Since their settlement in prehistoric times on the land now known as the Korean Peninsula, the Korean people have developed a wealth of unique cultural traditions related to the way they dress, eat, and behave at home. These traditions reflect the natural environment of their homeland, a terrain predominately covered by hills and mountains, bound by the sea on three sides and marked by four distinct seasons.
Clothing and Fashion
The Korean people learned to use various fabrics, such as sambe (hemp), mosi (ramie), cotton and silk to make a range of clothing that was not only attractive but also provided them with effective protection even during the harshest winters and the hottest summers. They made warm winter clothes using the technique of filling soft cotton between two layers of material, silk or cotton fabric, and sewing them together with fine stitching, and produced cool summer clothes with hemp and ramie. These clothes typically feature graceful lines and forms that create the serene aura characteristic of the traditional Korean clothes we know as hanbok.
Korea’s indigenous clothing, hanbok, has maintained its basic components throughout Korea’s 5,000-year history, while its styles and forms have evolved in various ways based on the lifestyle, social conditions, and aesthetic taste of the times.
History reveals that Korean people in the past tended to prefer simple, white clothes to clothing decorated with different colors and designs. That is why they were often referred to as "the white-clad people" among their neighbors who admired them for being a peaceful people. Nonetheless, Korea has also had a long tradition of enjoying colorful clothes with complex designs depending on the period and the wearer’s social status.
Today, Korea is home to many talented fashion designers who have earned an international reputation with their creative designs which combine traditional Korean designs and patterns with a modern artistic sensibility. The beauty of traditional Korean clothes has been introduced to, and praised in, many parts of the world thanks to the remarkable success in recent years of many Korean films and TV dramas including Dae Jang Geum.
Korean people today seem to prefer clothes inspired by modern Western styles to their traditional clothes, although some people still insist on wearing the latter on traditional holidays or for special family occasions such as weddings. Their love of tradition and yearning for the new sometimes led to the creation of attractive "modernized hanbok."
Now a household name across the world thanks to "Gangnam Style," a K-Pop song that shook the world in 2012, Gangnam-gu in Seoul is a large district where wealthy residential areas sit alongside high-end art facilities and Korea’s busiest fashion streets. The district now attracts numerous fashion-minded tourists from across East Asia and beyond with annual fashion festivals comprising international fashion shows and contests participated in by many rising designers.
Another fashion district in Seoul that enjoys an international reputation is Dongdaemun-gu, which has grown into a hub of the regional fashion industry, providing creative, affordable fashion items for youth and the young at heart. With its fully developed distribution and sales network, highly efficient production facilities, and throng of talented, aspiring designers, the district is now one of Seoul’s most popular attractions among foreign tourists.
Korea Information - Life
Since ancient times, the Korean people have maintained a belief that food and medicine have the same origin and hence perform the same function, following the adage that 'food is the best medicine'. They believe that health and illness alike come from the food they consume and how they eat it, and this idea has played a crucial role in the development of traditional Korean medicine whose basic principle is that we should use medicine only after food has failed.
Fermentation of Food
One of the key words to understanding traditional Korean food is fermentation, a metabolic process that helps food to 'mature' so that it has improved taste and nutritional properties and can be stored for a longer period. The Korean foods that best represent the tradition of fermentation developed in Korea include doenjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), Gochujang (chili paste) and jeotgal (salted seafood), whose fermentation can take anywhere from several months to several years. The degree of fermentation is a key factor in the taste and flavor of food cooked at home and in restaurants
Doenjang (Soybean Paste) and Ganjang (Soy Sauce)
Two of the most important items of traditional fermented food in Korea are doenjang and ganjang. To make them, it is necessary to soak soybeans in water and boil them until fully cooked. Then, they must be pounded and ormed into brick-shaped lumps, and left to dry and ferment. Then, they are placed in salted water in a large pot along with dried red chili and heated charcoal, which help remove impurities and odor during the fermentation process. The beans thus prepared are then left for about two to three months until they become fully fermented. This product should then be divided into two, solids and liquid, of which the former needs to be brewed for over five more months and the latter for over three months to develop a full flavor and taste. Just like wine, soy sauce tends to have a richer flavor and taste when brewed for a longer period.
Gochujang (Chili Paste)
Gochujang (chili paste) is a traditional Korean condiment made by fermenting a mixture of soybean malt, salt, and chili pepper powder with a blend of powdered rice, barley, flour, and malted barley. Gochujang has long been one of the most important traditional condiments among Korean people, whose palates have evolved towards a preference for hot and spicy foods since they were introduced to chili several hundred years ago. Chili and gochujang are now often regarded as a symbol of the vibrant, energetic disposition of Korean people.
Jeotgal (Salted Seafood)
An almost indispensable ingredient for kimchi and a very popular condiment used to enhance the taste of food, jeotgal (salted seafood) is made by mixing one of a variety of seafood (such as anchovy, shrimp, oyster, or clam) with salt, or with other condiments in addition to salt, and fermenting it in a cool place. They say that a longer period of fermentation makes it tastier. The tradition of making fermented fish sauce yielded several special delicacies including sikhae, which is made by fermenting fish mixed with rice and condiments.
Now beginning to gain a worldwide reputation as a representative food of Korea, kimchi has been praised for its anti-carcinogenic properties and nutritional value, as well as numerous variations that create excitingly diverse flavors and tastes. The most common type of kimchi is made by mixing salted white cabbage with kimchi paste made of chili powder, garlic, spring onion, Korean radish ginger, fish sauce and other ingredients like fresh seafood. Kimchi can be eaten fresh but is normally consumed after fermenting it for several days. Kimchi is normally eaten after fermenting it for several days although some prefer called mugeunji, (ripe kimchi) which is fully fermented for over one year.
The ingredients of kimchi vary according to each region and its special local produce and traditions. Seoul, for instance, is famous for gungjung kimchi(royal kimchi), bossam kimchi (wrapped kimchi), chonggak kimchi (whole radish kimchi), and kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi), while Jeolla-do Province is well known for its godeulppaegi kimchi (Korean lettuce kimchi) and gat kimchi (leaf mustard kimchi).
In 2001, the Codex Alimentarius Commission listed Korean kimchi in the internationally recognized standards, and in 2012 officially recognized the term "kimchi cabbage," which had previously been referred to as "Chinese cabbage" until then. In 2006, a US health magazine, Health Magazine, selected kimchi as one of the five healthiest foods on earth.
Bibimbap (literally “mixed rice”) is essentially a dish of cooked rice served after mixing it with an assortment of fresh and seasoned vegetables, fried egg, minced raw beef and other ingredients before cooking. The dish is closely related with Jeonju, a UNESCO-designated "City of Gastronomy," where food-related festivals, including the Bibimbap Festival, are held every autumn, attracting gastronomes from across Korea and beyond. Bibimbap has recently begun to attract worldwide attention for its nutritional balance, which is said to help keep those who eat it free from geriatric diseases, and is now generally cited as one of the three most representative dishes of Korean cuisine along with kimchi and bulgogi.
Bulgogi, which literally means “fire meat”, refers to a traditional Korean dish made by grilling beef or (rarely) pork after shredding or slicing it and marinating it in sweet soy sauce mixed with a great variety of condiments. It is one of the rare meat dishes to have developed in Korea, where people were generally more accustomed to eating vegetable dishes, and has won many enthusiasts outside the country. Bulgogi has recently been adopted by fast-food restaurants in Korea, resulting in the emergence of bulgogi hamburgers and pizzas.
Tteok (Rice Cake)
Tteok, or Korean rice cake, refers to a range of sticky cakes made by steaming powdered rice with other grains, usually beans, or by pounding boiled rice into different shapes and textures. While tteok was sometimes eaten as part of a meal, it was more often one of a variety of special foods served at special family or communal occasions such as birthday parties, wedding receptions, memorial services and traditional holidays. Rice is the main ingredient of tteok, but it is often mixed with other grains, fruits, nuts and herbs such as mugwort, red bean, jujube, soybean and chestnut.
Korean people in the past assigned various symbolic meanings to tteok and made and ate it according to those meanings. They made (and still make) baekseolgi (white steamed rice cakes), for instance, on the first birthday of a baby as it symbolizes a long life, and they made patsirutteok (steamed red bean and rice cake) whenever they started a business as its red color was believed to help repel evil forces. They celebrate New Year's Day with tteokguk, consisting of a broth with rice flakes, and Chuseok (the 15th Day of the Eighth Lunar Month) with songpyeon, bite-sized half-moon shaped rice cakes stuffed with a honey, chestnut, soybean, or sesame mixture. There are many famous tteok houses in Nagwon-dong in downtown Seoul.
Juk is a Korean-style porridge made of various grains that is usually served to children, the elderly, or people suffering from digestive problems. In recent years juk houses have begun to appear in many parts of Korea. They usually prepare the dish with a wide range of ingredients, mostly grains and vegetables, and it has also been developed into numerous varieties, some of which are now served at small specialty diners.
Korean people have developed a wide range of noodle dishes that are full of symbolic meanings. One such dish is janchi guksu (literally "banquet noodles"), which is served in a hot anchovy broth to the guests at a wedding reception, (hence the name). This dish is so closely related with the idea of a happy marriage in Korea that a question such as "When can we eat noodles?" would readily be understood to mean "When do you plan to get married?" It is also eaten to celebrate birthdays because it symbolizes a long, healthy life. Korean people also have a long established tradition of eating naengmyeon(cold buckwheat noodles), served in either cold beef broth (Pyeongyang naengmyeon) or with a spicy chili sauce (Hamheung naengmyeon).
Hanjeongsik (Korean Set Menu)
Hanjeongsik, otherwise known as the Korean set meal, originally consisted of cooked rice, soup, and anywhere from three to five, (largely vegetable,) side dishes. As people are gradually becoming better off due to the thriving national economy, today's set meal tends to be much more luxurious with tens of new dishes, meat and fish included, although the three basic dishes, i.e. rice, soup, and kimchi, still remain. Two cities in the southwestern part of Korea, Jeonju and Gwangju, are particularly famous for this traditional Korean meal.
Korean Temple Cuisine
Korean Buddhist temples have maintained their own culinary traditions, creating a wonderful range of vegetable dishes and ingredients and developing recipes to provide the proteins and other substances required for the monks and nuns to remain healthy. Temple foods are now enthusiastically received by vegans and other people who follow special diets for health-related reasons.
A wide variety of alcoholic beverages have been developed across different parts of Korea to meet the needs of local communities during holidays, festivals, memorial rites and other commemorative occasions. Currently some 300 traditional beverages have survived, including Munbaeju (wild pear liquor) and Songjeolju (pine knot liquor) in Seoul; Sanseong Soju (distilled liquor) in Gwangju of Gyeonggi-do Province; Hongju (red liquor) and Leegangju(distilled liquor) in Jeolla-do Province; Sogokju (rice wine) in Hansan of Chungcheong-do Province; Insamju (ginseng liquor) in Geumsan; Gyodong Beopju(rice liquor) and Andong Soju (distilled liquor) in Gyeongju of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province; and Okseonju (distilled liquor) in Hongcheon of Gangwon-do Province.
One of the most popular traditional alcoholic beverages across Korea today is makgeolli (rice wine), which is also known by other names such as nongju(farmer’s wine), takju (cloudy wine) and dongdongju (rice wine). It is made by a process in which steamed rice, barley or wheat is mixed with malt and left to ferment, and has an alcohol content of 6-7%, making it a fairly mild drink. As the fermented liquor receives more recognition for its healthy aspects, it is gaining popularity among foreign tourists visiting Korea.
Another hugely popular alcoholic beverage of Korea is soju which is made by adding water and flavoring to alcohol extracted from sweet potatoes and grains. With an alcohol content that varies but is significantly higher than makgeolli, it is much appreciated by ordinary citizens across Korea and is rapidly gaining enthusiasts outside Korea.
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Korean people have developed unique architectural techniques to build housing that is properly adapted to the surrounding natural environment, providing dwellers with better protection. A distinctive feature of the hanok (traditional Korean house) is an underfloor heating system called ondol. Literally meaning “warm stones” and developed during the prehistoric period, ondol refers to the system of channels running beneath the stone floor of a room through which heat is delivered from the fireplace in the kitchen. It is also designed to effectively draw out the smoke through the under-the-floor passages connected to the chimney.
Another important element of the traditional Korean house is the board-floored room (maru) located at the center and used for multiple purposes. The room is usually larger than other rooms and is raised from the ground to allow air to freely circulate under it, creating a cool living environment during the warm summer season. The smart system combining ondol and maru makes the traditional Korean house a comfortable living space for its residents not only in the harsh winter but also in the scorching summer. The roof is typically covered with either ceramic tiles or thatching. While most of the roof tiles are dark gray, some exhibit more vibrant colors as demonstrated, for example, by the Official Residence of the Korean President Cheong Wa Dae, which literally means “Blue House” because, as the name shows, it is covered by blue roof tiles.
While traditional Korean houses are generally wooden structures, they can survive as long as other buildings made with other materials if properly taken care of. Presumed to have been built in the early 1200s, the Geungnakjeon Hall of Bongjeongsa Temple in Andong, Gyeongsangbukdo Province is Korea’s oldest remaining wooden building. As an ideal location for their house, Korean people preferred a site protected by hills or mountains on three of its sides, with a stream or river passing in front, thus providing easy access to water. Houses built in such a place create a great harmony with the surrounding environment, attracting more and more admirers not just in Korea but outside it as well.
These days, over 60% of Seoul’s population live in modern apartments but, interestingly, these tall, multistoried buildings are almost without exception furbished with a heating system inspired by the age-old ondol system. Similarly, newly built detached houses are also reliant on the legacy of the ondolsystem of heating the floor, although the traditional heat passages are now replaced by under-floor metal pipes with running water heated either by gas or electricity. This heating system has now begun to be exported to other countries with wide variations in daily temperature.
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Until the mid-20th century, Korea was primarily an agricultural society, and the seasonal rhythms of daily life were organized by the lunar calendar. As a society where farming was hugely important for the subsistence of its members, it developed a great variety of semi-religious events where prayers were offered for a good harvest and abundant food, and which gradually developed into communal celebrations and festivals.
The Lunar New Year’s Day (Seol or Seollal), which is generally regarded as the most important of all the traditional seasonal festivals, is celebrated with a special festival food called tteokguk, or “rice flake soup”. Eating it signified becoming one year older (this means that a child born on the 29th of the twelfth lunar month becomes two years old only two days later). The festival is also related with the ceremony of performing the Sebae (New Year’s Bow) before the elders of one’s family and neighborhood. After Sebae, the elders present New Year’s gift money to their juniors.
Another important seasonal festival called Daeboreum (Greater Full Moon) celebrates the fifteenth day of the first month of the year by the lunar calendar. On that day, people eat special festival food called ogokbap, a dish made with five grains and served with an assortment of cooked vegetables, play games aimed for the unity of the local community and perform rituals for good harvest.
Chuseok, which is held on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, consists of thanksgiving services in which newly harvested crops and fruits are offered to the ancestral spirits. Generally held to be as important as the Lunar New Year’s Day, Chuseok is all the family members gather together and hold a ritual with newly harvested crops and fruits to give thanks to their ancestors and to nature. As it falls in the harvest season, a time of abundance, there is even a saying, “Not more, not less. Just be like Hangawi (‘Hangawi’ being another name for Chuseok).”
Korean parents mark the one-hundredth day anniversary (baegil) and the first birthday (dol) of their baby with special big celebrations in which their families, relatives and friends participate. They generally hold a large celebratory banquet for their baby with a ritual prayer for the baby’s health, success in life, and longevity, and the participants give the baby gold rings as a special gift.
Weddings have also been a very important family celebration in Korea. Most Korean people today choose their own spouse according to their heart’s desire.
In the past, a wedding ceremony in Korea was more like a village festival. Families, relatives, and villagers would gather together to celebrate the couple. The groom wore samogwandae, a traditional attire for court officials, and the bride was dressed in a lavishly embroidered bridal robe, such as hwarot or wonsam, and a bejeweled headdress or a coronet named jokduri.
Today, the Western style of wedding ceremony is widely regarded as the norm, but some traditional rituals such as Pyebaek (traditional ceremony to pay respect to the groom’s family by the newly-wedded couple right after their wedding) and Ibaji (wedding food that the bride presents to the groom’s family) are still maintained.
In Korea, babies are one year old as soon as they are born, taking into consideration the period while they are in their mother’s womb. A person’s 60th birthday used to be celebrated with a grand party as his age was regarded as enough to have experienced all the principles of heaven and earth. However, today, when the average life expectancy of South Koreans is more than 80 year, people celebrate their 70th birthday in such a grand manner rather than their 60th birthday.
In Korea there are five national holidays designated by the government: Independence Declaration Day (Samiljeol, March 1), which commemorates the March First Movement, one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance against the Japanese occupation of Korea, and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea in 1948; Liberation Day (Gwangbokjeol, August 15), celebrating national liberation from Imperial Japan in 1945; National Foundation Day, which marks the foundation of Gojoseon, the first state of the Korean nation, on the 3rd day of 10th lunar month, 2333 BCE; and Hangeul Day (Hangeullal, October 9), which commemorates the invention and proclamation of the Korean writing system.
The public holidays during which work is suspended by law in Korea include New Year’s Day, Seollal (or Lunar New Year’s Day, celebrated for 3 days), Chuseok(Mid-autumn Festival on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, celebrated for 3 days), Buddha’s Birthday (on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month), Children’s Day (May 5), Memorial Day (June 6) and Christmas Day. There are fifteen public holidays in total on which businesses are closed by law and employees have a day off, from which Constitution Day is excluded.
Korea Information - Life
Korea is a country where all the world’s major religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam, peacefully coexist with shamanism. According to the 2015 statistics, 44% of the Korean population has a religion.
Among them Buddhism and Confucianism have been more influential than any others upon the life of the Korean people and over half of the country’s listed cultural heritage are related with the two religions. Buddhism arrived in Korea in 372, and since then, tens of thousands of temples have been built across the country.
Adopted as the state ideology of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Confucianism was more of a code of ethical conduct that stressed the importance of loyalty, filial piety, and ancestor worship. Confucian followers also valued ancestral worship in the belief that the ancestral spirits can affect the life of their descendants, and tried to find auspicious sites for the graves of their ancestors. Today, however, more and more people are turning from the traditional practice of burial to cremation.
Catholicism was introduced to Korea from China through the envoys of late Joseon who visited Beijing and the Western priests who followed them. The early Roman Catholics in Korea were subjected to severe persecution, but the religion continued to spread among the common people across the country. The persecution of Christian believers by Joseon’s rulers led Korea to yield the world’s fourth largest number of Christian saints.
Protestantism was brought to Korea during the late 19th century by North American missionaries, and quickly won people’s hearts through school education and medical services. Even today, Protestants in Korea operate a great number of educational institutions, middle and high schools, colleges and universities, and medical centers.
In Korea there is a rich array of native religions such as Cheondogyo, Won Buddhism and Daejonggyo which, although suffered various vicissitudes of modern Korean history, are still active in increasing the number of their adherents. Cheondogyo, formed on the basis of the Eastern Learning (Donghak) of the 19th century, maintains the doctrine that “Man is Heaven,” which exerted a strong influence upon the process of modernization in Korea.
Daejonggyo, established in the early 20th century to worship Dangun, the founder of the first Korean state, also affected the life of ordinary Korean people, boosting Korean nationalism. In 1955, there appeared the Islamic Society of Korea and the first Korean imam (Islamic leader), followed by the foundation of the Korean Muslim Federation in 1967.
In addition to the major religions, shamanism has also played an important part in the daily life of the Korean people, trying to help them connect with the spiritual world and making predictions about their future.