When people usually think of women’s status in the Joseon dynasty, a first thing that come up to their mind is the inequality of gender. This is essentially true, but not from the very start. Unbelievably in the early Joseon dynasty, women’s status was relatively equal to those of men like the Koryo dynasty. But women’s rights have slowly went through a process of regression and by end of the dynasty, Joseon was recognized as a most strictly idealistic Confucianism country that seriously suppressed the women’s rights and equality.
To find out how it Joseon gradually changed with the course of time, this research will cover the following questions: what kind of regulations did Joseon compiled under the ethics of Confucianism and what was the contributing factors that was behind these changes. Lastly, by focusing on to a representative social customs known as inheritance and adoption, this paper will identify how the changes have impacted the upper class women’s status in Joseon dynasty overtime. Methodology For conducting this research, a two books from the UMBC library were used as the main sources.
These books include a descriptive information and the statistical charts about the number of the successor based on the gender. These charts were categorized by the gender, social class, and relationship to the successor. Based on the books, these data were collected from the Joseon wangjo sillok [The veritable records of the Joseon dynasty] and Kyongsang-do Tansong-hyon hojok taejang [The household register for Tansong-hyon, Kyongsang province]. In addition, a research article about women in Joseon dynasty was used as a reference. Contributing Factors and Reforms
The establishment of Joseon dynasty was a forewarning to the lively and liberal women’s life from Koryo dynasty. In fact, the change of dynasties was a signal for a fundamental change led by Taejo Yi Song-kye, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, who identified the breakdown of women’s morals as one of the main causes for the downfall of the Koryo dynasty (Han 2004). Due to this belief, the kings of next generations established a several regulations governing women’s lives to make them an ideal figure required by Confucianism unlike the free Koryo women (Han 2004).
Many restrictions on omen were pronounced during the reign of King Sejong, telling us that even King Sejong, who is known as very enthusiastic figure for his people, were against the liberal women. A legal codes such as naewoebop, which imposed stringent restrictions on inter-gender contact and women’s activities, kyongjae yukjon [Six Codes of Governance], outlining how women from the upper class were permitted to interact with her family, and samgang haengsildo [Conduct of the Three Bonds] were compiled during King Sejong’s period (Han 2004). Although these regulations were not implemented immediately, it sure was a beginning to curtail women’s freedom.
Of course, such a change was not expected to follow right next day. Not many people, even upper class did not follow these regulations right away. However, the changes occurred continuously and gradually over the centuries. Over a period of time, the regulations were further strengthened. By the reign of King Songjong, kyongguk taejon [National Code], a prohibition of women’s attendance to the ceremony or to the festival, naehun, a guideline for educating upper class women, and sohak, emphasizing the natural order of general gender relations, were compiled additionally.
And these restrictions were chiefly limited to upper class women (Han 2014; Chung 114). Despite of numerous national legal codes, women up until mid-Joseon dynasty were still preserving their rights not equally as before but not down to the extreme level as we used to know. However, a turning points called the imjinwaeran [Japanese invasions of 1592] and byungjahoran [Manchu invasions 1627] occurred. Focusing on the imjinwaeran, many women during the invasion were killed themselves or killed by Japanese soldiers to preserve their chastity (Chung 113).
This is suggesting that at this point of time, mid-Joseon, women begin to accept being chaste and upright as a part of their duty. Their chastity were achieved by death and recognized as yollyo [virtuous woman]. In other cases, many women were kidnapped or raped by the Japanese soldiers. This became a tremendous problem to the upper class elites because it was their purity and bloodline that distinguished between them and the commoners (Kim & Pettid 53). If bloodlines of upper class were dirtied by with foreign blood, their status would not be justified.
The disastrous consequences of the invasions, the breakdown of the social systems, ineptitude of the government, and its weakened position, all combined to bring about a period of heightened social change, especially for women as Joseon realized the collapse of Confucian morality (Kim & Pettid 53). The government had to emphasize the behavior from the Confucian ideal to keep in control of people’s behavior that was focused on survival post invasion by honoring those who followed Confucian behaviors (Kim & Pettid 54).
The government created the perception that the people of Joseon had acted in an almost single accord and had “heroically clung to Confucian notions” such as loyalty, filiality, and virtuous womanly behavior (Kim & Pettid 54). As ruling parties tried to spread Confucian ideals to every level of society, it was also a period of change for women as people begin to focus heavily on virtuous woman as a practical ideal.
The shift toward practicality led to the creation of new model for women with various aspects of a women’s life such as childrearing, management of the domestic sphere, and serving her husband (Kim & Pettid 54). From this time, numerous publications aimed at women were printed and distributed by governmental agencies for education of women to be ideal. Judging by these model-making acts, it is clear that the ruling parties of Joseon valued the model of the virtuous woman as essential for the maintenance of patriarchal society.
Inheritance and Adoption One representative social changes of women between early and late Joseon dynasty is the inheritance. In the publication called kyongguk taejon, published during King Sejo’s reign, it mentions about the inheritance law in early Joseon. According to the kyongguk taejon, both son and daughter have rights for the inheritance and it may be distributed in equal amount regardless of their marital status. Even after she married, Wife’s property was managed separately from husband’s property.
This fact of women possessing individual properties or assets are indicating that they were not economically dependent to men. Also, both genders possessing ability to inherit meant that husband and wife shared equal rights when their spouse died, except when husband remarried, his first wife’s property are returned to her family (Han 2004). Thus, women’s legal right to inherit was based on the notion of namgwiyogahon, under which women’s economic conditions were better and the position of the maternal side of the family was held in higher esteem (Han 2004).
However from mid-Joseon dynasty, women’s right to inherit was seriously declined, as a patriarchal lineages developed and right to conduct ancestral rites were given solely to the first male heir of the household (Han 2004). The notions of inheritance and the right to conduct ancestral rites were closely related. Before mid-Joseon, blood ties were considered important as maternal lineages were equally valued as paternal lineage and it would let daughters to conduct rites equally as son did.
But, when the law changed allowing only male heir to be qualify for the rites, it eventually disqualified the females from the inheritance line. This resulted male oriented inheritance system as daughters were expected to leave their parents and not conduct rites for them after they pass away (Han 2004). These changes are evident in the statistical chart called class and successors to householder from Kim and Pettid’s book (115). According to the chart’s upper class successors to house holder category, in 1678, there were 11. 7% male and 88. 3% female successors.
In 1717, there were 60. % male and 39. 4% female successors (Kim & Pettid 115). In 1759, there were 86. 8% male and 13. 2% female successors (Kim & Pettid 115). Additionally, for the husband to wife succession, it was 90. 6% in 1678, 35. 8% in 1717, and 23% in 1759. It is evident that before mid-Joseon, the percentage of female successor was overwhelmingly high, but post Japanese invasion, it reversed. There were still a families inheriting to their daughters or husband to wife, but its number fall drastically as shown in the data. So, the existence of a son became desperate by mid-late Joseon dynasty.
Because inheritance were given to the male heir priority, the custom of adopting a son begin to spread if the family did not have one. If a woman was widowed and if she did not have any child or only have a daughter, a boy, from the husband’s relative, could be adopted for sake of the dead husband (Chung 146). Here is the difference between women as a daughter and women as a daughter-in-law. As mentioned earlier, daughter can inherit her parents’ property if family is willing to do so, but she cannot conduct the rites. Women’s status as daughter-in-law is not same.
They have responsibilities to take care of their husband’s rites but she isn’t qualified to do so and so is her daughter. In order to solve this problem, an adoption of a son is very necessary. A status of widow in inheritance rank are expectedly low. A widow no longer have right to inherit deceased husband’s property as before. When ranking the inheritance, the couple’s children are the first and second is the adopted son or widows as temporarily only for her lifetime; after her death, the property is returned to husband’s family, and lastly, the iblings of the predecessor (Chung 146).
As reading the second law, a temporary inheritance for widow seems very useless as she is bound to the husband’s house for rest of her life and she must obey her parents-in-law, and prohibited from spending money without a permission. What would be a meaning of giving temporary inheritance to the widow? Women in Joseon were taught samjongjido, which is teaching them to be submissive to three most important people in their lives, their fathers, husbands, and sons (Han 2004).
As women lost their right in inheritance, they are thought to be subjected to men since their economic independence was no longer guaranteed. Those three most important people are the ones economically aiding women for their life time and women have no choice but to depend on them. Conclusion As founders of the Joseon dynasty identified the decline in morality as one of the main reasons for the downfall of the Koryo dynasty, it was necessary for them to reinforce women’s regulations to grant the Confucian and patriarchal society they desired.
As studying about women’s status of Joseon dynasty, there were a clear reasons for the causes and effects of the Confucianism. And although Joseon was known to be strictly Confucianism country stereotypically nowadays, it didn’t start from the very beginning; it happened gradually throughout 500 years of the dynasty to be completed. By conducting this research, it was possible to keep a track of how Confucianism took place in Joseon dynasty and how it changed and impacted the status of one country and women’s lives.