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11/07/2016 Special > Special


Dining Etiquette in Korea

Distinctively Blended Culture of Confucianism and the Korean Values


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Diverse cultures formed within the deep roots of each nation’s history result in a variety of ethnic codes of conduct. Among these cultural behaviors, a dining etiquette is considered vital to exteriorize ethnic lineaments. In Korea, the Confucian teachings brought into the Joseon Dynasty have contributed substantially to modern-day dining etiquettes. However, the distinctive features of the Korean dish also contours the endemic Korean dining etiquettes that engender the harmony of the Confucian and Korean values.
Blend of Confucianism and the Korean Culinary Arts
Korean cuisine pursues the harmony of taste, color, fragrance, and temperature. Thus, when served on a dining table, the main and side dishes should be arranged in the right sequence that ponders the au fait harmony of the dishes. The conventional way of arranging the dishes is called bansang-charim. Rice, soup (also called guk), kimchi, and paste sauce must be distributed in front of every individual diner at the table. Then, the main dish, which should unconditionally remain hot, must be displayed in the middle of the table. The side dishes, also called banchan, should be set in an ordered array of hues. Tenebrous-colored plates should remain near the main dish, while the lighter-colored dishes should be placed spherically around the main plate. The whole theme of the cuisine is decided by the taste and fragrance of the main dish, which adjures the cook to exquisitely scheme the entire dishes and harmonize them with the main plate.
Photo of a bansang-charim
(Photo courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea)

These harmonious characteristics of the Korean cuisine are then blended with Confucianism to concoct the distinctive etiquette. The Confucian book that many historians refer to when researching for origins of the Korean dining etiquettes, is “Sasojeol”, written in 1775 by Lee Deok-moo from the Joseon Dynasty. The book advises the appropriate proprieties for bureaucrats and the people of Joseon in a Confucian manner. Among these proprieties, dining etiquettes are considered fundamental to people behaving as a rightful citizen of Joseon Dynasty.
The main values of Confucianism are in, ui, ye, and ji. The term in indicates the sequence of spreading love and appreciation for people. If the behavior of caring for others is spread among the intimate group of people, it would be possible for these values to spread out to the bigger communities. Then, people will begin to cherish each other, respect the elderly, and eradicate the immoral behaviors. Ui means the rightful standard of the ethical behaviors and people’s compliance to it. The standard of ethics develops through time, and people have the capacity to comply and understand what ethics is. Third, ye signifies the formal and normative standards of people. It is distinguished from ui, in that ui defends for ethics while ye stands for rational validity in social activities. Lastly, ji indicates the intelligence of people to differentiate what is right and wrong.

The Korean dining etiquette concentrates on the value ji, because practicing the rightness and learning the distinction between the virtue and the wicked were possible only when they were fulfilled on a daily basis. Thus, dining manners taught individuals of the rightfulness through strict etiquettes three times a day. Furthermore, the conversation and teachings between people at the table enabled them to learn acquire the well-conditioned, ethical knowledge. Though extremely intricate, the Confucian values that Koreans pursued emphasize the decorum, reverence, and solicitude for others. This cultural dining etiquette of Korea signifies the prudence of people to appreciate and respect others, even at the dining table.
Caligraphy of the Confucian values: in, ui, ye, and ji
(Photo courtesy of Joongang Daily)

Korean Dining Etiquettes of the Modern Day 
The dining etiquette of Korea today still cherishes the Confucian values, while the practical manners have been developed throughout the course of time. The main themes of the etiquette now emphasize respect for the elders, making gentle and edifying conversation, and exhibiting appropriate manners using the correct culinary tools and consuming dishes in the correct order. There are total of eight main rules abided by Koreans at the dining table.

The first rule is that Korean food is only eaten with chopsticks or spoons, and only one set of tools should be used at a time. Then, the elders at the table must be seated and their spoons or chopsticks should be poised for eating, before the rest of the people may begin the meal. Also, solid food, such as rice or banchan, are not eaten until the palate is first wetted with a spoonful of soup or the juices of kimchi. In addition, when a guest is invited to a meal, the host first should raise his or her dining tool to urge the guest to eat. The specially prepared dishes should be placed nearer to the guest. Then, at the end of the meal, the host shall not put his or her dining tools down until the guest does so. The last rule is that after the meal, the spoons and chopsticks are placed neatly and evenly down on the dining table.
Students of Gunyang University learning the modern-day dining etiquettes of Korea.
(Photo courtesy of Newsis)

Originated from the Confucian teachings and accustomed to the Korean culture, dining etiquettes of Korea emphasize the significance of appreciating others. Values such as respect for the elders, hospitality for guests, harmony among neighbors, and exchange of appreciation are the true beauty found in the Korean customs centered around shared meals.  

Kim Ju-hyun
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