Academic journal article Studies on Asia

Gender Equality and the Practice of Virtue in the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) in Comparison with the Lienü Zhuan (Biographies of Virtuous Women) *

Academic journal article Studies on Asia

Gender Equality and the Practice of Virtue in the Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) in Comparison with the Lienü Zhuan (Biographies of Virtuous Women) *

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

The earliest extant record of Korean women in Korean historiography traces back to the Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms ..., 1145).1 Sporadically included in sections of chronicles and biographies in this official history, Korean women indirectly testified to their existence through their roles and virtues in relation to maximizing the profits of men, family, and society at large. The relatively low social position of women in traditional Korea has prompted scholars to eschew the historical significance of Korean women, thereby adding yet another example of male-centered historical writing prevalently found throughout the world. Women's history is a necessary and rich subject that, when questioned and probed, nourishes and completes our understanding of Korean history by providing a more comprehensive history of Korean people as a whole.

Academic discussion of women in Korean history seems to reflect their overall underrepresentation in historical texts. Given the Samguk sagi's significance to Korean history and culture, it is surprising that the existence of women in this historiography was left unexplored for so long.2 Luckily, scholars such as Yi Hyesun, Jung Jaeseo, and Yi Hyongu have begun to show their ardent interest in the representation of women in historiographies, including the Samguk sagi, in recent decades.3 Yet the critical discussion of the diverse aspects related to the women in the Samguk sagi remains far from sufficient, especially in comparison to the growing body of scholarship on women of Choson Korea (1392-1910).4

Discussion of the women in the Samguk sagi is critical to understanding the role of gender in Korean culture and to restoring the history of Korean women. Though the lack of historical sources hinders us from perfectly sketching women's status and roles, a close examination of women in the text will at least promote our understanding of the changing perceptions and expectations of women and their roles in family and society. For example, the discussion of women in the Samguk sagi helps us to reconsider the dominant view that Korean women enjoyed relatively more freedom during the Three Kingdoms period (first century B.C.E-668 C.E.) and the Koryo era (918-1392), a period dominated by Buddhism and Shamanism rather than Confucianism, the dominant ideology during the following Choson period.5 This view supposes that Korean women's status became restricted in proportion to the increasing influence of ne°Confucianism, which began in the 13th and 14th centuries and permeated every corner of society during the late Choson period (17th-19th centuries). Though this view is complicated and further nuanced by recent studies,6 the dominant role played by neo-Confucianism in controlling and oppressing women during the Choson dynasty cannot be denied. 7 The view has drawn attention to the instrumentality of Confucian scholars of the Koryo period in promoting the rise of the neo-Confucian elites of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), who featured a pro-Chinese or Chinacentered worldview and a stricter prescription of the practice of moral cultivation and Confucian virtues such as loyalty, filial piety, and chastity.

Due to its putative Confucian perspective, the Samguk sagi has often been considered contributory to the construction of Confucian society in Korea. In the nationalistic sociopolitical milieu of twentiethcentury Korea, the Samguk sagi was criticized for its negative impact.8 To the eyes of modern Koreans, the Confucian scholars of Choson society were guilty of sinocentrism, female-oppression, and class and gender discrimination. Frequent comparison of the Samguk sagi and the Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 1281) among the Korean populace placed blame on the side of the Samguk sagi. While the Samguk yusa, written by Buddhist monk Iryon (1206-1289), gained more favor from modern Koreans due to its focus on indigenous, local sources of Korean antiquity, Kim Pusik, the chief compiler of the Samguk sagi, suffered from the fallacy of anachronism on the part of later audiences. …

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