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How much are you aware of your roots? I think it won't be a mistake to say that you know the names of your grandgrandgrandparents at best. The same situation occurs in the most Western families: people can trace back their genealogy no further than to the fifth knee. However, things are very different in Korea.
Every Korean family carefully keeps an enormously large book which shows its pedigree. The book is called "jokbo". The genealogy in jokbo is maintained from the distant ancestor who had lived in the XV century or earlier onwards. Koreans can trace back their ancestors up to 30-40 generations. Every Korean belongs to a certain clan. Every representative of the clan has the same surname and (this matters!) the same "bon-gwan” which shows the geographical origin of the clan. Bon-gwan itself helps to distinguish the representatives of one clan from simple namesakes. At the time the number of such clans totals to 3349, each one of them includes from 1 hundred to 1 million people. The general information about the family clans can be found online as well: on http://www.rootsinfo.co.kr/ everyone can find the list of clans with a certain surname and get brief information about them.
In modern Korea it is common to re-read the jokbo on a regular basis or even to learn it by heart. Elder people usually gather their kids together and tell them about the origins of their ancestors. Here comes the interesting point: in most families’ pedigrees there are ministers, commanders, trailbreakers, scientists and other outstanding personalities. It turns out that almost all of modern Koreans’ ancestors were of very noble origin and did extremely remarkable things. 8 of 10 of South Koreans will tell you that their family had noble ascendants. But how did it turn out this way? Could it be possible that almost 80% of the Korean population belonged to the noble class?
Of course, it could not. As in most other countries, not more than 10% of the population represented the Korean nobility. More than half of the Korean citizens belonged to the freeholder class, almost a quarter were bondmen, there also were penmen, artisans etc. Many yangbans (nobles) were rich landlords, unlike the mean-born people they had the right to occupy political offices and to have books of genealogy. The regular Koreans did not have such books and the bondsmen did not even have surnames. What happened then? Where did all descendants of common people disappear from the Korean peninsula?
Obviously, they are still living in Korea. However, many of Korean common families repelled their roots and assigned themselves to some of the noble families. The first cases of such machinations happened in the 19th century. Rich landlords and merchants started purchasing the right to put their names in the latest jokbo versions of the impoverished nobles. That is how regular people started to allege themselves to the aristocratic class. Then, in 1894, after the nobles lost their official privileges and the serfdom was banished in Korea, many ex-bondsmen took their ex-landlord’s surnames. Nobody paid attention to the process back then because the country’s government cared more about the foreign policy than inner problems.
However, the mass transformation of South Koreans into nobles occurred in the first decades after the Korean War. At the very moment the overall jokbo drawing began. As many residents moved away from places where their ancestors had been living for many years before, tracking the manipulation with lineages became rather difficult. As privileges of the nobility were long gone, no one actually tried to stop the rewriting of jokbo. Moreover, adventurous people made a good living on genealogy concoctions: wealthy citizens were ready to pay a whole lot of money for having a noble ancestor in their family tree.
Of course, when a Korean tells about his noble origin, do not think that he has a purpose to deceive you. Modern Koreans, especially the youth, know nothing about the manipulations with their ancestral books and do believe in the noble origin of their families. On the one hand, this is bad, for they have forgotten their real ancestors, but on the other hand, belonging to the nobility, though imaginary, makes South Koreans proud of their origin and nation as a whole.