Confucius Day: Sept. 29
Confucius was born in China on Oct. 18, 551 B.C. He was a younger contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah (circa 628-528 B.C.) and Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha (circa 563 B.C.to 483 B.C.).
Confucius’ philosophies molded Korean culture for over a millennium. This influence reached its zenith during the Chosun dynasty (A.D. 1392-1910), where it had an overreaching influence on Korean law, ethics as well as life-cycle rituals such as marriage and funeral rites.
An example of Confucian influence on Korean food is the Korean tea ceremony. The Korean tea ceremony is heavily influenced by Buddhist and neo-Confucian ideas, as are most annual commemorations performed on behalf of deceased ancestors.
This annual ritual, called Jesa (제사), follows precise rules. Various foods are placed on a table in a specific order and given as offerings to the ancestors. Fruits are usually presented partially peeled. Chopsticks are also placed standing up in the rice bowl. Certain foods are placed to the north, south, east and west sides of the family altar based on ancient, prescribed rules.
The representative of the family (usually the eldest son) performs a jol (절), deeply bowing with one’s head touching the floor before the ancestor’s grave or in front of their portrait prominently displayed on the annual ancestor altar set up for annual ceremonies.
However, in 21st century Korean homes, some of these more elaborate traditions are slowly falling away. For example, Koreans have smaller families than they had in the past so they don’t have as many people or as much time to set up elaborate family altars. Also since many families do not have an eldest son (or a daughter-in-law) to take on these ritual responsibilities, daughters are playing a greater role in maintaining family traditions.
Here’s an example from a scene in the Korean TV drama Winter Sonata (starting at 3:06), where the teenaged Jung Yu-jin, who is the eldest daughter in her family (she has no older brother), is called upon to lead the annual ceremony commemorating the death of her father. Look at the table setting at 3:11. Rather than elaborate stacks of Korean fruits, fish and desserts, most of the table is filled with Western cookies and desserts instead.