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Words: 1951 |
10 min read
Published: Aug 1, 2022
Words: 1951|Pages: 4|10 min read
The Chosŏn society was one in which patriarchal family order was imposed based on Confucian ideology. After the Fifteenth century, women faced more social constraints as Neo-Confucianism, which was emphasized even more rigid Confucian ideals, prevailed as the sole dominant system of social governance. In particular, King Sŏngjong enacted the Widow Remarriage Law of 1477 which prohibited women from remarrying once their spouses had passed away and excluded their sons from public office if they remarried. When the prohibition against remarriage of women was proclaimed, people regarded widows’ remarriage as a sin for which their descendants should be punished and disadvantaged, and the majority of widows did not remarry. Over the following sixth century, however, historians have different interpretations of women during the Chosŏn dynasty. They argued that even though on the surface, women seemed to comply with the Neo-Confucian ideals, but they were actually active beings who express their opinions in their own way against patriarchal social systems. This paper will compare and contrast different perspectives on women under Confucianism between people during the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries of the Chosôn period and historians during the modern era, and provide an analysis of possible causes for the difference.
The standards of life and traditional values of Korea originated from Confucianism, the foundation of East Asian culture and the most represented ideology in Chinese history. Confucian ideas and systems began to take root on the Korean Peninsula in earnest as Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla developed into ancient kingdoms. However, the most prevalent period of Confucianism in Korea was during the Chosôn Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897. The new ruling class of Chosôn, led by Neo-Confucian intellectuals, declared Neo-Confucianism as the nation's sole governing ideology and tried to transform the lifestyle of commoners as well as the ruling class into Neo-Confucian. The Neo-Confucian reform during the early Choson era also had a major influence on the change of women's status. During the Chosôn period, women were required to obey the Three Obediences, which were the most basic moral principles and social code of behavior for maidens and married women, in accordance with the trend of worshipping the Neo-Confucianism as a national tradition and strongly practicing it. According to the Three Obediences, women should be obedient to the father before marriage, the husband after marriage, and the son in the case of widows. In other words, Chosôn women were imposed upon rigorous standards of feminine modesty and chastity and otherwise treated as if they were brutes. Thus, Confucianism, which had a strong influence on family, politics, education, marriage, social system, and customs for over five hundred years since the Chosôn period, has been criticized as patriarchal and misogynistic.
In 1477, King Sŏngjong, the ninth king of the Chosôn Dynasty who completed Gyeongguk Daejeon, a complete code of law and foundation of Chosôn society, enacted the Widow Remarriage Law, which strengthened women's social constraints by barring the sons and grandsons of widows who defied the ban from taking the civil service examinations and becoming scholar-officials. This event has an important meaning in Korean history. Prior to the reign of King Sŏngjong, women’s remarriage is considered natural and the social constraints on widow’s remarriage did not exist as exemplified by King Taejong's remark, “why should men and women who have lost their spouses not be allowed to remarry”. However, The Widow Remarriage Law of 1477 instigated conservative and negative views on women's rights and freedom.
Despite the fall of the Chosôn Dynasty later and the abolishment of the Widow Remarriage Law, there have been negative views about widow remarriage within Korean society until relatively recently. In 1930, for instance, a widow Kim described her life and feelings as a widow in the Korean women's magazine ‘The Modern Woman’. She confessed that once there was a time when she had wanted to remarry, but she had to give up since her mother announced that she would sever all relations with her if she remarries. This case shows the reality of Korean society that even the woman's own parents ostracize her if she does not keep her chastity. Although Confucianism in modern Korea has declined, its influence continues to the present time throughout Korean society in a variety of ways.
The majority of people, since the Widow Remarriage Law was proclaimed, have regarded remarried women as immoral and sinful ones who are not only promiscuous but also defile who tarnish Confucian teachings. Chosŏn Wangjo Silk, which is the veritable record of the Chosŏn dynasty, contains records of the members of the highest officialdom discussing the prohibition of remarriage of widows under the orders of King Sôngjong. According to Sôngjong sill ok, Wŏnjun Im, Sixth State Councillor, argued that “To starve to death is only a small matter for women compared to losing their integrity”. Master Heng‑ch’ü Chang actively supported Im’s opinion, saying that if a man accepts a woman who has lost her integrity as his mate, it is equivalent to as that he himself has also lost his integrity. In the traditional society, women were seen as victims by male-dominant social norms. These examples reflect the fact that women's observance of chastity was regarded as a nobler value than anything at the time.
In 1528, under the reign of King Jungjong, a central government official named Yu Jung was fired after the remarriage of his young widowed daughter. Until then, the code of law had only stipulated that the descendants of women who remarried should not be allowed to take the civil services examinations and become scholar-officials. However, Jung was punished for letting his daughter remarry with another man and for disturbing the custom at the court. This shows that the social discrimination of women has intensified from the middle to the late Chosŏn.
Furthermore, every year the government cited the “virtuous wife” or Yeol-nyeo, which is usually referred to as a celibate widow, to encourage women to remain their chaste by following Neo-Confucianism ideology. It was considered great honor and privilege to have a virtuous woman in the family. This practice increased later part of Chosŏn because the principle of chastity became so widespread and deep-rooted that it became an absolute and unquestionable duty to preserve chastity to women. Many of widows would commit suicide to follow their husbands in death, but it seemed to be taken for granted by people.
In contrast, there was also vehement opposition expressed to the Widow Remarriage Law. The majority of officials agreed that women should keep their integrity, but they proposed banning women from marrying only a third time. Censor-General Howon Park and others asserted that the prohibition on remarriage by widows is harsh treatment because widows who lost their spouses lack the ability to fend for themselves and their children. Although the debate eventually concluded that a majority opposed the enactment of the law, King Sôngjong endorsed the minority opinion that “losing chastity is a bigger issue than dying of hunger.” Most of the officials involved in the debate opposed the law because they were born in the Yangban classes, an upper noble class wielding tremendous power, and relatively upper-class men had more opportunities to apply for higher-level government posts than the working class. But King Sôngjong considered that it was shameful for the sons of women who did not keep their chastity to be placed in high official positions. There was some difference of opinion about the remarriage of widows, but the majority of views tended to believe that remarriage of widows was inevitable in order to make a living.
Currently, six centuries after the Widow Remarriage Law was proclaimed, modern historians have different viewpoints at Chosŏn women. Youngmin Kim and Michael.J.Pettid, the authors of the book “Women and Confucianism in Chosŏn Korea: New Perspectives” published in 2010, describe women under Confucianism not simply as the victims of patriarchal systems, but as wise beings who rather used various strategies to maintain their rights. They acknowledged and highly appraised active and progressive women, for example, a constructive attitude of life, management of one’s property, and economic sense. In addition, they understood women’s desire and hope and described positively women’s second marriage after one’s husband’s death, the flexibility of fidelity, and pursuit of happiness.
Although the law on widow remarriage was declared from the middle of the fifteenth century, one should note that it was not entirely impossible for widows to remarry. Preserving chastity was mostly an obligation of upper-class women during the Chosŏn period. For commoner women and lower classes, remarrying was considered one of the means of livelihood for lower-class widows as they could not make ends meet on their own after losing their husbands in a male-dominated society. Some lower-class widows would throw away their babies because there was no way to raise them by themselves. An example of a woman who chose to remarry after her first husband's death is Marduk. According to an ‘unofficial version of a historical tale of Hyobin’, written by Sangan Ko in the sixteenth century, there was a maidservant named Marduk, who lived in south Gyeongsang Provinces. She got married nine times, unfortunately, the men who married her all died. The reason she was able to marry nine times was due to her low status, her children were less likely to work in government official posts, unlike the Yangban class. In response, Kim and Pettit positively explain her as an active female figure who freely expresses her desire despite the critical social climate at the widow's remarriage.
Whereas people within traditional Chosŏn society perceived women under Confucianism ideology as a repressed and suppressed group, modern historian perceives Chosŏn women as a courageous group seeking their free will despite the conservative social atmosphere. In the Chosŏn society, the prohibition of women’s remarriage and the increased emphasis on the concept of the virtuous woman served as tools that could be used to oppress women by discriminating against them. On the contrary, modern historians Kim and Pettit view that the prohibition of women’s remarriage reinforces gender inequality as well as only a worthless sacrifice. In contemporary Korea, women's perception of gender roles has improved considerably, compared to previous times, when Confucianism was deeply rooted in the culture. While Chosŏn society tended to view women as subordinate to men, Korean society today regards women as independent and being of equal social status.
In contemporary Korean society, the status of women has remarkably improved due to rapid modernization, industrialization, and democratic reform since the mid-1960s. With the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948 after its independence from Japanese colonial rule, women have enjoyed nearly equal rights with men in all spheres of life. Although Korean women face several gender stereotypes that still exist in society today, it is clear that these various factors have contributed greatly to the dramatic change in women's social status.
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