Korean Studies

Internet Discussion List


Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity, by Laurel Kendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. xiii, 259 pp. (ISBN 0-520-20198-1 cloth; ISBN 0-520-20200-7 paper).

Reviewed by Timothy R. Tangherlini
University of California, Los Angeles

Kendall's most recent work is among her very best. In it, she interrogates the social and cultural processes attending contemporary weddings in Korea. As with her explorations of Korean shamanism, Kendall focuses primarily on the role of women in Korean society. However, the volume is anything but a rumination on the difficulties facing women in a Confucian-informed society. Rather, her work is an intriguing and nuanced exploration of the negotiation of gender politics in a rapidly changing late capitalist society. Kendall does not concentrate solely on the contemporary, however, and she is well attuned to the historical development of wedding traditions during the past several centuries. The result of her investigations into Korean weddings is nothing short of an anthropological tour-de-force. Through the examination of particular stories of specific individuals read against a backdrop of economic and political change, Kendall masterfully situates her engaging discussions of weddings and marriage in Korea at the crossroads of anthropology, sociology, history and folklore.

She begins her work with what she labels a "Confessional Introduction." Her detailed account of her personal relationship to the field situation, as well as to many of her informants, coupled to her own problematizing of the entire field of ethnographic writing serves two purposes. First, the personal descriptions bring what might seem a distant fieldwork site into clearer focus--Korea is not exoticized, and her position is not privileged. Second, Kendall's musings on the role of the ethnographer reveal her clear understanding of the problems associated with the ethnographic process--particularly when it is a Western woman writing about non-Western women. Using a Korean proverb as a guide, Kendall plunges into what is without doubt one of the most discussed topics in Korea, namely getting married.

The remainder of the work is broken into three main sections--Ceremony, Courtship, Exchange--each consisting of two chapters. The section on Ceremony focuses on both a historical overview of wedding ceremonies in Korea, as well as a detailed analysis of contemporary wedding ceremonies in Korea. Any casual visitor to Korea in the past twenty years or so has doubtlessly encountered the enormous commercial wedding halls that dot the urban landscape of any reasonably sized city. Inside the walls of these extraordinary facilities, one finds giant reception halls as well as large ceremonial halls where "Western style" weddings are carried out with extraordinary precision and efficiency so as not to result in a back-up of wedding parties. In smaller rooms tucked away on higher levels, an element of the traditional style wedding is performed, namely the p'yebaek, where the bride greets her new family. In these wedding halls, the present meets an imagined notion of the past. Kendall provides an amusing and detailed description of one such wedding, and it is this wedding--held in an unexceptional hall in an unexceptional suburb of Seoul--that enables the remainder of her discussion.

Kendall notes that, despite a will to fixity, Korean wedding practices do not conform to a general notion of wedding ritual derived from written texts and learned tradition. Rather, weddings are dynamic cultural expressions that are constantly changing based on the participants' own negotiation of cultural processes and their position within that unsteady terrain. In her third chapter, Kendall focuses on contemporary weddings in the context of modernization, exploring both the historical dimensions of weddings (and the broader concept of marriage) as well as their contemporaneous expression in the rapidly modernizing Korea of the 1970s and 1980s. Setting up the opposition of the "modern wedding" and the "traditional wedding," and the various concessions made to each type of wedding during the past thirty years, Kendall reveals how the wedding ceremony itself is one subjected to debate, negotiation and frequent reinterpretation. In an interesting discussion of the relationship between politics and ritual, she expertly shows the effect of national policy, such as the 1969 Family Ritual Code (Kajông ûirye chunch'ik), on ritual form, and explores how wedding ceremonies ultimately became incorporated into the national identity rhetoric of the late 1980s.

In the second section of the work, Courtship, Kendall steps back from the actual wedding ceremony and traces the path that eventually brings a couple to the altar. A great deal of anthropological ink has been spilled concerning the economic and political implications of marriage, yet Kendall manages to add an important contemporary example to this otherwise well-described field. With wonderful ethnographic acumen, she details the concept of both arranged marriages (chungmae kyôrhon), love marriages (yônae kyôrhon) as well as the half-and-half marriages. She also details some of the attendant practices, such as the arranged meeting (massôn), and reveals some of the tensions and difficulties that women experience as they go through this difficult process. It is in this chapter that a glance toward the male side of the process would have greatly helped round out this study, since it seems likely that equally interesting considerations, concerns, fears and anxieties are expressed on the male side of the ethnographic equation.

Kendall's fifth chapter is among her strongest, and her frequent appeal to personal experience narratives makes for an engaging consideration of aspects of arranged marriages. Among the most intriguing figures Kendall discusses here is that of the professional, yet unlicensed, matchmaker--the Madame Ttu. Stories of good and bad matchmakers are an integral part of contemporary Korean folklore and clearly illuminate many of the concerns that mothers and their marriage-age daughters have concerning the process of finding a suitable groom. Kendall properly suggests that these stories "reveal women as enmeshed in the pragmatics of making marriages, not only as skillful matchmakers, but as mothers who set the process in motion and who effect the complex exchanges of proper weddings" (150). It would, of course, have been interesting to collect similar stories about matchmaking from men.

The final section of the work focuses on the various exchanges that are so crucial to the Korean wedding. Kendall focuses primarily on the economic burden many of these exchanges pose for both lower and middle class families (and even upper class families, given the rumored excesses of some of these exchanges). Kendall details these various exchanges: those of household goods (honsu); gifts of clothing and jewelry between the bride and groom (yedan, ch'edan and p'aemul); gifts given to the significant kin of the groom (yedan); gifts of cash from the groom's kin to the bride (cholgap), and from the bride's family to the groom's friends (hamgap); and exchanges of food and wine between the two families (sangsu) (166). Among the exchanges that Kendall explores in greatest detail are those of ritual silk, given by the bride to the groom's significant kin, and the negotiation of the purchase price of the gift box (hamgap) delivered on the night before the wedding to the bride's house by friends of the groom. Indeed, her final chapter is dedicated to a wonderful economic anthropological consideration of the obligations and expectations of the various parties to the transaction of the gift box price. It is also in this chapter that considerations of the groom and his friends--the male side of getting married in Korea--receive attention.

Kendall's work provides an exceptionally detailed analysis of women's concerns surrounding the ever-changing cultural complex of weddings in Korea. Her work will clearly appeal to those interested in Korean studies, as she expertly incorporates considerations of politics, sociology, anthropology, folklore and history. The work is also a significant addition to the ever growing literature on women's issues in Korea (as well as East Asia and the world, for that matter). Kendall's work will likely have general appeal to anthropologists and folklorists who work in other geographic regions, although folklorists will doubtlessly cringe at her rather conservative use of the term "folklore." In short, Kendall's book is an ethnographic masterpiece that is destined to become a classic in the field of Korean studies.

Tangherlini, Timothy R. 1998
Review of Laurel Kendall, Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (1996)
Korean Studies Review 1998, no. 6
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr98-06.htm

Return to Index of Reviews

Return to Entry Page