Pujogǔm (South Korea)

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Pujogǔm 🇰🇷
SouthKorea map.png
Location: South Korea
Definition: A cash gift given in weddings and funerals that mobilizes social relationships
Keywords: South Korea East Asia Gift Envelope Cash Money Payment Bribe
Clusters: Redistribution
Author: You Kyung Byun
Affiliation: Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

By You Kyung Byun, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Cash gift-giving is widely practiced in South Korea and plays a crucial role in social relationships. The most popular form cash gift is pujogǔm, which is given at weddings and funerals. Pujogǔm can be translated into English as ʻhelping moneyʼ (pujo means help and gǔm means money in Chinese writing; 扶助金). Through pujogǔm exchanges, individuals maintain and improve their social relationships. Similar types of gift money have been reported in various countries, especially in the neighboring East Asian countries, such as in China and Japan. However, unlike hongbao, ʻred envelopeʼ in Chinese (Tan 2018: 136), and kōden, condolence offering for funerals in Japan (Lebra 1976: 99), pujogǔm directly indicates the content of such envelope – money.
The front of a pujogǔm envelope, with the writing 祝結婚 (ch’ukkyŏrhon), meaning 'wedding celebration'. Source: Photo by author. © You Kyung Byun.

The current practice of pujogǔm derives from mutual aid principles (sangbusangjo or p(b)ujo) in the primarily agricultural society. Until the intensive industrialization of the country from the 1960s, mutual aid was an essential principle of village communities in Korea. According to the pujo principle, the villagers helped each other in need, such as for farming and ritual ceremonies, and exchanged material and non-material supports (Choi 1988: 277-310). The type of exchanges altered to money in the 1960s as ritual ceremonies either disappeared or relocated from private home to commercial wedding and funeral houses both in city and rural environment (Choi 1988: 161).

Like other gift-giving, pujogǔm relies on reciprocity, but unlike other forms it incurs more precision. The given and received amounts are documented in a book or a computer file. Many people rely on their documentation to precisely check the balance in giving and receiving. A continuous imbalance in pujogǔm exchanges can disrupt social relationships of the involved individuals. The amount and scale of the cash gifts is standardized. Since the early 2010s, it is customary to give either 30 thousand, 50 thousand or 100 thousand KRW (Gallup Korea 2013). Any other given sum is considered odd. A sum is selected on the basis of closeness to the recipient. Thus, pujogǔm amounts make a good proxy of the strength of ties between givers and receivers. However, a strong relationship can also result in giving less, due to their strong mutual trust (Byun forthcoming). There are local variations in the reciprocation of the received pujogǔm. For instance, in Gyeongsang province, a gift of 10 thousand KRW is returned immediately to the visitors in the ceremony as a return gift, to signal consideration and politeness. The making of pujogǔm is relatively simple compared to Japanese and Chinese cash gift envelopes. South Korean pujogǔm is a plain white envelope without decoration or knots indicating symbolic meaning, regardless of the type of ceremony. The giver puts banknotes in a white envelope and writes down their names lengthwise on the back of the envelope. Next to the name, the donor can also write their affiliation, such as company, church, or school name. In the middle of the front side of these envelopes, people write two or three Chinese characters longwise: “wedding celebration (ch’ukkyŏrhon)” or “condolence goods (puŭi).” These characters are the only difference between pujogǔm envelopes given in weddings and funerals.

In ceremonies, an appointed person collects pujogǔm envelopes at the reception desk. The receptionist, usually close relatives or friends of the host, is responsible for recording the name of the donor and the given sum in a ledger. The host of the ceremony later refers to this record to balance bilateral exchanges. Sometimes guests give envelopes directly to the host, bypassing the receptionist. The direct delivery to the recipient avoids accounting and possible redistribution to host family members. If one is unable to make it to the ceremony but wants to show support, they will ask another guest to deliver their pujogǔm to the ceremony. The proxy payments, called taenap, are listed in the documentation book as if the donors were in the ceremony. Since taenap bypasses time spent in the ceremony and the personal attention, hosts tend to insist on noting guest who were present physically to determine future exchanges. Due to the development in technology, an increasing number of people send pujogǔm via bank transfer.

According to opinion polls, many Koreans find pujogǔm exchange burdensome (68% of 1,224 respondents, Gallup Korea 2013). One interviewee reported that he spends nearly 1 million KRW a month for pujogǔm exchanges with his business associates (Byun forthcoming). It is not uncommon for South Koreans to be invited to multiple ceremonies in one weekend during seasons when weddings are more popular, requiring substantial funds for pujogǔm. Such scale of these informal exchanges has led the government to introduce restrictions. Since 2016, the Kim Yŏng-Ran law prohibits giving pujogǔm exceeding 50 thousand KRW to employees in public offices and educational and media institutions. The legislation limits the extensive use of pujogǔm exchanges for purposes beyond private affairs and indicates the blurred boundaries between pujogǔm and bribery in South Korean society. Given that informal exchanges of cash gifts are strongly associated with stability of social relationship, these measures are unlikely to reduce the circulation of pujogǔm exchanges in the near future.

References

Byun, Y. Forthcoming. The 50,000 Won Friends: Gift money exchange in the alumni network of South Korea (PhD thesis). Freie Universität Berlin

Choi, J. 1988. Han'gungnongch'onsahoebyŏnhwayŏn'gu. Seoul: Iljisa

Gallup Korea. 2013. ‘Gallup Report: Yojŭm kyŏrhonsik ch'ugŭigŭm ŏlmana naesimnikka?’, 23 April, http://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=414&pagePos=30

Lebra, T. S. 1976. Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii

Rupp, K. 2003. Gift-Giving in Japan. Stanford: Standford University Press

Tan, L. 2018. ‘Hongbao’, in A. Ledeneva (ed.), Global Encyclopedia of Informality. Vol 1. London: UCL Press: 136-9