Before finding his own roots in A Family of No Prominence, Professor Eugene Park helped Margaret Cho uncover her ancestry on the PBS show, Finding Your Roots.
American-born and San Francisco-bred, actress and comedian Margaret Cho knew next to nothing about her Korean ancestors. When she appeared on Henry Louis Gates' PBS show, Finding Your Roots, she discovered a trove of family history, uncovering not only recent events—including those that precipitated her grandfather’s immigration to the United States—but she also unearthed staggeringly long-distant family genealogies. At the outset of her journey, Cho would have been hard-pressed to describe what prompted her family to leave Korea just two generations ago, and by its conclusion she was able trace her lineage back hundreds of years, back to her family’s clan leader, who lived in the 1200s.
Watch the full episode of Finding Your Roots on PBS.org
What made this feat of genealogical discovery possible, as Professor Eugene Park explains in the episode, is the time-honored Korean practice of family record keeping. Meticulously documented family lineages, called chokpos (also written as jokbo), detail clan genealogies, beginning with the “founding father” of the clan, a progenitor, from whom stem a centuries-long litany of successive generations, all traced through the male line.
Today, Park notes that most South Koreans have a pronounced sense of their ancestral status, and particularly its proximity to royalty and aristocracy, over and above their understanding of more recent family history. “In fact, most do not know their immediate ancestors’ roles, if any, during such nationally celebrated historical events as the March First Movement of 1919, when millions of Koreans protested Japanese colonial rule,” Park writes. Indeed, Margaret Cho was surprised to discover that her own grandfather was all but exiled during this period, on account of his association with the deeply-resented Japanese colonizers.
So how did Korean families, like Cho's and many others, come to lose this sense of collective memory? This is precisely the question which Park engages in his book, A Family of No Prominence. In it, Park traces the lineage of one Korean family—his own—to develop a deeper understanding of how political and economic forces of the past century have shaped Korean values and notions of identity.
From the Prologue:
“By examining . . . the modern era in connection with master narratives on ancestry, we can begin to understand how old status anxieties under the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910), the impact of Western institutions and ideas, Japanese colonial rule, and varied Korean responses to all these things have contributed to the construction of a usable past while obscuring diverse human experiences. The descent group narratives that crystallized in early modern Korea have framed popular discussions of ancestry in a way that allows little room for real family stories.”
You can read Park's Prologue in full here.