Women in Late Joseon Korea – Part One

I spent a great deal of time in 2018 through early 2020 laid up in bed, feeling lousy. Later, I learned I had been suffering from allergies that had grown more acute with age and my recent move. Stuck in bed, I was too fatigued to write or even read, but I could watch streaming videos on my iPad. As many of you know, I’m a romance writer, so I enjoy romantic stories. Sadly, the Hallmark channel wasn’t working for me and, somewhere along the way, I had burned out on the numerous remakes of Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. That was how I discovered the marvelous world of K-Dramas. The contemporary K-Dramas were quite accessible to me (although I’ve come to learn that I miss a lot of cultural subtleties.) However, the historical K-Dramas truly perplexed me because the traditions and cultural roles were so unfamiliar. Nonetheless, I was entranced.

Since my blog is mostly Georgian through Edwardian American and British history–because those are the settings of my writing–I thought I might add a little Korean history.  Unfortunately, I have a serious Korean language barrier issue. Luckily, I found Quaint Korea, by Louise Jordan Miln, published in the last years of the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897.

Miln was an American actress who traveled with her husband’s theatrical company around the world. She penned several books and numerous articles on her experiences in Asia. After her husband’s death, she wrote romances set in China.  

I’ve excerpted sections from Quaint Korea concerning women’s roles in society.  There is so much information that I’m splitting it across multiple posts and weeks.

Of course, Miln only offers one Victorian woman’s observations of Joseon Korea (I’ve tried to edit out her opinions), and she may not be accurate. You are welcome to politely correct or add relevant information. Miln mostly documents poor and middle-class women, as well as Ki-saing (geisha.) But she didn’t write much information about court life, which many K-Dramas are set in.

I’ve included trailers for historical K-Dramas. Enjoy!

Socially and politically, in Korea, woman simply does not exist. She has not even a name. After marriage she is called by her husband’s name with the prefix of Mrs. Before marriage she has not even this pretence to a name.

***

Korean women are not uneducated, though they never go to schools; and books and materials for writing and painting are freely at their disposal.

***

Korean girls, long before they reach a marriageable age, live in the seclusion of the women’s quarters. After her betrothal a girl belongs not to her father but to her mother-in-law. Upon marriage she becomes the property of her husband, and is, in most cases, immediately taken to his dwelling. As in China, married sons live with their fathers. Sometimes three or four generations of one family occupy one home. But, unlike Chinese wives, each Korean wife has a room or rooms of her own. The only man who (in most families) ever enters them is her husband.

Korean girls are usually married between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two; and if married to a bachelor, he is almost invariably three or five, and often even eight, years their junior. But when a widower marries, or a man takes a second, or third, or fourth wife, he invariably selects a woman younger than himself.

***

In Söul, and in one other large city, children are commonly betrothed when the boy is seven or eight, but it is not so in the other parts of Korea. Korean widows must remain unmarried, or marry men who are the social inferiors of their dead husbands. And in Korea, as in China, a widow who re-marries is disgraced, and becomes more or less of a social outcast.

***

A Korean man cannot house his concubines or second-class wives under the roof that shelters his true or first wife, without her permission. Strangely enough, the first wife very rarely objects to living in rather close companionship with the other women of her husband’s household. Perhaps the longing for human companionship is stronger than jealousy in woman’s breast. And perhaps it is because the companionship of men is forbidden her, that a Korean wife comes to not only tolerate, but to enjoy the companionship of the women who share with her, her husband’s affection, attention, and support.

Korean women have not always lived in the strict seclusion in which they live now. Some of the older historians, Chinese and others, describe the appearance of the women and their manners without any hint that seeing them and knowing of them was anything unusual.

***

In every Korean house of any pretension the women’s apartments are in the most secluded part of the building. They open on to a garden, and never on to a street. The compound is walled, and no two families ever live upon the same compound.

***

The wives and daughters of well-to-do Koreans spend a great deal of time in their gardens, sharing naturally enough the intense love of their menkind for nature, and probably finding their peculiar lives more endurable among the trees and the birds and the lotus ponds, than they do in their queer little rooms, through the paper windows of which they cannot look unless they poke a hole with their fingers first—rooms in which there is little space and less furniture.

After the curfew rings it is illegal for a Korean man to leave his own house, unless under circumstances which I have stated in a previous chapter; then it becomes legal for Korean women to slip out and take the air and gossip freely.

***

As for Korean gentlewomen, they are skilled in Korean music, in Chinese and Korean literature. They are unsurpassed mistresses of the needle, more than able with the brush, and thoroughly acquainted with every detail of the complicated Korean etiquette. They are deft in the nice ceremonies of the toilet. They know the histories of Korea, of China, and perhaps of Japan. They are familiar with their own folklore, and can repeat it glibly and picturesquely. They are nurses and mothers and wives by nature, and wives, mothers, nurses, and accoucheuses [midwives] by training. Above all, they are taught (and they learn) to be amiable.

***

Among the poor all the household work is done by women, but among the rich the women have no domestic duties except those of nursing and sewing. All the garments of a Korean family are made by the women of the family. The purchase of a ready-made garment, or to hire it made, would be considered a disgrace to the family, and a deeper disgrace to its women.

Shhh. This image is from 1904.

***

I have spoken of the well-to-do Korean as having a plurality of wives. This is not so. And that such a misstatement has been made by writers of eminence, and ordinarily of great exactness, is no excuse for me. A Korean can have but one wife, one true and absolute wife, but … he may have as many concubines as he can afford, and their position, though not so high of rank, is as honourable, and as respectable as that of his wife.

***

As I have said, they are not on a social equality with the wife, but they are, to the best of my belief, on a moral equality with her, both in the eyes of law and in the eyes of morality itself.

***

A Korean’s concubines are almost as absolutely the handmaidens of his wife as of himself. They must serve her and do her bidding, and can only escape from this in the rare instance when one rises in the man’s eyes to higher favour than the wife.

The children of a concubine do not as a rule rank with the children of a wife, but they are neither despised nor shamed. They are born to a slightly lower rank, it is true, but that signifies little, for in Korea every man must carve out his own niche in the social rock, and they, the children of the handmaidens, have as fair a start in life, and as clean a name, as the children of the wife.

***

All must yield unquestioning obedience to the husband, and, in his absence, all the concubines must yield and do yield as implicit obedience to the wife. She in return is very apt to make them her playfellows and her bosom friends.

***

Though a Korean woman nominally counts for nothing in the ruling of her own household, and, as far as the workings of the State go, does not exist, she is invariably treated with the manner of respect; she is always addressed in what is called “honorific language;” to her the phraseology is used which is used to superiors, people of age, or of literary eminence. A Korean nobleman will step aside to let a Korean peasant woman pass him on the street. The rooms of a Korean woman are as sacred to her as a shrine is to its image. Indeed, the rooms of his wife or of his mother are the sanctuary of any Korean man who breaks the law. Unless for treason or for one other crime, he cannot be forced to leave those rooms, and so long as he remains under the protection of his wife, and his wife’s apartments, he is secure from the officers of the law, and from the penalties of his own misdemeanors.

***

There are very few crimes for which a Korean woman can be punished. Her husband is answerable for her conduct, and must suffer in her stead if she breaks any ordinary law.

Queen Min

***

Korea has had many remarkable women who have left their as yet indelible stamp upon the customs and the laws of their country, and upon the thought of their countrymen. Korea has had at least three great queens.

The present King of Korea owes his kingship, in large part at least, to his great-grandmother, Dowager Queen Cho, who adopted him, and in 1864 was largely instrumental in securing for him the throne to which the royal consul had elected him.

***

And until the breaking out of the Chino-Japanese war, the most powerful person in Korea was, and for twenty years had been, a woman, the king’s wife. Queen Min, for even she has no name, and is known only by the name of the race from which she has sprung, comes of one of the two great intellectual families of Korea; and the great family of Min has produced no cleverer woman or man than the wife of Li-Hsi.

***

A Korean once told me (he was a kinsman of Queen Min, a traveller, a linguist, and a man of—cosmopolitanly speaking—most considerable attainments) that his wife was more widely and more thoroughly versed in Chinese literature, modern and classic, than he. And Chinese literature is indisputably the greatest literature that Asia has ever produced.

The Queen of Korea is, with the possible exception of the Dowager Empress of China, as well educated as any royal lady in Asia.

***

The Queen is pale and delicate-looking. She has a remarkable forehead, low but strong, and a mouth charming in its colouring, in its outlines, in its femininity, in the pearls it discloses, and sweet with the music that slips through it when she speaks. She dresses plainly as a rule, and in dark but rich materials. In this she resembles the high-born matrons of Japan. And in cut her garments are more Japanese than those of other Korean women: she wears her hair parted in the middle, and drawn softly into a simple knot or coil of braid. She wears diamonds most often; not many, but of much price. They are her favourite gems. In this one particular she is almost alone among the women of the East; for pearls are the beloved jewels of almost every woman and girl-child that is born in the Orient.

Queen Min has been as assiduous as she has been powerful in advancing the interests of her family—the family of her birth I mean, for her marriage—unlike the marriages of other Korean women—has no whit divorced her from the people of her blood. All the desirable offices in Korea were held for years by her kinsmen.

Queen Min has not only been the power behind the Korean throne, but she has been, even more than the King, the all-seeing eye of Korea. Her spies have been everywhere, seen everything, reported everything.

She—the most powerful Korean in Korea—is content to be nameless; a sovereign with almost unlimited power, but without a nominal individuality; and to be called merely by the family name of her forefathers, and to be designated only as the daughter of her fathers, the wife of her husband, and the mother of her son.

It strikes an Occidental as even more strange that a woman so supremely powerful with her husband and king should be so graciously tolerant of the women of his harem. She not only tolerates them, she seems to like them, to take pride in them, and she is on the friendliest terms with Li-Hsi’s eldest son, who is also the son of a concubine. True her own son is the crown prince, but it is probable that his elder brother and not he will be Korea’s next king, if the present dynasty be destined to have another king. Li Hsia—Queen Min’s son—is not the imbecile he has been reported, but he has not the greatest mental strength, and less strength of body.

Susanna’s Note: Quaint Korea was published in 1895, the same year Queen Min was assassinated.

 Royal palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung

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