THREE OBEDIENCES AND FOUR VIRTUES OF CONFUCIANISM
“The Three Obediences and Four Virtues” is the most basic set of moral principles and social behavioral guidelines for women in Confucianism. Even prostitutes were expected to follow them. Some imperial eunuchs and modern gay men both observed them themselves and enforced them. The terms "three obediences" and "four virtues" first appeared in the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (6th century B.C.) and in the Rites of Zhou (2nd century B.C.) respectively, which codified and defined different aspects of elegant and refined Chinese culture and harmonious society but were not intended as rule books. They had a great influence on China, Korea and Japan. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Three Feminine Obediences for females are to 1) obey, 2) bow to and 3) follow the spiritual, ethical and moral wisdom of: A) her father as a daughter; B) her husband as a chaste wife; and C) her sons. If a conflict arises she is expected to prioritize her father over her husband over her sons. As a widow and in the afterlife she is expected to be dedicated to her husband’s clan and family.
The Four Feminine Virtues for women are: 1) Ethics in matrimony. 2) Speech in matrimony; 3) Virtue in Visage, in manners and appearance in matrimony; 4) "Kungfu" ("Works"), being chaste, monogamous, and a virgin when married.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean literature is full of stories about virtuous women who embodied the Confucian ideal of the three submissions. The stories emphasize sacrifice and self-effacement for a greater good. In the ancient capital of Puyo a pavilion marks the Cliff of the Falling Flowers, where a group of maidens employed by the royal palace threw themselves into the river to avoid being defiled by invading foreign forces. There is a shrine in Chinju recalling the beautiful Non'gae, a Korean entertainer who once killed a Japanese general by dancing him off a cliff there, losing her own life in the process. One also recalls the lovely Ch'unhyang, the faithful young woman who waited for her lover to come back from Seoul and was thrown in jail for refusing the advances of the evil governor.“The "Falling Flowers," the dancing girl Non'gae, and the faithful Ch'unhyang all paid dearly for their virtue and only Ch'unhyang's story had a happy ending. But all three are models of a woman's duty to preserve honor at all costs. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Rock of Falling Flowers: Where 3,000 Maidens Jumped to Their Death
Rock of Falling Flowers — a rock cliff towering above Baengmagang River in the northern end of Busosan Mountain in Nakhwa-am, 70 kilometers west of Taejong — is where according to legend 3,000 court ladies leapt to their deaths into the Baengma River during the Shilla and Tang invasion of Paekche in A.D. 638 The royal court women killed themselves when Paekje was defeated during the invasion of Sabiseong Fortress (now Busosanseong Fortress in Buyeo). The name of this rock, Nakhwaam, literally means "the cliff of falling flowers", symbolizes the fidelity and loyalty of Paekche women.
According to the National Folk Museum of Korea the legend of Nakhwaam takes place during the reign of King Uija. When Baekje’s capital Buyeo had fallen to Silla and Tang China’s allied forces, King Uija and his concubines and court ladies fled the fortress, reaching the rock Nakhwaam. The women threw themselves off the rock, saying, “We would rather take our own lives than die in the hands of others.” [Source: National Folk Museum of Korea]
The legend of Nakhwaam, although based on a historical event, is transmitted in a wide range of variations, including tales like “Three Thousand Court Ladies Throw Themselves into Baengma River, ” many of which include motifs about King Uija’s political mistakes, including the expulsion of loyal subjects, which lead to the fall of Baekje and the sacrifice of the women. It is notable that this variation features three thousand court ladies, a detail not mentioned in Samgungnyusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), in which the legend of Nakhwaam is recorded, which is assumed to be an exaggeration based on King Uija’s debauchery toward the end of his reign.
Jack Large wrote: “It is a legend of such monstrous extreme that it seems all the more plausible as fact...It is true enough that in this place, Sabi, the last Buyeo Baekche King was cornered in his hilltop redoubt and made his stand against the alliance of his Silla imperial rulers and Han Chinese that besieged him. Tucked in a long, looping curve of the Baengma River scant kilometers upstream from its mouth on the West Sea, it is a placid and picturesque spot. Today, few spots are more peaceful, yet its legend, seared into the minds of most Koreans, is one of intolerable pain. It's all the more so because, like so many episodes from Korean history, the pain has been as often inflicted by other Koreans, acting in concert with the more robust neighbors just across the East and West Seas.” [Source: The Legend of the Falling Flowers, Jack Large, Cowbird]
The cliff that plunges several hundred feet to the riverbank. The women may have worn the traditional formal Korean woman's costume, the hanbok. “The Buyeo legend populates the royal court with no fewer than 3,000 maidens thus attired, whose duties were to keep the palace environment pristine, and the royal personages in the pink. During the siege, when it became clear that the assault by an overwhelming force of attackers was to end in inevitable success, the peaceful redoubt would become the site of another of those unspeakable atrocities warfare traditionally directs against the women of the vanquished enemy at the sword points of the victors. To the royal retinue, being of a firm and unyielding character, as expected of the ladies at court, there appeared but a single way out, and they took it.
“Three thousand young women, one by one, stepped onto the edge of the cliff, picked up the front of her billowing” hanbok “and threw it back to cover her face and , and thus shielding her head and eyes, stepped or leapt from the edge, plunging to her death at the waterside. Viewed from a Chinese warship from several hundred meters distance along a 120 degree arc of visibility on the river, it might indeed resemble the casual floating down of gaily-colored blooms”.
Women in Dynastic Korea
Women were given a fair amount of freedom in the Koryo period (A.D. 935-1392). They were able to divorce and remarry, and husbands that "discarded" their wives for no good reason were punished. Daughters as well as sons were entitled to inherit property. It was tolerable for women to have lovers.
During the Koryo and early Chosun Dynasties, it was customary for the married couple to live in the wife's parents' household. This arrangement suggests that the status of women was then higher than it was later during most of the Chosun Dynasty. Neo- Confucian orthodoxy dictated that the woman, separated from her parents, had a primary duty of providing a male heir for her husband's family. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Korean society granted women much more freedom in the years before the Confucianized Chosun dynasty whose state philosophy explicitly justified male privilege. Under the preceding Koryo dynasty, newlyweds often went to live with the bride's parents and the women often functioned as heads of their households.” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
According to the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “During the Silla and Koryo period, among commoners, couples entered freely into marriage with their Chosun partners (Choi 1971). This changed, however, during the Chosun dynasty; strict rules were imposed on the selection of partners, and all marriages were arranged....What constituted filial behavior changed from the Silla to the Chosun Dynasty. In Samganghangsil, the most important expression of filial piety during the Silla Dynasty was supporting the material needs of elderly parents. In contrast, in the Koryo and Chosun periods, filial piety was best demonstrated in formal and ritual services, such as funeral services and worship in the Koryo and nursing in the Chosun period. In particular, nothing was as important as worshiping of the spirits of one's ancestors as well as one's parents in the period of Chosun (Chung and Yoo 2000). [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
Women’s Roles in the Chosun Dynasty
According to Confucian custom, once married, a woman had to leave her parents' household permanently and then occupy the lowest position in her husband's family. She was often abused and mistreated by both her mother-in-law and sisters-in- law — at least until the birth of a son gave her some status in her husband's family. The relationship between wife and husband was often, if not usually, distant, aptly described by the Korean proverb: "By day, like seeing a stranger; by night, like seeing a lover." Chosun Dynasty law prohibited widows from remarrying, though a similar prohibition was not extended to widowers. Further, the sons and grandsons of widows who defied the ban, like children of secondary wives, were not allowed to take the civil service examinations and become scholar-officials. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]
According to the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “ Naehun (Instruction for Women), compiled by the mother of King Seongjong in 1475, was the most important and influential textbook used to teach proper Confucian roles to girls and married women. The book emphasized the basics of womanly behavior such as chastity, and it prepared girls for their future functions as moral guardians of the domestic sphere and providers for the physical needs of their families. The book also elaborated on a married woman's role, including being a self-sacrificing daughter-in-law, an obedient and dutiful wife, and a wise and caring mother (Kim 1993; Deuchler 1983). [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
“Based on Confucian values, families observed strict gender differentiation in married life. Traditional Korean women's responsibility was restricted to the domestic sphere. As an inside master, the woman established her own authority and became a financial manager, symbolized by the right to carry the family keys to the storage areas for rice and other foods (Kim 1992; Lee 1990). Also, husbands and wives strictly observed a hierarchical relationship. A wife would sacrifice herself completely to serve her husband and family in an exemplary manner. In accordance with the rule of three obediences, a woman was required to obey her father, husband, and son, in that order. Under this system of severe discrimination, women of the Chosun Dynasty were confined to the home. Nevertheless, the position of women, at least those with children, was not hopeless. Just as women occupied a subordinate position in relation to men, children were subordinate to their parents and were required to revere their mothers as well as their fathers (Choi 1982a; Park and Cho 1995a).
Harsh Confucian Rules on Women During the Chosun Period
During the Chosun Period, the duty of a woman to her husband, or rather to her husband's family, was absolute and unquestionable. In the traditional society, only men could obtain a divorce. A husband could divorce his spouse if she were barren — barrenness being defined simply as the inability to bear sons. Even if a husband did not divorce his wife, he had the right to take a second wife, although the preferred solution for a man without a son during the Chosun Dynasty was to adopt a son of one of his brothers, if available. The incompatibility of a wife and her in-laws was another ground for divorce. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The Chosun dynasty's conscious adoption of Confucian ethics for Korean society meant imposing new restrictions on the freedom of women. These included heavy penalties for those who failed to practice the "three submissions." Under the Koryo dynasty, it was tolerable for women to have lovers. The Chosun-dynasty Confucianists attacked this as destructive of human order and emphasized their reform by finding women who were guilty of adultery and executing them. New rules restricted the freedom of women to travel and move about. Upper-class women were ordered not to go out during the daytime and their male relatives were punished if they allowed them to violate the order. Thus men were obliged to enforce the restrictions on their wives and daughters. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
The ethical basis for restrictions on women lay in Confucian ideology. Limits on freedom for women were expounded in numerous Confucian texts and treatises by important thinkers in the early Chosun dynasty. In Confucian ideology everyone had a proper place and role to play. It was important to define the proper spheres for men and women in society and to enforce their adherence to the rules of propriety. Among the ideals, or "proprieties," set forth for women were modesty, seclusion, faithfulness, sacrificial motherhood, and even loyalty to husbands after death. Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands, though there was a list of reasons why husbands could divorce their wives. Nor could a woman remarry after her husband's death, or inherit his property. A widow remained a member of her husband's family for the rest of her life and was prohibited from seeking a new husband and transferring membership to his family. When her husband died, the surviving widow immediately fell under the authority of her eldest son, who took on the role of family head. Rules like these guaranteed that a woman would remain dependent upon her husband's lineage throughout her adult life.1 Many of these values and customs have survived intact into the modern era, but the blatant unfairness has not gone unnoticed.
Prohibition Against Remarriage of Women: from the Songjong Sillok:
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Neo-Confucian reform during the early Chosun era also brought about a change in the status of women. Formerly in Korean history, descent had often been traced bilaterally (through both father’s and mother’s side), no legal distinction was made between primary and secondary wives when a man had several, women could inherit property and certain ritual rites, and widowed women could often remarry. Chosun Neo-Confucians emphasized and tried to enforce patrilineal descent, the primacy of the main wife over secondary wives or concubines, and male prerogative in property and ritual. They attacked the remarriage of women carefully and gradually by passing a series regulations that barred the sons of such women — at first only the thrice-married — from sitting for civil service examinations or holding office. This passage records a 1477 debate from the court of King Songjong (1469- 1494) and the king’s eventual decision. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]
Excerpts from the Songjong sillok: Prohibition Against Remarriage of Women: [In 1477] the king orders the members of the highest officialdom to discuss the prohibition against the remarriage of women. Chief State Councillor Chong Ch’angson and others say: If a woman of an honorable house loses her husband at a young age and swears to preserve her chastity until her death, this is very good indeed. If this cannot be done, a woman, driven by hunger and cold, may easily give up her intention to remain unmarried. In case we completely prohibit remarriage by law, punish the offender, and even implicate her sons and grandsons, we will, on the contrary, harm the customs. This would not be a small mistake. Except that we record, as before, women who marry three times, could we not leave this matter alone?[Source: translated by Martina Deuchler, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 563-565.
Inspector.General Kim Yongyu and others say: In our country, the houses of the scholarofficials have been upholding propriety and morality for generations, and their loyalty and faithfulness have never been impaired. This is attested in historical works. Recently, however, the great social safeguards have become somewhat lax, and there are cases like the one of Yi Sim’s wife, born Cho, who married Yi on her own initiative. Her bad reputation has been spreading, and if such behavior is not strictly checked, women of lower status may take Sim’s wife’s example as a pretext not to maintain faithfulness any longer. Could we then overcome our distress about the destruction of propriety and mores? But now, according to the National Code , thrice.married women are listed together with licentious women, and their sons and grandsons are barred from the examinations and cannot receive posts in the censorial and administrative offices. Twice.married women are not mentioned. Generally, statutes are based on fundamental law, and propriety is connected with human feelings. For a woman of a poor and lowly house who on neither side has supportive relatives, it is difficult to keep her chastity when she becomes widowed in early years. If her parents or relatives decide that she should marry for a second time, this does not harm propriety. … We think that the law of the National Code according to which the sons and grandsons of thrice.married women do not receive high office should be strictly enforced and that Yi Sim’s wife, born Cho, should be severely punished. If we clearly point out what is good and what is bad, morality and mores will naturally become correct even if we do not make a new law concerning remarriage, and widows will understand this as a warning. ….
Sixth State Councillor Im Wonjun and others argue: In the past Master Ch’eng I said: “Women remarry only because people of later generations are afraid of freezing and starving to death. But to lose one’s integrity is a very serious matter. To starve to death, however, is a very small matter.” Chang Heng.ch’u said: “If a man takes someone who has lost her integrity to be his own match, it means he himself has lost his integrity.” Thus, a marriage once concluded cannot be changed within a lifetime: this is a woman’s principle. If she marries a second husband, how is this different from birds and beasts? In case the customs disregard integrity and morality, even those whose property is abundant and who do not have to be concerned about freezing and starving will all marry again. Moreover, a state without strict prohibitions will cause the sons and grandsons of those who have lost their integrity to hold important office. Such a practice will then turn into a custom that nobody will consider strange. Under such circumstances there will be women who, even without a master of ceremonies, will obtain a husband on their own initiative. If this is not prohibited, where will it lead? From now on remarriage must be strictly prohibited. A woman who in disregard of the law remarries should be punished for having lost her manners, and her sons and grandsons should also be barred from office in order to encourage integrity and morality. … Royal edict to the Ministry of Rites: The Book of Rites says: “Faithfulness is the virtue of a wife. Once married to her husband, she does not change it during her lifetime.” Therefore there is the morality of the “three obediences” (samjong), and no rite would ever violate one of these.
Because the ways of this world are daily deteriorating, womanly virtue is no longer upright, and upper.class women no longer care for propriety and morality. Some violate their feelings because of their parents; some follow a husband on their own initiative. They thus destroy not only their own family traditions, but in fact also defile the Confucian teachings. If we do not take stern countermeasures, it will be difficulty to stop such licentious behavior. From now on, in order to correct the customs, the sons and grandsons of twice-married women will no longer be listed as members of the upper class.
Instructions to My Daughter by Song Siyol (1607-1689)
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Song Siyol (1607-1689) was a prominent scholar and official. This piece was written for his oldest daughter on the occasion of her marriage and subsequently became an important tutelary text that circulated among elite families. By the time this text was written, the patterns of patrilocal residence and patrilineal descent advocated by Neo- Confucian reformers early in the Chosun dynasty had become well established. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University]
Excerpts from Instructions to My Daughter by Song Siyŏl: When you are deciding on your child’s marriage, be sure to look into the moral behavior of his or her prospective in laws, but not their wealth. This is an important affair in life, and everything concerning the bride or groom should be investigated. But you should leave things to your husband, and if you are not informed of certain matters, do not pretend that you are, making decisions on the basis of superficial knowledge. If you get a daughter in law from a family a little better off than you, then she will be careful.
“There are no virtues greater than loyalty, generosity, and kindness. If you happen to become involved in matters of great consequence, be as firm and precise as a sharp knife in executing your decision. Do not listen to others but rely on your own judgment. It is best not to demean yourself. The ancients did not demean themselves when they met great predicaments. Why should one demean oneself over small matters? Seeking something from others when there is no need, accepting food under undesirable circumstances, or, urged by someone else, doing something against your will — all can be constituted as demeaning. Please take it to your heart to live courageously and with principle.”
How to Serve Your Husband and Instruct Children by Song Siyol
Excerpts from Instructions to My Daughter by Song Siyŏl: A woman’s hundred year hopes and aspirations rest with her husband. Serving your husband lies in not going against his wishes. Respect and support his wishes completely, not going against even one word or decision except on those occasions when he is about to make a completely unacceptable mistake. Not being jealous is the first thing in serving one’s husband. Even if he acquires a hundred concubines, accept them with equanimity. No matter how much he loves a concubine, do not get angry with him; instead show him more respect. Your husband is a serious scholar and will not indulge in women. Nor are you the type of woman who will be jealous. However, I am still warning you of the danger. Not only should you pay heed but when you have daughters, instruct them also on this matter. Many families have been ruined by women’s jealousy. Jealousy nullifies all other beautiful conduct. Despite intimacy, husband and wife should always be respectful of each other. Speaking of all other matters of daily life, you should not be too loose, and you should treat him as a respected guest. Then your husband will treat you with respect in return. Please pay heed to this. [Source: translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush, “Sources of Korean Tradition,” edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 49-52]
“It is said that mothers instruct daughters and fathers sons, but sons are also taught by mothers before they learn to read. Teach them not to lie; do not urge them to study too often, but only three times a day. Forbid them to engage in silly games and do not let them lie down in view of other people. Have them wash early in the morning, and if they say that they promised something to their friends, make certain that they carry out promises so that they will not betray the trust of others. Prevent them from associating with unseemly groups and make them attend the family ancestral rites. In his conduct, a son should model himself after the worthies of previous generations. After his fifteenth year, let your husband take over his instruction. If you take care, he will naturally grow up to be a proper and good hearted scholar.
“If you do not teach him when he is young and you begin late, it will be impossible to teach him. Early instruction will lead to the preservation of the family and will spare dishonor to oneself. This is really up to the mother, so do not blame the father. In pregnancy, you should not eat unclean food or lie down on crooked bedding. If you always maintain proper conduct, the child will naturally be well behaved. Children take after their mother in many ways: they are in the mother’s womb for ten months, and before thirteen years of age, they are taught by their mother. If you do not instruct them, children will not become good. It is the same with teaching daughters. Making it too easy for your sons and daughters for fear that might get ill, or being concerned only with their comfort, amounts to nothing less than cheating them. Instruct them well.
How to Be Careful in Your Words and Look After Property by Song Siyol (1607-1689)
Excerpts from Instructions to My Daughter by Song Siyŏl: There is a saying that a bride spends three years as if blind, three years as if deaf, and three years as if dumb. What this means is that you do not speak when you see things or hear things and speak only when it is absolutely necessary. It is best to be careful in your words. If you are not careful, disputes and fights will ensue even when you are right, not to mention when you are wrong. If you speak of the faults of other people, it will cause resentment, and fights and curses will follow. Your parents in law and other relatives will regard you as a beast; slaves and neighbors will look at you with disdain. With my own tongue I am harming my own body. There is nothing more pitiable and pathetic. In all hundred matters of conduct, being careful with words comes first. Please pay heed so that you will have nothing to regret on this score. [Source: translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush, “Sources of Korean Tradition,” edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 49-52]
“While property is limited, spending can be limitless. If you spend with no regard [to the consequences], you will have no money to marry children off, and they will become commoners. Is this not a fearful thing? Even the emperor will bring ruin to his country if he does not regulate his spending. If an ordinary family does not economize, where will the money come from? In times of good or bad harvest, one must estimate the total yields against the number of ancestral sacrifices and the number of family members. Though one should perform the sacrifices with sincerity, do not prepare excessively or waste things.
“Do not spend too much on luxurious clothes or food. On those occasions when you must spend, do not be abstemious but spend nothing on unnecessary things. If you adjust expenses on food and clothing according to your financial situation, and if you incur no foolish expenses, you will have enough. If there is any left over, then you can use it for medicine when someone gets ill or to pay for other emergencies. If there is no need for that, then uy rice fields and vegetable fields to leave to your children. In managing a household, there is no better way than frugal spending.”
Female Korean Freedom Fighters During the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945)
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The education of Korean women beginning in the 1880s has brought a powerful reform movement and demands for better protection under the law and more freedom for the individual. Along the way, a number of women have won public acclaim for their battle against injustice. Some of them are famous as women but also recognized for their sacrifice in the old-fashioned Confucian way. Yet alongside their accomplishments there remains a certain sense of contrivance: that their reputations are used to maintain male-dominated morality. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“A few examples of modern Korean heroines will suggest how this is so. Yu Kwansun was a sixteen-year-old student at Ewha Girls' School when the Korean uprising against Japanese colonial rule erupted in March 1919. Kwansun was from the city of Ch'onan, and at the time of the uprising she smuggled a copy of the Korean Declaration of Independence from Seoul, where she was going to school, to her hometown where it was read and used to spark a local demonstration demanding freedom for Korea. The Japanese police arrested and imprisoned her for spreading seditious documents. They molested and abused her in prison and eventually she died, one of the estimated 7,000 Koreans who lost their lives in the unsuccessful attempt to free Korea from Japanese domination. As such she is a symbol of the patriotic spirit of Korean youth. She also represents something that was new then but common now: the participation of young women in public political movements.
“Kim Chongsuk was a young Communist, a woman who joined the guerrillas who fought Japan in the mountains of southern Manchuria, just over the border from northern Korea. Here she married Kim Il-sung, the guerrilla fighter who was destined to become the "Supreme Leader" of North Korea after World War II. In 1942 she bore him a son, Kim Jong-il, who became the Supreme Leader following his father's death in 1994. Kim Chongsuk herself became a martyr to the Korean Communist cause, an especially tragic figure because of her death during childbirth at a relatively young age, in 1948. Her story belongs in the chronicle of Korean womanhood because of its reinvention over the years, canonizing her as a model of patriotism, motherhood, loyalty to husband, and ultimately sacrifice for the "revolutionary family" of North Korea.”
Development of Women’s Education in Korea
In traditional Korean society, women received little formal education. Christian missionaries began establishing schools for girls during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ehwa Woman's University, the most prestigious women's institution, began as a primary school established by Methodist missionaries in 1886 and achieved university status after 1945. Chongsin Girls' School and Paehwa Girls' School were founded in 1890 and 1898, respectively, in Seoul. Songui Girls' School was established in 1903 in Pyongyang. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]
By 1987 there were ten institutions of higher education for women including universities, colleges, and junior colleges; women accounted for approximately 28 percent of total enrollment in higher education. There were approximately 262,500 women students in colleges and universities in 1987. However, only about 16 percent of college and university teachers were women in 1987.
The growing number of women receiving a college education has meant that their sex role differs from that of their mothers and grandmothers. Many college-educated women plan independent careers and challenge the right of parents to choose a marriage partner. The often fierce battles between university students and police during the late 1980s included female participants. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review quoted a male student leader as saying that "short girls make great demonstrators, as they're very tough and very hard to catch." Whether politically active South Korean university women will follow their Japanese counterparts, who demonstrated during the 1960s and 1970s, into a world of childraising and placid consumerism remains to be seen. The number of employed married women, however, increased by approximately 12.6 percent annually in the years since 1977.
Women is Post-Korean-War, Economic Miracle South Korea
In contemporary society, both men and women have the right to obtain a divorce. Social and economic discrimination, however, make the lot of divorced women more difficult. The husband may still demand custody of the children, although a revision of the Family Law in 1977 made it more difficult for him to coerce or to deceive his wife into agreeing to an unfair settlement. The rate of divorce in South Korea is increasing rapidly. In 1975 the number of divorces was 17,000. In the mid-1980s, the annual number of divorces was between 23,000 and 26,000, and in 1987 there were 45,000 divorces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]
In the 1980s, the factories of South Korea employed hundreds of thousands of young women on shop floors and assembly lines making, among other things, textiles and clothes, shoes, and electronic components. South Korea's economic success was bought in large measure with the sweat of these generally overworked and poorly paid female laborers. In the offices of banks and other service enterprises, young women worked ing as clerks and secretaries have been indispensable. Unlike their sisters on Cheju Island, however, the majority of these women work only until marriage.
Although increasing numbers of women worked outside the home during this time the dominant conception, particularly for the college-educated middle class, was that the husband was the "outside person," the one whose employment provided the main source of economic support; the wife was the "inside person," whose chief responsibility was maintenance of the household. Women tended to leave the labor force when they got married. Many women managed the family finances, and a large number joined kye, informal private short-term credit associations that gave them access to funds that might not be obtainable from a conventional bank. Probably the most important responsibility of married women was the management of her children's education.
Raising of Daughter in Post-Korean-War, Economic Miracle South Korea
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: In the 1950s, a daughter was expected to grow up, marry, and move away to become part of her husband's family. It made sense to teach daughters how to cook, sew, and be good mothers, but the best "success" for them would be to marry away into a good family. As a rule, Korean farm families did not educate their daughters. The girls of Poksu District never got any education until the 1950s, when the government built a schoolhouse in the central hamlet. Instead, they had always stayed home helping their mothers with child care for younger siblings, cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry by pounding clothes on flat rocks beside the village stream. They started practicing these domestic arts when they were only five or six. The village women greatly respected Mrs. Kim because she had gone as far as high school and held a government job. In addition, she was an attractive woman, friendly and able to tell a good joke, and she had a good memory that enabled her to remember the names of everyone she met. These traits made her an especially good example for the village women. Mrs. Kim was also known as a good wife and mother. She and her husband had two bright and adorable children, and both of them were daughters. Whenever she told people that they should regard girls and boys equally, she gave her own family as an example. However, as Mrs. Kim passed her own thirtieth birthday she felt trouble brewing in her family. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“Today, the Kims' son is married and the father of two children, a daughter and a son. He lives with his family in the city and not in Poksu District with his parents and grandparents. Both he and his wife attended university, and he has a degree in engineering. The couple's children are also likely to attend college. However, though the family planning worker's daughters are better educated than their mother, neither went beyond high school. Instead, they worked for a short time, married, and moved away to start families of their own. Mrs. Kim herself has advanced to become head of the county welfare department, which includes family planning workers who do what she used to do back in the sixties. She is proud to say that the typical farm family in Poksu now has two or three children. Families with four or more children are very rare. The story of Mrs. Kim, the Poksu District family planning worker, illustrates several things about the position of women in Korean society, the most important being the power of family interests over individual behavior. Her most important role in life was to be a good wife and mother within the values of the Kim family. The in-laws were willing to accept her having a career, but only after she had performed her primary duty of providing the family with a son. Once they had a son, however, the Kims did not treat their three children equally. The boy was prepared from childhood to take responsibility for the family line. He got the best education and stands to inherit most of the property from his grandparents and parents. His sisters, on the other hand, "married out," and will be taken care of by their husbands' families. Though they often visit their parents in Poksu, their homes are with their husbands.
“Korea today presents incomparably more opportunities to girls and women than it did a generation ago. Public education has made it normal even for country girls to finish high school and the colleges and universities are full of female students whose families work and sacrifice to send them to college. Korean women are shedding many aspects of second-class citizenship but they remain subject to rigid controls and expectations. Their lives are directed toward the goal of marriage and family, and whatever work or career they pursue takes second place to that. Though more and more young women are breaking free of these expectations, they are the exception rather than the rule. Even women who are university professors and elected government officials find that "normal" family life is essential in order for them to have public respect. A professional woman in a high-status position still must subject herself in private to the ancient limits that define her as her father's daughter, her husband's wife, and her son's mother.”
Famous Women in Modern Korea
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Yuk Yongsu was the First Lady of South Korea from 1963 until her tragic death during an assassination attempt on her husband, President Park Chung-hee, in 1974. "Madame Park," as she was called by Westerners, was an unusually beautiful woman, gifted with a smile and physical grace that made her perfect for the part of First Lady. Whereas her husband was a stern and humorless person with a reputation for discipline and even harshness, Madame Park was known for her softer womanly traits, her love of children, her care and concern for family, and her sympathy for the poor. Like Kim Chongsuk in North Korea, her public persona was the product of political image-making, but the images were Confucian as well as modern. Her death greatly enhanced public sympathy for her husband, who was under criticism for dictatorial ways and undoubtedly enhanced his ability to rule in the last years before his death in 1979. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Lee Taeyong was Korea's first female lawyer and founder of the Family Legal Aid Center, a pioneering effort to improve the rights of women under the South Korean constitution. She was born in 1914 and her father died when she was a baby, but her mother made sure that she got a good education and she graduated from Ewha Women's College in 1936. She married an influential politician and raised a family, in the process becoming an advocate for women's rights. At the height of her career in the 1960s and 1970s she was an important member of the South Korean democracy movement, maintaining as her specialty the needs of women for protection under the law. Through her Family Legal Aid Center she mounted a successful lobbying effort to get the government to create a family court that would hear cases involving domestic abuse and help wives file actions, including divorce, against their husbands. The center was the first institution in South Korea to study family violence, the tension of living with in-laws, conflicts between generations, and conflict resolution. Her efforts earned her an international reputation and an honored position in international women's rights conferences. At home they contributed to passage of a new family law that went into effect in 1990 and provided better guarantees of property and inheritance rights and autonomy within the family, a law that she characterized as a single step on the long road to complete equality for women. Lee Taeyong died in 1998 at the age of 84.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021