The Joseon era (1392 to 1897) could be considered the dark ages of Korean history in terms of its strict isolationism and the treatment of women. Around this time, Koreans not only adopted Confucianism from its original Chinese form, but shaped it into a something strongly resembling Korean characteristics which became known as “Neo- Confucianism”. Many positive changes in Korean society is attributed to the Joseon era’s new Confucianism, including structure, hierarchy, respect for elders while reinforcing existing Korean attributes including high regard for culture, education, art and letters.
But, there were many negative effects as well, specifically, the treatment of women. In the preceding dynasties, such as the Shilla era (57 BC-935 AD), which was considered the Korean Age of Enlightenment and the Koryo era (935 AD to 1392), women had as much freedom as men. They were able to own and inherit land, were often the head of the household, and were literate both in letters and numbers. During the Shilla dynasty, women were highly regarded and well-respected active members of society.
As the Joseon era started to take hold, women were relegated to the background, forced into illiteracy as they were not allowed to be educated or go to school. They were entirely dependent and expected to be subservient first to their fathers, then to their husbands, and eventually to their sons. They were forbidden to be seen in public without either a family-related male companion or covered in a “Sseugae chima” which is similar to a burka-like covering. They had very few rights and freedoms and were often seen as a burden to the family. By the late Joseon period, women wore a small knife called “paedo” (패도) attached to their “hanboks” (traditional dress) and were expected to spear themselves through with the knife to kills themselves before they brought dishonour to the family. Husbands could divorce their wives, if they committed any of the “seven sins” (칠거지악, chilgeojiak), including disobeying the in-laws, not being able to bear a son, and talkativeness.
Then, the Joseon era abruptly ended around 1897 and from there, the status of women started to right itself back to the days of the Shilla dynasty again, coming full circle. As early as 1898, girls were allowed to be educated and able to go to school. By the 1930’s women could own property and even live independently. By 1948, women gained the right to vote. By the 1960’s, Korean women’s rights had caught-up to their counterparts in the West. By then, Korean women had already metaphorically cast-off the sseugae chima (the burka-like gown) and today, can dress as they wish, go where they want, and sing and dance in public. This may seem trivial but it is a major shift in the way Korean society perceives how women should behave. Now, women in Korea are the heads of corporations, leading academics, doctors, lawyers, scientists. By 2013, Koreans voted in their first woman President, reaching this breakthrough before the US and many other Western countries.
If Korea can come out of the dark ages in terms of their treatment of women and Korean women can take ownership of their personal journeys, there is plenty of hope for other nations yet.
Meet Sun-hi in The Homes We Build On Ashes
- Christina Park, author of The Homes We Build On Ashes (Fall 2015)