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[Opinion] Heritage

Posted February. 11, 2005 22:57,   


Families of Yangban, or noblemen, in the Joseon Dynasty would draw up documents on inheritance and distribution of properties called boon-jae-ki. The papers had a detailed description of how to distribute houses, farmland, servants, and household effects to sons and daughters. Among existing examples of such papers is the inheritance document of the honorary scholar Seoae’s family and one from Yulgog’s family, both of which are designated as national treasures. There also are documents on which fathers would record their distribution of properties to their offspring before their death, and ones that allow offspring to divide the heritage bequeathed by their father through consent.

The family of Jeong in Samsanbeol, Haenam, South Jeolla Province were big landowners and gave some of their fortune even to married daughters according to their tradition of equally distributing properties to offspring. A descendent of Gosan Yoon Seon-do, Yoon Hyo-jeong, married a daughter from the Jeong family and inherited vast wealth from the family. However, Yoon Hyo-jeong set a new tradition in the family, which was the right of primogeniture. In so doing, he gave all the means he amassed with what he had inherited from his wife’s family to his eldest son, thereby producing the eminent literary man and artist, Yoon Seon-do and Yoon Doo-seo, from the family of Yoon. In a word, Jeong family’s tradition to divide fortunes to its sons and daughters played a dominant role in making the Haenam Yoon family prosper.

In English, those who are born in well-to-do families are said to be “born with a silver spoon in their mouths” as wealthy families use silverware. Americans say those from wealthy families who repeatedly drop out of private universities or who are addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex instead of landing decent jobs after graduation have “silver spoon syndrome.”

Parents’ failure to fairly distribute their assets while alive can be a point of contention, not fraternity, among their children when they meet on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths or during holidays. During the recent New Year’s holidays, a tragic incident took place between half brothers, one of whom killed the other with a shotgun and killed himself, because of their disputes over distribution of farmlands bequeathed by their father. Heritage left by one’s parents can be a source of nutrition that can help nurture great people just illustrated in Haenam Yoon’s family. At the same time, it can also be a poison that can spoil one’s children as described in the “silver spoon syndrome.” In a way, one’s heritage may better serve as a donation to society after one’s death than as cause of hatred and conflict among one’s offspring.

Hwang Ho-taek, Editorial writer, hthwang@donga.com