Sunday, July 16, 2017

#66. 보쌈 -- Wrapped up

When Romulus founded Rome, he had only male followers. This was not particularly surprising, as Rome was founded via numerous battles against Alba Longa, which was the major Latin city of the area. This soon became problematic, as no city can prosper without having enough younger generation. So he invited the Sabines, a nearby Italian tribe, to a festival in Rome. At a predetermined signal, the Roman men grabbed the Sabine women and married them. For what it's worth, the historian Livy claims that no rape took place right then, and that the Sabine women were more seduced into their marriages rather than coerced. Nonetheless, it still makes us cringe a little.

Rape of the Sabine Women, Pietro da Cortona, 1627-29.

Unfortunately, Koreans resorted to similar types of violence from time to time. If the lack of women was the major problem for the Romans, the big issue for the Koreans was Confucianism (called "유교" in Korean). The teachings of Confucius forbade widows from re-marrying again, as being faithful to your husband (of whom there is only one) was one of the major virtues for the women. There have been nation-wide efforts to praise women who were exceptionally faithful to her husband (for example, by acting like a daughter to her deceased husband's parents and rejecting all advances by other men, or even, killing herself to be with her husband), to encourage faithfulness. (By the way, men were allowed to re-marry three years after their wives' deaths...)

However, this became a problem as Korea went through major wars against China and Japan in the Joseon Dynasty. Many men were killed in the wars, and there were too many widows who were not willing to re-marry, due to their faith in Confucianism and also due to the societal pressure. And if the country were to re-build, they needed the birth rates to be up.

Thus came about the custom of "보쌈." The word "보쌈" literally means "wrapped up (쌈, whose verb form is 싸다) by cloth (보자기, or more commonly 보 in old Korean)."

Among the lower and lower middle class of Korea, men would enter a widow's house late at night, wrap her up in a piece of cloth (보자기), and kidnap her to his own home. At this point, as her fidelity was already violated, she would be forced to marry the man. And the government would turn a blind eye towards it, as they were secretly happy about unions of this kind. The upper class, of course, would prefer to adhere to the rules of Confucianism, and did not engage in this kind of behaviour.

Just like the story of the Sabine women, historians claim that it wasn't all bad. Often the kidnapping would be pre-arranged between the man and the woman, to set up the pretext that the widow had no choice but to marry the man (but secretly she wanted it as well). This was, of course, not always the case, and some women, who took Confucianism seriously, would prefer to kill themselves after being kidnapped.

This problem was resolved only in the late 1800s, when the Joseon Dynasty, at the urging of the critics, ruled that widows indeed have the right to re-marry whoever, and whenever they please. This was one of the clauses inserted into 갑오개혁 (Reform "개혁" of the 갑오 year, which works out to be 1894).

Although this practice disappeared, the word remained in a particular type of kimchi (김치), weirdly enough. There is a type of kimchi called 보쌈김치. Usually, kimchi has two components. Brined cabbage, and what the Koreans call "속 (insides)," consisting of chopped radish seasoned with red pepper powder. Normally, you take the 속 and interlace it with the leaves of the cabbage.


But in 보쌈김치, the cabbage leaves enclose the 속, so that it forms the shape of a 보쌈, as if there is a woman inside the cabbage leaves (of course, you have the 속 instead of the woman!) As this type of kimchi was the popular choice to eat with boiled pork, the word "보쌈" started becoming the word of choice to denote the Korean dish where you wrap some pork in leaves of kimchi.

So there you have it, why this food is called 보쌈.


  1. Awesome info, thanks for doing the research!

  2. You really do explain these very well-- a natural talent! Thanks for your blog; i am reading a bit every day.