In noble families, 족보 (Jokbo, family tree) that recorded the family tree was passed down. Essentially, the first son of the noble family would inherit this. I suppose in the olden days, it was probably an actual book, like family bible in the west. With Korean war and change in society, I am not sure that families still have some sort of old book they keep. However, the heritage, the noble class…all of that still exists today even though Korea is supposedly a democratic society with no class distinctions. All you have to say is which Gim (Kim) or Yi (Lee) you are and well, people know your family history.
That is, at least up to my generation. I grew up in Korea during the modernization so it is likely that much of this has changed now, but considering that only a few years ago, there was a startling news of “now daughters can inherit Jokbo (family tree)”, I don’t think the society has changed so much. Other than, now it is not only the sons who can inherit the family tree and Korea has finally realized that gender equality is a thing to consider. It used to be that as a daughter, you got literally crossed off (like a red x mark) from your family tree if you got married.
I know some American genealogy enthusiasts might be overjoyed by the concept of Jokbo and I do agree it is nice that you can trace your lineage far (well, if you have a certain family background). But Jokbo is not just so that you can trace your family history. The matchmakers (and yes, they still do exist at least up until a few years ago) used it to weed out certain health issues, or to make sure the match had this and that features. As a matchmaker, you wouldn’t recommend a woman for a marriage if she had too strong an astrological sign,had family history of not being able to birth a child (especially not able to birth a male child), or other issues in mental and physical health of the family. Essentially, Jokbo enabled what I would call eugenics. Feeling as though I’m a product of eugenics in my history sometimes makes me feel a little strange.
Some people ask me how it is possible for Koreans to marry each other as the majority of Koreans have the same last name. Obviously that must mean they are all related. I sometimes only smile at that. It is not sad enough that most Korean names have been badly anglicized, but well, now they are all the same just because they happen to sound the same?
It is true most Koreans have last name Kim (actually pronounced Gim – 김) or Lee (actually pronounced Yi – 이), but hidden behind those single syllable last name is an origin of where that Kim or Lee came from. Most Koreans (well, at least my generation) know what kind of 이 or 김 they are. And yes, some of them are related if they come from a family tree, but most of them are not.
For example, my last name is 이, but I know I am 평창 이씨 (Yi from Pyong Chang). Just by knowing that, you can trace your family tree (your ancestry) back hundreds of years. My mom’s last name is 김, but she is 경주 김씨 (Gim from Gyungju). She has an illustrious family tree that goes back to the era of three kingdoms (roughly 1st century B.C.E.). Well, actually there was a fourth kingdom of sorts, but the history labels this era as three kingdoms. Gyungju Gim line comes down from the king of Shilla (one of the three kingdoms) that unified Korea.
Since I have always been told of my ancestry that goes back hundreds/thousands of years, genealogy really has not been much of an interest to me like it is to many Americans I met. I had completely taken it for granted. Yet as I see my family history disappearing with my parents, I now feel I should record something of a recent past. It is one thing to know that I can trace my ancestry far back into the past, but another to actually know who my grandparents or great grandparents were.
I have mentioned before, the Korean tradition of putting importance in having a male child since a female child could not inherit the family tree. That was changed only a few years ago. Now I suppose I could carry on my family tree (족보) if I feel inclined, except the honor would then fall to the first child and I am certainly not the first child of my family. I would like to blame this sexism on the acceptance of Confucianism into Korea, but the importance of men in the society started much before Confucianism. Things just got worse for women after the Confucianism.
My grandmother was a second daughter of a prominent rich family in the North. Her younger brother had died and she only had an older sister. Having no son from the legitimate wife in the family, my great grandfather’s son from his concubine had to be brought into the legitimate family tree. As my grandmother was quite an independent character even in those days, I can only imagine how she had felt about that when she had single-handedly fed her entire family after the war even though all of the lands and possessions became the adopted son’s possession.