Propagating Female Virtues
in Chosŏn Korea
Women do not figure prominently in Korean historiography past or present. To be sure, biographies of “virtuous women” (yŏllyŏ) constituted a separate historiographical category since Chinese-style writing of history was adopted in Korea. The earliest extant examples are contained in Kim Pusik's (1075–1151) History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi), discussed in this volume by Lee Hai-soon. The short preface that introduced the biographies of virtuous women (yŏllyŏjŏn) in the mid-fifteenth-century History of Koryŏ (Koryŏsa) states:
In olden times, when a girl was born, she received education from a nurse; when she grew up, she received instruction from a [female] teacher. Thus, she became a wise daughter in her natal home, and when she got married, she became a wise daughter-in-law, and when she met adversities, she became a virtuous woman. In later times, instruction for women did not reach the inner chambers, and thus [for women] to establish themselves firmly and, when confronted with disaster or in the face of blank weapons, not to change their resolve, whether they were to live or to die, can be said to be difficult indeed. [For this reason] we have compiled biographies of virtuous women. 1
In the absence of proper instruction, these early stories about women who selflessly risked their lives for their husbands were to convey an educative message. The spotlight of the historian was on the heroic deed illustrating Confucian notions of womanly behavior rather than on women as agents of their own will.
This chapter deals with elite women of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) and in particular explores the extent to which they absorbed and embodied the new social values and norms imposed on them by the Neo-Confucian legislators at the beginning of the dynasty. In Chosŏn Korea, elite women rarely participated in nondomestic activities, and their lives, therefore, were confined to the domestic realm. Although it is clear that many women were literate and thus, at least indirectly, com-