South Korea

Traditions and customs of South Korea

What traditions and customs are there in South Korea?

From East Asia and North Korea’s northern neighbor, the customs and traditions of South Korea.


Food in daily life

The rapid changes in lifestyles that have accompanied economic development since the 1960s have changed the traditional pattern of eating rice with every meal. Some urbanites can eat toast, eggs, and milk for breakfast, using a fork and knife.

However, for many people, a bowl of steamed white rice, a vegetable soup with soybean paste and a bowl of kimch’I can still be the basic daily meal, to which vegetables, fish, meats and other steamed or seasoned foods as garnishes (“panch’an”).

Many people eat at a low table while sitting on the ondol floor, using a spoon and chopsticks.

Kimch’l is the national dish. It is a spicy, often hot, mixture of fermented and/or pickled vegetables. Almost any vegetable can be fermented to make kimch’I, but Chinese cabbage and daikon radishes are the most commonly used. As part of the national diet for centuries, it has many variations depending on the region, the season, the occasion and the personal taste of the cook.

Kimch’I has long been the test of a housewife’s culinary skills and a family tradition. A South Korean consumes an average of eighteen kilograms of kimchi’l a year. Many companies produce kimchi’I both for domestic consumption and for export.

Meat dishes such as pulpogi (grilled meat) and kalbi (ribs) are popular with both Koreans and foreigners. They are traditionally charcoal grilled after the meat has been marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, minced garlic and other spices.

The meals available in the restaurants range from sophisticated western cuisine, to various ethnic specialities, through local and foreign fast food. There are no food taboos, although Buddhist monks may practice vegetarianism and observe other food taboos.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

A variety of ttok (rice cake), other traditional sweets, and fresh fruits are served to celebrate birthdays, marriages, and hwan’gap (the 60th birthday). Offerings at ch’arye, memorial services for ancestors held on special holidays, include rice wine, steamed white rice, soup, grilled meats, and fresh fruit. After the ritual offerings

from wine and food to the ancestral spirits, family members consume the food and wine. Its ingestion symbolizes the reception of blessings from the ancestral spirits.


Family background and educational level are important considerations when looking for a partner. Marriage between people with a common family name and place of origin (“tongsong tongbon”) was prohibited by law until 1997.

Many urbanites meet their spouse at schools or workplaces and have a love marriage. Others may find a partner through meetings organized by parents, relatives, friends, and professional matchmakers.

In urban centers, the arranged meeting usually takes place in a hotel cafeteria, where the man, woman and their parents can meet for the first time. After exchanging greetings and conversation, the parents leave so the couple can talk and decide if they want to see each other again. Most people are free to choose a conjugal partner.

Marriage has been considered as a rite of passage that confers on an individual the social status of an adult. Marriage is also conceived as a union not only of a man and a woman, but of her families and as a means of ensuring the continuity of the husband’s family line.

Ninety percent of women marry in their twenties, although the average age of first-time brides has risen from 20.4 years in 1950 to 25.9 years in 1997. Divorce was traditionally rare, but it tripled from 1980 to 1994.

Remarriages constituted 10.9 percent of all marriages in 1997. Traditionally, remarriages of widows were not allowed and remarriages of divorced women were difficult.

However, changes in the pattern of remarriage are taking place, especially for divorced women. The proportion of a divorced woman marrying a single man used to be lower than that of a divorced man marrying a never married woman.

Since 1995, however, this situation has been reversed in favor of women, with a ratio of 2.9 to 2.6 percent in 1997. Divorced women with independent financial means, especially successful professionals, no longer face to traditional gender bias against remarriage and may marry younger, less occupationally advanced singles. This phenomenon clearly reveals the importance of the economic aspect of marriage.


Koreans are very status conscious and their verbal behavior reflects the hierarchical relationship between social actors. Except among former classmates and other very close friends, adults do not use first names to address one another. Job titles such as ‘professor’, ‘manager’, ‘director’ and ‘president’ are used in combination with the honorific suffix nim to address a social superior.

Koreans are generally courteous to the point of being ceremonious when interacting with social superiors, but can be very outgoing and friendly among friends and acquaintances of equal social status. Their behavior with strangers in urban public situations can be characterized by indifference and self-centeredness.

Koreans seem to be rude to strangers, as they usually don’t say a word when they accidentally push or shove other people on the streets, in shops, at train stations, and in airports.

Traditional Confucian teaching emphasized ownership in the five sets of human relationships, which included the relationships between ruler and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, elder and younger, and friend and friend.. Confucianism still serves as the standard of moral and social conduct for many people.


Religious beliefs

As a result of constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, there is a wide range of religious beliefs, from shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism to Christianity, Islam, and other religions.

The beliefs of indigenous peoples and shamanism have co-evolved, sharing a fundamental belief in the existence of a myriad of gods (such as the mountain gods, the gods of the house, and the god of fire) and spirits of the dead, all which can influence people’s luck. Korean Buddhism has doctrinal and meditative traditions.

Buddhists believe that human suffering is primarily caused by desire. Thus, some Buddhists seek enlightenment by cultivating an attitude of detachment, while others seek to satisfy their desires by offering petitionary prayers to Kwanum, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

Confucianism is a political and social philosophy that emphasizes the virtues of en, usually translated as “human heart,” and hyo or filial piety, which is expressed through ceremonies such as ancestor rites. The Confucian concept of heaven is an impersonal but voluntary force in nature and society, and is beyond human control.

The first Korean Catholics who embraced Catholicism as part of Western learning (“Sohak”), suffered persecution during the Choson dynasty for giving up their ancestral rites as “pagan” rites. Christianity, including both Catholicism and Protestantism, has become a major religion.

Lay Christians seek material and spiritual wealth through fervent prayer, while some theologians have advocated new theologies that focus on the plight of the minjung (the “masses”) and/or disadvantaged women.

Ch’ondogyo (Heavenly Way Teaching), which began as Tonghak (Oriental Learning), founded by Ch’oe Che U in 1860, is a syncretistic religion that grew popular. “Humanity and heaven are one and the same” is its basic principle, which emphasizes human dignity and gender equality.

Religious professionals

Shamans derive their power from their ability to serve as a medium between the spirit world and their clients during kut (shamanic rituals). The Buddhist and Christian clergy derive their power from their knowledge of the Scriptures. Another source of power for the clergy of the major religions is the wealth that their churches have accumulated from the contributions of their followers.

The activities of the Christian clergy include not only sermons but also routine personal visits to the homes of their parishioners. Buddhist monks can perform personalized prayer services in exchange for monetary donations.

Rituals and sacred places

A shaman guards a shrine where his guardian deity and the instruments for ritual services are kept. Kut, which includes songs, dances, and incantations, are performed in various places to ensure good fortune, cure illness, or guide the spirit of a deceased person to heaven.

Many Koreans hold Confucian-style ceremonies to commemorate their ancestors on the dates of their deaths and on special holidays at home or at graves.

The National Confucian Academy in Seoul holds biannual and semi-annual ceremonies to honor Confucius, his disciples, and other Confucian sages. Christian churches are ubiquitous in urban and rural areas. Some offer services not only on Sundays, but also on weekdays before sunrise.

Major Christian churches have huge new buildings that can hold several thousand worshippers. Buddhist temples used to be located away from urban centers near mountains, but now more temples are being built in urban areas.

Death and the afterlife

Many Koreans believe in ancestral spirits and observe Confucian rituals regarding funerals, mourning practices, and memorial services. Popular beliefs about life after death are somewhat influenced by Buddhism, but are characterized by diversity.

Mourning periods vary, depending on the social status of the deceased, from one day to two years. The selection of good graves according to geomantic principles is considered important both for the ancestral spirit and for the fortune of the descendants.

In domestic rites performed on the eve of the day of death and on holidays, the ancestral image is that of living, dependent, inactive parents who are offered food and wine.

Secular celebrations

The two major national holidays are New Years and Ch’usok (which falls on the eighth full moon according to the lunar calendar). Koreans observe both solar and lunar New Year holidays, of which many people wear hanbok (traditional clothing), offer sebas (New Year greetings with a “big bow”) to their parents, eat ttok-kuk (soup rice cake), play traditional games and observe the rites of the ancestors.

In Ch’usok, harvest festival celebrations include eating special foods such as songp’yon (crescent-shaped rice cakes) and making family visits to ancestral graves to cleanse the grave area and offer fruits and other foods, including steamed rice cooked with freshly harvested grains.

The arts and humanities


Classical Korean literature was written in Chinese, and the poems of late Koryo and early Choson sijos mainly dealt with the theme of loyalty. The kasa form of Choson poetry expressed individual sentiments and moral admonitions.

After the creation of the Korean alphabet, many works of fiction were written in Han’gul, and royal ladies wrote novels describing their personal situations and private thoughts.

Modern literature began in the mid-19th century as a result of the new Western-style education and the Korean language and literature movement. The themes of 20th century literature reflect the national experiences of colonization, division of the motherland after liberation, the Korean War, urbanization, and industrialization.

Translations of literary works began to appear in foreign countries in the 1980s. The novelists whose works have been most widely translated are Hwang Sun-won and Kim Tong-ri.

Graphic arts

Traditional brush paintings include realistic landscapes; genre paintings of flowers, birds, and the daily life of ordinary people; and calligraphic presentations of Chinese phrases extolling Confucian virtues such as filial piety and loyalty decorated with designs and drawings.

Traditional bronze, stone and stone sculptures were inspired by Buddhism. The Sakyamuni Buddha in the rotunda of the Sokkuram Grotto is considered a national masterpiece.

Performing arts

Korean music and dance evolved over three thousand years from the religious ceremonies of shamanism and Buddhism and were often linked to the agricultural cycle.

Traditional music has two genres: Chong’ak (“proper music”), a slow-paced, meditative chamber music genre, and minsok’ak (folk music), characterized by spontaneity and emotionality. P’ansori as a category of folk vocal music is a unique combination of singing and narration by a single vocalist to the accompaniment of a changgo (traditional drum).

The Chunhyangjeon, a love story and one of only five existing p’ansori traditional compositions, requires more than eight hours of performance.

Among instrumental folk music, samul nori has been the most popular form since the 1970s. The music, mainly percussive, is played on bronze and leather gongs and double-headed hourglasses and barrel drums.

Koreans also enjoy Western classical and popular music. South Korea has thirty-one symphony orchestras and has produced internationally renowned violinists such as Kyung-hwa Chung and Sarah Chang.

There are two categories of traditional dances: court dances and folk dances performed by farmers, shamans, and villagers. Kut and nong-ak (farmers’ festival music), which combine music and dance with ritual and entertainment, remain popular.

The masked dances performed by the villagers combined dance with satirical drama, mocking misguided officials and monks for entertainment and ethical edification. The Korea National University of Arts Institute of Traditional Dance was established in 1998 to educate future generations in the heritage of traditional dance.

Share the customs and traditions of South Korea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button