Sunday, September 30, 2012

KOREAN CULTURE: Korean Thanksgiving Day (1)

Hangawi (한가위) or Chuseok (추석)

The Harvest Moon on Hangawi (Newsis)

Today is Korean Thanksgiving Day, the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, which is referred to in Korean by a variety of different names including Chuseok (추석(秋夕)), Jungchu (중추 (中秋)), Jungchujeol (중추절 (仲秋節)), Gabae-il (가배일 (嘉俳日)), Gawinnal (가윗날), and Hangawi (한가위). It is widely believed to originate from Gabae (가배 (嘉俳)) that involved Gabe (가베) or Gilssam (길쌈), a month-long hemp cloth weaving contest held by King Yuri, the third king (24–57) of the Silla Dynasty (57 BC–935 AD).

According to Samguksagi (삼국사기, “History of the Three Kingdoms”), starting the 16th day of the 7th month through the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, two groups of women respectively led by two princesses were gathered together in the royal courtyard every morning to weave hemp cloth. On the last day of competition, the team that had woven more cloth was announced as that year’s winner and the defeated team treated them to a feast and also entertained them with songs and dances. Such festivities were called Gabae (가배(嘉俳)), a phonetically translated word (from native Korean into Chinese). I think the “” sound in the word was “” (순경음 비읍, “light  labial sound ”)2 which sounds like /v/ as the word changed to Ga-oe (가외) in the 17th century then to Gawi (가위) in the 18th century.

Gilssam by Kim Hongdo (18th century wash painting)

Even though this is the most popular hypothesis about the origin of Korean  Thanksgiving Day, Hangawi, it’s still quite controversial as some people believe the story of the weaving contest was made up based on the fact the word be (, “hemp (cloth)”) sounds similar to bae () of Gabae (가배 (嘉俳)), which is a phonetically translated Chinese word from the native Korean Gave (가베); and the meaning of gave (가베) is just “middle”:

On the other hand, the word Chuseok (추석(秋夕)) first appeared, along with Jungchu (중추(中秋)), in the 17th century literature as Chyusyeok (츄셕). Chuseok translates to “Autumn Evening” in which chu (()) and seok (()) respectively mean “autumn” and “evening”; Jungchu translates to “Middle of Autumn” in which jung (() ) and chu (() ) respectively mean “middle” and “autumn.” The day is called Chuseok and Jungchu as it’s the 15th day (middle) of the 8th month (autumn) of the lunar calendar when we see the harvest (full) moon.

Major Korean national holidays set based on boreum, the 15th of the month when the moon reaches its fullest include Jeongweol Daeboreum or Sangweon (the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar), Baekjung or Jungwoen (the 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar), and Hangawi or Chuseok (the 15th of the eighth month of the lunar calendar).  The moon epitomizes birth, fertility, creation, and abundance and in ancient Korea, agriculture was the sole means of living; thus, good harvests determined the quality of their lives.  In other words, farmers, the majority of the people of ancient Korea, always hoped for abundant output and a good year, so they earnestly prayed to the goddess of the moon, at the beginning of the year, that their hopes and wishes would come true.  And they would be filled with the fullest anticipation waiting for the time the moon would reach its fullest - the ultimate symbol of abundance.  And after the harvest, they gave thanks to the goddess of the moon; accordingly, it is also believed Korean Thanksgiving Day probably originates from the ancient shamanistic celebration of the harvest (full) moon.

And just like they do days before Seollal, over 31 million people who live mainly in Seoul and other major big cities, far away from their hometowns hence far apart from their parents and relatives, are already heading home starting yesterday (9/29/2012).  Here’s two typical Korean cliché headlines to describe all this hoopla: (1) Maeumun seollego balgeoreumun babbeuda (마음은 설레고 발걸음은 바쁘다), which translates to (Homeward-bounders) fluttering hearts and busy feet; and (2) Gosokdoroga juchajanguro byeonhaedda (고속도로가 주차장으로 변했다), which literally means "A highway turned into a parking lot," to describe so horrible a traffic jam that nothing is moving forward.

Homeward-bound vehicles for Hangawi holiday
form endless lines on a highway (Yonhap News9/30/2012)

This great exodus is called guiseong (귀성歸省), a Sino-Korean word (i.e. a word of Chinese origin),  which has the same connotation of English phrase coming home.  In this phrase, coming can only be used when the person you're going to is already there; so you’re “coming home” to your parents or relatives who live there.  In a word guiseong, gui means “to return” and seong “to look after or take care of,” so you’re “returning home” or “coming home” after a long absence “to care for your parents’ health if they are still alive or to visit their graves if they already passed away.”

On the other hand, there are tons of people out there in Seoul or other big cities who cannot come home because they are too busy with jam-packed schedules, because they have an infant child who can’t stand very long in a car, or simply because they can’t afford a trip.  So now we have a latest trend in coming home - yeokguiseong (역귀성, 逆歸省) which literally translates to reverse coming home.  These are creative actions taken by the old parents having to meet up with their not-so-young children.  This reverse coming home has one outstanding advantage:  Parents don’t have to worry about traffic jams or exhaustingly crowded bus trips since everybody’s going home when they’re coming to cities like Seoul and after long holiday weekend everybody’s going back to cities when they’re coming back home.  When parents come home to their kids, they never forget to bring two or four armfuls of homegrown produce or mom’s foods for the kids.

Still, more than half of the entire population of South Korea (31 million people out of 50 million) is escaping from big cities, to come home to their families who have lived there for generations.  And this morning, some fathers must have cleaned up every corner of their houses, expecting their grown-up children and/or grandchildren, and most mothers must gone groceries at traditional local markets or prepared traditional foods for Hangawi - all with fluttering hearts and busy feet.

1.  Idu (or Yidu, 이두) is an archaic writing system that phonetically translates the native Korean words into Chinese.  Some of those phonetically translated words are semantically identical with the Chinese letters used (e.g., balgui (발긔  件記(발기) “list”)) while others just borrow the phonetic pronunciations of the Chinese letters used (e.g., jo-i (조이 召史(조이) “commoner’s wife”).  This system was conceived in the Gojoseon period (2333 BC–108 BC) and started being used in earnest in the period of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (57-668). It was mainly used by the (royal) officials thus was named Idu (이두(吏座)) in which i (()) and du (()) respectively mean “officials” and “place/status.”

2.  The Korean alphabet, Hangul, originally had 28 letters consisting of 17 consonants and 11 vowels (Their sounds are described based on the English IPA chart for the sake of your easy understanding.):

     Consonants: (/g/), (/k/), (/d/), (/t/), (/n/),
                          (/b/), (/p/), (/m/), (/ʒ/), (/t͡ʃ/),
                          (/s/),(/h/),(/ŋ/),(/r/,/l/), (light /h/),
                          (alveolar /z/),(velar /ŋ/)

     Vowels:  (/ɯ/), (/i/), (/o/), (/a/), (/u/),(/ə/),
                    (/jo/), (/ja/), (/ju/),(/jə/),(/ʌ/ as in “but”)

And there were 18 side-by-side double or triple consonants such as (/gg/), (/dd/), (/bb/), (/ʒʒ/), (/ss/), (/hh/),(/ŋŋ/), (/nn/), , , , , , , , , , ; and 4 top-down double consonants such as ,,, and. Among the latter consonant group, sounds like /v/ and was the only sound that was actually used.

There were also diphthongs such as (/wa/), (/wə/), (/ʌi/), (/ɯi/), (/ø/), (/ae/), (/wi/), (/e/), etc.

The modern Korean alphabet now has 28 letters consisting of 14 consonants and 10 vowels:

    Consonants: (/g/), (/n/), (/d/), (/l/,/r/), (/m/),
                          (/b/), (/s/), (/ŋ/), (/ʒ/), (/t͡ʃ/),
                          (/k/), (/t/), (/p/), (/h/)

    Vowels:  (/ɯ/), (/i/), (/o/), (/a/), (/u/),(/ə/),
                   (/jo/), (/ja/), (/ju/),(/jə/)

including 5 double consonants ((/gg/), (/dd/), (/bb/), (/ss/), (/ʒʒ/) and 11 consonant clusters ((/gs/), (/nʒ/), (/nh/), (/lg/), (/lm/), (/lb/), (/ls/), (/lt/), (/lp/), (/lh/), (/bs/)) and 11 diphthongs ((/ae/), (/jae/), (/e/), (/je/), (/wa/), (/wae/), (/ø/), (/wə/), (/we/), (/wi/), (ɯi)).

3.  The obsolete light labial sound “”(/v/) changes to /w/ or drops between vowels and such changes still remain in Korean (and you can also see such changes in the pronunciations of the letter "w" in German "wagen" (/vagen/) and in English “wagon" (/waegən/)):

    deobda(덥다): deoveoyo ()→deowoyo (더워요) “It’s hot.”
    gomabda(고맙다): gomaveoyo (고마)
                                 →gomawoyo (고마워요) “Thank you.”
   ● gobge(곱게): govi ()→go-i(고이) “beautifully”

In the Gyeongsangdo province, located in the southeast of Korea, you can still see the remains of the light labial sound “” though: Instead of Deowoyo (, “It’s hot”), for example, they use Deobeoyo (, “It’s hot”).

My Other Posts about Korean Culture & Holidays:
Korean New Year (Seollal) : (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
The First Full Moon Festival (Daeboreum): (1) (2) (3) (4)


  1. I found your blog through the PSY posts, but I wanted to say how much I love your blog! I am a teacher living in Korea and I am learning a great deal from My Dear Korea. It is is very well written, informative, and also deeply felt and thoughtful. I really appreciate the effort and detail that you put into this blog. This is a great Chuseok post. I will be visiting your blog and recommending it to anybody curious about Korea.

    I thought that your cultural criticism on the PSY phenomenon was, well, phenomenal. I plan on returning!

    (And Happy Chuseok!)

  2. sarcasmus, thanks for calling my post phenomenal. It means a lot. And Happy Chuseok/Happy Hangawi to you, too! Pls come often. :)

  3. Fun occasion and wonderful celebration. Great festivity isn't it?


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