The arrival of the autumn moon (추석) signals a time to give thanks for the abundant harvest of the year. The Korean peninsula pulsates as urban residents head to their rural hometowns to meet relatives and honor their ancestors. In 2014, the 추석 holiday is officially observed from September 7 to 9, but since it includes some weekend days, an extra designated day-off on September 10 extends the celebration to five days (but not for all)!
Recent reports in the popular press, indicate that contemporary Korean families are questioning the traditional ways of celebrating the holiday. They cite the stress of the holiday preparation, the prolonged time sitting in highway traffic and the unwanted queries from relatives about personal life choices as just some of the reasons to seek alternate ways to celebrate Korea's Thanksgiving. Whether or not these changes take hold on a large scale remains to be seen. But there is no doubt, one big change is occurring: the countryside that many of the urbanites are returning to is changing.
Unlike the lively rural atmosphere of the 1970's (above left), the melancholy scene on the right (above) was repeated in the neighborhoods of the villages I visited this past summer. Empty houses and signs for rooms for rent were the norm. Villagers I talked to lamented the absence of youth in the countryside. Indeed, I saw a husbands and wives, usually over 50 years old, working in the fields.
In contrast, when I visited cities such as Daegu and Seoul, I was struck by the mix of generations enjoying the glamor and glitter of urban life. While the countryside has shrunk in population, Daegu and Seoul of the 21st century have grown from the 1970's (below left and right).
In 1977, Yecheon county had a population of 141,000 with the town of Yecheon having a population of 28,572. By 2012, the county and town population had shrunk to 46,425 and 17,633 --- over a 2/3 decrease in the county population!
Dae Chang Boys Middle, which used to have a very large enrollment for the area, has decreased from 802 students in 1977 to 122 students in 2012! The Boys high school -- the only one in the area -- has gone from 949 students in 1977 to 395 students! Two advantages are the smaller class sizes and the latest technology in the classrooms. But, the economics of operating a school with dwindling enrollment can be daunting.
The fact is the Korean population is getting older and more schools, both urban and rural, will face challenges. Check out the population predictions for 2025 on the right (the website provides an interactive chart).
In the case of the Yecheon area, the Gyeongsan Provincial Government is moving its headquarters from the Daegu area to the Yecheon/Andong area, hoping that will spur development and increase the population. The governor of the province hopes the move will "foster regional balanced development and new growth of North Gyeongsang Province in the future."
The government has also instituted a new movement to encourage Korean citizens to "return to the farm." in this program, the Korean government will provide loans and training on agricultural and business practices.
According to news reports based on government statistics, 47,322 households have left the city for rural life.
People younger than 50 years of age made up 36% of this number.
See http://www.refarm.org and http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-27/south-koreans-in-farm-u-turn-as-chaebol-era-s-rapid-growth-ends.html
Local governments in areas such as Yecheon are also encouraging visits by urban residents through the promotion of
• organic products for sale at local "traditional" markets
• local tourism
• the clean rural lifestyle "Clean Yecheon."
During my visit to Yecheon, I saw busloads of visitors from Daegu coming to purchase fresh vegetables and products from the local market. They were also coming to visit Hoeryongpo (회룡포), billed as an "island village" in the Naeseongcheon River and made famous in the 2002 Korean drama "Autumn in My Heart." http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=805822
Whether or not the traditional ways of celebrating Chuseok (추석) change in the future remains to be seen. Attitudes toward traditional customs and the realities of demographic changes will surely have an impact. However, in 2014, we are still seeing the families gathering and thanks being given for the good fortune bestowed upon the lives of the people on the peninsula.
What do you think will happen to Chuseok celebrations in the future? What will impact will the changing demographics have upon society? Feel free to leave comments. And before you go, in the best spirit of Chuseok tradition, let's honor the past and enjoy the present. Here are some pictures from the 1970/80s and contemporary Korea (pictures usually taken from the same locations).