May 21 2018 is Coming of Age Day in South Korea.
How did Korean youth enter adulthood 1000 years ago and how does it differ from today?
Words Nara Kim, Art Kel Belter
Teenagers across the world eagerly await for the day they become legal adults, to be liberated from the dependence of their parents and practice the full rights of their citizenship.
The situation is no different in Korea. Here, the legal age of adulthood is 19. Only a few years ago, the legal age was actually 20, but this was lowered by a year through a 2013 revision in the civil code that recognized the early maturity of modern teenagers. Now, from their 19th birthday onwards, Korean teenagers can do everything their parents can: they can vote, get married, work full-time and watch “R” rated movies. They also start taking full legal responsibility for their actions.
Unlike most other countries, however, the South Korean government commemorates this transformation into adulthood with an official “Coming of Age Day (성년의 날),” which falls on every third Monday of May. The objective is to help these young adults gain confidence in their maturity and remind them of their newfound responsibilities as accountable members of society.
Korea’s first written record of commemorating adulthood dates back to 10th century Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). In 965, King Gwanjong gifted the crown prince an outfit reserved for male adults, following Chinese tradition.
Historically, the coming of age was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance. By the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the ceremony marking adulthood developed into a full-fledged event for the middle and upper classes, celebrated by their 15-year-olds.
One of the most symbolic changes that adults-to-be went through in this era was, surprisingly, an upgrade in their hairstyle. In a ceremony called Gwallye (관례), boys would tie their long flowing hair into a top knot and cover it with gats, tall black hats made of horsehair. Likewise, in a service called Gyere (계례), girls put their hair, which they let fall as single braids in youth, up into a tight bun and set it with a binyeo (비녀), a long hairpin made of jade. These young adults were essentially trying out the hairstyles of married men and women for the first time.
Because of the patriarchal tradition in Korea, boys were the main beneficiaries of the coming of age ceremonies. Unlike the simplistic Gyere ceremony, the Gwallye had various components where boys learned the proper way of drinking, bowed to their parents and neighbors in gratefulness and even received symbolic new names that signified the beginning of their adult lives.
The traditional coming of age rituals still live on, fueled largely by government and public interest. The Korean government formally recognized the coming of age day in 1973, and fixed it to be observed on the third Monday of May in 1985. From 1999, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism began funding small governing bodies and education centers including schools so that the age rites could be more widely practiced.
On last year’s Coming of Age day, which fell on May 15, over 80 young adults participated in the Coming of Age ceremony in Mount Namsan’s Hanok Village as was organized by the Seoul Metropolitan government and directed by Yejiwon, an educational center specializing in traditional etiquette. Participants included students and soldiers, Koreans and exchange students.
The young men were fitted into the sky blue dopo (도포), a long silky overcoat usually worn by scholars in the Joseon dynasty, while their female counterparts donned colorful hanbok dress. There, they had their hair done with the help of tradition experts, and also learned the formal way of drinking tea instead of alcohol, as the ceremony is .
Some high schools, like the Dong Myung Girl’s High School, organize the coming of age ceremonies for their students on the same day as their graduation ceremony, as the two milestone events usually happen in the same year for most students.
Today, the coming of age is associated with a set of very different customs. Unless they apply to participate in publicly-held ceremonies or attend schools that provide these services, 19-year-olds celebrate the third Monday of May the modern way, by having a nice meal with family or drinking with their friends or lovers.
In an ironic twist, girls have become the main protagonists of the modern coming of age celebrations. Though the origins are unclear, it has now become the convention for girls to receive a flower, a perfume, and if they are lucky enough, a kiss from their boyfriends, on the coming of age day. Some young men also receive these gifts from their close university seniors or girlfriends, but not to the same extent. For guys, the idea of becoming adults can be stressful, as they have to start thinking about fulfilling their mandatory military service. Men can enlist from 18.
Because the coming of age day falls in the first two months of a teenager’s freshman year, the celebration is usually intricately related to university life. For both guys and girls, entering university is a very liberating experience. They are freed from their uniform requirements, allowed to experiment and discover a new identity for themselves through fashion. Some gain an unprecedented level of independence from parents by moving into dormitories.
“Friends from the upper grades would give roses and individualized gifts to both boys and girls on the coming of age day,” said Minjung, who turned 19 in 2015. “The day usually overlaps with school festivals, so there is generally a celebratory atmosphere during that time.”
Some do away with the presents and just celebrate their adulthood in their own way.
“I received a perfume from my dad, and just went out with family to eat,” said Seulmin, who turned 19 in 2013 but had to celebrate her coming of age in 2014 due to the civil code revision. Because civil code change in legal age took effect from July 1, 2013, teenagers born in 1993 and 1994 on and before June 30 celebrated their coming of age in 2013, while those born in 1994 on and after June 1 and 1995 celebrated their coming of age respectively in 2014.
“Me and my friends just went to a bar,” said Jueun, who turned 19 last year. “My friends with boyfriends received small presents from them.” Many, especially girls, will also commemorate the occasion by capturing the moment through pictures in official photoshoots, holding roses and dressed in white.
Yet for others, the Coming of Age day may pass by rather uneventful, as it can overlap with exams or other career- and school-related deadlines. Gangshim, who celebrated her coming of age in 2009, said, “I just received congratulatory text messages from my friends and university seniors. I think I was studying for exams the whole day.”