Power & Gender in the Early Korean State

Early Korean State regulation of everyday practices in the home created hierarchies of power according to gender that significantly reordered both public and private life. Through ideological emphasis on morality Confucian elites created precedents that underlie even contemporary power relations between women and men, civilians and state in contemporary Korean society.

With the transformation of society according to Korean Confucian ideology, women’s rights and power were eroded. According to Martina Deuchler’s analysis of law and key Confucian literature dating back to the 14th century, a set of codes regulating funerals, ancestor worship and inheritance significantly shifted power in both the domestic and public spheres. Under Goryeo Buddhism, women enjoyed rights to equal inheritance but the Confucian transformation of Joseon increasingly required that an unequal share of family wealth, prestige and power be set aside for the son born into the ‘right status,’ which in turn transformed society at large by stripping women of inheritance, remarriage and property rights, and redefining the status of first and second wives’ offspring (Deuchler pp. 145, 155-61, 175, 186, 219-222). In the home, these laws slowly seat the eldest son (or ritual heir) in a position of increasing power above uncles, secondary sons, sisters and adoptive relations.

Moral and social obligation ruled Choson women’s lives on many levels, as its “social order has a tendency towards extension: from an intimate order to a social one” (Lee, 373). The morals imposed by the public sphere on the private sphere also came to be reproduced by the punishment of men for the sins of their women. For example, the grandson of a thrice remarried “licentious woman” could not become an official because of this extension (Deuchler, 277). Thus, an incredibly strong system of consequences encouraged male kin to keep women in check, while severely punishing transgressions. The stakes were high in enforcing Confucian social mores, as these were the foundation of social stability. Women became tools of social construction as the “asymmetry of the sexes was necessary… to restrain sexual indulgence and selfishness, which would lead to social disorder” (Deuchler, 231). Since a Confucian yangban’s virtue is an extension of his home, Confucian social hierarchy came to depend on the delineation of women’s roles, status and the control of women’s ‘base nature’ in the home. These roles and the regulation of women’s morality came to be defined by a woman’s position as obedient daughter, then dutiful wife and finally as a wise mother.

Thus, Confucian marriage status came to be the most important factor in a woman’s life, next to the birth of her son. Choson era marriage emphasized fertility, and producing a male heir became a woman’s most sure course to avoid divorce (Deuchler, 273). Further, a woman’s position within the domestic sphere was based upon her legal marriage status, her children’s’ status and her husbands’ rank. According to Deuchler, a primary wife deferred to her mother-in-law but might one day become the head of women in the family. Her male child secured her position in the family, whereas a secondary wife could not exercise parental authority over her offspring. Finally, she held a special position in the family as the mother of the ritual heir, setting her apart from the wives of other brothers. Thus a strict domestic hierarchy and the ranking of women reflected and also reproduced the Confucian social order.

The social classes became defined by the “proper social identification of women, and therefore women became the keepers as well as the victims of an unequal system” (Deuchler, 236). For this reason, the rituals surrounding marriage and the legislation that ranks wives confer certain rights to sons, and maintain lines of descent while ensuring a gap between the kinds of families that produce daughters that can be yangban wives and the kinds of daughters that can be concubines. Thus, over the course of time ‘half yangban’ sons (and all daughters) lose their Koryo era property and political rights, based on the social ranks accorded to them by their mothers’ marriage status. Publicly, merit subjects and the Confucian elite slowly codify their class power, land ownership and create shifts in the rights and social position of women, slaves and common people. In contrast with elites, commoners were excluded from these Confucian codes, reflecting a widening gap between the ‘high and low,’ and the consolidation of power and emphasis on corvée labor and military service (pp. 195) for ‘low’ classes that lacked inheritable properties.

In this way, regulation of women’s power in society also controlled the power of their sons, resulting in a class system based on women’s reproduction of social hierarchies through marriage and child birth. These systems are echoed by contemporary laws governing the citizenship of so-called ‘multicultural family’ migrant wives, whom gain social acceptance and secure citizenship by performing as dutiful wives and mothers, reproducing Korean society (Cheng). Divorced marriage migrants, trafficked migrants, unmarried partners of Korean citizens, the migrant children (particularly those not ethnically Korean) of marriage migrants, and childless marriage migrants have at best a tenuous position in contemporary Korean society. Only through traditional conformity to gender roles, though reproduction of the family, do migrants secure their position in Korean society.   

Deuchler, Martina. 1995. The Confucian Transformation of Korea. Harvard University Press.

Lee, Jaehyuck. "Rational Rendering of Confucian Relationships in Contemporary Korea." Korea Journal, Summer, 2003.

Cheng, Sealing. "Sexual Protection, Citizenship and Nationhood: Prostituted Women and Migrant Wives in South Korea," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Vol. 37, No. 10, Dec. 2011.