Versions and Subversions
Patriarchy and Polygamy in Korean Narratives
JaHyun Kim Haboush
In Korea, the patriarchal system that evolved during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) was closely linked to the Confucianization of society as a whole. Though certain elements of patriarchy were in place before the Chosŏn, the patriarchal family structure combined with strict patrilineality was implemented under the Chosŏn state, which subscribed to a Confucian social vision. Thus patriarchy was equated with Confucianism, which has been seen as a force with adverse effects on women. It has been established that as the native structure was incorporated into Confucian patriarchy, women, at least upper-class yangban women, lost much of their social space, were deprived of legal and property rights, and were increasingly confined to the inner quarters behind the walls of their husband's homes and that these changes were more or less in place by the mid-seventeenth century. 1 According to this view, the normative behavior of women and their gender roles were scripted and determined by male authorities and male-dominated institutions.
One notes, however, a very curious and seemingly contradictory phenomenon concerning this very group of women. Just as they were losing social privileges, they began to write in quantity and thereby to actively participate in written discourse. This was made possible by the invention of the Korean script, the han' gŭl, in the mid-fifteenth century. Unlike classical Chinese, which was for the most part inaccessible to women, han' gŭl script was easy to master and was viewed as a suitable medium for women. Women avidly availed themselves of this new medium, and for the first time in Korean history, they emerged as writing subjects who projected their own visions and perspectives. It is well known that they were major contributors to vernacular Korean writing during the middle and late Chosŏn. One observes that there was a parallel phenomenon in China. Dorothy Ko has shown that there was a similar loss of legal and economic standing among Chinese upper-class women from Song to Ming times but that this was accompanied by increased lit-