Koreans in China

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Koreans in China

ETHNONYMS: Korean/Chaosen


Identification and Location. Koreans in the People's Republic of China (PRC) self-identify as Chosun Saram ("Men of Chosun"), which the Chinese government calls Chaosenzu in accordance with Chinese pronunciation. They have a strong sense of connection to their homeland, although the younger generation, especially those under age thirty, tends to separate nation from state, saying, "Korea is our mother-land, but PRC is our fatherland." Because of this ideological and emotional divide, tension and conflict exist between the older and younger generations. As a whole, however, these people maintain their cultural tradition, a strong sense of ethnic identity, and feelings of cultural superiority to other ethnic groups, including the majority Han.

Demography. Koreans in China are the seventeenth largest of the fifty-six official minority groups in China. According to the 1990 census, 1,920,597 Koreans live in China (0.169 percent of the total population). Most Koreans (97 percent, or 1,864,760) are concentrated in the three north-eastern provinces of Jilin (1,181,964), Heilungjiang (450,398), and Liaoning (230,378). The next largest concentration is in Inner Mongolia (22,641), and the rest are dispersed throughout the country.

Most Koreans live in rural areas, but some live in urban areas. Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province has 821,479 Koreans, or 43 percent of the total population. In the cities in the prefecture, 183,994 live in Lungjing, 177,547 in Yanji, 136,894 in Holung, 92,100 in Hunchun, 85,049 in Wangqing, 69,166 in Turnen, and 24,745 in Antu. There are 14,508 Koreans in Changbai Korean Autonomous County. Cities with over 10,000 Koreans are Jilin, Tunghua, and Baishan in Jilin Province; Mudanjiang, Harbin, Jiamushi, Jixi, and Yichun in Heilungjiang Province; and Shenyang, Fusun, Tieling, and Bonxi in Liaoning Province.

Linguistic Affiliation. Koreans in China speak Korean of the Tungus-Altaic linguistic family and use an alphabet with ten vowels and nineteen consonants called Han-gul that was invented in 1443 c.e. Korean words lack gender, number, and case. Gender is expressed by a prefix denoting sex, number is expressed by adding a particle denoting plurality, and case is determined by particles known as postpositions. The basic word order in a sentence is subject-object (or complement)-predicate. Adjectives come before nouns, and adverbs come before verbs. Koreans are concerned about propriety in language behavior, and there are seven or eight different levels of honorifics. Various forms of verbs and different words are used as terms of address and terms of reference denoting the relationship between the speaker and the addressee or a third person.

In Yanbian the Korean language and alphabet are used as the official language along with Han Chinese. At most schools for Koreans in the northeastern region, from elementary school to college, classes are taught in Korean by 1,800 Korean teachers. There are twelve newspapers and twenty journals and magazines published in Korean, and five radio and television stations broadcast in Korean. Students, businesspeople, and officials in urban areas speak both Korean and Chinese.

History and Cultural Relations

Historically, the northeastern provinces were inhabited by various ethnic groups of the Tungus family, including the Ye, Maek, Buyo, Suksin, Malgal, Yeojin (Yurchin, later called Manzu), and Khitan. The first three were the names of sub-groups of Koreans that established the ancient Korean kingdoms of Ancient Chosun (according to myth, 2333 b.c.e.-109 b.c.e.), Kokuryo (313 c.e-668 c.e.), and Palhae (668 c.e.-926 c.e.) in northeastern China (Manchuria). There had been close ethnic and cultural interactions among these groups. After the Tang conquered the Kokuryo kingdom and later the Khitan and Palhae, many Koreans were dispersed and lost their identity. However, throughout the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties of China, Koreans inhabited the region.

Although the Qing government closed the Manchurian border, Koreans continued to migrate and cross the Yalu and Turnen rivers to cultivate wasteland. In the 1930s the Japanese colonial government resettled a large number of impoverished Korean peasants, who lost their land to colonial settlers from Japan, in the wastelands of Manchuria. More than 2.5 million Koreans moved to China to escape retribution for their anti-Japanese independence activities. At the end of the World War II about 800,000 returned, but the rest were blocked as China closed its borders in 1949.

The southern part of Jilin Province along the Tumen River is inhabited mostly by descendants of the migrants from Hamkyung Province in North Korea, and the southern part of Liaoning Province along the Yalu River is dominated by people from Pyoung-an Province in North Korea. The late-comers from the southern part of the Korean peninsula settled in the regions north of Jilin and Liaoning provinces, and some went farther up to Heilungjiang Province. Because of this migration history, each region has subcultural differences in terms of dialects, food, family rites, manners, and propriety. In general, they share a cultural tradition and a strong consciousness of their national history and ethnic identity.


Koreans have a tendency to form ethnic communities in rural as well as urban areas. Through the use of geomancy (pungsoo), their villages are settled on the plain with a mountain at the back and a river at the front. Since they bury the dead on the hillside behind the village, the world of the living and that of the ancestors are not separated but form a single conceptual community.

The typical Korean house has a small front yard where people grow vegetables. Walls with a gate surround the grounds and the house. Space inside the house is divided by sex and age. Women's rooms are near the kitchen and are calle anbang (inner room) or aretbang (lower room), while rooms for men, away from the kitchen, are called sarangbang or wutbang (upper room). Korean houses feature a heating system called ondol The floor of the room is made of flat stones covered with thick oiled paper, and heat is supplied by smoke going through the trenches underneath the stones.


Subsistence. Rice is the main staple and cash crop; Koreans introduced wet rice cultivation into the northeastern part of China, and their rice is regarded as the best in the country. People say, "Where there is a rice field, there are Koreans." With rice Koreans make various kinds of "Korean" rice cakes (ddok) and liquor (sul). In addition, they cultivate beans, with which they make bean paste, chili paste, soybean sauce, bean curd, and bean sprouts, which are parts of the daily diet. Together with kimchi made of white cabbage, turnip, chili, scallion, garlic, ginger, and salt, these foods are seen as symbols of Korean ethnic identity. Tobacco and corn are other major cash crops.

Commercial Activities. As a result of their Confucian heritage, Koreans tend to regard white-collar jobs highly while looking down on merchants and industrial artisans. Some Koreans run small businesses, but often the shops in their villages are run by Chinese itinerant merchants. In cities there are ethnic restaurants that specialize in barbecue, cold noodles, and dog meat served with kimchi.

Industrial Arts. Industry is limited to the manufacture of ethnic products such as pottery, traditional costumes, and musical instruments. These people also produce "Koreans-style agricultural tools. Some young Koreans are engaged in sea fishing and work as migrant laborers in construction projects in South Korea.

Trade. A few entrepreneurial merchants engage in cross-border trade with Russia and North Korea, selling commodities for everyday use and buying furs, dried sea products, and medicinal materials. Many now engage in small-scale trading between China and South Korea, bringing ginseng, dried mushrooms, and medicinal materials into Korea and taking clothing, electronic appliances, and small home appliances back to China.

Division of Labor. A male-centered system of authority and a hierarchy based on seniority influence the division of labor. Women engage in housework and laundry, while men do most of farming and outdoor activities. Men monopolize roles in ancestral rites and community rituals. Although women run businesses and work in the public sphere as teachers and government employees, men exercise authority over women despite the socialist ideology of sexual equality.

Land Tenure. When socialism was established in China in 1949, private property and land were confiscated by the state. Since the 1980s the state has started to decollectivize the economic system and introduce a system of contracts under which peasant households are given the right to cultivate land that is still collectively owned by the village (the brigade in the earlier commune system). Since the second half of the 1980s Koreans in China have accumulated wealth by working in South Korea. Some have migrated to urban areas to start small businesses or find better educational opportunities for their children and sublet the land allocated to them to their Korean neighbors or to Chinese farmers. In this way a new tenancy system has developed.


Kin Groups and Descent. Based on the patrilineal descent rule, local lineage groups are formed and ancestors are worshiped by agnatic descendants, among whom kinship ties are traced by reference to genealogical records. Family names and properties are inherited through the patrilineal line of succession, and married-out daughters are not regarded as members of these patrilineages.

Korean names have three elements: a clan name inherited through the patrilineal descent line, a generational name of a person within the clan, and a personal name. The clan council decides on the generational names. The clan name is further distinguished by its origin (bonkwan). People sharing a clan name with the same origin are regarded as descendants of the same apical ancestor and form an exogamous group.

Agnatic descendants participate in ancestor worship rites on the death date and at seasonal occasions. Descendants of an ancestor in four ascending generations are referred to as dangnae and share a special sense of identity that provides cultural capital in political, economic, and social life.

Since people have migrated on an individual or family basis, the actual category of patrilineal kinship is limited and incomplete, and so it is premature to establish a lineage organization. A history of revolution and collectivization of property by the socialist state has undermined the ideological and economic basis for lineage organization. Since the mid-1990s Chinese Koreans have begun to revitalize networks with lineages in Korea. In everyday life, patrilineal principles are not strictly followed and people maintain a practical concept of kin to accommodate matrilineal and affinal relatives so that they can overcome the limitations of idealized unilineal kinship categories.

Kinship Terminology. Koreans in China share kinship terminology with only minor local dialectical variations. The father's brother is called big or little father (keun/jageun aboji) or first (oldest) or second father (mat/duche aboji) according to the order of seniority. The father's brother's wife is called big or little mother (keun/jageun omoni) or first (eldest) or second mother (mat/duche omoni) according to the seniority of her husband. Similarly, the father's father's brother is called big or little grandfather (keun/jageun haraboji) or first (eldest) or second grandfather (mat/duche haraboji) according to seniority. This system also applies to the father's father's brother's wife. Matrilineal relatives are addressed by the same terms but are referred to with the prefix woi ("outside"), as in woi grandfather, woi grandmother, and woi uncle. The father's sister is called gomo, and the mother's sister is called imo.

Compared with the kinship terminology used in the Korean peninsula, the terminology used by Koreans in China is limited to the third ascending generation of the father's father's father and to second cousins. However, Koreans in China also have maintained more traditional kin terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage between people with the same surname and of the same origin is prohibited because it is regarded as incest. Monogamy is practiced. Women marry into the husband's family but retain the natal family name. Interethnic marriage is very rare. To achieve ethnic endogamy, Koreans in China often seek spouses from distant regions where Koreans live. In the past, when they were extremely poor, there were some cases of married-in sons-in-law (daerilsawi) and reared-up daughters-in-law (minmyoruri), but these practices are not favored and have become rare. A marriage process consists of six stages: contact through a matchmaker; an analysis of the year, month, day, and time of birth of the groom and the bride; the meeting of the two families; the exchange of bridal gifts and the engagement; the wedding ceremony at the bride's house; and taking the bride to the husband's family.

Domestic Unit Although the extended family is the ideal, the general pattern is a stem family in which parents live with their oldest son and younger siblings move out after marriage to form nuclear families. Sometimes there are joint families with married brothers living together under the same roof but with each couple constituting an independent economic unit. The father represents the family, and at his death the oldest son succeeds to the family headship, exercises the right to control property, and represents the family in social and political matters.

Inheritance. Patrilineal inheritance is practiced, with the primogenital son having distinctive privileges because he bears the responsibility of taking care of the parents and the absolute duty to perform ancestral rites. If a man does not have a son, adoption is arranged among his patrilineal kin of the son's generation. Daughters are not allowed to succeed to the family line and are have little chance to inherit property.

Socialization. Child rearing is the responsibility of mothers and grandmothers, who teach differences in status, the nature of work, manners, and behavioral codes based on sex and age. Males and females use separate spaces in public, and male dominance is common. The hierarchical order is based on seniority, and honorific language is applied. Juniors are not supposed to drink or smoke in front of their seniors. Koreans emphasize discipline through education at home.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In addition to networks based on kinship and place of origin, which often extend beyond the village, informal groups are organized within the village community according to sex and age, including elderly people's clubs, women's leagues, and youth clubs. There are also classmates' clubs and veterans' clubs. Old people spend time at village centers reading the newspaper, watching television and videos, and playing chess or gate ball (croquet). Out of traditional respect for the aged and filial piety (hyo), villagers often provide financial support for group tours and picnics for elderly people. Neighborhood relationships are important for reciprocal mutual help called bujo, which includes the exchange of labor and materials for farming, house building, and ceremonial occasions. People organize credit associations called kye in which members accumulate money in preparation for a special occasion such as a wedding and funeral. In addition to these economic purposes, members regularly share food and recreational activities.

Communal solidarity is enhanced through intervillage competitions such as soccer games and arts performances for which those living in urban cities come back to participate. At the All Korean Annual Festival in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture Koreans participate in traditional group dances, singing contests, and in sports such as soccer and Korean wrestling. To participate in the festival, villages and counties organize ad hoc committees and sports teams throughout the year. Religion provides social networks through regular religious services and pilgrimages.

Political Organization. Communities are under the tight control of the state system, in which the Communist Party has almost complete power. In many cases the party secretary holds the chairmanship of village council, which is composed of the Women's League, the Communist Youth League, the Security and Order Committee, the Committee of Economy and Industry, and the Bureau of Administration. Voluntary political organizations are not allowed, although sometimes the government mobilizes villagers to stage a political rally. Usually the official body of administration and political control negotiates with informal leaders and social groups.

Social Control. Chinese society is under strong police control. The village council checks the appearance of a stranger, observance of the family planning policy, and disputes among the villagers and reports to the police. Minor problems are solved through an informal authority system based on shared ideology, seniority, and propriety.

Conflict. Conflict within a family is resolved by the family members and relatives. When there is a serious conflict affecting the whole village, a semiofficial mediation committee intervenes. Serious conflict is very rare because everyday life is governed by face-to-face relationships. Though rare, interethnic conflicts with the neighboring Han Chinese or the Manzu minority group occur over thefts of agricultural products.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Koreans have an animistic belief system in which they worship the spirit of a mountain (sansin), a rock of huge size or special shape (chilsong bawi), an old pine or elm tree (dangnamu), and a spring (yong-wang). They also believe in tutelary gods for the village (seonang), the house (seongju), the kitchen (jowang), and childbirth (samsin). Communal rites (dangje) or individual prayers for these spirits and tutelary gods are observed on auspicious dates. Individual prayers are made to the spirit of the Big Dipper (chilsong).

The shamanic tradition is also strong, along with the belief that humans can communicate with these superhuman beings through special techniques. Shamanic ritual (kut) is practiced secretly to appeal, negotiate with, or conquer a ghost in order to cure sickness or misfortune.

Confucianism is embedded in Korean life, and Buddhism and Christianity are being revived, although the state denounces them as antisocial superstition.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans are mostly women, whereas men lead domestic rites for ancestors and collective rituals for the village community. Male elders with Confucian learning preside over domestic rites such as funerals and weddings. For a communal ritual, an unpolluted man becomes the master of ceremonies, while women, who are vulnerable to impurity, are not allowed to participate in the ritual process. Women are more active in Christian congregations.

Ceremonies. As Chinese citizens Koreans observe all Chinese state celebrations, but they also maintain their ethnic ceremonies and celebrations, including seasonal festivities such as New Year's Day, the first full moon, the fifth day of the fifth month, and the eighth full moon, all of which are set by the lunar calendar. Rites of passage such as the hundredth day after a birth, the first birthday, the sixtieth birthday, and the eightieth birthday as well as weddings, funerals, and death day rituals for the second and the third year are also observed. All these observances are accompanied by complicated ceremonial processes and are participated in by relatives, friends, and neighbors who provide service, donations, and material gifts.

Arts. Calligraphy is taught as a method of self-cultivation. Koreans in China enjoy ink-brush paintings of the landscape (sansoohua) as well as of the "four princes" (sagunja) of nature, denoting the plum flower, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo. The pine tree is another popular subject. These motifs symbolize the Korean ideal of self-cultivation and the scholarly spirit. Peasants enjoy singing and dancing in the traditional fashion. On many occasions farmers' dances and music are played with an hourglass-shaped drum (jang-go), a drum, a gong (jing), a small hand drum made of bronze plate (koeng-gari), and a flute (nabal).

Medicine. Wild (sansam) and cultivated ginseng (insam), dried fungus, bear's bile (woongdam), snake's bile (sadam), the soft core of the young antlers of deer (nok-yong), and dried wild animals are folk medicines used to maintain health and cure illnesses. Based on the Korean medical system, which classifies the human physiological structure into the four types (sasang) of big-yang /small-yang/big-yin /small-yin, doctors prescribe herbal remedies, acupuncture, and massage.

Death and Afterlife. A qualified soul goes to the afterworld through a proper ritual process, while an unqualified soul lingers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Ancestors are believed to live in the afterworld, where they have a relationship with their descendants. Shamanism is practiced to liberate unqualified souls from the limbo between worlds and send them to the netherworld. Complicated death rituals that include funerals and ancestor worship are observed.

The death of a married person from old age or a common illness is considered normal and good. Death by accident, an epidemic, or the death penalty and the death of an unmarried person are bad. A married person should secure a son by birth or adoption so that he or she can be worshiped after death. For those struck by a bad death and those who died unmarried, there is neither a proper funeral nor a grave.

Traditionally, funerals were observed for three days, five days, seven days, or nine days according to the status of the person or the wealth of the family. By 2001 a three-day funeral was common. Bereaved descendants wear special mourning dresses whose styles and decorations vary with the kinship category. The gravesite is determined by geomantic considerations of the physical surroundings. The shape of a grave is the half-moon type with an epitaph in front of it. The funeral is completed after three years of mourning. After the third year the dead ancestor is commemorated by his or her agnatic descendants. Ideally, ancestors of the fourth ascendant generation continue to be commemorated. (Souls of the fifth ascendant generation settle in the netherworld, never to return to this world.) In practice Koreans in China worship ancestors only two generations back, mainly because their history of migration does not extend any further.

Under the strict antisuperstition campaign of the state, cremation within two days after death is suggested and shamanic practices are forbidden. However, Koreans, especially in rural areas, have persistently practiced burials and three-day funerals.

For the original article on Koreans, see Volume 5, East and Southeast Asia and Volume 6, Russia and Eurasia/China.


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