How was the Korean Housewife Constructed?

Yesterday I posted a critique of the lazy way we toss around the term Confucian to describe contemporary Korean gender roles. A great comment by a reader prompted me to add additional explanation of what we might overlook when we focus on ‘Confucian’ and ‘traditional’ values. For a more specific discussion of Confucian ideology, I have written about Confucianism and the Choson Dynasty on this blog a few times: Power & Gender in the Early Korean State, Fashion: Regulating the Inner/Outer in Choson Korea, Comparing Marriage in the Middle Ages and Korea’s Choson Dynasty: 서양의 중세 초기와 조선의 결혼비교, and 조선 초기의 파워와 젠더체제. Here I’d like to throw out for our consideration some important alternate explanations of the contemporary construction of family life in Korea. 

I point out internal and external factors that have affected Korea in its modern history to emphasize the breadth of forces at play that are left entirely out of the discussion when we rush to attribute something to Korea's Confucian past. 

Many Confucian social and legal regulations were codified that affected family life, especially between 1300 and 1700. But there is significant doubt as to how deeply Confucian values penetrated into the common social consciousness, as they were largely codes to regulate the elite yangban. The colonial period was immediately predated by a ‘rush to modernize’ to avoid colonization in the late 1800s. On top of that the colonial period through 1945 was a major disruption in so many social structures that we might dub ‘traditional’ so that what we are calling ‘traditional’ today is a complicated reassertion or reconstruction or reclaiming of ‘traditions’ which shouldn’t be presented as a continuous march to the present. There are absolutely some lingering legacies, but we need to add depth to our understanding of Confucianism if we are going to throw it around as an explanation for Korean society today. Worse, I fear that by relying too heavily on the convenience of the Confucian explanation, we overlook more important influences on family life.

For example, in talking about housewives, we should not have this conversation without discussing the following major influences in recent history:

THE FIRST being the urbanization drive under Park Chung Hee, which disrupted ‘traditional’ family life in incredibly transformative ways. In Confucian and even in colonial period Korea family structures were generally larger multi-generational networks and geographically close. Pre-industrialization in Korea (which was only partially ushered in during the colonial period) families were more agrarian and family roles quite different from today. Here on the blog we have discussed the Theory of Compressed Modernization, which describes how Korea underwent rapid transformation in under 60 years that Europe process over the course of 200 years. When Park Chung Hee pushed urban industrialization, state policy transformed the family. Where once a network of women and men cooperated in a large family unit, now a mother was mobilized to prepare her husband, children (male and female) for economic competition in the city and factory. When the state didn’t have the foresight to prepare some social safety nets for the elderly left in the countryside, it was more convenient to criticize women for abandoning their ‘traditional’ roles than acknowledge how the state had reconstructed family life without preparing to care for the old. Newspapers in the 1970s criticize women (similar critiques emerged of the ‘New Woman’ in the colonial period). This transformation under Park Chung Hee sounds a lot more like the housewife Harper describes than anything in Confucian texts or dating back to Choson. There are absolutely some lingering legacies of Confucian ideology in Korean society, but these are redefined and deployed by contemporary actors.

SECOND, we can’t overlook the reality that European and North American societies made basically the same general decisions about gendered division of labor amidst industrialization. This is another reason to doubt a uniquely Korean tradition that created the housewife.

THIRD, I think the intensification of competition for rapid modernization probably has had the most direct and adverse affects on human rights conditions in Korean society. This means that in thinking about how to address these harms, we are distracting ourselves with ‘Confucian tradition’ when maybe we should instead be thinking about the hegemonic way Samsung corporate structure harms family life in contemporary Korea, or the continued mobilization of the people by government to make steep sacrifices with inadequate social safety nets. Looking too distantly and too ‘culturally’ into Korea’s past obscures the political and economic changes we can demand today that are changing patterns of inequality. We need only look to the incredibly important influence of the IMF crisis in the 1990s, which reversed a lot of trends in Korean society toward gender equality. Not unlike recessions in other regions, women pay a heavier price for economic slowdown, and that isn’t unique to Korea. It is a failure of most societies to adequately engage women productively in society in ways that respect their human rights. For more discussion of Compressed Modernization Theory on this blog, please see Compressed Modernization for Gender Studies 압축적 근대성와 젠더 and 압축적 근대성 이론 Compressed Modernization Theory for Korean Studies.

TO wrap this up, I think it is really skipping quite a few steps to simplistically say that the housewife in contemporary Korea is a Confucian tradition unique to Korea. It just isn’t that linear. Better to understand a variety of factors and locate the influences that have the most detrimental effects on women’s human rights.

Lastly, I've written a few times about the problem of associating violence against women as 'unique' to certain societies. Some of these earlier posts could definitely use some revisiting, revising or renewed debate. In the following posts I emphasize that HOW we talk about violence against women is very important:

Sexual Violence as a Migrating Woman, Re: India Story You Never Wanted to Hear

Yoon is NOT in a 'sex scandal'

Buzzfeed! Fearing rape is not a “Unique side effect of being an Indian girl”

Single Moms & Korean Fertility Policy 싱글맘와 한국의의 가족계획

~녀 뉴스 or Nyo News, the Female Files

MBC 응답 Responses to MBC's The Shocking Reality About Relationships With Foreigners

Rape and Sex Offender Registry in Korea 성폭행와 성범죄자알림