Since even earlier than the 17th century Joseon period there were kye 계 organizations created by the people to help each other out in times of trouble. Life was hard especially when the local yangban were corrupt, so village kye were started in farming villages and the members would regularly pool together an agreed amount of money in preparation for hardships. Food, especially rice could also be pooled and members of the kye helped each other in other ways too through cooperative farming and with social support, getting together for meetings and events. There were kye set up for weddings and funerals and parents’ 60th birthday parties which were all big, expensive events. The members contributed the agreed amount regularly so that there were funds available in preparation for a special occasion or sudden family loss and any member could collect a lump sum when it was needed. I think this is a great idea but I wouldn’t like to be the one in charge of collecting the money. There needs to be cooperation and trust for this to work! There’s information on Kye and more Korean history here.
Geum-gye leader Choi Hyo-won, Dong Yi, MBC
The Geom-gye in Dong Yi
In the drama Dong Yi, the Geom-Gye 검계 (geom means sword) is an organization made up of members of the chonmin servant class to help other chonin when they have trouble or are ill-treated. We see the Geom-Gye help slaves escape by fighting off slave hunters and then providing the runaway slaves with transportation and probably food and lodging when they arrive at their destination.
a masked member of the Geom-gye, Dong Yi, MBC
runaway slaves are helped by the geom-gye, Dong Yi, MBC
A slave hunter gets knocked to the ground by the geom-gye, Dong Yi, MBC
The spirit of the Kye system is still very much a part of Korea culture today.
At weddings, guests usually give money rather than a present – the amount depends on how close the guests are to the couple. The guests put the money in an envelope with their name on it and hand the envelope to the assigned money collectors (trusted friends of the groom) who are sitting at the entrance to the wedding hall. Their names and how much they give is noted down in the guest book which is handed to the couple after the wedding. There can be many guests at Korean weddings as it’s not just close friends and family members who are invited. In my office emails would come around from Korean members of staff inviting the entire office to their wedding and this seems to be common. The money gifts can cover the costs of the entire wedding ceremony.
Mourners also give money at funerals.
Friends often set up kyes between themselves for various reasons. My mother in law has a kye with her girl pals. They all give the same amount of money to the treasurer every month and the money goes towards a trip. When they have enough they go out for day trips or take weekends away around Korea leaving the men folk at home! Last time they went to Jejudo island.
Kyes can also mix work and play – every year for kimchi making season around November, ladies gather to make kimchi together. It would be a lonely business making a year’s worth of kimchi on your own.
Korean immigrants abroad have also relied on the kye system to set up businesses when they haven’t been able to borrow money from banks. Money is pooled regularly and each member is allowed to take all the money once to help them set up business although they may have to wait years for their turn. This form of borrowing money has caused problems though as there is no proof of where the money came from and Western cultures are not familiar with this system. see this article from the archives of the Seattle Times.