fighting off other princes and relatives.

Therefore, setting a clear pecking order in the court was an issue to be addressed and ``Sonwonrok,'' a royal genealogy book, was first published during the reign of King Taejong.

The royal genealogy book clarified who were at the first line of inheritance and who were not eligible for the throne. Even though there was a slight difference, the high-class yangban also published their genealogy books for a similar purpose: clarifying who was the family power player and its blood line.

Of course, genealogy books were also designed to pay a respect to the forefathers, a tradition which has long been cherished by Koreans.

On a closer look, however, the respect for the eminent forefathers was to cement an elitist family tradition and show off its towering power over the lower class.

As for the Choson people, owning a genealogy book meant the person in question was a high-class yangban. In other words, those who wished to secure the yangban status had to get a genealogy book to join the much-coveted rank.

A conventional genealogy book summed up the founder of the family, names of family members, biographical notes and other related information. In general, the genealogy record centered on male family members since the Choson society at large opted for a patriarchal structure based on Confucianism.

Yet a number of remaining genealogy books show that such man-oriented tradition was not settled yet in the earlier Choson period. Husbands routinely lived in their wives' homes and there was no sexual discrimination for sons and daughters when it comes to family inheritance.

The politically correct genealogy publishing principles, however, underwent a drastic change in the 17th century when primogeniture became a norm.

At the same time, a number of genealogy books catered to human vanity. Some yangban families and royal members forged their genealogy books in an attempt to elevate their social status.

Aside from the rampant coloring of the genealogy books, a complicated surname system rendered the issue trickier than ever.

Choson founders reconfigured the local administration system and streamlined the local demarcations of the Koryo Kingdom. The changes affected the surname system which was based on the location of the hometown of the family. 

As a result, some families were forced to ditch their original place of origin and choose another place nearby or a larger town.

In the process, some families mingled together with the same place of origin and surname even though they did not have any common family lineage.

Furthermore, the confusion deepened in the late Choson period when the lower class attempted to upgrade their social status en masse by adopting surnames at random.

The lower class without any surnames selected famous family names such as Kim, Lee, Park, Choe and Chung to camouflage themselves as descendants of renowned families.

Given that about 40 percent of the total population did not have surnames up until the 16th century and today's family -- 100 percent -- own a genealogy book plus surname, the degree of the mixture between the high-class and lower class was enormous.

Although the number of surname-holders jumped exponentially, the total number of surnames did not change upwardly, suggesting that most new entrants joined the established surnames arbitrarily.

Understandably, fake genealogy books were popular among the lower class who wanted to break the decades-long social shackles. They did not care about their true roots; what mattered most was to get a decent genealogy book, whose forged quality could pass public scrutiny.

The upper class, who already owned genealogy books, forged their family origins and blood lines in an attempt to secure privileges reserved for the power elite families.

The high percentage of forged family genealogies does not mean that all the pedigree books are fake. What it suggests is that voters should break apart regionalism -- a selfish extension of family and hometown -- in the upcoming parliamentary election.


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