[KS] Korean Culture for eldest son to care for parents

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Jun 12 11:09:37 EDT 2008

Dear all,

As an additional observation on this thread, it's worth noting the remarkable shift that's occurring away from preference for sons to preference for daughters. I include below a piece from Choe Sang Hun, who's been doing excellent work for the NY Times. The article appeared in December of 2007. If anybody can point me to recent surveys that specifically track S. Korean preferences on this issue, I'd be grateful. Choe's piece cites the ratio of male to female babies born, which would seem a reliable statistic, but I suspect there is more to the story, and that the change in birth ratio may be lagging behind the attitude change. Although there may be some pressure from older generations to have one son, anecdotally (at least in and around Seoul, among middle class/professional circles) the shift to daughter preference has been almost seismic in just the last few years, as far as I can tell. One reason I've heard given several times, related to what Gene notes, is that in conjunction with other changes in family structure, daughters are now felt to be more reliable caregivers for elderly parents than daughters-in-law.

Cheers, Stephen

Where Boys Were Kings, a Shift Toward Baby Girls - Choe Sang Hun, Dec. 23, 2007

    When Park He-ran was a young mother, other women would approach her to ask what her secret was. She had given birth to three boys in a row at a time when South Korean women considered it their paramount duty to bear a son.

    Ms. Park, a 61-year-old newspaper executive, gets a different reaction today. “When I tell people I have three sons and no daughter, they say they are sorry for my misfortune,” she said. “Within a generation, I have turned from the luckiest woman possible to a pitiful mother.”

    In South Korea, once one of Asia’s most rigidly patriarchal societies, a centuries-old preference for baby boys is fast receding. And that has led to what seems to be a decrease in the number of abortions performed after ultrasounds that reveal the sex of a fetus.

    According to a study released by the World Bank in October, South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large sex imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes. Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990.

    The most important factor in changing attitudes toward girls was the radical shift in the country’s economy that opened the doors to women in the work force as never before and dismantled long-held traditions, which so devalued daughters that mothers would often apologize for giving birth to a girl.

    The government also played a small role starting in the 1970s. After growing alarmed by the rise in sex-preference abortions, leaders mounted campaigns to change people’s attitudes, including one that featured the popular slogan “One daughter raised well is worth 10 sons!”

    In 1987, the government banned doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus before birth. But experts say enforcement was lax because officials feared too many doctors would be caught.

    Demographers say the rapid change in South Koreans’ feelings about female babies gives them hope that sex imbalances will begin to shrink in other rapidly developing Asian countries — notably China and India — where the same combination of a preference for boys and new technology has led to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses.

    “China and India are closely studying South Korea as a trendsetter in Asia,” said Chung Woo-jin, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “They are curious whether the same social and economic changes can occur in their countries as fast as they did in South Korea’s relatively small and densely populated society.”

    In China in 2005, the ratio was 120 boys born for every 100 girls, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Vietnam reported a ratio of 110 boys to 100 girls last year. And although India recorded about 108 boys for every 100 girls in 2001, when the last census was taken, experts say the gap is sure to have widened by now.

    The Population Fund warned in an October report that the rampant tinkering with nature’s probabilities in Asia could eventually lead to increased sexual violence and trafficking of women as a generation of boys finds marriage prospects severely limited.

    In South Korea, the gap in the ratio of boys to girls born began to widen in the 1970s, but experts say it became especially pronounced in the mid-1980s as ultrasound technology became more widespread and increasing wages allowed more families to pay for the tests. The imbalance was widest from 1990 through 1995, when it remained above 112 to 100.

    The imbalance has been closing steadily only since 2002. Last year’s ratio of 107.4 boys for every 100 girls was closer to the ratio of 105 to 100 that demographers consider normal and, according to The World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency, just above the global average of 107 boys born for every 100 girls.

    The preference for boys here is centuries old and was rooted in part in an agrarian society that relied on sons to do the hard work on family farms. But in Asia’s Confucian societies, men were also accorded special status because they were considered the carriers of the family’s all-important bloodline.

    That elevated status came with certain perquisites — men received their families’ inheritance — but also responsibilities. Once the eldest son married, he and his wife went to live with his family; he was expected to support his parents financially while his wife was expected to care for them in their old age.

    The wife’s lowly role in her new family was constantly reinforced by customs that included requiring a daughter-in-law to serve her father-in-law food while on her knees.

    “In the old days, when there was no adequate social safety net, Korean parents regarded having a son as kind of making an investment for old age security,” Professor Chung said. It was common for married Korean men to feel ashamed if they had no sons. Some went so far as to divorce wives who did not bear boys.

    Then in the 1970s and ’80s, the country threw itself into an industrial revolution that would remake society in ways few South Koreans could have imagined.

    Sons drifted away to higher-paying jobs in the cities, leaving their parents behind. And older Koreans found their own incomes rising, allowing them to save money for retirement rather than relying on their sons for support.

    Married daughters, no longer shackled to their husbands’ families, returned to provide emotional or financial support for their own elderly parents.

    “Daughters are much better at emotional contact with their parents, visiting them more often, while Korean sons tend to be distant,” said Kim Seung-kwon, a demographer at the government’s Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

    Ms. Park, the newspaper executive, said such changes forced people to rethink their old biases. “In restaurants and parks, when you see a large family out for a dinner or picnic, 9 out of 10, it’s the wife who brings the family together with her parents, not the husband with his parents,” she said. “To be practical, for an old Korean parent, having a daughter sometimes is much better than having a son.”

    The economic changes also unleashed a revolution of a different sort. With the economy heating up, men could no longer afford to keep women out of the workforce, and women began slowly to gain confidence, and grudging respect.

    Although change is coming slowly and deep prejudices remain — in some businesses, women are pressured to leave their jobs when pregnant — women are more accepted now in the workplace and at the best universities that send graduates to the top corporations.

    Six of 10 South Korean women entered college last year; fewer than one out of 10 did so in 1981. And in the National Assembly, once one of the nation’s most male-dominated institutions, women now hold about 13 percent of the seats, about double the percentage they held just four years ago.

    Shin Hye-sun, 39, says she has witnessed many of the changes in women’s status during her 13 years at the TBC television station in Taegu, in central South Korea. “When I first joined the company in 1995, a woman was expected to quit her job once she got married; we called it a ‘resignation on a company suggestion,’” she said. Now, she said, many women stay after marriage and take a three-month break after giving birth before returning to work.

    “If someone suggests that a woman should quit after marriage, female workers in my company will take it as an insult and say so,” Ms. Shin said.

    According to the World Bank study, one of the surprises in South Korea was that it took as long as it did for the effects of a booming economy to translate into changes in people’s attitudes toward the birth of daughters.

    The study suggests that the country’s former authoritarian rulers helped slow the transition by upholding laws and devising policies that supported a continuation of Confucian hierarchy, which encourages fealty not only to family patriarchs, but also to the nation’s leaders.

    With the move toward democracy in the late 1980s, the concept of equal rights for men and women began to creep into Koreans’ thinking. In 1990, the law guaranteeing men their family’s inheritance — a cornerstone of the Confucian system — was the first of the so-called family laws to fall; the rest would be dismantled over the next 15 years.

    After 2002, the narrowing of the gender gap signaled that attitudes about the value of women — and ultimately of daughters — had begun to catch up to the seismic changes in the economy and the law.

    And last year, a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs showed that of 5,400 married South Korean women younger than 45 who were surveyed, only 10 percent said they felt that they must have a son. That was down from 40 percent in 1991.

    “When my father took me to our ancestral graves for worshiping, my grandfather used to say, ‘Why did you bring a daughter here?’” said Park Su-mi, 29, a newlywed who calls the idea that only men carry on a family’s bloodline “unscientific and absurd.”

    “My husband and I have no preference at all for boys,” she said. “We don’t care whether we have a boy or girl because we don’t see any difference between a boy and a girl in helping make our family happy.”

-----Original Message-----
From: koreanstudies-bounces at koreaweb.ws on behalf of Eugene Y. Park
Sent: Thu 2008-06-12 3:35 PM
To: Korean Studies Discussion List
Subject: Re: [KS] Korean Culture for eldest son to care for parents
Dear all,

I fully agree with Clark's observations. I'd even go as far as suggesting
that for quite some time, whether to live with the man's parents (or even
near by them) has been a contentious issue for marriage couples. Of course
the Koreans are aware of the tradition of parents-eldest son cohabitation,
but now a days one would be hard pressed to find a woman duly accepting
and abiding by the notion. She may as well--and rightfully so--ask: Why
should it be my husband's parents who should be taken care of while my own
parents too need help?

On the last chuseok in Korea when I was trying to avoid the worst day of
expressway traffic, a cousin of mine cynically noted: These days, it's all
spread out; people make one-day trips, since the daughters in-law don't
like to stay long at the parents-in-laws'.


On Thu, 6 12, 2008 06:23, Clark W Sorensen wrote:
> Dear Lawrence,
> I didn't mean to imply that Korean culture has changed as fast as Korean
> law, but still there have been fairly drastic changes. With the
> equalization of inheritance between sons and between sons and daughters,
> however, the emphasis on the eldest son is much less than it used to be.
> Coresidence of parents with married children is the exception rather than
> the rule in urban areas, and when such coresidence takes place, although
> it is most often with the eldest son, it is sometimes with more affluent
> younger sons, or even daughters. At contemporary ancestor worship rituals,
> while the eldest son may give the first offering of liquor, the subsequent
> offerings are often not now limited to two, but extended to as many
> descendents as wish to make offerings including daughters in some
> families. Roger Janelli and I have both contributed articles to Charlotte
> Ikels edited volume "Filial Piety: Practice
> and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia" (Stanford Press) that discuss
> both change and continuity in this value in present-day Korea. Just
> because people still read the same old texts doesn't mean they understand
> the significance of these text in the same way their parents and
> grandparents did.
> Clark
> On Tue, 10 Jun 2008, lawrence driscoll wrote:
>> Dear List:
>> Although Clark Sorenson's reply to InJung Cho's query sounded very
>> adept, and may be all that the lawyer needed, I must say that I am
>> surprised that the subject did not generate more discussion.
>> In my own mind the intricate father-son relationship had always been
>> fundamental to the Korean family structure, and to Korean culture in
>> general.
>> I must admit that my first reaction to such a query, made by a person
>> with a name that is clearly Korean, was amazement.  But then I realized
>> that if I were to be approached to answer a question about my own Irish
>> heritage, I too would be at a loss. Our family roots are now some 5
>> generations removed from Ireland. And I am guessing that Dr. Cho's may
>> be similarly distant from Korea.
>> But regardless of Clark's citing of 1988 as the official end to such
>> filial obligations, I can't but help believe that for many, these duties
>> of the eldest son continue to be deeply ingrained in the national
>> psyche. Granted that while the three year mourning period at the
>> gravesite of one's father, has long been relegated to antiquity, other
>> manifestations of the Master's (Confucius) teachings are no doubt still
>> in tact. Please correct me if I am wrong, and if the demise of this
>> tradition has indeed been happening at a far faster pace.
>> Thank you.
>> Lawrence Driscoll    N.J., U.S.A.
>> > Date: Fri, 6 Jun 2008 13:23:55 -0700> From: sangok at u.washington.edu>
>> To: koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws> Subject: Re: [KS] Korean Culture for
>> eldest son to care for parents> > Dear Dr. Cho,> > It was indeed true
>> until 1988 that eldest sons in South Korea succeeded to the house
>> headship, received extra property in inheritance, and were expected to
>> take care of their parents in old age. Korea family law has been
>> revised several times since then, however, and the Constitutional
>> Court has made a number of critical decisions, so the issue is no
>> longer cut and dried. Eldest sons can now partition from their birth
>> house if they wish. Other children have a residual obligation to their
>> parents as well, so the legal status of the eldest son at the time of
>> his death would depend upon whether he was still registered on his
>> parents family register, whether he had children of his own, and
>> whether he had any siblings. Because of the complicated nature of all
>> of these considerations I would think hiring a Korean lawyer would be
>> well worth the cost.> > Clark W. Sorensen> University of Washington> >
>> > On Fri, 6 Jun 2008, Injung Cho wrote:> > > Dear all,> >> > I was
>> contacted by a lawyer about the Korean customs of looking after> >
>> their old parents. I am afraid that I don't know much about this
>> issue.> > So I am turning to this discussion forum for help. Any help
>> will be> > greatly appreciated. I've attached her email below.> >> >
>> Regards,> > InJung Cho> >> > =========================> >> > Further
>> to our telephone conversation just now, I confirm that I act for> > a
>> Korean family ??husband and wife who are farmers; their younger son>
>> > (completing military service) and daughter.> >> > Last year their
>> eldest son who had graduated with a degree in> > Hospitality
>> Management was killed in the Kerang Rail accident.> >> > The family
>> were flown over for the Memorial Service held last year.> > The eldest
>> son was in Australia doing work experience in hotels with the> > hope
>> of obtaining a better position in Korea with his international work> >
>> experience. The family were assisting him financially during his> >
>> studies and whilst he was here.> >> > They have advised that as is
>> traditional in Korean society the eldest> > son would care for them in
>> their retirement.> >> > This matter needs to be supported by
>> independent proof of this cultural> > norm and I am hoping that there
>> are some studies or statistics or other> > information which can be
>> put before the court to establish the great> > financial loss to the
>> parents.> >> > Any assistance will be greatly appreciated.> >> > Thank
>> you> > Lesley Simons> >> > Lesley Simons & Associates> > Barristers &
>> Solicitors & Migration Agents> > MARN: 0210699> > Tel: (613) 9509
>> 2572> > lesleysimons at bigpond.com> > Fax: (613) 9509 2142> >> >> >> >>
>> > >
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Eugene Y. Park
Associate Professor
Department of History
Krieger Hall 200
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697
Tel. (949) 824-5275
Fax. (949) 824-2865

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