▲ A Korean woman circa 1905 - 1910. Photos courtesy Robert Neff Collection
Just after the opening of Korea to the West in 1882, it was difficult for Westerners to view Korean women — especially those of the upper class. In fact, it was so rare to catch a glimpse of them it prompted one early Canadian visitor in 1890 to write:
“It has always been a feature in my skeptical nature to think that the more one sees of women the less one knows them; according to which principle, I should know Corean women very well, for one sees but little of them.”
Women were sequestered away from the view of men — especially foreigners. While walking on the streets, if a Korean woman should espy a foreigner she would quickly make her way into a closed courtyard — thus depriving him of even the fleetest glimpse of her.
The only real exception to this was the lowest class of women — the ones that drew water at the city’s wells and were “obliged to go back and forth bareheaded to their occupation, but [were] never noticed in any manner by the throng that surges past. To pay them the attention of a glance would be the height of impropriety. To accost one of them would be not only an insult, but so total a want of etiquette as to be looked upon as insanity.”
The only time women of the upper class were allowed on the streets of Seoul was at night. At about eight in the evening the toll of the great bell at Jongno announced the beginning of the curfew — a period of some four hours in which men were forced to return to their homes and women were given free reign of the streets. Our ever skeptical Canadian — who seems prone to exaggerate — reported:
“Few, however, avail themselves of the privilege, for unfortunately in Corea there are many tigers and leopards, which, disregarding the early closing of the city gates, climb with great ease over the high wall and take nightly peregrinations over the town, eating up all the dogs which they find on their way and occasionally even human beings.”
But, for the most part, this changed during the late 1890s when Korean culture began to transform through the introduction of Western technology and religion. Women were allowed to walk the streets during the daytime, ride in streetcars and attend church services and schools. It was an age of social enlightenment except for in one area — their role as wives. In this, change came slowly.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, foreign visitors to Korea often looked upon Korean women — especially the lower class — with pity. Isabella Bird Bishop, an Englishwoman who traveled extensively throughout Korea in the mid-1890s wrote:
“Korean women have always borne the yoke. They accept inferiority as their natural lot; they do not look for affection in marriage …” and, “the peasant woman may be said to have no pleasures. She is nothing but a drudge, till she can transfer some of the drudgery to her daughter-in-law. At thirty she looks fifty, and at forty is frequently toothless. Even the love of personal adornment fades out of her life at a very early age.”
Judging from Westerners’ accounts, Korean women of the lower classes toiled long hours in the fields and at home while their husbands dallied in the manly excesses of drink, sleep, and carousing with their concubines.
Historically, women could be divorced and thrown out of their homes for seven offenses: incurable disease, theft, childlessness, infidelity, jealousy, incompatibility with her parents-in-law, and for possessing a quarrelsome disposition. But divorce was very infrequent and, even Bishop agreed, that the lower classes of women enjoyed happier marriages than their upper-class sisters.
The Canadian visitor noted that Korean women lacked identities. “The poor thing has no name, and when she is born she goes by the vague denomination of ‘so-and-so’s’ daughter. When there are several girls in the family, to avoid confusion, surnames are found convenient enough, but they are lost the moment she marries… she then becomes ‘so-and-so’s’ wife” and later, after she bears a child, she accepts the title of so-and-so’s mother.
Even after her spouse has died, a Korean woman was not free from her husband’s dominance. It was socially expected for her to remain a widow — no matter how young — for the rest of her life. Of course, in the countryside where women were always in short supply, widows could sometimes be kidnapped from a distant village thus sparing the groom the “expense of ceremony or formality.”
Only the women on Quelpart [Jeju] Island (often likened to Amazons — legendary women warriors) were seen as having some degree of equality, if not superiority, with their husbands. In 1901, one Westerner wrote that the Jeju women “were the bread winners and, as such claimed, exceptional privileges. It is said that the island of Quelpart bide fair to become a genuine gynecocracy.” Sadly, he noted that the increasing number of Japanese living on the island was challenging the island’s culture and the women’s role as leaders was threatened.
But Korean women didn’t necessarily feel that their lot was so bad. When Isabella Bird Bishop pointed out to Korean women that Western men did not treat their women in such a manner she was curtly informed by an intelligent Korean woman that “We think that your husbands don’t care for you very much!”
It wasn’t just Korean women who felt that Western male-female relations were askew. One Korean writer pointed out that people joked about the Western men’s subservient role with their spouses.
“They bowed to their wives even on the street … and how they hugged them down from carts just as obscene drunken men might do with gishas …” Through the Korean male’s eyes, his Western counterpart did not respect his wife.
In the next article we will examine the lesser known roles that Korean women played in society. They weren’t all subservient farmers’ wives nor were they all meek and mild mannered.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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