Upvote Confucian Influence on Koryo and Choson Women.

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Historical Background

Ancient Korean societies had their own unique cultural and spiritual ways of life that incorporated both God and powerful spirits, as it is seen in early shamanism. However, their beliefs gradually changed, as they encountered the Chinese, who had a similar influence as the Greek on European culture. The Chinese passively transmitted Confucianism to both Japan and Korea. By 1392, Confucianism had been adopted as the guiding principle and formed the basis on which the Choson and Koryo dynasties were founded. Confucianism hugely influenced Koryo's political life, while Buddhism still played an equal role in society. During the Koryo dynasty, extravagant aristocracy led to the growth of Korean art industry, while its army floundered. Around 1392, Confucian scholar Yi Song-gye overthrew Koryo dynasty and founded the Choson dynasty. Within Choson, Confucianism was practiced alongside state religions of Buddhism and, to lower extent, shamanism. Confucianism philosophy emphasized the importance of virtuous life, worshipping of ancestors, and stability of having a leader with high moral standing. Despite the balance, it brought bureaucratic setup and negative influence on women within the society. For Korean women, Confucianism presented a dark age. The framework believes in a universal hierarchical order between men and women that must be maintained for a smoother, peaceful society. In later stages of the Choson dynasty, Confucianism and neo-Confucianism negatively affected the role of women in society, gradually giving women an inferior and subordinate position within the community compared to ancient Korean societies where females enjoyed both economic and social freedom, had similar rights to their brothers when it came to ancestral inheritance, and were free to remarry. Under Confucianism, the women were expected to conform to ideologies of purity, respect, faithfulness, and male domination. The philosophy generally presented a backward step for women in that community.

Influence of Confucianism on Women

Women’s Status in the Society

Confucian values required all women regardless of social status to be able to do a considerable amount of household chores. The females were required to maintain a healthy lifestyle by upholding cleanliness and providing clean, healthy meals within their households. Women were mainly supposed to devote their time to cooking, weaving, giving birth, rearing of children. Senior women were expected to control spiritual forces such as ghosts. On his way to Jeongju, King Taejo, the founder of Koryo dynasty (918-1392), dinned at a local village. Despite their high social status within the village, the leader ordered his daughter, a young Lady Yu, to serve the king.[footnoteRef:1] The leader’s actions were in accordance to Confucian ideologies, which emphasized women subordination to men as the foundation to societies morality. Another example of women acting as model housewives depicted in the Goryeo era by Yeom Gyeong-ae. Despite her family's reputable status, she married and respected Choe, whose family held a lesser rank in the society. Thus, Confucian laws emphasized that women had a duty to carry out household chores and respect their husbands [1: 1. Lee Bae-Yong, Women in Korean History (Seoul: Ewha Woman’s University Press, 2008), 149-151.]

Confucianism emphasizes the building of political relations between states, on intimate relationships rather than institutional pacts. Women played a vital role in the formation of new alliances and growth of nations. To solidify his position as the head, King Taejo married the daughters of powerful local families from all over the peninsula in a bid to secure support amid political instability within his kingdom. By the end of the unrest, he had married twenty-nine wives, all representing various regions within the peninsula. Building political relations was very important for the king, as it is seen through the case where the king was not able to crown his son Mu since his mother, Lady Oh, came from an ordinary family, thus could not mobilize troops.

Inheritance and Women

Confucianism also saw a change in kinship and inheritance, thus affecting women. The Choson society was significantly dominated by the aristocratic Yangban class who wanted to establish a patriarchal family order, and with this, the position of women changed when it came to inheritance. The eldest son became the sole inheritor of all family fortune under these changes, and this illustrated when King Taejo was appointing Mu as his successor upon his death[footnoteRef:2]. Under this new Confucian way, women became entirely dependent on affinal wealth, hence losing their rights to any form of inheritance. It was in contrast to early Koryo dynasty before the growth of Confucianism where women enjoyed equal rights to patrimonial ancestral properties. [2: 2. Ibid.]

In 1313, a law passed in Koryo dynasty where wives were ranked based on social backgrounds. The first wife was referred to as the primary wife with her position elevated within her husband’s descent group. Ancient Korean society was highly aristocratic, and as such, distinction between wives was not only based on interpretation of the law but also family ties and classes. In Koryo dynasty, a juxtaposition existed between patrilineality and bilateralism, with family descendants determined through the male line (patrilineality), while social status within the society determined bilaterally. Such strict social setup meant that women from esteemed families automatically became the primary wives with their sons, primary sons, enjoying privileges, such as being first in line during inheritance and given first preference when it came to political administrations.

Women from lower classes were mostly regarded as secondary wives and lacked any social privileges. Thus, their sons termed as secondary sons were excluded from domestic and political affairs and could not challenge primary sons in most parts of Koryo dynasty. The inequality placed by Confucian philosophy on women and their sons persisted throughout Koryo dynasty and most parts of Choson dynasty. Early Korean Confucianism was significantly based on social status, hence greatly influencing the lives and thoughts of women from elite families. The ranking of wives and sons shows the oppression that Confucian beliefs brought with it.

Interpersonal Relationship

In accordance to neo-Confucian philosophies, Choson era saw an alteration in the marriage setup. Old Korean traditions required the man to move into his in-law's homestead upon marriage, but Confucians altered this law with the woman needed to leave her family and join her husband's family upon marriage. Besides this, women or wives were rigidly divided into several categories, such as concubine and legitimate wives. The division of women into groups best illustrated by Lee Bae-Yong who narrates the legends of King Taejo of Koryo era (918-1392) who had twenty-nine wives. The wives were grouped into various categories, with three of them referred to as "queen consort," three more as the "queen dowager" and the remaining wives as simply the "lady."[footnoteRef:3] Confucian laws had an impact on the lives of women once they got married, as various wives enjoyed different privileges. [3: 3. Ibid.]

To the outside society men were tasked with maintaining peace and harmony within their family; however, behind the scenes, the women, primary wives, were the stewards of most family affairs. Women were required to fulfill their devotion to their family-in-law with Confucian doctrines demanding that they transfer their filiality to their new parents.[footnoteRef:4]To ease such emotional burdens, the women mostly preferred to start living at their marital homes at a mature age in late Choson era. Moving into their husband’s family homestead also meant women had to deal with their brother-in-law wives in the early part of 17th century in ancient Korea, with conflicts bound to arise due to the difference in economic standings between brothers. Confucianism tries to address this issue by stressing on brotherly hierarchy, where younger siblings were required to respect and subordinate to their older brothers. [4: 4. Martina Deuchler, “Propagating Female Virtues in Confucian Korea,” in Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, ed. Dorothy Ko, Ja Hyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 142-169.]

Confucian Influence on Economics

However, despite the harsh constraints Confucian principles placed on women in society, women still played vital roles in the growth of the community. Women in the later stages of Choson era played a significant role in the economic development. Despite being in charge of household duties and minor in socio-economic activities, women carried out various economic activities to supplement their families financially. According to Pettid, women participated in agriculture and sold fish, salt and liquor at local marketplaces. [footnoteRef:5] [5: 5. Michael J. Pettid, "Working Women in Choson Korea: An Exploration of Women's Economic Activities in A Patriarchal Society," Journal of Global Initiatives, no. 5 (2010): 25-35.]

Women were further expected to manage their family finances under Confucian domestic laws. Women, particularly first or primary wives, were in charge of family purse strings, while their husbands concentrated on their official careers or educational pursuits.6 A good wife under Confucian doctrines was expected to economize family expenditure, take care of ancestral properties and avoid debts. Women who carefully managed her family’s wealth were seen as virtuous and wise by the society, and hence, fathers taught their mature daughters to be thoughtful and avoid profit-seeking, which was discouraged under Confucian beliefs.

Confucian scholars thought that a woman who sought profits by engaging in external activities and forsaking human feelings and nature cannot be considered wise or virtuous. Confucianism was, however, kind to wives of poor Confucian scholars who were allowed to weave and collect skill worms to raise profits of their families, without being considered dishonorable. Such ideas presented a backward step for women who previously enjoyed greater economic freedom to carry out their businesses and generate profits in pre-Confucian Korean societies.

Women Education

Confucian school of thought greatly influenced the education of women in Korean society. Confucian studies and education were mostly dominated by men in both Koryo and Choson eras, with women most preoccupied with household chores. However, no strict regulation was in place about women and the study of Confucian philosophy; thus, a few women devoted their lives to the study of Confucian thoughts and classical doctrines.

Confucian literary work was published in early parts of 15th century to guide both the elite and lowborn women in the society. Concerned by the unreformed nature of elite women, King Songjong ordered the translation of Chaste Woman to local languages in 1481 and copies distributed to all educated women within the capital. In 1475, Queen Consort, Lady Han, extraction various Confucian passages from several written works and published the Naehum in a bid to correct women nature and bring it in line to Confucian society. In the book, Lady Han emphasizes the importance of devotion to in-laws, proper speech and behavior as well as all aspects of Confucian doctrines. The translation and distribution of the article by king show that Confucian beliefs on women were prominent during this period and were to be understood and followed by all women.

In the late Choson dynasty between 1721-1793, Kang Chongildang and Im Yunjidang both applied themselves to the study of Confucian philosophy. Upon their death, Kang and Yunjidang's literal collections were published, which was rare for women. Confucian oppression of women can also be noted in Korean educational setups. Women were not allowed to be part of the studies, but a few females were able to beat this and become scholars of the work of Confucius. In traditional Korean learning, Sirhak, Confucian rules, denied women the chance to be vocal. Women were also denied the opportunity to write their poetry and literary works for the public to avoid their jobs being sung by prostitutes, entertainers, and other groups that were considered lowly. Hence, the females were not allowed to express themselves fully.

Chastity in Women

One of the founding principles of Confucian literature was the importance of chastity in women. In ancient Korean community, chastity varied from women walking outside their marital houses only at night with their faces covered with a veil to extreme steps such as marital suicides. Confucian doctrine dictated that a virtuous woman should be loyal to only one husband and not two.

In Choson era, chastity was strictly observed, with widowed women discouraged from remarriages. To ensure the society upheld these thoughts, the sons of remarried women barred from civil service examinations and other public affairs. Choson dynasty also saw widowed women commit suicides in honor of their dead husbands. Under Confucian beliefs, such women celebrated with commemoratives to display their exemplary beliefs in the doctrine. In the early years of Choson dynasty, only women from the elite classes committed suicides; however, as Confucian beliefs spread across Korea, the females from all classes, including slaves, emulated the act. It was in contrast to the liberties enjoyed by women in pre-Confucian Korean societies. Before Confucian ideologies, Korean women were allowed to remarry without facing any form of social stigmatizations.

Lowborn Women

Confucian beliefs led to a strict separation of roles women could perform in the society. Women from elite families were forbidden from doing specific duties, medics, and entertainers; hence, most of these duties were left to women from low-income families [footnoteRef:6] Many women died due to illnesses, as they could not access medicine since all doctors were male. King Taejong, in the sixth year of his reign 1418-1450, let women be trained to know how to carry out acupuncture and feel a pulse. The king made this decision at the request of Heo Do, a public servant. Maidservants were the ones who would receive this training, as it was considered lowly. Women of the upper-class and commoners were not allowed to be in contact with men; thus, they did not train as medical personnel to avoid scorn and ridicule. While this gave lowborn women an opportunity to acquire knowledge in the field of medicine, the primary intention of this move was to enable the strict separation of men and women to remain intact. [6: 6. C.C, Tsai, The Analects: An Illustrated Edition (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018): 42-68, 127-195. ]

Female medical personnel had their role changed by king Yeonsangun, who ruled between 1494 and 1506. The female medics were turned into private entertainers for the king since they were better educated; thus, they had better skills in poetry. The female medical personnel was to sing at royal parties as well as carry out their medical duties. It shows that based on Confucian beliefs, even educated women were not held in high regard during this period and were still seen as inferior.

Lowborn women also played the role of entertainers. Thus, they were tasked to entertain noble men, visiting envoys, and were treated as prostitutes. Moreover, there was an effort to abolish female entertainers, as Confucian philosophies encouraged morality, but it was difficult to abolish them, as many men argued that the female entertainers were necessary. Many males claimed that without these female entertainers, there would be many cases of women from ordinary families assaulted. It shows that men during this period treated women as sexual objects and encouraged prostitution. Female entertainers had an obligation to bring in their daughters and nieces to replace them when they retired. It was compulsory for a female entertainer to bring a replacement, and the only way one would escape this was by paying a certain fee. Female entertainers were not limited to the separation of men and women and could interact freely. Lowborn women had their roles selected for them by society.

Women and Religion

Although Confucianism included little details on religious matters, women played a central role in the Shamanism cult. During the reign of King Yuri, 18BCE women were sorceresses believed to have the power to see into the future and foretelling fortunes. From ancient texts such as Treatise on Sacrifices, it is evident women played a significant role in spiritual activities. Ritual handbooks were written to help women familiarize themselves with ways to prepare and present sacrificial food. Primary wives were expected to oversee all preparations for offerings.


Women throughout Koryo and Choson dynasties of ancient Korea were forced to conform to Confucian doctrines of morality, male domination, and respect. The philosophy presented a backward step for old Korean women compared to previous social setups. Before the establishment of Confucianism in the early Koryo dynasty, women enjoyed both social and economic freedoms. Women had equal rights as their brothers to ancestral properties, while they had the liberty of remarriage without facing any form of social stigmatization. However, all these freedom and rights changed significantly when Confucian ideologies established roots within Korean dynasties. Women were suddenly expected to submit to their husbands and move into their in-law's homesteads, remarriage was forbidden, and so was the economic freedom they once enjoyed significantly curtailed under Confucian beliefs. Such drastic changes in the role and position of women beg the questions, “Did ancient Korean women readily submit to these new ideologies? Or Did they offer some form of resistance?” It is hard to believe women in early Koryo dynasty readily submitted to this new oppressive doctrine, and as such, more research could be done to determine the responses of ancient Korean women when Confucianism was first established and Confucian Ideologies implemented.


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