Korean Chinese

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Korean Chinese

LOCATION: China (Jilin province)
POPULATION: 2 million
RELIGION: Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities; Vol. 4: South Koreans


The immigration of Koreans into China began at the end of the 17th century. At that time, they were limited in number. In the mid-19th century, due to widespread famine in north Korea, a sizable Korean population crossed the border and settled in Yanbian and adjacent areas of northeast China, mixing with the native Manchu and Chinese residents. Later on, new waves of Korean immigrants settled in the same area. Under the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the Koreans in Yanbian district amounted to more than 10,000 and those who dwelled in Jian, Linjiang, and Xinbin counties numbered more than 37,000. In 1885, the Qing Dynasty allotted to the Korean immigrants an area of about 3,500 sq mi along the north bank of the Tumen River. After the annexation of the Korean peninsula by Japan in 1910, vast numbers of Koreans entered China, reaching more than 360,000 by 1918. At first, the Qing Dynasty imposed restrictions on their immigration, but changed to a policy of "recruiting for land reclamation" shortly after. Land reclamation bureaus were set up in cities and counties near the border; Korean immigrants recruited to reclaim wastelands were recognized as Chinese. From then on, they opened up virgin soil and built up large Korean communities in northeastern Manchuria. This policy continued under the Republican government after the demise of the Qing Empire in 1911.


The Koreans dwelled mainly in Jilin province. They also scattered in Heilongjiang and Liaoning provinces, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and some inland cities of north and northeast China. Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin Province is the most populated area among the compact Korean communities. It is located in hilly land around Baitou, the highest peak in Changbai Mountains, which dominate one of China's largest forest reserves. The forest, covering 494,000 acres, is divided into a semiprotected area and an area off-limits to both guns and axes. More than 300 species of medicinal herbs, including ginseng, grow in habitats that range from alpine to heath. Ethnic Korean population in the People's Republic of China reached 2 million in 2002.


The Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic family, Tungusic branch. With the spread of Confucianism and Buddhism, Koreans began using Chinese characters as a writing system from the 4th century AD. Scholars estimate that about 70% of present-day Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origin. From the 10th century onward, the Koreans devised their own phonetic alphabet and syllabary and gradually abandoned the use of the Chinese ideographic characters. The official alphabet used in the Korean Peninsula, called Hangul, was developed in the 15th century and consists of 24 phonetic signs; these are sometimes combined with Chinese characters. However, Koreans living in China use a 40-character phonetic alphabet and have completely abandoned Chinese characters.


The Tanjun myth, narrating the origin of the Korean people, is widespread among the Koreans living in China. The youngest son of the Emperor of Heaven wished to move down to the earth. His father acquiesced and awarded him a blessed parcel of land. The gods of winds, rain, and clouds ensured the prosperity of all living things on this parcel of land. Now, there was a tiger and a bear living together in a cavern. The son sent the two animals each lingzhi (glossy ganoderma—a type of fungus) and 20 bulbs of garlic and told them that whichever had eaten them within 100 days would become a human being. A few days later, the tiger, unable to eat anymore, abandoned the contest, while the bear continued and ultimately turned into a girl. She prayed to the gods to give her a man. The son of the Emperor of Heaven changed himself into a man and married the girl. From this union Tanjun was born and, thereafter, human beings multiplied. Tanjun built up a country called Korea and made Pyongyang the capital. He lived to be 1,908 years of age and was finally transformed into a mountain god.


There have been four major religions among the Koreans of the Korean Peninsula: Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Most Koreans who migrated to China in the 19th and early 20th centuries shared in the beliefs of one or more of these religious traditions, but since the Communist takeover many have abandoned religious beliefs and practices. Large segments of Koreans living in rural areas still hold the Christian faith, while the older generations still believe in Confucianism; geomantic beliefs (divination by means of geographic features) related to the location of a house or a tomb are widespread among the ethnic Koreans living in China.


On the Spring Festival (lunar New Year; Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20), in addition to singing, dancing, and dinner parties at home, people add to the fun by kindling bonfires in the fields and engaging in outdoor activities.

The fifteenth of January (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between February 6 and March 6), the Chinese Lantern Festival is also an important holiday for the Koreans, especially in the rural areas. Each household cooks five kinds of rice, barley, red beans, and husked sorghum and puts a small quantity of each before an ox to see which one is eaten first; this will indicate which variety of grain will have a bumper crop this year. An important activity will be held in the evening: "greeting the moon." More than 10 oak rods, each 12 ft in length, tied up at one end, are erected in the form of a circular cone before the village. Pine branches are piled up at the bottom. As soon as the moon appears, they kindle the cone. In a moment, a deafening sound of gongs and drums welcomes the full moon. Children have long, thin bags filled with charcoal, made by their parents beforehand. At this moment they light them up and hang them on the trees. The girls move around holding odd-shaped paper lanterns.

September 3 is the anniversary of the founding of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Families dress up, call on their relatives' homes, and participate in various recreational activities.


On a child's first birthday, relatives and friends are invited to dinner. A rite of "putting on the hat" will be held when a boy comes of age at 20. According to Korean custom, the rite should be held three times within a few days. During the first rite, the boy should take off his clothes and wear a garment made of white linen trimmed with black silk. Then, his hair is combed into a bun, covered by a hairnet, and finally by a hat. During the second rite, his hat and garment should be changed again. During the third rite, a kerchief is added to the hat. The boy should go to the ancestral hall and salute the elder members of his family.

A family will hold a special celebration on a person's sixtieth birthday because of the symbolism of the 60-year cycle obtained by combining the 12 "Heavenly Stems" and the 10 "Earthly Branches." This computing system was invented by the Chinese in the second millennium bc. For the same reason, the sixtieth wedding anniversary is an important family festival. On this occasion children, grandchildren, relatives, friends, and neighbors all come to celebrate, usually for two days.

When a senior person dies, family members should wear mourning dress and abstain from eating cooked rice, haircutting, and face washing for three days. Paying homage to the dead, the visitor should kowtow twice, then exchange kowtow twice with the family members. The burial should be held within three days and strictly on odd days. New clothes should be put on and the old ones burned. The location of the tomb is usually selected by a geomancer, often on the sunny side of a slope. After the funeral, the memorial ceremony should be held for three successive days and repeated on the deceased's birthday, on the anniversary of the death, the Festival for the Dead (Qingming), and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Most of the customs surrounding funerary rites were borrowed by the Koreans from the Chinese long before they migrated into China.


The Koreans are very warm and courteous. When celebrating at home, all the family members sing and dance, making for very lively entertainment. On June 20 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between July 13 and August 12), everybody dresses up in the Korean national costume and crowds gather on the square. They express good wishes to the aged, commend parents-in-law who live in harmony with their daughters-inlaw, and vice versa. This festival shows the attention and importance the Koreans pay to interpersonal relations among the generations. Young people have full freedom to choose their spouses. They find many opportunities to meet each other during social meetings.


Ethnic Korean villages are usually located on the flatlands below mountain slopes. Villages, a few kilometers from each other, are usually rather small, comprising a few dozen households. Houses have no courtyard, face south, southeast, or southwest, and are whitewashed both inside and outside. The roof, covered with straw or tiles, slopes down on all four sides. There are four doors at the front that also serve as windows. The house usually consists of a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and a storeroom. The platform bed, made of adobe bricks and stones covered by wooden boards, also serves as a table. The interior is usually tastefully furnished. Koreans are particular about tidiness and cleanliness. When entering the house, everybody takes off his or her shoes at the door. The chief modes of transportation are bicycle, motorcycle, car, or train. Highways and railways crisscross in all directions from the districts inhabited by the Koreans.


Families may be as small as three or four or as many as a dozen. Men engage in agriculture, while women take care of household chores. Usually, it is the responsibility of the eldest son to live with the parents, even after marriage. The younger sons live apart after marriage. The eldest son inherits the legacy, but a part is reserved for the younger sons, while the daughters have none. Korean families are monogamous. According to their customs, marriage is not allowed between people of the same clan, the same surname, or between close relatives. Marrying too early is still a problem. Following age-old traditions, women rarely ask for divorce and widows rarely remarry.


The Koreans are fond of white or plain-color clothes. Women's blouses are very short. Adult women wear long, multipleated skirts or a sari-like cloth winding down their bodies; young girls wear short skirts cut well over the knees. Both men and women like their traditional boat-like shoes all made of rubber. Men wear loose pants, short tops, and vests. They usually wear a long overcoat outdoors. "Mao's suits" and Western-style clothes are popular today.


The Koreans' staple foods include rice and millet. They are fond of rice, glutinous rice cakes, cold noodles in sauce, soup made from soya beans and flour, pickled vegetables, and dog flesh. They like sour and spicy dishes. Meals are seldom without pickles and the soup mentioned above; the pickles are made of Chinese cabbage, radish, garlic, pepper, ginger, and salt. Cold noodles are made of buckwheat and sweet potato powder, together with beef, chicken, pork, eggs, pepper, sesame and its oil, pears, and apples. They like tea and wine.


Because of their long-standing Confucian tradition, the Koreans value education very highly. Since the 1930s many schools have been established. Yanbian University was set up in 1949. Currently, there are six universities and five adult colleges in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Education in primary school and middle (junior and senior) school is practically universal. There are newspapers and broadcasting in the Korean language. The educational and cultural level of the Koreans is first among all nationalities in China, including the Chinese, and compares favorably with the world average, being lower only than that of North America and Europe.


Jiayeqin is a traditional plucked stringed instrument, said to have been prevalent in a small country called Jiaye as early as the 6th century. The player (usually a woman) puts the left end of the instrument on her knee and the right end on the ground. It may be used for solos as well as for accompanying songs. Changgu is a long drum, narrowing toward the middle, usually hung over the front of the chest. The player beats the drum with his left hand and with four bamboo twigs held in the right hand.

Koreans make it a point of honor to master their traditional dances. They dance on every happy occasion. For example, a Korean wedding begins with feasting and ends hours later with prolonged dancing. There are quite a few unique dance styles for specific occasions.


The area of northeast China inhabited by the Koreans is in the "cold belt." The frost-free period lasts only about one-third of the year. Rice and other grains must be grown and harvested during this short period. So, the Koreans developed special irrigation techniques, which are very productive. The rice they produce is white, tasty, and nutritious; it is famous throughout China. Another important contribution of the Chinese Koreans is the raising of sika deer, whose pilose antlers (covered with soft hair) are sought for their curative and strengthening virtues.


Korean men are fond of soccer and wrestling. The former is the most popular sport of men. From primary school to university, each class organizes a team of its own. Soccer games held on every festival and holiday attract large numbers of people, sometimes living dozens of kilometers away. The favorite sport of women is the springboard game. Five meters in length, the board is about one meter above the ground. Two girls standing on each end of the board jump alternately, propelling the each other higher and higher in the air. The highest jumper is the winner.


The Korean community has been very active in producing Korean-language movies and television programs. Chinese and foreign films and television programs dubbed into Korean are also popular. The Koreans like to actively participate in many forms of entertainment. For instance, during breaks in their manual work, as soon as a person sings or beats the drum, fellow workers will spontaneously join in the singing or dancing.


One of the most sophisticated crafts of the Chinese Koreans is the handmade musical instrument jiayeqin. There were originally two types. The standard instrument was 67 in long and 12 in wide with 12 strings. The popular instrument was shorter and narrower. Both instruments had some limitations, including weak volume and incomplete scales. After 1949, a new version of the jiayeqin with 18 strings corrected these limitations.


The success of Chinese Korean education and economic development is in sharp contrast with the low position of Korean women. Chinese Korean society is male-oriented both in public and at home. The revolution does not seem to have modified in a significant way the traditional social values based on patriarchal structures and Confucianism.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. While Chinese Koreans rank first in educational attainment among all Chinese ethnic groups, a gap in educational level persists between women and men. Though the statistics for ethnic Korean women are above the average, they still face significant gender stereotypes in their private and professional life.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.


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—by C. Le Blanc