By Yang Sung-jin
On weekends, streets in downtown Seoul are often paralyzed by an influx of cars and people. A large portion of the weekend crowd is headed for wedding ceremonies largely because spring is one of the two feverish wedding seasons here alongside autumn.
But not all weddings are to be celebrated. Despite the lasting recession, “some” would-be couples go for extravagance with expensive gifts to in- laws, exchange of jewelry, lavish post-wedding parties and overseas honeymoons.
A bad habit dies hard. In 1482, the Choson government had to grapple with showy and expensive wedding practices favored by high-ranking officials. For instance, when official Shin Chong’s son got engaged, the Shin family gave 15 rolls of high-quality silk and other presents packaged inside gold-gilt boxes to the fiancee’s family.
As the news got to the ears of other officials in the court, a dispute flared up. Official Kang Kwi-son argued Shin had violated the related laws in order to show his wealth even though he knew well enough about the ban on lavish marriage expenses.
Another official Lee Kuk-pae said, “In the past, tradition dictated that the bridegroom’s family send plain and used cloths to bride’s house. But these days, people are likely to spend much on such marriage preparations, which results in belated marriages because of the shortage of money.”
King Songjong, who hosted the meeting to discuss the case, issued an order for Shin’s arrest and investigation.
Particularly serious was the extravagant weddings of royal princes and princesses, whose expenses for marriages often went overboard. According to an article dated Oct. 12, 1444, a bride’s family had to prepare expensive jewelry and silks for a wedding with a prince. Saddled with such heavy dowry requirements, including dozens of carts of household appliances, a bride’s family often went broke after the wedding was over, the article says.
The vanity was not limited to the wedding ceremony itself. Some of those invited to the wedding thought it chic to wear a rare Siberian mink coats for the festive get-together, according to an article dated June 7 of 1518. To block the deplorable “vanity fair,” a ministerial-level official required ladies to take off their mink coats before joining a wedding ceremony for his son.
At the time, the yangban literati class appreciated Chinese luxury goods for wedding gifts, encouraging smuggling rings in the areas near the borderline with China. A report dated Oct. 12, 1522, sheds light on the situation: “Recently extravagant lifestyle spreads further, fueling the competition for expensive cloths imported from China. Some scoundrels are also engaged in smuggling activities in China.”
On Aug. 29 of 1500, Uijongbu (State Council) filed a lengthy appeal to Yonsangun (10th king, reign: 1494-1506) on the ill-practices regarding marriages.
“Marriage is the foundation of human ethics and prosperity of posterity. Our ancestors restrained themselves in wedding ceremonies, not indulging in music and parties unnecessarily. And talking about money in a wedding ceremony was criticized in the past because wealth was deemed insignificant. But today’s royal princes spend a lot of money, setting a bad example for the public,” the report says.
It also pointed out a trend in which even middle class people were forced to put up an outrageous amount of money for the wedding in a bid to “save face,” a practice that spawned unwarranted bankruptcies in the families.
“Some families spend almost all their money to host a wedding for one of their daughters, even selling off their land and slaves. As a result, the other daughters who get married later have to live in poverty,” the report says.
In 1502, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) issued a guideline aimed at addressing the excessive spending on wedding ceremonies. Under the guideline, jewelry, excessive decorations and other luxurious items were banned as gifts to in-laws. It also called on the king to punish those who neglected the rules.
Crackdown on Luxury Wedding
But how could such government-led guidelines be abided by the families? Interestingly, Sahonbu also put forward a set of ideas to enforce the guidelines vigorously. It suggested a new regulation that would require families to report the exact date of the wedding ceremony. On the big day, Sahonbu argued that a government official should be dispatched to the venue to check whether people were violating the rules.
“A severe punishment should be imposed on the parents who fail to report the wedding day as well as the public officials who turned a blind eye to the guideline,” Sahonbu said.
To eliminate the covert exchanges of gifts after the wedding to avoid the inspection, Sahonbu also called for the establishment of rules that would accept any tips leading to the violations.
In general, preparing a dowry was — or has long been — a headache for would-be brides and their families. Yet it was also true that the process of preparing one’s wedding, one of the most important rites of passage, was considered something sacred.
On May 1 of 1427, official Han Yong-jong’s youngest daughter was selected as a Choson lady to be sent to China as part of tributary offerings. The problem was that Han’s eldest daughter also faced the same fate and when Chinese emperor died, she was buried alive in the tomb, ending her tender life with her dream of marriage broken to pieces in a foreign land.
The youngest daughter, famous as a knock-out beauty, got sick after hearing about her harsh fate. When her brother came up to her, offering a medicine, she declined to take it, saying “You’re already rich after selling off one of your sisters. For what you are paying the money for the medicine?”
Suddenly, she tore apart the bedclothes, one of items she had prepared for her future wedding and gave out her possessions to her relatives before departing for China.
Since the marriage was deemed a highly important social custom, the Choson government systematically helped singles, especially old spinsters, to get married. For instance, in 1413, King Taejong ordered the local administrations to offer dowry to those who had yet to get married at the age of over 30.
The next year, Kangwon-do reported 12 ladies who were over 30 and unmarried. The government promptly offered free-of-charge support for dowry needed to get married, making the spinsters’ dream come true.
On Sept. 9, 1445, Park Cha-hyong, a son of official Park Yon, charged his bride of misbehaving on the wedding day, a charge that he claimed warranted a cancellation of the wedding.
But Sahonbu, which had investigated the case, reported to King Sejong that Park was dissatisfied with humble dowry prepared by the bride’s family, which prompted him to file the groundless charge.
King Sejong steered the trial wisely and concluded Park had tried to ditch his innocent bride only because she was not rich enough. Park was severely punished for his unthinkable behavior.
It is a pity that Park’s sordid mentality is still shared and honored by “some” unreformed bridegrooms.