Since ancient times, the Korean ethnic minority has always had great respect for the elderly, both within their family and in their social circle. The 60th birthday is celebrated ceremoniously, and the banquet is a big event for the whole community.
The huajia banquet evolved from birthday celebrations and the cultural etiquette of respecting the elderly. It was first held by the royal family in ancient Korea, and gradually entered the lives of the common people. In China, the Korean ethnic minority keeps this tradition alive, mainly in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin Province, and other regions where the Koreans live across northeastern China. In 2011, huajia banquets made it onto China’s national intangible cultural heritage list.
Specifically, huajia banquets of the Korean ethnic minority took shape between the middle of the 17th century and 18th centuries. Young people hold grand banquets for elders on their 60th birthdays by inviting relatives and friends. It’s a way of giving thanks for bringing them up.
A huajia banquet has a set of strict procedures. It is traditionally held in the yard of a country home, and the 60-year-olds and their family dress in their best. In ancient times, pure white ethnic clothes were favored on such solemn occasions, while today, brightly-colored ones have become people’s top choice to kindle a jubilant atmosphere. The 60-year-olds’ clothes should be bought by their children specifically for the event, and shouldn’t be lent out after the occasion, as they are supposed to be worn when the senior passes away.
The highlight of a huajia banquet is drinking a toast to the birthday seniors. The host first gives an introduction to the person’s life. And then his or her children, as well as children of close relatives, kneel and offer the person a small cup of wine, one by one, from the oldest to the youngest. With this, they thank him/her for their contribution to the whole family and wish him/her health and longevity.
After the toast comes the entertainment. People sing and dance merrily, reaching the climax with the “bottle dance.” Guests or performers put a glass bottle more than half full of fruit wine on their head, and beat it with their hands while dancing. Sometimes they move gracefully and sometimes in a spiral. Their beautiful dance manifests their culture (women excel at singing and dancing) and also their traditional virtue of respecting the elderly.
Then comes the feast. A round table is laden with candies, cooked meats, cakes, and drinks, and the three essential dishes at a banquet – chicken, fish, and peaches – as they represent good luck. The staple food is normally glutinous rice cakes and multi-layered steamed buns, which are a traditional food of the Korean ethnic group. As to kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage, though a popular local specialty, it is not served on such an occasion.
The banquet is held at noon and the longer it lasts, the happier the host will be. That’s why it usually goes on till dinner time; afterwards, people sing and dance all night long. When friends and relatives are about to leave, the host distributes the cakes, candies, and fruits for them to take home.
The hospitable host usually gives a return banquet on the third day after the huajia banquet for two reasons: one, to lengthen the festive atmosphere and two, to thank their friends and relatives for help.
As to the origin of the huajia banquet, there is a story called “Goryeo burial.” According to an encyclopedia on ethnic culture published in Korea, in the Goryeo period (918-1392) in Korea, people who reached 60 years of age were thrown into the mountains to starve to death. A son, who did not want his father to die cruelly in this way, hid him in the mountains and brought him meals every day.
Later, a Chinese emperor heard about this inhuman tradition, and gave the then king of Goryeo three puzzles to solve: First, to distinguish between two identical horses which was the mare and which was the foal; second, to distinguish between two identical sticks which was the tree top and which was the root; third, to distinguish between two identical snakes which was male and which was female.
The king gathered his ministers to discuss the puzzle, but no one could come up with the answers. Neither could any of the people throughout the whole country. The dutiful son talked about it with his father, who told him: Give the two horses a little food, the mare would give it to the foal to eat; put the two sticks in water, the root side would sink while the top side floated; Put the two snakes on a soft piece of silk, the restless one must be the male while the quiet one is the female. The king was happy with those answers and promised him a big reward. The son then disclosed that his father had solved the puzzle. Upon hearing it, the king felt ashamed. He realized that old people had wisdom that young people did not possess. He then immediately abolished the old customs. As a result, the huajia banquet replaced the “Goryeo burial” and people were encouraged to be filial towards the elderly family members.
The story of the “Goryeo burial” is similar to the story of “abandoning the aged” in the Chinese translation of a Buddhist scripture Miscellaneous Treasures and ancient China’s A Biography of Dutiful Sons.
Early in the first and second centuries, the Chinese language was publicly used on the Korean Peninsula. A large volume of Confucian classics was then introduced under the reign of the Koguryo Kingdom, which later unified the peninsula. Buddhism had unprecedented development with the support of the government, and so did Confucianism. After the establishment of the policy of decrying Buddhism and valuing Confucianism in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Confucianism became predominant. As a result, the Classics of Filial Piety and other Confucian works thrived in Korea, and huajia banquets were born.
In traditional Chinese culture, filial piety is the foundation of all virtues. Caring for and respecting the elderly is seen as a basic moral tenet, and is also the essence of Confucianism.
There has always been a ceremony for the elderly in the folk customs of China. Among the common people, birthday parties are thrown for 60-year-olds, while in the royal family, emperors hosted celebrations for them in person. Emperors Kangxi (reigned 1654-1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1736-1796) of the Qing Dynasty both held grand ceremonies for 1,000 old men, to show respect for the elderly. People aged 65 and above were invited to the banquet and they sat as equals at the same table with the emperor, while the sons and grandsons of the emperors stood aside to pour liquor. Emperor Kangxi even composed an impromptu poem for the big occasion.
Many ethnic minorities have unique ways of showing their respect for the elderly. The huajia banquet is just one example. Holding huajia banquets to honor one’s friends and relatives is also one way to teach basic etiquette. When talking to their elders or to older acquaintances, the younger generation must use honorifics. When having meals, older family members and their guests eat alone at a separate table, while the children are responsible for serving. The elderly are served first, then the whole family is allowed to eat. The younger generation shouldn’t drink or smoke in the presence of their elderly relations, and when it’s unavoidable, should turn their backs to the table to show respect. At the table, family members sit and raise their cups according to their age. When encountering senior men on the street, people extend deferential greetings and make way for them to pass.
Respecting the elderly still means a lot in modern times. Caring for our parents is a fundamental virtue. The huajia banquet involves three generations: the elderly for whom the banquet is being held, the children who prepare new clothes and the dishes, and the grandchildren who make toasts full of love. This etiquette works to bind the relations of the whole family, and is conducive to carrying on the tradition of respecting the elderly in our society.