Marriage can be regarded as one of the most important events in our lives. It is not simply the union of two people but actually symbolizes the union of the two families of the bride and groom. Thus, the wedding that is the beginning of the holy matrimony is treated with respect and care across all cultures through the ages of human civilization. The practice of traditional marriage rituals and customs still continue to this day despite the tendency for younger couples to opt for modern wedding ceremonies. This time, I will try my best to highlight the traditional wedding ceremony of Korea, focusing on Joseon’s Confucian practice with regard to the ceremony and the marriage institution as well.
Part 1: History of Marriage Practice in Ancient Korea
Before I get into Joseon wedding ceremony, I think it will be helpful to get to know a bit about the history of the practice itself. Joseon was just one of the ancient Korean dynasties and it is the most well-known dynasty because it has only been a little over 100 years since the last monarchical dynasty of Korea fell due to Japanese Annexation of the country. As marriage is closely related to its main significance, which is to ensure continuity of the lineage, it is not a surprising fact that the custom had been in practice since the earliest history of civilization. The marriage customs varied according to time and place, and so was the significance behind it.
With regard to Korean wedding culture, there was no surviving proof of the customs back then except for the legends from tribes of the primitive communities. It was possible that intermarriage or Japhon (잡혼) between tribes and coupling without marriage or Nanhon (난혼) happened since there was no exact system for marriage back then. Legends for founders of the dynasties (Dangun – Gojoseon, Jumong – Goguryeo, Kim Suro – Gaya, Park Hyeokgeose – Silla, Wang Geon – Goryeo) also suggested the earliest practice of matrilineal society, as mothers were usually known in these myth while the fathers’ identities were disputed.
The practice of marriage could be traced back to as far as the 1st century. If you have noticed in Korean dramas and books, people will say jangga ganda (장가간다) to men and sijib ganda (시집간다) to women when talking about marriage. The word marriage or gyeolhon (결혼) itself means the formation of conjugal ties or honin (혼인), and the word 혼인 is made up of two characters: ‘hon’ is when a man goes to greet a woman in the evening to ask for marriage, in which he would go to his future in-laws’ house or jangineui jibeuro ganda (장인의 집으로 간다); ‘in’ is when a woman meets her man through a matchmaker and is sent to her husband’s house aka her in-laws or sijibe bonaenda (시집에 보낸다). This practice was even mentioned exclusively in The Records of Three Kingdoms, published in the 3rd century:
“Marriage (honin) is: when a verbal agreement is set, a small detached house called seook (the son-in-law’s house) is built behind the main building of the bride’s house. In the evening, the groom arrives in front of the bride’s house and reveals his name before kneeling and bowing, asking for the permission to marry the bride. This is repeated a few times until the bride’s parents allow the groom to go to the detached house, thus giving him permission to marry their daughter. The money and silk (wedding gifts) were stored beside the detached house, and the groom can take his bride back to his own house after they give birth to their child and the child reaches a certain age (of maturity).”
– Records of the Three Kingdoms (Samgukji), Book of Wei, Volume 30, Dongyijeon, Part Goguryeo
The tradition of live-in husbands dated back to Buyeo/Puyŏ (부여) and early Goguryeo/Koguryŏ (고구려), as early as in the 1st century. It was known by various names, the most popular one being Seookje (서옥제), literally meaning ‘custom of building the son-in-law’s house’, and other names for this type of marriage included seoryubugahon (서류부가혼), namgwibugahon (남귀부가혼), and bugwibugahon (부귀부가혼). The significance behind this practice was for families with only daughters and no sons to meet the labour demand of the household, as well as symbolizing the consideration for the bride; by letting her stay with her family during early stage of the marriage, it would make her more comfortable, especially during her first pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing. The newlyweds would stay with the bride’s family or cheogasali (처가살이), which literally meant ‘living in with the wife’s family’, and a small detached house would be built for the groom. The husband would be able to bring back his wife to his own house once they gave birth to a child and the child reached a certain mature age. While staying with his in-laws, the husband would be contributing his energy to his wife’s family by doing labour jobs such as farming, symbolizing his compensation for the financial loss which the family would experience by sending their daughter off with her husband later. It was a part of the ‘bride price’ or shinbudae (신부대), a practice which was prevalent in the neighbouring countries although there were differing opinions with regard to the bride price in the form of money and silk brought by the groom and the dowry or jichamgeum (지참금) brought over by the bride to her in-laws’ house.
But then, Book of Sui also recorded the lifestyle of Goguryeo at that time (7th century):
“In the kingdom of Goguryeo, a wedding ceremony is organized when a man and woman find liking in each other, and that is how a marriage is. The groom’s family sends pork and alcohol but not any kind of wealth. If there is a family that receives gift in the form of wealth, they will suffer the shame.”
– Book of Sui, Volume 81, Biography Chapter 46: Eastern Yi (Dongyi), Part Goguryeo
This showed that Goguryeo was against the practice of receiving bride price at one point; in addition, it was deemed inappropriate to ask for the groom to prepare money and silk prior to the wedding as he had to work for the bride’s family afterwards. Thus, it was also a common practice for the bride’s family to hand down the inheritance to the daughter in advance. Back then, during the Three States period and Goryeo Dynasty, women were able to inherit her family fortune as well as claiming her rights on the inheritance. It showed the status of the women at that time, to a point that if the husband died, the wife could take the inheritance from her husband’s family and went back to her natal home.
Another early marriage tradition of ancient Korea was Minmyeoneurije (민며느리제) or ‘the custom of raising future daughter-in-law’. It was also called yebuje (예부제) and resembled the practice of little daughter-in-law in traditional China, known as Tongyangxi (童养媳). It was adopted by people of Okjeo/Okchŏ (옥저) and later assimilated into Goguryeo custom as well. The practice dated back as far as in the 2nd century. A young girl around 10 years old would be engaged and then sent to live with her future in-laws. She would be raised by the groom’s family until she came of age and returned to her natal home before the official wedding took place. The groom would discuss about the bride price with the bride’s family and the bride would be brought back to live with her in-laws after the wedding. Although the practice was categorized as child marriage, the actual marriage did not take place until the bride-to-be came of age, around 15 or 16 years old. There were many reason attributed to this practice. Firstly, it was a source for female labour within the household with only sons and no daughter. Back then, women were responsible in various labour works like weaving and farming, so family of farmers would often take in little daughter-in-law for the purpose of educating her early on with the household work, as well as contributing to her future in-laws. Secondly, sending away daughters to their future in-laws would lessen the burden of the natal family, especially for poor families. The in-laws would provide the necessities for the daughters-in-law and at the same time, the practice would lessen the wedding cost later because most of the time, the wedding would be concluded in small ceremony, as simple as the bride’s family giving their blessing for the groom to marry the family’s daughter. This tradition continued to be practiced among poor commoners in Joseon because of the burden of marriage cost.
Another marriage tradition practiced in ancient Korea was levirate marriage or Chwisuhon (취수혼). Levirate marriage took place when a brother, usually the younger one, of a deceased man, married his brother’s widow, who was also his sister-in-law. It was a custom among ancient tribal minorities like Jurchen and a form of marriage promise recorded in classics of Chinese and Israeli civilization. As Buyeo and Goguryeo people also lived as nomadic tribes, there were possibilities of them to have contact with other tribal minorities, leading to the adaptation of the custom into their tradition. The most notable example was Lady U, the queen consort to two Goguryeo kings: the 9th ruler King Gogukcheon and his younger brother, the 10th ruler King Sansang. After Gogukcheon died, there were disputes over the throne and Sansang ended up taking the throne before marrying Lady U, who was once his sister-in-law. Lady U actually outlived both her husbands and left a will for her body to be buried beside Sansang after she passed away. This type of marriage was a way to preserve the family lineage and protect the woman and even after she was widowed. Plus, it was also a way to ensure that the inheritance did not fall into other people’s hands should the widow married someone else outside the family, since she had the right to inherit her husband’s fortune. Levirate marriage was a practice prevalent in societies where death among young men happened frequently, especially in countries with many wars.
We have seen how common it is for sageuk characters to have many wives and consorts, and the practice of polygamy underwent a lot of changes throughout the dynasties. Polygamy, also known as Ilbudancheoje (일부단처제 – literally meaning ‘one husband, many wives’) or simply Dancheoje (단처제) was common in Goguryeo and Baekje/Paekche (백제), although it was technically polygyny, where the husband could have many wives at one time and not vice versa. Cheo (처) refers to the principal wife of a man, while the concubines are known as cheop (첩). Their respective status depended on the practice adapted by the dynasties and the concubines’ fate was not as secure as the wife, since some dynasties regarded the principal wife as the official consort of a man, while his concubines and illegitimate issues often became the subject of discrimination in some dynasties. Both Goguryeo and Baekje allowed a man to have more than one wife and countless concubines, and children of royal concubines also had the chance to fight for the throne. Goguryeo’s 23rd ruler King Anwon had three queens consort; the first one was without son while the other two were with sons, so the sons fought for the throne. Lady U from the previous example was not deposed from her position as the Queen despite having no son from both her husbands. Her second husband King Sansang had a son from his relationship with a woman from a lower status and the son would become the 11th ruler of Goguryeo, King Dongcheon. King Uija of Baekje had at least two official wives with a total of 41 sons, with all of them raised to the highest rank Jwapyeong. This proved that there was no discrimination between legitimate and illegitimate issues.
Conversely, Silla (신라) Dynasty’s royals and nobles stressed on monogamy or Ilbuilcheo (일부일처 – literally ‘one husband, one wife’). The concubines were considered of lower status than the principal wife, affecting the children’s status as well. For instance, the 21st ruler King Soji had a woman named Byeokhwa as his concubine and she gave birth to a son, but the son was excluded from the right of succession. Although Kim Chunchu had 10 sons in total, he mentioned during his trip to Tang Dynasty that only 7 of them were legitimate. Kim Yushin’s legitimate sons with his official wife received the treatment of a true bone rank, but his illegitimate issue, Gunseung, was only regarded as the Head Rank Six or yukdupum (육두품) and the highest position he could attain in office was only as Vice Minister of the 6th rank Achan. The illegitimate sons did not have the right to attend the family’s memorial rites.
Marriage alliances happened frequently between the Three Kingdoms of Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla) and also with their neighbouring countries like Chinese dynasties and Japan. These political marriages or Jeongnakhon (정락혼) were carried out in order to foster good relations as well as protecting their respective countries by creating alliances. Baekje and Silla allied themselves against the more powerful Goguryeo during King Biyu of Baekje and King Nolji of Silla’s reign sometime between 433 and 434. The alliance, known as Naje Dongmaeng (나제동맹), was strengthened even further with marriage between King Dongseong of Baekje with a Silla noblewoman. However, the alliance was broken during King Jinheung’s reign when Silla decided to expand its region and entered a dispute with Baekje over the Han River territory between 553 and 554, leading to assassination of King Seong of Baekje. Another example included the marriage alliance between King Inoe of Daegaya and King Beopheung of Silla in 552. Baekje was known to have alliance with Japan, including marriage alliances with the royal household of Japan in the 4-7th century. The dynasty served Japan by sending princes as diplomats (or sometimes referred to as political hostages) and some of the kings stayed in Japan before returning to Baekje. For instance, King Muryeong lived in Japan until Gaero’s death and he returned to Baekje to ascend the throne, and King Seong’s son, Prince Imseong, went to Japan after his father was assassinated. Even after the fall of Baekje in 660 and King Uija’s capture by Tang, his son Buyeo Pung went to Japan to ask for military support and engaged in a battle with Goguryeo-Tang but failed. The descendants of Baekje royal household intermarried with the royal family of Japan; descendant of Muryeong’s son Prince Sunta was believed to be Takano no Niigasa, a consort of Emperor Konin of Japan whose son would eventually become Emperor Kammu.
Book of Sui highlighted the phrase namnyeosangyeol 남녀상열(男女相悅), which can be roughly translated to “love between a man and a woman is the greatest gift”. This hinted that marriage based on love was commonly practiced among the Goguryeo citizens, but marriage choices were often influenced by status. It was often contracted between families of the same rank; hence, marrying up or down did occur but it was not the norm. Marriage between families of different ranks was not only discouraged; in fact, it could never be, no matter how strong the love was. Forbidden love between different ranks and even countries at discord was a famous subject in folklore and legends. The story of Prince Hodong of Goguryeo and Princess Nakrang (or Lelang Commandery), the tale of Princess Pyungkang and Ondal the Fool from Goguryeo, and the legend of Princess Seonhwa of Silla and King Mu of Baekje were just a few examples.
Marriage between members of the same social status/group or shinbun naehon (신분 내혼) was a common practice in Three Kingdoms of Korea. Also known as endogamy or Joknaehon (족내혼), the elite class of these dynasties adapted this kind of marriage as a way to consolidate their power and wealth by combining forces with favoured, high-ranking families of the same social status. In Goguryeo, marriage among the five elite clans – Gyerubu (계루부), Sonobu (소노부), Jeolnobu (절노부), Sunnobu (순노부), Gwannobu (관노부) – happened frequently, while Baekje’s Buyeo royal clan would only choose their royal consorts (or queens) from Jin or Hae clan. As for their neighbouring country Silla, the bone rank system influenced the dynasty’s marriage practice, especially among the royal family and nobles. This was the reason for the dynasty to have three queens regnant of Silla, because the depleting number of males from the sacred bone or seonggol rank. When the kings were picked from the true bone or jingol rank later into the dynasty, the royals were permitted to choose the queens from the Park clan, practicing marriage with different clans and social groups, known as exogamy or Jokwehon (족외혼).
Silla was extremely careful with the bone rank system or Golpum (골품), a hereditary system adapted from China, which aided in segregating the society, governing everything from marriage rights to official status, including the power one could have living in the dynasty. Marriage was affected since it would determine the descendants’ social rank. It was divided into Seonggol (성골), Jingol (진골), and Dupum (두품). True bone or seonggol, which was made up of the royal Kim family of Silla, were limited to marry someone of the same bone rank in order to maintain the purity of the blood for royal lineage. This extreme case of endogamy was called consanguineous marriage or Geunchinhon (근친혼), a type of marriage within the blood who could be their immediate relatives or next of kin. Also known as marriage within the same family name or dongseonghon (동성혼), it led to the practice of Bucheoje (부처제) – not differentiating between sons and sons-in-law, or grandchildren through sons and daughter – since the marriage was done among the families of Kim, Seok, and Park.
The founding of the new Goryeo Dynasty after Silla and Later Baekje’s fall did not mean that the old customs die out just like that. The practice of geunchinhon was adapted widely in the royal household, especially among King Taejo’s issues and descendants. His fourth son and the fourth king of Goryeo, Gwangjong, married his daughter Queen Daemok and took his granddaughter Consort Gyeonghwa (which made her Gwangjong’s niece) as a concubine. The practice was spread among commoners, leading to the ban of blood marriage during King Munjong’s reign in 1081. Marriage within 4-chon (immediate cousins) was prohibited, and those who married their kin whose mourning they needed to oversee (siblings, aunts/uncles, and their descendants) would not be allowed to assume government posts. King Sukjong of Goryeo eventually banned the practice of marrying the same family name among the ministers in 1314, although marriage with maternal relatives still happened because they did not share the same surname due to inheriting the paternal family’s surname.
Goryeo adapted polygamy, as proven through the founder of the dynasty King Taejo, who had 6 queens and 23 concubines. Wives and concubines differed in terms of the marriage (whether it was legal or not) and depended on the women’s social status. A commander of Sambyeolcho took a new wife after his first wife was captured by the enemies but later, when he found the first wife again, he took her in and lived with his two wives. A Song Dynasty envoy’s record illustrated the practice that wealthy household usually had 3 to 4 wives and one time but divorce could happen easily if the husband and wives did not match each other. In order to increase the country’s population, 25th king Chungryeol even encouraged the practice of polygamy at that time.
It was also easy for divorce to happen in Goryeo. Because of the equal rights for both men and women to inherit the family fortune or jaesan sangsok (재산상속), women were also able to ask for divorce. A woman could be divorced by her husband if she failed to bear a son in Joseon because of the seven sins but in Goryeo, that would not happen. Remarrying was also as easy as getting a divorce and there was no discrimination towards women who remarried after being divorced. Even among the queens, there were several of them who were widowed before they became consorts, such as 25th king Chungryeol’s third consort Sukchangwonbi, 26th king Chungseon’s wife Sunbi, and 27th king Chungsuk’s wife Subi. Sunbi even had 3 sons and 4 daughters in previous marriage with her late husband before she became Chungseon’s queen consort.
The practice of live-in husband or seoryubugahon (서류부가혼) was carried on during the dynasty and continued until early Joseon. The groom would come to live with the bride’s family forever in the tradition known as derilsawije (데릴사위제). It was slightly different from the Goguryeo’s seookje since the husband would live with the wife’s family for the rest of his life, showing matrilocal influence over the society. One of the reasons was the equality in inheritance between sons and daughters. A daughter had the rights to receive inheritance from her natal family just like her brothers. Women were also free to divorce and remarry, plus the ability to inherit the fortune made it possible for women to be the head of a family (matriarch) as opposed to the patriarchal society in Joseon.
Marriage customs and ceremonies underwent major changes during Joseon Dynasty with the assimilation of Confucianism into the country, leading to the emergence of Neo-Confucianism. Ancient practices were banned and prohibited: for instance, Annals of King Taejong mentioned the marriage practice in Goryeo, including taking wife before concubines and vice versa, plus polygamy, which caused discord among the sons to fight for the position of family heir when the father died. Family discords over inheritance also happened because of polygamy, so the 3rd Joseon king Taejong banned second marriage in 1413. Thus, the practice slowly disappeared. Although remarriage was not banned in the early years of Joseon, the new law passed in 1477 under Seongjong’s order prohibited women of noble class and eventually the commoners from remarrying. Men were still permitted to marry more than once, but it was more like a serial monogamy, i.e. men are permitted to marry again after a wife’s death, but only one official wife at a time. Concubinage was common (even among the royal family ) in order to ensure the continuity of the family lineage (through sons, of course), but the status of the sons born out of wedlock was lower than the legitimate issues, unless the illegitimate sons were formally adopted into the family and included in the family registry. If Three Kingdoms had levirate marriage and Goryeo allowed consanguineous marriage, Joseon prohibited all of them and even marriage between same family name and clan (동성동부). Up until 1995, those with same surname could not get married due to the law.
The practice of living in with the wife’s family or cheogasali (처가살이) continued until the 17th-18th century, where the husband would stay there while going back and forth between his wife’s family and his own family. They would only leave for the husband’s family after the first child was around 5 or 6 years old. Living with the in-laws or the husband’s family, sijibgasali (시집살이) only became popular in 18th century among commoners and sijibgasali had a shorter history compared to cheogasali, whose roots could be traced back to early Goguryeo. The royal Yi family of Joseon tried to change the tradition by practicing fetching the bride or Chinyeongje (친영제) in wedding ceremony, with the earliest record being in 1435, but it was difficult to change the custom rooted in the tradition among the commoners. Hence, they adapted a Chinese wedding custom known as Banchinyeongje (반친영제, 半親迎制) in the 18th century through Gyeongjong’s wedding ceremony with his second consort Queen Seonui, where the groom would stay with the bride’s family for three days before bringing her back to his house. It was also known as samilsinhaengje (삼일신행제, 三日新行制) because the new wedding journey for the bride would only take place three days after the couple was declared husband and wife, compared to the immediate journey for chinyeongje.
There were not much details on how the wedding ceremony actually took place in the previous dynasties except for the event being held at the bride’s home complete with banquets in Goguryeo and Goryeo Dynasty, and the Buddhist wedding ceremony Hwahonrye (화혼례) taking place in Silla Dynasty. However, different types of marriage in the ancient dynasties provide insightful peek into the culture of the Korean society in their respective times. I hope this part has been informative for you, and stay tuned for part 2!