Fans of Korean dramas would have seen a variety of wedding scenes showcasing Korean wedding traditions and symbols. While the younger ones prefer a modern, Western style wedding, many still opt for a traditional wedding.
For most people, a wedding ceremony only happens once in their lifetime, which is why they want it to be as memorable as (financially) possible. Some people splurge on the entire ceremony, from the choice of wedding outfits to venues to decorations and reception. And do not forget the importance of well-known wedding sponsors and guests! Others want their wedding ceremony to be simple and intimate while a few look for outrageous and one-of-a-kind ceremony.
The above descriptions are true for Western weddings, but can likewise apply to weddings in many parts of the world, including South Korea.
South Korea is a country with a unique language and many unique traditions that pique the widespread interest among people outside of the Korean Peninsula. They are exposed to Korean culture through their dramas that are now shown in many parts of the world as well as the high popularity of K-pop and the Hallyu wave worldwide. Just look at the popularity of the boy band group BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bangtan Boys). The literal meaning of the Korean name is Bulletproof Boy Scouts. Never mind how they come up with their equally unique name. They are the most popular boy band from South Korea, the first to break into the American Billboard Charts, winning awards and recognition from American and Asian music organizations, making it to the cover of Time Magazine and speaking at the United Nations as UNICEF ambassadors. This month, BTS becomes the tourism ambassadors of the Metropolitan Government of Seoul.
Understanding Korean wedding traditions
Traditional Korean wedding ceremony is making a comeback. It is a spectacular event worth witnessing. While Western weddings are often done in subdued colors, a Korean traditional wedding ceremony is very colorful, particularly the traditional gown the bride wears. Korean Confucianism has a large influence on the unique characteristics of the traditional Korean wedding.
For a full traditional Korean wedding ceremony, you’ll gape in awe, because even the courtyard of a traditional Korean house will display a myriad of colors. You’ll hear traditional Korean music and see the famous Korean fan dance. For all its old-fashioned values, you can say that a traditional Korean wedding is the new modern. The popularity of observing Korean wedding traditions and symbols is one of the effects of the rise in international marriages.
Preparations for the wedding
Just like any wedding plan, a series of preparations leading to the main event happens at a Korean wedding. Following the age-old traditions, traditional weddings in South Korea include pre-wedding traditions.
Even if South Korea seems to be so westernized, when it comes to weddings, local traditions prevail and several conditions must be met, some of which are very outdated.
One of the things considered is eligibility of the parties. A man and a woman who are over 18 years old can be married with parental consent. A couple is free to marry if they are 20 years old and over.
In South Korea, a marriage leans more towards the wants of the family rather than the individuals. The entire family has to consent to the marriage before it can happen. In the past, traditional clans had to be consulted and prior to 1997, people from the same ancestral clan and sharing the same surname are not allowed to get married to each other.
A traditional wedding in South Korea includes a pre-ceremony. Every part of a traditional Korean wedding includes essential and detailed steps. Marriage, for Koreans, means a union not of two individuals but two families and for affluent families, it is one of the ways to maintain or further develop their social standing. You see scenes like this exaggeratedly depicted in many South Korean dramas – where a family that got married into an influential family thinks that by extension, they have become influential as well. Their social standing rises and name-dropping becomes common.
The first step in the pre-ceremony is the matchmaking or the Eui-hon. The families of the bride and groom meet to discuss the marriage potential, where they consider material harmony, academic, industrial and agricultural achievements, appearance, personality and social status, often based on a fortune teller’s predictions.
The Eui-hon happens after the groom’s family sends a formal letter proposing the marriage and the bride’s family sends back a reply accepting the proposal.
Setting the date for the ceremony or Napchae is done by the groom. The Saju or the birth date (year, month and hour based on the lunar calendar) is sent to the family of the bride. The written information is wrapped in a branch of bamboo and tied with threads of blue and red, which will then be wrapped in blue and red cloth. Upon receipt, the bride’s family will send the Saju to the fortuneteller so the wedding date can be set. The groom will receive the date that was set.
The last pre-ceremony ritual is the Napp’ae. The tradition requires valuables to be exchanged or rather, the groom sending the bride a box called Hahm that contains three essential things. These are the Hanseo (marriage papers), Ch’aedan (blue and red cloths to make garments) and Honsu (various gifts such as clothes, jewelry and household goods).
The main event
After the pre-wedding rituals, we come to the best part, the wedding ceremony itself. Before the wedding, a wild goose or kireogi (Korean wedding duck) is presented to the bride’s mother by the groom. In the past, a live goose was presented. Today, a carved wooden goose or more specifically, Mandarin duck was used. Because the animals are mates for life, it becomes a symbol of harmony, structure and living only with one partner. The presentation of the duck symbolizes the promise of the groom that he will care for his mother-in-law’s daughter throughout his life. The groom has to bow twice before giving the duck.
In the past, a wedding could be a financial burden. It’s because each party could invite as many guests as they wanted.
After all the preparations, would you believe that the actual wedding ceremony in Korea only takes about 30 minutes?
The bride and groom wear traditional hanbok that is specially designed for the wedding. The bride typically wears a purple or pink hanbok and her mother-in-law wears one in blue. The groom and bride’s female family members may elect to wear hanbok as well.
Before the establishment of wedding halls, the traditional wedding was often held at the home of the bride.
Officiating a wedding ceremony is a celebrant together with an MC (master of ceremonies). When they have exchanged vows, they bow to one another and sip specially prepared wine from a gourd that was grown by the mother of the bride. When they are done with this ritual, the family and guests can partake of the meal.
Despite the shortness of the wedding ceremony itself, some more rituals should be performed.
As an invited guest, you do not have to bring a wedding present. What you need to bring is a white envelope to put money in, typically in odd numbers.
After the wedding ceremony
It is traditional for the family of the groom to buy the new couple a house. The family of the bride typically provides the furnishings for the home. In most cases, the two families discuss and agree on what gifts they will give to the couple.
Days after the wedding ceremony, the couple visits the husband’s family to perform another ceremony called p’ye-baek. The bride brings chestnuts and dates and offers them to the parents of the groom. The fruit and nut symbolize fertility. The coffee table will be filled with various symbolic offerings. After receiving the chestnuts and dates, the parents of the groom offer them sake.
Later the groom’s parents will throw the fruit and nut offering to the bride. She will try to catch them in the skirt of her wedding hanbok. It is believed that the number of dates and chestnuts she is able to catch represents the number of children they will have.
Depending on how steeped in tradition the families of the bride and groom are and based on their preferences, here are some of the performances following the Korean wedding traditions.
For the pre-wedding, you might witness the following:
- Samulnori is a percussion quartet where four instruments are played. Each instrument symbolizes an object from nature. Thunder is symbolized by a small gong called the kkwaenggwari, while a larger gong called jing symbolizes the wind. The rain is represented by a drum shaped like an hourglass called janggu. The cloud is represented by buk, which is a barrel drum.
- Buchaechum is the traditional fan dance of Korea.
- Chin-young-rye is the ritual of the groom greeting the family of the bride. As mentioned earlier, it is traditional to have the wedding at the house of the bride. So the best man or the girukabi leads the groom into the courtyard while holding the wedding duck. He later gives the duck to the groom.
- Jeon-an-rye is the presentation of the wedding duck to the bride’s mother. The groom places the wooden duck on a table then bows twice to her future mother-in-law. After receiving the bows, she takes the duck inside the house.
Everything looks interesting so far. There are several more. During the wedding ceremony here are the rituals to expect:
1. Gyo-bae-rye, which means the groom and bride facing one another and bowing. In this ritual, there are also rules to follow. The wedding table separates the groom and the bride and they have to stand at their specific side. The groom is on the east side and the bride will walk towards the table from the west.
The bride and the groom each needs two helpers. The helpers will wash the hands of the man and woman before they spread a mat – one for the groom and one for the bride. The groom will make a bow then stand on the mat. The helpers will assist the bride to move on to the mat so she faces the groom with her hands covering her face.
The bride gives two bows to her groom. The groom bows once. The bride makes two more bows after which the groom gives her a deep bow before kneeling on the mat.
Are you wondering why they need two helpers, especially the bride? It’s because the bows are difficult to execute. The bride has to hold up her hand in a certain position to cover her face. She needs assistance to move because of her wedding hanbok and accessories (she might be wearing a headdress as well). Moreover, to properly execute the bow, she has to sit cross-legged on the mat then stand up and make another bow. All the while, she has to keep her face covered.
The ritual of bowing is a symbol of commitment.
2. Hap-geun-rye means combining the gourd dipper. In this ritual, the four helpers will prepare the rice wine and the side dishes and after the groom makes another bow, the couple will present the side dishes and the drink to the sky or their god.
The gourd dippers are halves of one gourd, symbolizing that each one is part of a whole. The helpers will pour the rice wine on the gourd dippers, which the couple raises in an offering. After the groom makes another bow, they will exchange their gourd cups.
3. Seong-hon-rye is the wedding declaration. The wedding ceremony is finished and the newly married couple bows to their families and their guests.
This is followed by the p’ye-baek a few days after.
Here are a few interesting things about the Korean wedding ducks. The two ducks are wrapped in colorful cloths during the wedding ceremony. They are to be displayed in the couple’s home afterwards. As a symbol of their relationship, the ducks are positioned beak to beak. The duck with red markings is the female and the one with blue markings is the male. Interestingly, the female duck at times will have red thread or ribbon around its beak. This serves as a reminder for the wife not to nag and instead be her husband’s supporter.
Could you use it to effectively silence a nagging wife?
Here at Day Translations, Inc. our human translators consider cultural traditions and nuances of the language when they work on translation projects. If you need accurate translation from and into Korean or any language pair, give us a call. We are always ready to serve you, as we are open around-the-clock throughout the year. Likewise, we offer interpreting services, if you are going to meet your South Korean bride or groom and their families. Contact us for any of your language services requirements by calling 1-800-969-6853 or sending an email at Contact us.