Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan

By Dorothy Ko; Jahyun Kim Haboush et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Representation of Females in
Twelfth-Century Korean Historiography
Hai-soon Lee

The Samguk sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms), the oldest extant history of Korea, was compiled in 1145 under the general editorship of Kim Pusik (1075–1151), a renowned scholar and statesman. The “three kingdoms” are Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla, which were contending for hegemony on the Korean peninsula from the fourth to seventh centuries. As the first history of Korea written in the Confucian historiographical tradition, 1 the Samguk sagi became a model in form and content for later official history writing. It was the first historical text that constructed and presented concepts of the Korean state, its kingship, ethnicity, and civilization, and the relationships among these entities. Moreover, the terms in which these elements were presented in the Samguk sagi served as a point of departure for later discourses on Korean identity.

The lofty concepts of civilization and civility were often expressed in concrete personal terms by way of biographies. Biography occupied a special place in Confucian historiography in China, which construed individuals as moral archetypes of virtue and vice against which later individuals were measured. The men and women profiled in the biographical sections of the Samguk sagi, too, acquired immortality as heroes, heroines, or villains in the popular imagination that has continued to the present day. This chapter offers an analysis of some of the women who appeared in the section “Biographies” in the Samguk sagi. My thesis, stated briefly, is that the representation of these women played a key role in Kim's construction of an idealized Confucian world.


THE MEANING OF “CONFUCIAN”
IN TWELFTH-CENTURY KOREA

Although the historical vision represented in the Samguk sagi is identifiably Confucian, one should note that Confucianism had not yet acquired hegemony in twelfthcentury Korea. The book was written during a volatile period in Koryŏ history (918–1392), when a number of intellectual and political forces contested one another. One conflict was that between literati who privileged belles lettres, especially poetry,

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