I’m Korean, I have a book that proves it!
I wanted to start writing something after reading a back and forth debate between The Korean from ‘Ask a Korean!’ and Roboseyo over China’s registration of the Korean song Arirang with UNESCO as important artifact of Chinese heritage. Now, I’m not going to get much into that particular debate other than to say I understand why the actions of the Chinese government would piss Koreans off, and that China probably should not do it, or should have consulted with Korea first. I don’t know about any sinister claims to land that can be made from registration with UNESCO, and I don’t think that’s how UNESCO works, but this is a debate that I really don’t want to get into.
That said, the Korean took a really interesting approach in his side of the debate, suggesting that since East Asians place a huge emphasis on their past, this development is more troubling than Roboseyo, an uncouth culture-less North American can comprehend (sarcasm here, I know that’s not how he really meant it). The Korean opened his argument with a recounting of how he learned who he was.
I remember the first time when I saw my family’s jokbo when I was a child growing up in Korea. Jokbo means “lineage book,” and it shows the flow chart of everyone who is related to me starting from the very first Korean person who shared my last name, who was born in 69 B.C.E. It was, and still is, an awe-inspiring sight. My family’s jokbo is consisted of more than 30 volumes, broken down by centuries, clans and subclans. The volumes would take up two full rows of a bookcase in my grandfather’s run-down house, their uniform spines forming a brick-paved road toward my origin. My grandfather would flip to his favorite pages — dog-eared for easy reference for his show-and-tell with his grandchildren — and point to a name. The name could be a famous scholar, general, someone I would have learned about in school history classes. After going through some dozen names like that, he would flip all the way back to the last page of the last volume. And there it was — my name, son of my father, grandson of my grandfather, 81 generations and more than two thousand years from the fountainhead of my family.
And so, this is what I wanted to write about…
I guess it was sometime in the year 2000, when I visited Korea during summer break and stayed with my father’s cousin, who is the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son as far back as our part of the clan can trace through oral history. As such, he is basically the head of our part of the family, which is apparently a big deal, and something he takes a lot of pride in. And so, when I visited, he broke out his jokbo books and told me several stories in horribly broken English (as I didn’t speak any Korean at the time) of how I came to be.
According to what he told me, and other research that I have done, our line starts in 28 AD, when one Hwang Rak, a Chinese envoy, was on his way to Vietnam on important official business when he became shipwrecked off the coast of southeastern Korea and came ashore in the town of Pyeonghae. He decided to live there the rest of his life and start a new family, which became the ancestors of all Hwangs in Korea. ALL of them. ALL of them except those recently arriving dirty Chinese that he complains about all the time, that share our name. This revelation of my roots makes our entire family technically Chinese, so he should hold his tongue when complaining about Chinese immigrants. What irony.
So when I asked him… ‘So, are we Chinese then?’ He looked at me with a firm frown upon his face. ‘No.. we are Korean!’
The whole point of the exercise was to instill upon me of my own Korean-ness, as according to his explanation, being the son of a Korean male, I am Korean, because my father is Korean, and is connected to this jokbo.
So… after talking to my father on the phone about it, I explained that my uncle (as I call him) was basically trying to get me to see how Korean I am by showing me a book that explains how I am related to someone from China. That Korean blood flows in my veins, and that makes me Korean, because blood through the male supercedes any blood through one’s mother, a very neo-confucian concept. Logically though, by that very rule, Hwang Rak’s blood should supercede all of this, making us Chinese. But my Uncle somehow didn’t agree.
My Dad chuckled.
‘Take it with a grain of salt.’ he said.
‘Most of everyone’s jokbo is total bullshit. Just humor him and let him know that you are interested in the tall tales of our family origin.’
The funny thing is, before this whole exercise, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that my Korean heritage is the one that I actually identified with the most at that point. I was also very interested in the jokbo even though certain parts of the lesson my uncle was teaching me are totally illogical. I guess I was just being difficult and snarky.
Anyway according to the jokbo, we are of the Pyeonghae Hwang clan, which means we descend from Hwang-Rak’s eldest son. So from what I remember, he explained that for at least 40 or so generations from Hwang-Rak, we are related to the oldest son’s oldest son’s oldest son’s etc etc. Then we are an offshoot of someone’s eleventh son’s oldest son’s oldest son’s etc up until you reach him, his son, and his grandson who he said is the first American born member of our family because he was born in Philadelphia (even though my older brother has a good 25 years on him. I guess we don’t count.)
So where do I fit in? I’m the second son of the second son of the second son of my uncle’s grandfather. So lots of people would have to die in order for me to be the head of this offshoot.
Anyway like the Korean’s experience, my uncle begun to point to various important people in the jokpo. The one that I remember most:
One member of our family was pretty high up in the Korean coast guard and helped to fight off Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. He then married one of Admiral Yi-Sun Shin’s daughters, so that makes me a blood relative of Admiral Yi-Sun Shin! Sweet.
Again, when I told my father about this with great pride, he laughed at me, explaining that most of those jokbos are fabrications. Almost all of them can be used to prove one’s Yangban status. (Yangban were the Choson dynasty elite, but when most of all Koreans can use their jokbo to show that they are Yangban, either the whole country was full of elite, or someone’s lying…)
So, while I don’t want to take anything away from The Korean and his experience, I am not sure how entirely accurate any of this jokbo business is. I don’t know why my father is so cynical and negative about so many things that Koreans consider important, but I guess there is a reason why he decided to get out of dodge in the 1970’s that I probably won’t ever be able to comprehend fully.
That said, I definitely agree with The Korean that it is very important for Koreans to have a meaningful connection with the past, and that’s why jokbos, though no longer a legally binding document, are very important to one’s identity here.
Despite my own snarky logic and my father’s cynicism, I came away with a new understanding that my roots are anchored here in this country for at least the past 2000 years or so, and the experience did have an effect on how I viewed my own personal connection to Korea.
Anyway I also have a book that proves I am an American (my blue passport), but it is nowhere near as spiritual as the my uncle’s treasured jokbo books.
（Edit: This post was talked about in the Seoul Podcast and is described as a “Time Waster”. As I have yet to listen to the podcast, I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing.)