Chuseok customs of old Korea

If you've ever traveled during Korea's biggest holiday, you've probably had the experiencing of nursing a sore "car-seat behind" from having spent interminable hours stuck in traffic. Oh, for the good old days, right? Wrong—if you're a woman, anyway. Not so many years ago, before all those "store-bought" foods were readily available, the women of the household spent the better part of the Harvest Moon season preparing various foods, serving them, and cleaning up after family and visitors.

A lot of that sort of thing still goes on, but in former times the chores involved were much more physically strenuous. Women used to develop some pretty good muscles from such activities as pounding rice into flour and dough that would ultimately be used to make songpyeon (송편 松-), the full-moon rice cakes still eaten on Chuseok (추석 秋夕). They'd also need to grind some steamed glutinous rice flour to combine with chestnuts and honey for making yuldanja (율단자 栗團子, pronounced 율딴자), the perfect accompaniment to songpyeon.

Chuseok rice cakes

Colorful songpyeon, the rice cakes specially made in celebration of Chuseok

You'd think that at least the ladies of the noble class would get off fairly easy, but back in Silla (신라 新羅) times, a millennium and a half ago, they didn't. According to The History of the Three Kingdoms, in those ancient days all the womenfolk of the clans that ruled the six government administrative departments in the capital city, Seorabeol (서라벌 徐羅伐), today's Gyeongju (경주 慶州), were divided into two teams to take part in a weaving contest. One team was presided over by the king and the other, by the queen. The idea was to see which team could turn out the most cloth of the best quality. The contest went on for an entire month, running from the seventh full moon to the eighth full moon of the year. Then, on the full moon of the eighth month, the judging was held, and the team that lost had to wine and dine the winners with a great feast. The common people also joined in the festivities, which included singing and dancing as well as eating and drinking.

Although it's remotely possible that the court ladies actually regarded this as fun, I suspect that a great many of them spent at least part of the holiday nursing a sore "loom-seat behind" and being thankful that they had eleven months before they'd be obliged to go through "weaving hell" again. It's noteworthy that the idea for this contest is said to have come out of the head of a man, King Yuri (유리이사금 儒理尼師今).

According to the Gyeongdo Japji (경도잡지 京都雜志), an 18th-century book about the annual cycle and seasonal customs as observed in the city of Seoul, the name Chuseok, meaning 'Fall Evening,' was just a popular name. The holiday was officially called Jungchu (중추 中秋), or 'Mid-Autumn,' after the Chinese fashion. Even though the Chinese don't call the day Chuseok, the name is nevertheless derived from Chinese.

Other old texts say that in ancient Silla the holiday was known as something like "Gabae (가배 嘉俳 or 排)." I say "something like" because we have no way of knowing exactly how the people of Silla would have pronounced it. The name was not a Chinese derivative, but not having any other way to write things down (this was before the invention of Hangul), they recorded this name using Chinese characters just for their sound value. The characters they used happen to be pronounced "Gabae" today, but we can be sure that 1,500 years ago the pronunciation was different. In any case, the name changed through the centuries and became the "-gawi" that we find in today's pure Korean name for Chuseok, which is Han-gawi (한가위). The "Han-" part of the name means 'great' and doubtless got tacked on somewhere along the line because of the importance of this holiday.

Many of the ancient Chuseok customs are still practiced today. Families still conduct ancestral rites and visit the graves of their forebears. People still hold ssireum (씨름 Korean wrestling) competitions. And in the south, women still do ganggangsullae (강강술래), a circle dance done to the accompaniment of a litany-like song in which the leader sings the verses and the other dancers respond with the refrain.

Chuseok table set for ancestral rites

A table set up for the Chuseok ancestral rites

Don't worry if you missed seeing any ssireum or ganggangsullae when you last spent Chuseok in Korea. Nowadays ssireum matches are held quite frequently and ganggangsullae is often done as a part of Korean dance performances at any time of year. That's another good reason for not wishing for a return to the "good old days," when you could enjoy such pleasures only two or three times annually.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 27 September 1999.