Until she appeared on “Finding Your Roots,” Jamie Chung had no idea that one of her ancestors is a pretty big deal in Korea.
Growing up in San Francisco, Chung said her immigrant parents didn’t talk much about their families’ history in South Korea. Her mother, who grew up in poverty, was especially tightlipped about her upbringing.
Naturally, Chung was curious to know about her ancestors so she enlisted the help of “Finding Your Roots” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. and made some eye-opening discoveries along the way.
In a recent episode of the PBS show, which aired on Jan. 23, Chung learns that one of her ancestors was tied to a “much celebrated moment in Korean history,” as Gates puts it. Her distant cousin did something pretty heroic in the 1400s.
The year was 1455, and at the time, Korea’s king was a 15-year-old named Danjong of Joseon. His short-lived reign met a bloody end. The young king’s uncle overthrew him, banished him to a village called Yeongwol and had him executed.
Danjong’s body was ordered to be thrown into the local river. His uncle threatened to execute anyone who gave him a proper funeral.
Legend has it that Chung’s distant cousin, who was from Yeongwol, retrieved the young king’s body from the river to give him an honorable funeral. Instead of being executed, Chung’s cousin fled his home and remained hidden for the rest of his life.
“That’s fascinating,” Chung says as Gates tells her the story.
“Did you have any idea that any of your ancestors would be famous for their actions?” Gates asks.
“For their kindness,” Chung replies, getting emotional. “No.”
Per Gates, Chung’s distant cousin is revered by Koreans as a “loyal subject to the rightful king” and his act of bravery is still celebrated every year when Yeongwol residents reenact the funeral during a festival. The town also is home to a statue that depicting Chung’s cousin holding the king’s body.
“No way!” Chung exclaims when she hears the news. “That’s my cousin, 18th removed! Wow.”
During the episode, Grant notes that Chung’s connection to the tale can’t be independently verified. But the stories she learns from examining family records give her an idea of what her family believed about their origins.
The host also explains that these are the sort of stories that Koreans would have passed down from generation to generation, and notes that they seemed to have gotten lost in her family’s move to America.
“I think they left a piece of themselves in Korea, you know? But knowing now that we have such rich ancestry and amazing ancestors, it’s wow. This is priceless,” she says.
The show also traced her ancestry back to her paternal 18th great-grandfather, named Chung Geum-Gang, born in the 1300s. Gates aid he had a “high position in the Korean government,” equivalent to being a deputy prime minister. “He was a big deal,” Gates says.
“It’s totally flipped my perspective of my family history,” Chung says of that revelation.