By 1995, on the fifteenth anniversary [of the Kwangju Uprising], crowds of up to reportedly ten thousand (Kwangju ilbo, May 18, 1995) gathered at 10 A.M. for the annual memorial service. The major television networks had set up desks amid the grave mounds for their news anchors, and camera crews seeking a panoramic view of the huge spectacle perched atop a towering crane. The service opened with a national anthem and included a memorial poem, speeches by 5.18 dignitaries, and music by the Kwangju City traditional music orchestra. The main part of the event, however, was a Confucian-style memorial ceremony, conducted in the form of a traditional ancestral rite (chesa)….
While a detailed analysis of the structure of this annual ritual is beyond the scope of this chapter, several observations can be made about its form and meaning and its displacement, after the move to the new cemetery in 1997, from the central spot on the anniversary program. Most obvious are the ways in which the ceremony resembles Confucian-style death-day ancestral rituals: spirits of the dead are called; wine, incense, and food are offered; participants bow; and the ritual is conducted on the death anniversary. There are also, however, many other ways, both small (for example, it is held during the day) and large (children who predecease their parents are not memorialized, and at Mangwol-dong the officiants are not in the proper line of lineal descent) in which it does not. At the very least, domestic ancestral rites in Korea are private family affairs, while this is a community event. How have these traditional Korean ceremonies for the dead come to be transformed in Kwangju every May 18 into a public communal ritual of mourning?
Certainly (as noted above), in the minjung culture movement of the 1980s it was commonplace in Korea to see the use of traditional folk cultural elements in rituals of resistance and political protest, particularly on college campuses. Although this primarily involved the appropriation of shamanic practices, public funerals or rituals evoking funeral imagery often mixed in Confucian rites …. Thus the choice of a Confucian-style ceremony could be seen simply as a political statement, a self-conscious display of oppositional sentiment in the popular culture movement idiom.
But this was not a ritual performance staged by activist students on a college campus; it involved mourning relatives and civic leaders, so despite its minjung movement overtones, perhaps the intent (conscious or otherwise) really is the evocation of Confucian (rather than folk cultural) values. Confucian imagery is often used in Korea to symbolize morality, legitimacy, and virtue. And while traditionally the performance of ancestral rites was about the solidarity of agnatic groups, it also “dramatized … the fundamental morality of the participants” …. A customary Korean measure of virtue is the observance of proper ritual form; thus by honoring the 5.18 dead in this way, Kwangju citizens demonstrate their own rectitude.
The use of Confucian rituals at Mangwol-dong then becomes an implicit critique of a government that would suppress the memories of 5.18 and through much of the 1980s would characterize those buried at the cemetery as hoodlums, rioters, and Communists. The rite on May 18 asserts the basic righteousness of the actions of those who died and underscores the importance of remembering them properly in death; at the same time, it is a testament to the virtue of those who participate in the ceremony.