Marie Seong-Hak Kim (St. Cloud, Minnesota/Bonn): Rites and Rights: Lineage Property and Law in Korea


Did Weber get it all wrong? His thesis on the incompatibility between Confucianism and capitalism has lost much of its credibility, and his not-so-subtle assessment of Chinese ancestor worship (“purely magical religiosity” of the “cult of ancestral spirits”) sounds rather out of place in the twenty-first century. The Weberian analysis can nevertheless serve as a case in point that rituals and institutions in the world’s legal traditions carried profound symbolic and cultural dimensions and at the same time operated in critical historical and normative environments.

Investigation of lineage property offers an opportunity to explore how Confucian ancestor worship evolved in legal, social, and cultural settings and how its manifestation and transmission through the rites fared with the concept of individual rights. Desire to safeguard lineage estates is universal, but the distinct ritual obligations in Confucian culture placed it in a fundamentally retrospective framework. Within East Asia, Koreans, arguably far more orthodox in their interpretation of Confucian precepts than the Chinese, adhered to strict primogeniture grounded on indigenous kinship ideology. This ultimately prevented lineage property from turning into joint property-holding corporate estates as in China.

In the twentieth century, the rigid rules of Confucian rituals proved to be in conflict with social and economic realities, and succession rules as well as the legal status of lineage property have undergone serious reconfiguration. Yet present-day Korea remains the only country in the world where a substantial percentage of people perform ancestor memorial services in private households. While China seeks to adapt capitalism to its socialist principles and invoke instrumental interpretations of Confucian filial piety, the more punctilious model of ancestor worship in Korea can shed important light on the question of law as culture, more specifically to what extent law is reflective, and constitutive, of culture. Weber focused on identifying differences between the East and West. After all, he deserves credit – his alleged Eurocentrism aside – for resisting a potentially more pernicious view of the incommensurability of legal traditions.            

(Prof. Dr. Marie Seong-Hak Kim)

Curriculum Vitae

Marie Seong-Hak Kim is Professor of History at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, USA. Following her studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea, she was conferred a doctorate degree in history as well as a doctorate degree in law by the University of Minnesota. In 1995, she was admitted to the Minnesota Bar. In 2000, she was appointed professor. She is also a research affiliate at the Institut d'Asie Orientale in Lyon, France, and a member of the International Editorial Board of Comparative Legal History.

Prof. Kim has received numerous national and international research fellowships and awards. Among those are the National Endowment of Humanities Fellowship, the Fulbright Senior Scholar Grant (Korea), and the Academy of Korean Studies Research Fellowship. Prof. Kim was a visiting professor in Korea and a Japan Foundation Research Fellow in Tokyo. In Europe, she was a Fellow at the Collegium de Lyon, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) in Wassenaar and the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History in Frankfurt. From 2016 to 2017, she was a EURIAS and Marie Curie Fellow of the European Union at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

Her research focuses on comparative legal history, with expertise in Korean, Japanese and French law.

Since April 2019, Prof. Dr. Marie Seong-Hak Kim is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Law as Culture”in Bonn.