The idea that parent’s behavior, thought, and virtue can influence the development of their unborn child is an old one in Korea. Called t’aegyo, or prenatal education, it is as old as Korea’s recorded history. Through t’aegyo one could help insure that one’s child would be healthy and wise, and perhaps even be a great being that would bring honor and fortune upon the family. Well understood by the common people, t’aegyo was also practiced by the royal family, with its need to produce wise and intelligent rulers. Even in Buddhist circles, monks and nuns occasionally emphasized the importance of t’aegyo when giving Dharma talks to laypeople.
T’aegyo: A Traditional View
For centuries it has been understood in Korea that a mother and father’s thoughts and actions affect the development of their unborn child. This influence could be either positive or negative, thus the focus of t’aegyo was upon creating a good and nurturing environment for the unborn child.
Instructions about t’aegyo tended to vary greatly. They could be very simple, such as simply urging a daughter-in-law to maintain a gentle attitude, to much more complex lists of does and don’ts. For example, expectant mothers were encouraged to surround themselves with beautiful sights and smells, while refraining from harsh or frivolous speech. Impure behavior was to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, it was said that pregnant women should eat only fruit that was free from blemish or disfigurement. Nor should a woman kill any animals while pregnant, because that violent intention would have a negative impact upon her unborn child. Likewise, it was universally understood in Korea that a pregnant woman would never attend any sort of funeral.
For fathers, the instructions tended to be simpler. Because half of the child comes from the father, the father was told to maintain a pure and upright attitude prior to pregnancy, and even afterwards. He was also reminded of his responsibilities to help ensure that the mother was surrounded with a caring and nurturing environment.
These are typical examples of instructions for t’aegyo, and were usually the result of both observations and belief structures. With families living in the same villages for generation after generation, there was plenty of opportunity for people to observe a mother’s behavior and environment while pregnant, and how that child turned out. In this way, people derived cause-and-effect information about how t’aegyo worked.
For example, in one modern story a woman was raped on her way to school and it was several months before she realized she was pregnant. She tried all kinds of methods to cause a miscarriage but was unsuccessful. Although she greatly resented the child, after he was born she grew to love him. They had a close and loving relationship for many years, but when her son was in his early twenties he suddenly became very verbally abusive towards his mother. Screaming and cursing her, he was so unlike himself that he seemed to have gone insane. This continued for a long time and finally the mother told a Buddhist monk about this. He said that her son’s behavior was the result of the violent thoughts she had directed towards her son while she was pregnant. In the monk’s answer we can see the Buddhist views of cause and effect: The woman had planted a certain seed, and eventually it sprouted. The ending of this story is as interesting as the beginning: On the monk’s advice, when her son would yell at her, the mother would bow very sincerely to him and apologize for her past thoughts and behavior. Gradually his abuse lessened and eventually he returned to normal. This is a good example of a t’aegyo story in that its implications are clear to everyone.
Confucian writers, on the other hand, often chose to place special emphasis on the role played by the mother’s demeanor and virtue, reflecting the belief that virtue is the source of all success and happiness. Another Confucian perspective viewed the child as being essentially pure and uncorrupted at the moment of conception, and which direction it takes from there depends upon the influences it receives from the mother and father. Other themes, such as the necessity of the mother having great virtue in order to become pregnant with a child of great virtue, also touched upon Buddhist ideas of karmic affinity. A common aspect of teachings about t’aegyo is the view of the unborn child as distinct being, which, like any other being, is influenced by the behavior of the people around it.
Information about t’aegyo was generally transmitted through two routes: word of mouth and texts. Most expectant mothers learned about t’aegyo in large part from the women in their family and their mother-in-law, with family traditions of t’aegyo being handed down from one generation to the next. These often included family stories illustrating the effects of a pregnant woman’s actions upon the development of her unborn child. The second way information about t’aegyo was transmitted was through texts.
From ancient times in Korea, texts that focused on medical care, farming methods, and animal husbandry have played a major role in the prosperity of the Korean people. Often, these types of books were developed and published by order of the king, as part of an effort to improve the lives of the people. For example, in 1393, the first king of the Chosŏn Dynasty sent instructors to every province to train medical practitioners. At about the same time, he ordered the compilation and publication of Hyangyak chesaeng chipsŏng pang (Collection of Native Prescriptions to Save Life), which was finished in 1397. Other texts were the work of individuals, such as the extremely influential Tongŭi pogam (Exemplars of Korean Medicine) which was written by the famous medical practitioner Hŏ Chun, and published in 1610. These types of books all contained basic information about t’aegyo, but their readers were generally highly educated medical practitioners.
Another category of texts were those written for ordinary people. These were written in Hangul, the Korean phonetic alphabet, which made them accessible to virtually everyone. These also included books about farming methods, basic medical treatment, and even novels. A major type of these Hangul texts was known as kyupang chip(Texts for the Woman’s Quarters). They were written for women and addressed topics of importance to them. They covered topics such as how a good wife should behave, how to raise children, how to run a household, how a woman should cultivate virtue, etc. Some kyupang chip were published through book makers, while others were written by family members. These family kyupang chip were handwritten and conveyed the family’s traditions, experiences, and philosophy from one generation to the next. These books generally remained within the family, and were even, in some sense, family secrets.
One of the most famous of the kyupang chip-type books was T’aegyo Singi (New Theory of Prenatal Education), by a Mrs. Lee, who was also called Sa Ju Dang. Written by a woman, for women, it was published around the year 1800. It sets forth many of the principles of t’aegyo that are observed even today by pregnant women in Korea. For example, it is the earliest recorded example of the Korean saying, “Ten months in the womb have more influence upon a child than 10 years with a good teacher.” Published in Hangul, this book appears to have been very influential when it first appeared. Even today in Korean bookstores, modern translations of T’aegyo Singi are still among the best selling books about t’aegyo.
An interesting footnote to t’aegyo is the role played by birth dreams. Traditionally in Asia, a woman’s dream about her future child was considered to be very telling about that child’s character. As such, they were very prized, and good dreams were even sold! It seems that parents and family members always find a way to interpret them positively, although the dream is said to lose its power if told too many times or told to the child.
These kinds of dreams can also be seen as a form of t’aegyo: if parents have a certain image of their unborn child, their child will be more likely to develop according to that expectation. Research in the social sciences has shown similar effects, where students will tend to perform up to a teacher’s expectations, regardless of whether those expectations are based upon fact or not. The traditional view of t’aegyo would expect that this effect would be just as true for unborn children.
Modern Trends in Korea
Beginning in the 1980’s, t’aegyo became much more visible outside the family. This was the result of several influences, in particular Korea’s rapid economic growth and the development of the commercial print and media industry. Although there had always been books about t’aegyo, the numbers and types began to dramatically increase. Further, many of the ideas that were popular began to be featured on various morning television programs, and with the growth of the internet, there are now even web sites and chat rooms dedicated to t’aegyo.
In the late 1980’s, some of the most popular books about t’aegyo were translations of European and U.S. books, many of which belonged to the “How to make your baby a genius” variety. However, these gradually became less popular. As one mother complained, “They didn’t tell me anything about how to help my child be well-adjusted and happy.” Perhaps in response to feelings like this, t’aegyo books written from an oriental medicine perspective, and those translated from Japanese, became more popular. One of aspect of both these types of books is that they are more likely to include concepts and approaches that reflect Buddhist or Confucian perspectives.
Books written about t’aegyo in Korea generally fall into three categories: Books written by medical doctors, by social scientists, and those books based upon traditional perspectives, including oriental medicine. When medical doctors in Korea write about t’aegyo, they tend to present a biological, mechanistic view of t’aegyo, emphasizing things such as the role the mother’s mood plays upon hormones and their effects upon the child’s development. One interesting thing about modern Korea is that although only about 25 percent of the population is Christian, the vast majority of doctors and pharmacists are Christians. (Reliable survey numbers are hard to find, but interviews with people holding medical degrees usually cite figures of between 70 and 80 percent.) So even when Korean doctors write books about the more spiritual aspects of t’aegyo, they tend to avoid touching upon ideas that might seem Buddhist or Confucian, such as karmic affinity, non-duality, and virtue.
The second type of book about t’aegyo that is common in Korea are those written by social scientists. Most of the ideas contained in these books have been derived from studies on the effects of early childhood experiences. For example, research found that listening to classical music as a child positively affects one’s intellectual development. This has been extrapolated to mean that if classical music can aid a child’s development between the age of one and five, it must be even better to be exposed to classical music as a fetus. This highlights a key difference between this type of prenatal instruction and conventional t’aegyo: the traditional view is that the unborn child is affected by what the mother experiences. Whereas people who are trying to play music to their unborn child are trying to convey the music directly to the child.
The third category of books about t’aegyo are those based upon traditional texts and which often include principles of oriental medicine. These put the focus back on the mother’s influence upon the child. These are often modern versions of traditional ideas. They tend to emphasize the role that the mother’s experiences and thought play in the development of the child’s temperament, health, intelligence, and spirituality. Often books of this type include explanations and worldviews that reflect themes some might categorize as Buddhist or Confucian.
These are some of the general trends in books about t’aegyo, but in reality there are many different kinds of books, which can include anything from strictly traditional methods to methods based upon personal experiences. There are medical descriptions of t’aegyo, as well books and websites that emphasize Christian or Buddhist perspectives, and any combination of these. The appearance in recent decades of so much information about t’aegyo, through books, television, and the internet, has created the image of a t’aegyo “boom” in Korea. However, only the media has changed, its importance to Korean parents remains unchanged since ancient times.
As an innovative, female Sŏn Master, Daehaeng Sunim occupies a unique place in contemporary Korean Buddhism. (“Sunim” is the polite address for a Buddhist nun or monk in Korea.) Born in 1927, she awakened at an early age and lived in the mountains for years, experimenting with what she realized. It was there that she determined to teach spiritual practice in such a way that anyone, regardless of their gender or occupation, could practice and awaken. The sŏn center she founded, Hanmaum Seonwon, has 25 Korean and international branches, with more than 30,000 families registered as members.