If you know any Koreans, chances are their family names are Kim, Lee or Park which are some of the most common surnames in Korea. When I was last in Seoul, I wanted to know if it was true that Koreans could not marry someone with the same surname. Bearing in mind that there are nearly 10 million Koreans with the surname Kim this surely causes problems? My guide Heea, herself a Kim, explained that it is not so straightforward. There are five branches of Kims. Her clan, the biggest, is Kim Hae Kim with over 2 million members. “It used to be illegal for clan members to marry each other but no longer. But we would not consider doing so since we regard them as relatives, albeit distant ones.” I was surprised to find out that all Korean families maintain detailed family records going back centuries. Heea can trace her ancestry back to the 14th century. Some families might even have records going back 3,000 years. Given the many invasions, wars and upheavals that Korea has suffered over the centuries this is truly amazing and reflects the importance which Korean culture places on respecting their elders and ancestors. I wanted to see one of these family record books and managed to track one down in an antiquarian bookstore in Seoul’s Insadong market.
The elderly shop owner produced the book from a stack of musty volumes. It was actually printed in 1960 but recorded the ancestry of the Gyeongju city Lee clan all the way back over 44 generations ( male ancestors only) to the 14th century. Having spent considerable time and effort trying to trace my own European roots and only succeeding in going back 250 years, I was impressed at the degree of detail of Korean genealogical records.
Korea is a conservative society. Couples rarely live together outside of marriage and the divorce rate has been low, although increasing fast. Professional marriage matchmakers are still sometimes used in Korea. My travel guide, Miss Im, revealed that she is approaching her mid 30s which in Korea is considered late for a girl to get married. “My mother is worried about me and she arranged for the matchmaker to introduce potential husbands. So far I have met twenty of them but none have worked out. As a tour guide I am too independent, I have to travel away from home often and I pick up un-Korean ideas from foreign visitors. These are not the qualities that traditional Korean men look for in a wife.” What about Korean women, what do they look for in a husband? Miss Im replied “ The usual things – good looking, tall, sense of humour and a good job. But we prefer to avoid the eldest son. In Korea the eldest son has the responsibility of looking after his parents in old age. Any girl who marries an eldest son will end up serving her parents-in-law.”
This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.