[KS] Re: Korean women and palace life during Choson dynasty
sungjin98 at hotmail.com
Mon Dec 20 02:44:45 EST 1999
Sorry for this LATE posting.
I hope those who requested the articles may find it helpful for their
As for Korean-studies mail list members, I have a favor to ask.
It's December already, and I have only eight more articles to write before
closing the Click into the Hermit Kingdom weekly series on The Korea Times
in mid-February, 2000.
Please, write a short article about what you felt (both positive and
negative are welcome) regarding the Click series.
The article may be composed of three sentences or five paragraphs.
But feel free to write whatever your reaction to the series, without
worrying about the aforementioned limit.
Your contribution may be published on the final edition of the Click series,
so please include your name and a brief background information about your
status, workplace and contact point.
Deadline (?) for articles is the end of January, 2000, but I guess
you guys can simply write it and send it to me right after getting this
Till the series ends, I will try my best.
Email: ktchoson at hotmail.com
Personal Homepage: http://english.gija.com
Korea Times Homepage: http://koreatimes.co.kr
Office Tel: 82-2-724-2344
Click Into the Hermit Kingdom (21)
Choson Women Suffered Harsh Discrimination
By Yang Sung-jin
The Justice Ministry put forward a new draft of the law governing
second marriages on May 22. The new law is expected to abolish the legal
restriction barring women from getting married again before a six-month
waiting period expires.
This legal clause, designed to identify who the real father is in case of
pregnancy, has long been criticized as anachronistic by feminist activists.
Furthermore, controls on remarriage are viewed as examples of the
long-standing practice of sex discrimination, the tainted legacy of the
The root of this lop-sided social system can be traced back to the Choson
Dynasty. Throughout this 500-year-long period, remarriage was `legally'
banned in the name of preserving the chastity of Choson women on a national
scale. There was also a strict clause in the law blocking the offspring of
violators of the law from applying for the state examination, an clear
example of social discrimination.
In the Choson Dynasty, sex discrimination had a deep ideological
background. In the eyes of the Choson people, the cosmos were made up of two
opposing forces: yin and yang, heaven and earth, positive and negative.
Therefore, the theory went, men and women were also governed by this
all-embracing natural law.
The problem was, the division of men and women did not mean they were on
equal footing with one another. While men comfortably retained the positive,
heaven-like status, women were relegated to a lower, subservient role. In
short, men were the center of the universe with privileges galore; woman
were simply minor and marginal.
This unfair notion was consistently inculcated in both boys and girls from
early on. For instance, when a baby boy was born, he was placed on the table
and given a piece of jade, symbolizing the government, for a plaything.
In contrast, a baby girl was often neglected and given only a spool to play
As they grew up, boys aged six to nine were taught basic mathematics, which
led to their more formal education beginning at the age of 10. As for girls,
the attainment of the age of 10 signaled the beginning of a strict curfew
and seclusion at home. They were only allowed to raise silkworms and spin
cloth, the only job available to women in the Choson Dynasty.
Sex Discrimination Writ Large
In everyday life, the division reinforcing the male-oriented social
structure was applied without exception. The house itself was divided into
two parts called ``an-chae'' (inner building) and ``sarang-chae'' (men's
part of a house). There was a linking gate between the two different
segments of the house, yet it was rarely used except on very special
Even the discussion of so-called ``men's business'' by women was
shunned; meanwhile, men were discouraged from discussing household
management. Furthermore, women rarely went outside the house and, even when
an outing was permitted, a woman was forced to hide her face and body with a
shroud. Daytime outings were never allowed.
Interestingly, the strict rules, most of which would certainly have angered
modern women if they were in place today, were applied to the yangban
literati class, not to commoners. Therefore, women of the lower classes
freely went out, albeit only to work in the rice paddies along with men.
Nonetheless, there was something all women had to learn regardless of class.
Called ``samchong-chido'' (three rules for women), this moral standard
literally defined the limits of the lives of women. The three rules amounted
to obedience to one's father before marriage, to one's husband while
married, and to one's son after the death of the husband.
Despite these strictures, Choson society was not an absolute paradise for
men. There were social mechanisms which ensured a certain amount of
individual freedom and human dignity, though they would be viewed as feeble
by today's standards. For instance, the wife of a high-ranking official
received an honorary title in accordance with their husband's status.
Moreover, sex discrimination ironically guaranteed an exclusive position for
women when it came to managing the home. No husband was permitted to meddle
in the household affairs of his wife, whose job included the overall
management of the family, the preparation for regular ancestral rites and
the education of her children.
The role of a woman reached its peak when she became a mother.
Especially after the death of a husband or father-in-law, an energetic
mother took the lead in matters related to marriage and inheritance.
It was not that many years ago in Korea when inheritance laws were
structured in favor of sons, particularly the eldest sons, while
discriminating against daughters. In the early Choson Dynasty, however,
women, including those who were married, had legal rights equal to those of
their brothers as far as inheritances were concerned.
Women's Right To Survive, Alone
Another interesting privilege enjoyed by women was the rule that dictated
that the money and property brought by the bride upon her marriage was to be
solely owned and managed by her. Even if a woman's death preceded her
husband's, her wealth did not revert to him but was returned to her old
The unusual legal foundation of the Choson Dynasty, which championed the
right of women to have their own financial independence, was largely due to
the prohibition of remarriage. With remarriage legally banned, living alone
without financial support was too much for the average Choson woman, which
is why such a legal device was put in place for them.
Yet, as ancestral rites became more important, the role of eldest sons
increased along with the proportion of the inheritance which was preserved
for them. Choson women were slowly, yet steadily, excluded from the
inheritance issue as the Choson period progressed into its later stages.
The most detested clause in the legal code of the Choson period was
related to divorce. At that time, divorce often meant a husband kicking his
wife out of the house on his whim. With two notable exceptions, there was no
clause allowing for a woman to divorce of her own volition. The first
exception applied in the event that a man ran away from his wife and did not
return for long time, in which case the man's wife could appeal to the
government and obtain permission to divorce. The second exception applied if
a man beat the wife, in which case the woman in question could divorce him,
though only with his consent.
On the other hand, there were seven legal foundations called ``chil-koh''
(seven reasons to let go) which supported the right of a man to kick his
wife out of the house. These ``reasons'' were disobedience to the husband's
parents, the inability to give birth to a son, licentiousness, an inordinate
amount of jealousy (to a level jeopardizing the polygamy system), disease
As expected, these seven reasons were easy to cite, hard to prove.
Therefore, there were several corresponding protective clauses called
``sampul-koh'' (three reasons not to let go). Saved from the prospect of
banishment were those poor wives who had nowhere to go back to, those who
had served the three-year mourning period after the death of the husband's
parents, and those who had married when the husband's household was poor,
with conditions improving since then.
Not too surprisingly, the number of actual divorces was few. Perhaps the
Choson people understood that, in light of the prohibition of remarriage, a
large population of divorcees would pose a serious social problem.
Yet, the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty contains details of a
typical legal case in which a battle was waged by a husband who had
demanded a divorce by citing the holy ``chil-koh.'' The result was highly
atypical. In 1425, an official named Lee Mi married the daughter of a
retired soldier, Choi Chu. Unfortunately, the woman didn't produce a son
until she was 45. Angry at having been obliged to wait so long, Lee kicked
his faithful wife out of the house and married another woman.
The banished woman's father, Choi, filed suit with the Office of the
Inspector-General, calling for justice. The government office ruled in favor
of the woman, saying that ``though the wife failed to give birth to a child,
Lee should re-marry her because she faithfully served the three-year
mourning period for her father-in-law.''
Yet, Lee did not give in so easily, citing his wife's failure to fulfill her
duty to deliver a son promptly and also mentioning the seven sins that he
claimed his wife had committed.
Lee's appeal was not accepted. Instead, he was charged with violating the
government order against remarriage and punished with 90 blows from a
The daughter of Choi Chu would certainly have taken satisfaction at the news
of the abolition of the last remaining legal restriction on the
remarriage, executed about 500 years later.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (69)] King Taejong's Resentment Against
By Yang Sung-jin
Favors may be forgotten but resentment lingers. For King Taejong, that
bitter resentment was especially hard to shrug off.
Chongnung, a royal mausoleum located at the southeastern foot of Mt. Pukhan
in northern Seoul, is vivid proof. Buried in the tomb is Queen Shindok,
second wife of King Taejo who was the father of King Taejong.
King Taejo's first wife, Queen Shinui, died one year before he founded the
Choson Kingdom in 1392.
Shindok, a daughter of Kang Yun-song, a ranking Koryo Kingdom official, was
deeply loved by King Taejo. And that relationship irked King Taejong, who
had to witness his own father's unsparing affection for his stepmother.
Shindok rode a wave of revolutionary forces that underpinned the shift of
power from Koryo to Choson. She monopolized the attention of King Taejo and
maximized the turbulent situation to expand her political influence.
Few women had such knack for political maneuvering. Pulling strings as a
member of Koryo's aristocracy, Shindok persuaded key Koryo officials to
pledge allegiance to Choson's founder, King Taejo.
Once the new nation was built, she waged a political battle to have her son
Pang-sok appointed as crown prince, defying the festering sentiment of Queen
Shinui's sons, including Pang-won, who later became King Taejong.
Shindok's ambitious political somersault, however, was short-lived. She died
on Aug. 13, 1397, wrapping up her high-profile life and opening the way for
a brutal power struggle between royal princes.
Grief-stricken, King Taejo built the tomb for his beloved wife in Chong-
dong (where the British Embassy is now located) and named it Chongnung. The
ruler also established a temple called Hungchon-sa to the east of the tomb
to placate the spirit of his dead wife.
Two years later, the so-called first Revolt of the Prince broke out,
shattering Shindok's dream. Protesting King Taejo's decision that endorsed
the son of his second wife as crown prince, Yi Pang-won and his brothers
staged a mini coup to expel Pang-sok and his allies.
In the process, the Pang-sok faction was entirely removed from the political
arena, which dealt a severe blow to King Taejo.
Out of despair and shock, King Taejo retired, passing the throne to Pang-
gwa, who became the second monarch of the Choson Kingdom _ King Chongchong
But the hard-earned political stability did not last long. The ambitious
Pang-won defeated the rival claim of his older brother Pang-gan in a fierce
street battle in Seoul and grabbed the throne himself, emerging as King
With political opponents crushed, King Taejong undertook revenge against his
over-ambitious stepmother Shindok.
In 1406, the State Council advised King Taejong to build houses near
Chongnung, arguing that the tomb site was too large.
King Taejong gladly accepted the proposal, allowing affluent yangban
aristocrats to construct residential houses. All of a sudden, the wealthy
class rushed to carve out their share near the tomb site, cutting pine trees
The violation of the Shindok's tomb was more than a shock for King Taejo,
who was then retired. On May 5 of that year, Taejo visited Hungchon-sa and
performed the Buddhist ritual dedicated to Shindok. Throughout his rare
outing to visit his deceased wife, King Taejo never stopped shedding tears.
According to the Annals, while the former ruler and founder of the nation
was bursting into tears at the mausoleum, a host of construction projects
were under way nearby.
But that was the only beginning of the revenge against Chongnung. In 1409,
King Taejong decided to move the tomb outside the capital area. As a result,
Shindok's tomb was relocated to the foot of Mt. Pukhan in northern Seoul.
Relocation of Resentment
The State Council explained the reason for the relocation: ``All the tombs
of former kings and queens are located outside the capital area, except for
Chongnung. Since Chongnung's location at the heart of Seoul and near the
reception office for diplomats is far from appropriate, the relocation
should be duly implemented.''
On April 13, 1409, King Taejong took a further step on the issue of
Shindok's remains. He ordered all traces of the former Chongnung site to be
Chongnung's pavilion was disassembled to build another government agency
building. Stone structures were removed or buried to eliminate all traces of
In 1410, King Taejong placed the tablet of his mother Shinui in the Royal
Shrine, establishing her as the sole wife of King Taejo while downgrading
Shindok to the status of royal concubine.
Even King Sejong, who succeeded King Taejong, did not view Shindok in a
favorable light. As soon as King Sejong ascended the throne, he ordered the
relatives and families of Shindok to organize a body for her rituals,
downgrading them from a national affair.
In 1426, King Sejong ordered officials to burn Shindok's portrait,
continuing the revenge handed down from King Taejong.
It was only 160 years later that officials floated the idea of restoring the
status of disgraced and downgraded Chongnung.
Court officials suggested to King Sonjo that Chongnung be restored to the
status of a legitimate royal tomb, wrapping up the long-standing animosity
But the king rejected the offer, urging officials to concentrate on current
state affairs, not past incidents.
In 1669, Song Si-yol, a high-ranking official, filed an appeal calling for
the restoration of Chongnung's former glory, which was finally accepted by
That concluded the King Taejong-initiated revenge against Shindok, a bitter
end to a feud that had dragged on for a quarter of a millennium.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (70)] King Taejong's Rocky Marital Relations
with Queen Wonkyong
By Yang Sung-jin
Jealousy, if it comes as a result of unfaithfulness, is likely to jeopardize
a marriage. But back in the Choson period, the matter was not so simple.
Because husbands were generally allowed to keep concubines, a man's wife had
little choice but to keep a tight lid on her jealousy.
Despite the social strictures, some brave women confronted the issue
head-on. The striking example was Queen Wonkyong, wife of King Taejong and
mother of King Sejong.
Queen Wonkyong was one of the few women of the era who had a palpable impact
on the politics of the Choson Kingdom.
Born to Min Chae, a member of the Koryo Kingdom's aristocracy, the Queen
played a key role in furthering King Taejong's power at the same time as she
raised King Sejong, one of the greatest rulers in the Korean history.
Wonkyong's relationship with Taejong was rocky, to say the least. From the
outset, the trouble lay in the fact the power-hungry monarch did not want
his wife's family to exert any influence in the royal court.
To control the burgeoning influence of Queen Wonkyong's allies, King Taejong
resorted to successive unions with female members of other prominent
families. Concubines were brought in one after another: Hyobin, Shibin,
Sonbin, Uibin, Sobin and Sukui.
As a result, the total number of King Taejong's offspring reached 29, meant
to ensure that he would keep a lock on power in the face of challenges from
other members of the royal family.
In addition to his host of ladies-in-waiting, the Annals include mention of
a number of unidentified women who ``served'' King Taejong, which must have
duly piqued Queen Wonkyong.
The queen was firm in the belief that she had made an indispensable
contribution to her husband's ascent to the throne. She thus expected due
recognition. But King Taejong was eminently ungracious, taking on new
concubine at will and maintaining a ready supply of concubine-candidates in
A Woman Scorned
According to an article dated June 18, 1401, King Taejong provoked the
queen's ire by abruptly kicking out 20-odd servants and eunuchs in her
service. Queen Wonkyong had been furious with the fact the king tended to
pay more attention to virtually anyone around the palace in a skirt than to
his beloved wife. As a means of revenge, she harshly disciplined a female
servant in whom the king had shown an interest.
But the queen's jealous outburst generated nasty repercussions. In the
aftermath of the incident, King Taejong expelled all the servants of Queen
Wonkyong, an apparent warning against future demonstrations of her jealousy.
The royal couple's marriage had begun to come apart at the seams.
Curiously, historiographers portrayed Queen Wonkyong as over-jealous: ``Not
long after the king ascended to the throne, there were few concubines in the
palace. Queen Wonkyong, however, was born to be jealous, showing little
affection for other people, which pushed the king to take up with other
On March 7, 1402, King Taejong took one of the daughters from court official
Kwon Hong as his concubine and Queen Wonkyong lost no time in voicing her
dismal with the king's latest infidelity.
``The jealousy of Queen Wonkyong deepened further. When the king was about
to take on a concubine in a formal ceremony, the queen stepped out and
grabbed the king's clothes, desperate to make her case. She did not stop
crying and afterward did not eat. She had disease in her heart and the king
suspended his handling of state affairs for several days,'' the Annals
In her efforts to win back her lost love, Queen Wonkyong urged the king to
remember the days when the couple had worked closely to secure the throne.
Deteriorating relations between King Taejong and Queen Wonkyong also had a
political angle. The king executed relatives of Queen Wonkyong under the
pretense of punishing traitors, which dealt a serious blow to the queen's
status, not to mention her fragile emotions.
In 1407, Queen Wonkyong's brothers, Min Mu-gu and Min Mu-jil, were impeached
on charges of high treason. Desperate to rescue them, she secretly invited
the wife of Min Mu-jil to the palace in hopes of resolving the crisis.
Unfortunately, the king became aware of the queen's efforts, which was more
than an adequate excuse to attack her.
King Taejong told his subjects that he had already warned to the queen about
the malicious plotting by Min Mu-gu but she did not repent. He continued to
say the queen had become upset and made unpardonable remarks.
In a show of strong warning, the king decided to move out of the main palace
for awhile, which signaled a separation period.
Despite the worsening situation, the king did not depose the queen. He
restrained himself from taking revenge on her for the Min Mu-gu situation,
reminding himself of the fact she was a key backer of his successful bid for
King Taejong's relations with his wife's family were originally amicable.
The Min brothers stood behind King Taejong's political machinations at
critical moments. The king even joined a political party formed by his
father-in-law, Min Chae, on Dec. 13, 1405.
But the high treason case of 1407 permanently severed peaceful ties. Two of
Queen Wonkyong's brothers were expelled from the court and put to death. Two
others were later hanged for having protested the execution of their
Curiously, King Taejong stipulated in his will that he was to be buried
alongside his first wife's tomb. Despite the fact their union was marked by
jealousy and hatred, the royal couple was buried at Hunnung Mausoleum in
Naekok-dong, Socho-ku, Seoul.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (74)] Biased Marriage System Spawns
By Yang Sung-jin
Remaining unmarried is no longer a novelty. Freer lifestyles and economic
independence among the younger generation are boosting the number of
Yet centuries-old social custom in favor of marriage has not yet retired to
the sidelines. Newly established private dating services and TV programs
devoted to blind dates are thriving.
More importantly, a host of industries are anchored by a constant supply of
soon-to-be-newlyweds who are more than willing to spend lavishly on their
Unlike today's marriages, which are mingled with commercialization, marriage
carried tremendous social and political significance for Choson people.
For instance, those who failed to find a spouse were deemed the most
wretched social class in the Choson Kingdom.
The Choson government made systematic efforts to help poor singles to find
Mr or Ms Right. It offered subsidies to yangban daughters whose financial
situations would otherwise have prevented them from marrying before 30.
The government also punished the heads of families who were rich and yet
failed to marry off their daughters.
For the most part, their failure to tie the knot in a timely fashion was for
economic reasons. The deaths of parents or festering poverty stood in the
way of the happily-ever-after dreams of countless young women.
The yangban class, who made much of their dignity yet had little property to
provide for wedding expenses, were thus especially likely to find their
Local magistrates and governors sometimes acted as matchmakers. While
working as a local magistrate, Lee Chi-ham, widely known for his still
popular fortune-telling book, called on the central government to find a
spouse for a poverty-stricken 60-year-old bachelor who had spent much of his
life fruitlessly searching for a bride.
Curiously, Choson rulers treated the so-called marriage problem quite
seriously. They believed unmarried men and women were likely to harm the
balance between yin and yang in the universe, thus inviting natural
Therefore, if a drought continued for an extended period, the government
conducted a search of every last village in the kingdom to find those who
had failed to get married. The aim was to appease the heavenly forces
balancing the positive and negative.
Though this philosophical balance played a part in marriage, there was
little equality when it came to married life.
A closer look into the overall marriage system is telling. Officially,
Choson authorities espoused monogamy. In practice, age-old double standards
were the norm.
For women, it was absolute monogamy. For men, it was absolute polygamy.
While men were allowed to keep concubines, women were banned from remarrying
even if their spouses died. Furthermore, divorcees were treated as virtual
Choson's peculiar marriage system cannot be explained without an
understanding of the Koryo Kingdom (913-1392).
During the Koryo period, monogamy was the rule for both men and women.
Unlike Choson's discriminatory marriage system, Koryo's men and women were
allowed to divorce and remarry freely.
But Koryo's relatively well-balanced marriage system underwent a sea change
in the kingdom's latter period, when the social strata began to collapse.
Notable was a sudden imbalance in the ratio of men to women. Years before
the Koryo Kingdom disintegrated, the number of women exceeded that of men,
leading to the development of new custom by which men accepted other women
Koryo's polygamy was viewed as an affront to the Confucian principles of
Choson rulers and officials sharply criticized polygamy, citing the
possibility the practice could undermine the hierarchical family order and
In 1413, King Taejong issued a decree banning polygamy, a directive which
was widely ignored.
Numerous ways around the decree were immediately popularized by wealthy and
powerful yangban men.
The government beefed up the regulations as a warning to those who had
several wives. Under the newly minted regulations, those who took more than
one wife were subject to a penalty of 90 cudgel strokes and a forced
``divorce'' from their concubine(s).
Meanwhile, any husband who replaced his legitimate wife with a concubine was
subjected to 100 cudgel strokes and his actual spouse was restored to her
Despite the government's determination to drive out polygamy, the
ill-practices did not disappear.
At the same time as the government was rolling up its sleeves in an attempt
to put the marriage system in order, wedding ceremonies were becoming even
more important as an official tool to identify a man's legitimate wife.
For prospective bridegrooms, authenticating their soon-to-be-wife's status
was critical enough to determine the future course of their lives.
During the Choson period, the wives of yangban class government officials
were given titles and property from the government in accordance with the
status of their husbands.
But concubines and those who remarried were excluded from the government-led
system and their children were banned from taking the state examination,
generating social discord.
The underlying problem was that the Choson government ended up officially
recognizing the concubine system in the process of ``eliminating'' polygamy.
In general, the concubine system was designed to perpetuate the pleasure-
seeking lifestyles of high-class men.
It was the consensus among the Choson populace that the existence of
concubines did more harm than good to society. But men's desire for
concubines never subsided while Choson wives kept mum about this
ill-practice for fear of being labeled ``jealous women.''
Their long silence was broken only in March of 1899, when a group of women's
rights activists belonging to the first ``feminist'' civic group,
Changyanghoe, tackled the issue publicly.
They placed a large hanging screen in front of Toksu Palace criticizing the
social system which sanctioned concubines.
In addition, the group some 50 women's rights activists sent an appeal to
King Kojong, urging him to set an example by returning all the royal
concubines to their homes.
They staged daily demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for over a week,
waiting for the king to resolve the issue.
Interestingly, rumors spread that foxes who had disguised themselves as
housewives were taking up positions in front of the palace every morning. As
a result, the spot soon became a gathering place for people hoping to get a
look at these foxes-turned-women.
The reason: these Choson-era women's rights activists had chosen to call
themselves ``yowuhoe,'' the Chinese characters for which mean `female
friends group.' Unfortunately for them, in Korean `yowu' also refers to a
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (75)] Male-Oriented Marriage Customs Strictly
By Yang Sung-jin
Until recently, many unfortunate men and women were denied their legal right
to marry each other only because their surname and its geographical origins
were the same.
The trouble-ridden legal restrictions placed on couples with the same
surname and family origin have now been removed, but the outmoded obsession
with avoiding marriage to members of the same kinship dies hard.
Whenever possible, conservative elders will still take to the streets to
protest against the government's revision of the related law, dubbing it a
``preposterous violation of the decades-long marriage tradition.''
During the Choson Kingdom, marriage between people of the same surname and
family origin attracted harsh punishment, consisting of 60 cudgel strokes
and a forced divorce. Those who dared to get married to close relations
faced capital punishment.
In fact, this longstanding tradition prohibiting marriage among relatives
did not originate on the Korean peninsula. The peculiar custom actually came
from ancient China.
King Chungson of the Koryo Kingdom (r: 1308-1313) adopted the Chinese custom
and issued ban a on marriage among relatives. But the prohibition was not
Only the upper-class were subject to the restriction at that time, largely
because it was only aristocrats who were allowed to have surnames, while
ordinary citizens went along without family names.
Therefore, surnames were a relatively minor factor in marriage. Given that
different family origins existed under the same surname, one's geographical
origin was regarded as vital for defining who was related and who wasn't.
But things began to change as soon as the Choson Kingdom replaced the Koryo.
The scope of the ban was dramatically expanded and even the maternal family
line was subject to the prohibitions.
Marriage restrictions did not stop there. The Choson period's strict class
system left no room for marriages between people of different social
A particularly unthinkable match was that between a male slave and the
daughter of a yangban (Choson aristocrat).
In addition, offspring of concubines suffered disadvantages in selecting
their spouses. Parents also had to consider their political factions in
marrying off their children.
At the same time, widows were pressured not to remarry. Although there was
no legal restriction on the remarriage of widows, the Choson government
resorted to an indirect regulation: offspring of widows who had remarried
were banned from taking the state examination, virtually marking them as
Much of the hard-nosed interference by the government regarding marriage was
attributed to the Choson dynasty's paternalistic social structure.
Unlike previous kingdoms, the Choson adopted male-oriented marriage customs,
giving up the centuries-long tradition under which a husband lived in his
The original traditional marriage custom had various advantages. Most
notable was that brides could take time in preparing a dowry while their
husbands lived in the same house.
That is why traces of the female-oriented marriage tradition are still found
in the relics of the early Choson period.
But Confucian scholars vigorously opposed and criticized this traditional
pattern of marriage in favor of a male-oriented system. As a result, brides
had to prepare the dowry in a short period before the wedding ceremony,
which was a greater burden.
Conservative Choson rulers and aristocrats viewed love affairs as
``dehumanizing.'' They sanctioned only arranged marriages via a matchmaker.
It was an alliance between two families, excluding the couple themselves
from the marriage plans.
Once two families had exchanged opinions about forming an alliance through
the marriage of their offspring, the initial task on the part of the
prospective bridegroom's family was to send a sort of spy to the bride's
The family history and other sundry facts could be collected through other
channels, but the bride's personality and appearance had to be checked in
But investigating the looks and manners of an unmarried girl was nothing if
not tricky during the Choson period.
Female relatives or sometimes the future mother-in-law ventured out to the
village where the bride lived. They often disguised themselves as wandering
saleswomen or just benign visitors, in a bid to look at the bride in person.
The most important aspect of the bride's appearance was whether she looked
fit to bear ``sons'' after marriage _ this involved a crucial face-reading
which could determine the whole future of the family.
There were specific criteria in identifying women who were likely to bear
sons Interestingly, desirable characteristics included a thick shoulder, red
complexion of the palms, a deep navel, a buxom belly and flat hips.
The investigative face-reading, however, was not enough for the bridegroom's
family to make the final decision to tie the knot. Choson people also
consulted with fortune-tellers to determine the success of the marriage.
Fortunetellers first examined the saju, or four pillars, of the prospective
spouse. These are the year, month, day and hour of one's birth, according to
the lunar calendar.
If the saju was satisfactory, the fortuneteller was asked to divine the
``kunghap'' (marriage horoscope) to determine whether the man and woman were
a harmonious match.
The superstitious kunghap custom is still popular, providing a living for
The real legacy of the Choson dynasty's distorted marriage customs, which
discriminate against women while placing a heavy emphasis on the bearing of
sons, has survived in modern Korea. Just look at a classroom at the local
elementary school and check the ratio of boys to girls.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (76)] Adultery in High Class Mars
By Yang Sung-jin
Confucianism was a spiritual pillar that buttressed the high moral standards
of the high class during the Choson period.
Lofty ideals were discussed in the court and officials often fought over
frivolous details of rituals in the name of legitimacy. However remote the
topic might be, morality and integrity were given prime importance.
So much for the moral talk. As far as sex scandals are concerned, Choson's
ruling class appears to have surpassed even U.S. President Bill Clinton in
terms of the number and extent of the controversies that occurred.
The Annals of the Choson Dynasty has a total of 1,742 articles containing
the word ``adultery,'' hinting at the hypocrisy of a nation which espoused
high moral standards.
On Jan. 22, 1486, a high-profile sex scandal engulfed the central
administration when high-ranking official Yun Un-ro leaked the juicy details
of an investigation into an adultery case involving a member of the royal
Toksong-gun's wife, known only by her surname, Ku, was arrested on a charge
of adultery after having an affair with her sister's son, Lee In-on.
Ku insisted that she did not seduce her relative, a crime which, if proven,
would have warranted execution.
``Lee In-on used to live at my house and his room was next to mine. One day,
when my female servants were outside the house, Lee broke into my room and
tried to rape me. I tried to resist but he covered my eyes with clothes and
raped me. As a result, I soon discovered I was pregnant,'' Ku said.
Grilled on the sex scandal, Lee flatly denied he slept with Ku. ``This
incident never happened. All I know is that Ku's relative Ahn Kyae-ro
frequented Ku's house and I once saw him holding Ku's hand, flirting with
her,'' Lee testified.
Lee's remarks proved to be false, however, and he later confessed the truth
after undergoing an interrogation peppered with torture.
``I was lying on my bed because of a tumor in my thigh. Ku came to me and
asked about health while rubbing my tumor and looking at me seductively. The
next day she visited me again and when she ran her hands over my genitals, I
kicked her out. But she called me in when I recovered and flirted with me
again, saying, `I can't stand it any more, even if I become a ghost of
Oudong (a lecherous woman who sparked a massive adultery scandal during the
reign of King Sejong).' So we slept together,'' Lee said.
Afterwards, Lee and Ku committed frequent acts of adultery. When she got
pregnant, however, Lee returned to his hometown in a bid to avoid getting
entangled in a sandal _ seemingly to no avail.
On July 26, 1703, an interesting adultery case was reported to the
government. A yangban scholar named Park Tong-pil in Chungju died, leaving a
young widow whose surname was Kang. Only a year later, Kang was caught
having an affair with a man who lived in the neighborhood.
``All the villagers, both old and young, were witnesses to their ongoing
adulterous affair,'' the Annals article said.
In the face of impending punishment, the man managed to escape Kang's house
through a hole in the wall while she ran off by a different route. Kang
ended up hiding at her lover's home.
Park Tong-gun, Tong-pil's elder brother, got involved in the case and found
out where the couple was hiding. He stormed the house and brought them to
the local court for punishment.
But the chief of the local court was Kang's relative, making it highly
unlikely that she would receive harsh treatment. In a bid to help Kang
escape punishment, the local court chief forged a document and claimed it
was Park Tong-gun who had wrongfully ensnared the couple through false
testimony in order to extract money from the pair.
High-flying officials are the most frequent victims of sex scandals, and
Kwak Chung-bo, who helped Yi Song-gye found the Choson dynasty, was no
When the Koryo Kingdom was about to collapse, Kwak tipped off Yi Song-gye to
an impending assassination attempt by the Koryo's ruling class, ultimately
saving the Choson founder's life.
In June of 1393, Yi Song-gye, then supreme ruler of the newly established
nation, assigned Kwak to take charge of efforts to defend local provinces
against Japanese marauders, a reflection of the degree to which the king
But the things began to change when King Chongjong ascended to the throne.
On June 1, 1398, Kwak was exiled to Chongju for committing brutal acts
against a family.
Kwak and his son, Sung-wu, were arrested for torturing former government
official Hwang Mun and his wife out of personal resentment. The couple were
severely beaten and almost killed.
Investigators, who sought severe punishment for the official, stated,
``Kwak's personality is basically mean and vulgar. Although he should serve
the king with his all heart, he and his son took personal revenge on a so-
called foe, thus abusing his power.''
King Chongjong softened the punishment, however, choosing only to exile Kwak
in consideration of his past achievements and in defiance of repeated calls
from the Ministry of Punishments.
Two weeks later, the king received a report of an adultery case involving
Kwak and a ranking official Kim In-chan's wife.
The scandal eventually spun out of control as the widow in question
disclosed that her friend, wife of ranking official Lee Won-kyong, had also
engaged in an affair with Kwak.
Prosecutors appealed to the king to come down hard on Kwak for his
adulterous affairs and his brutality against innocent civilians.
Government officials also uncovered evidence of Kwak's past wrongdoing,
including raping girls when he governed a local region in Kangwon-do, and
plundering innocent civilians.
But the king remained unimpressed and on July 1, Kwak was forgiven and
released when King Chongjong announced a national amnesty to mark his own
Few government officials were as lucky as Kwak, who avoided the punishment
he clearly deserved. But the Annals pull no punches in recording his lurid
acts, thereby imposing a sort of belated justice on a decidedly corrupt
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (77)] Double-Standard Treatment of Adulterers
By Yang Sung-jin
Knowledge does not necessarily guarantee integrity. History shows, be it a
high-ranking official or a lowly servant, resisting temptation, especially
those of sexual nature, is far from easy.
Tracking the sexual misconduct of high-powered officials, however, could
have be tricky, to say the least. For some Choson officials who claimed to
uphold lofty Confucian ethics only paid lip-service, and did not hesitate to
deviate from the moral rules.
However, one can find a record of sex crimes dating back to 1692 made by
Saganwon (Office of Censor-General) in an appeal, disclosing rampant sexual
violations committed by local magistrates.
``Local governors are raping state-owned female servants on their whim and
committing other sins. To clean up the mess, those governors should be
severely punished,'' the appeal said.
The report itself is a sad reflection of the deplorable social phenomenon in
which the powerful abused and misused their authority on innocent and
powerless female victims.
For the record, there were countless Choson officials who made good on their
word by living an exemplary private life.
But despite the majority who led righteous lives, there were a few bad
apples. In May 9 of 1427, ranking officials were forced to resign over a
sexual scandal: ``Lee Mu-sang and Lee Bok-saeng lost their offices and were
exiled into Wonju and Kanghwa. The courtesans involved in the scandal _ Cha
Tong-son, Kan Sol-mae, Chuk Kan-mae, Yak Gye-chun and Po Kum _ were hit 90
times with a stick while Mae So-wol was subject to 80 hits.''
It turned out that Lee Mu-saeng slept with three courtesans, Cha Tong-son,
Kan Sol-mae and Chuk Kan-mae while Lee Bok-saeng committed adultery with Yak
Gye-chun and Po Kum.
The scandal was all the more shocking since the two high-ranking officials
held a wild party with the women on the anniversary of Choson founder King
Furthermore, some of the courtesans had been involved with other scandals
with royal princes years before. Yak and Chuk were practically concubines of
King Taejong's second son, Poryong Taegun.
Kan Sol-mae, who was also an ex-lover of a royal prince, teamed up with Mae
So-wol to stage the wild sex party for the officials.
On April 6, 1496, a Saganwon official named Lee Kam deplored the festering
morality of public servants in an appeal to the king: ``In recent days,
relatives of the king frequent brothels, ministers are lecherous, servants
are raping their masters, concubines subjugate their husbands and officials
spread false rumors about their superiors. It's deeply regrettable that our
society has degenerated into such a sorry state.''
But nothing is sorrier than the double-standard of those tangled in the
On Oct. 8, 1423, Cho So-ro, once a top diplomat, was kicked out of the
office and sent off to a remote place as a punishment for his incestuous
love affair with a wife of a retired government official.
However in comparison Cho was lucky. His lover was forced to stand in the
market place for three days amid open condemnation from passers-by and then
The tragic incident stemmed from the earlier relationship between Cho and
the lady known by only her surname, ``Yu.''
Cho and Yu were distant relatives. Since Yu's father died early when she was
young, she became a Buddhist nun. One day she visited Cho's house for she
knew Cho's mother. As time went by, Yu and Cho became close and the
relationship deepened. At the time, he was only 14 years old.
Cho's mother instantly noticed the unusual atmosphere in her house. She
began to hate Yu and finally banned her from entering the house.
Disappointed, Yu grew out her hair and was married off to Lee Kyu-san, a
retired local governor.
Lee Kyu-san cared much for his young wife. Unaware of the past, he did not
mind when Cho came to visit his wife. Lee even held a drinking party with
his wife for Cho. The situation went into disarray when the lady remembered
the good old days.
Yu sent a secret letter to Cho, inviting him to resume the love affair. The
relationship, however, did not avoid the scrutiny of the Sahonbu (Office of
Sahonbu uncovered the scandal and filed an appeal to the king, accusing the
two lovers of adultery and incest.
King Sejong dealt with the high-profile sex scandal strictly, mindful of
sending warnings to would-be adulterers: ``Choson has long been ruled by
courtesy and morality. For generations, the high-class yangban families did
not witness this kind of treacherous adultery. Cho's responsibility as a
chief diplomat is very important. He cannot and should not neglect his duty.
Considering his status, Cho's crime cannot be justified. But, I cannot place
a harsh punishment on him considering what he has achieved for the nation.
Nonetheless, I am willing to set a precedent that would warn descendants
against the same crime.''
That is why Cho's life was spared while Yu, on the other hand, was publicly
humiliated and beheaded.
The unfair treatment of adulterers is largely due to the Choson's male-
oriented social and family structure, which pushed women into a minor sphere
while allowing sinful men to play around.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (81)] Chang Nok-su - Unbeatable Temptress
By Yang Sung-jin
Resisting temptation is far from easy. But it is not impossible if the
person in question attempts to reject temptation in earnest.
The problem with King Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506) was that he did not
intend to do so. Abusing his mighty power, the notorious Choson ruler
showcased the worst aberration imaginable.
On the front of sexual indulgence, Yonsangun's insatiable desire had much to
do with his prime temptress and accomplice_ Chang Nok-su.
Although Yonsangun's debauchery was his own, Chang Nok-su played a curious
part in stoking the sexual flames of the neurotic king.
Her fame _ or notoriety if you like _ is so far-reaching that her name is
now synonymous with a ``knock-out beauty'' who may bewitch gullible men.
Interestingly, the Choson Annals reported that she was not as beautiful as
we imagine now.
``Chang Nok-su was a servant of Chean Taegun (second son of King Yejong).
She was smart and knew how to please others. Because she was very poor,
Chang barely managed her life, marrying several times. When she got married
off to a servant of Chean Taegun, Chang learned to dance and sing. She sang
well. Even though she was 30, Chang looked like a 16-year-old girl,'' the
Annals article said.
Indeed, she looked younger than her real age, but her appearance was ``not
better than an average person.'' In fact, her selling point was not her
facial beauty but her ``insurmountable excellence in flattery and
No wonder Chang was embraced by Yonsangun without hesitation. She climbed up
the ladder fairly quickly, capitalizing on her talent as a flatterer
Eventually, the king granted whatever Chang requested and elevated her
position to fourth class in the official ranking system.
For Chang Nok-su, nothing seemed impossible if it was intended to win favor
from the doting king. According to a document dated September, 1506, Chang
ventured out to be a pimp, seducing unsuspecting ladies into the bedroom of
``At royal parties, the king ordered ladies to put on a mark identifying who
their husbands were in order know who was who. Of the ladies who joined the
party, those who caught the king's eye were lured by Chang Nok-su into a
corner room,'' the article explained.
In other words, Chang Nok-su played a tactful seductress to satisfy the
sexual desires of the tyrant.
The partnership between Yonsangun and Chang led to bizarre sexual
relationships between the king and wives of high-ranking officials.
According to an article dated Aug. 25, 1505, ranking officials noticed the
king's appetite for sex and made up all sorts of excuses to keep their wives
away from the much-dreaded court parties.
Yet the king remained persistent in his peculiar pursuit. Yonsangun set his
eyes on the beautiful wife of Park Sung-jil, who was then minister No. 3.
People were suspicious why Park's young wife frequented the court even
though she was not a royal member.
One day, Yonsangun commented on the wife, saying, ``Since Minister Park is
old and weak, his wife loves me.''
After hearing the king's preposterous and shameless remark, Park almost lost
his tempter. But fearing the obvious consequences, the minister remained mum
about the repeated adultery of his wife and the immoral king.
The tragedy was that Park was not the only victim. In April of 1505, the
king held court parties to seek beautiful ladies and asked them to stay at
As a result, a bevy of wives of high-ranking officials were victimized by
Yonsangun while helpless husbands _ Park Sung-jil, Lee Chaeng, Pyon Song,
Chong Kok-su and Hong Paek-kyong _ regretted their harsh fate.
Yonsangun's sexual indulgence was unbeatable. A notable fact was that few
officials dared to stop the king's uncontrollable behavior for fear of
losing their heads.
For instance, when a state agency in charge of music brought four courtesans
including a lady named Kwang Han-son, the king was immediately drawn to her.
Yonsangun asked whether the lowly courtesan Kwang would engage in an affair,
and an official named Lim Sung-jae did not hesitate to urge the king to go
ahead, a perfect example of how the tyrant and flatterer worked.
According to an article dated July, 1506, Yonsangun went on a pleasure-
seeking journey to Tumopo, along with 1,000 court ladies. These ladies were
chosen from across the nation as part of the king's efforts to form his
Yonsangun sent off officials to find beautiful girls to become court ladies,
regardless of background. In December of 1504, he classified them into three
groups _ hungchong, unpyong and kwanghui.
In modern Korean language, ``hungchong'' means ``merry-making,'' the origin
of which is speculated to be the legacy of Yonsangun's historic adultery.
Legacy or not, the hungchong and the other two organizations to educate
court ladies became major state-run projects.
At the time, around 1,000 girls were staying in Seoul after being chosen to
be court ladies. Naturally, some of them had affairs with ordinary citizens,
which enraged the jealous king.
Since Yonsangun was highly possessive of his concubines, he ordered death
for those who slept with the royal court ladies.
Barred from becoming concubines for other officials, most court ladies lived
pitiful lives, some resorting to outright begging on the street.
As more and more court ladies covertly slept with other men in the process
of begging for food, Yonsangun issued another stern order directed to the
Citing Chinese history in which some kings embraced thousands of court
ladies as concubines, Yonsangun urged his court ladies to keep their
chastity solely for the king.
As rumors about the king's sexual appetite were rampant by January, 1505,
Yonsangun forced court officials to bring with them a card bearing a
proverbial warning against a ``reckless tongue.''
The incident shed light on the king's self-consciousness, however small it
might have been.
Perhaps, he noticed something was amiss from the mushrooming rumors. But it
was not enough to keep heads from rolling _ he suffered a tragic death after
being expelled in a coup while Chang Nok-su was beheaded.
[Click into the Hermit Kingdom (82)] Yu Kam-dong Sex Scandal Shakes Up Court
By Yang Sung-jin
Discussing private matters in public places is tricky. Yet Choson kings and
officials recorded _ and discussed _ all sorts of love affairs in detail as
long as the person in question was on the government payroll.
The notorious Yu Kam-dong scandal is a striking example. Yu was a daughter
of Yu Kyu-su, an honorary Seoul mayor. She was married off to Pyongkang
Magistrate Choe Jung-ki.
When Choe was transferred to Muan, Yu Kam-dong also followed her husband,
but only briefly. She forged up an excuse about her health and returned to
Freed from the scrutiny of her husband, Yu Kam-dong played around too much,
drawing a new chapter in the Choson's sex scandal history.
As the Yu Kam-dong scandal flared up, King Sejong was intrigued. ``I heard
the prosecutors arrested Yu Kam-dong. How many men did she sleep with and
who's her husband?'' the king asked.
Officials explained that Yu Kam-dong's husband is Choe Jung-ki and she slept
with so many men that it's practically impossible to figure out exact
According to reports filed by Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) on
Aug. 20 of 1429, Yu Kamg-do left a longer trail of adulterous affairs with
ranking officials than imagined.
Incumbent Haeju Judge Oh An-ro, former governor Lee Kok and other
high-ranking officials were implicated in the scandal, while low-level
workers also slept with the temptress.
Sahonbu filed an appeal to the king, arguing that the officials embroiled in
the sex scandal should be fired.
King Sejong ordered the arrest of Chong Hyo-mun and Lee Hyo-rang but did not
allow the cancellation of their official titles.
High-ranking official Kim Chong-so explained the background to the king:
``Chong Hyo-mun committed adultery with Yu Kam-dong, fully aware of the fact
that his uncle Chong Tak also slept with her. Therefore, his crime cannot be
forgiven under any circumstances. Lee Hyo-rang is Choe Jung- ki's
brother-in-law but he knowingly became intimate with Yu Kam-dong also.''
Interestingly, King Sejong did not want to grill Yu Kam-dong, saying there
was enough evidence about the scandal and details were already revealed.
``Even if I force Yu to remember all the affairs she had, she would not and
could not recall everything,'' the king noted.
Another report of Sahonbu, dated Sept. 16, 1429, disclosed a long list of
men who got caught having an affair with Yu Kam-dong.
A bevy of officials including Chon Yu-song, Chu Jin-ja, Kim Yu-jin and
others turned out to be involved with the scandal.
An official named Oh An-ro gave government properties at his whim to Yu
while continuing the affair at the compound of the public agency.
Kim Yo-dal, another low-ranking official, encountered Yu Kam-dong and
threatened to arrest her before forcing an adulterous relationship. Kim
frequented Choe Jung-ki's house covertly before trying to make off with Yu
Sahonbu stressed that Yu broke all the moral obligations as a wife of a
government official and lied that she was a courtesan to seduce men at
random, calling for a severe punishment.
``When Yu Kam-dong was living with her husband Choe Jung-ji, she deceived
him and escaped with a lover, Kim Yo-dal, a crime warranting the death
penalty. At the same time, Kim Yo-dal should be slapped 100 times with a
cudgel and expelled outside of the nation,'' Sahonbu argued.
The problem was that King Sejong would not buy Sahonbu's recommendation
regarding Yu Kam-dong's scandal. Instead of ordering the death penalty, the
generous king wrapped up the case by exiling Yu to a remote place.
But the Yu scandal did not stop there. According to an article dated Dec. 4,
1433, Yu Kam-dong generated sex scandals even when she was officially
confined to a remote place as a punishment.
Sahonbu voiced a concern about the Yu incident: ``Yu's scandalous acts do
not stop because Your Majesty forgave her with too much sympathy.''
At the time, another high-profile sex scandal was plaguing the minds of
Sahonbu officials. Origa, a daughter of a high-ranking official whose
identity remained disclosed, was arrested for her adulterous behaviors.
Sahonbu cited Yu Kam-dong's precedent and called for capital punishment
against Origa. But the king flatly rejected the appeal and opted for a less
With successive appeals ignored, Sahonbu finally gave up on the hope of
persuading the king to slap a strict punishment on Origa.
Yet other officials held on to their position, in favor of a heavy penalty
for those who committed adultery.
Four days after Sahonbu was silenced by the king's generosity-based policy
against sex scandals, Saganwon (Office of the Censor-General) ventured out
to file an appeal to the king.
``It is regrettable that Your Majesty did not allow capital punishment for
Origa, Lee Ui-san and Ho Pa-hoe, all who committed adultery. In our opinion,
there is a great possibility for pursuing desire between men and women,
which should be strictly banned,'' Saganwon said.
Saganwon also cited King Taejong's previous stern punishment against the
scandal makers as a reason to crack down on Origa.
The government's stern crackdown and solidification of social norms based on
Confucianism gradually decreased the number of sex scandals in the late
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