[KS] Maid servants in early modern Korea

Caroline Norma cazzpeta at hotmail.com
Sat Jul 26 06:34:22 EDT 2014

Dear Gene
Thank you for your considered and insightful response on the Korean historical situation in relation to Professor Stanley's enquiry. I think your reply is a much more realistic and reasonable approach to the question of women's condition in the transition from feudal to capitalistic social relations than the thesis Professor Stanley apparently continues to pursue since her last book: that capitalism has been a historical savior of women, particularly in Japan, delivering female 'agency' and lots of opportunity to 'work' in prostitution.
This thesis overlooks Carole Pateman's 1988 work on precisely the question of whether women made gains in the historical transition from patriarchal social relations under feudalism to fraternal social relations under liberalism/capitalism. Pateman found we did not. It is also a thesis that needs to account for Shimoju Kiyoshi's 2012 work documenting the critical political reliance of the Japanese state in its transition from feudal to modern form on slavery as a core social relation. Shimoju sees continuity in the nature of the Japanese state across the pre-modern/modern periods precisely in its retention of slavery in the form of women's prostitution, even if the abolition of slavery for men defined the political form of the new modern state.
I think it's inexplicable that a number of historians of Japan writing under a feminist banner continue to see the historical development of wage slavery as a win for women. Surely there is no worse example than Japan of a country that has achieved an extraordinary level of female oppression and exploitation precisely through a well-synchronised mechanism of sexism and capitalism. Even in Japan today, if women 'defy their parents or husbands' they mostly face a life of poverty or entry into prostitution, as recorded in this recent NHK doco (which, by the way, shows a prostitution business running a childcare centre for the women on its books):http://www.nhk.or.jp/special/detail/2014/0427/
Why would we imagine things were any better for Northeast Asian women in pre-modern history?
There's been a recent resurgence of Marxist analyses of Japanese history that are producing good accounts of state and business destruction of workers, particularly in occupied China. I hope these accounts will prompt more serious consideration among feminist historians of the toll that a uniquely mutually-reinforcing form of sexist and capitalist social relations has inflicted on women in Northeast Asia, and continues to do so today.
Caroline Norma
Date: Fri, 25 Jul 2014 15:41:04 +0900
From: epa at sas.upenn.edu
To: koreanstudies at koreanstudies.com
CC: a-stanley at northwestern.edu
Subject: [KS] Maid servants in early modern Korea


    Dear all,


    I'm forwarding a research inquiry (below my message) from a
    colleague, Amy Stanley, who is a Japan historian at Northwestern U.
    I told her that:


        -more mainstream South Korean scholars tend to be skeptical
    toward the notion that anyone anywhere in the early modern era
    worked for "wage" in the purest sense of the word and all its
    connotations (e.g. free labor, room for wage negotiation,
    contractual relationship between the employer and the employee).

        -it was easier for runaway slaves, male and female, than
    commoners to work for pay, as commoners (most of whom were farmers)
    were more bound to where they lived--with the watchful state making
    sure through household registration system that they paid their
    taxes as well as performing corvee and military duties (actually
    most commoners had to pay the military tax rather than performing
    military duties)

        -the slaves who ran away, as well as desperate commoners who did
    the same, found jobs for pay, in an increasingly liberalized,
    commercialized economy, in which slave owners preferred to hire
    someone rather than spending resources on tracking down their
    runaway slaves. 

        -contrary to the popular image of runaways living in isolated
    areas or mountains as some sort of brigands, towns and private mines
    were much more sensible destinations, if not joining traveling
    merchants, as they could "hide" there more easily and find work. 

        -for runaway female slaves, they found work in the kind of areas
    that we can easily guess (i.e. domestic servants, prostitutes,

        -a demand for paid workers was limited in late Choson Korea,
    which was much less commercialized and urbanized that Qing China or
    Edo Japan (Korea's largest city, Seoul, had population no more than
    250,000)--though the demand certainly increased.


    Please reply directly to her by email (a-stanley at northwestern.edu).
    I paraphrase her inquiry (see below). 


    Thanks in advance,



      I'm working on an article about migrant
        maidservants in the
        early modern world. One of my working ideas is that the demand
        for women to
        work in domestic labor increased in cities across the Eurasian
        drawing women from rural hinterlands into burgeoning urban
        centers. New
        opportunities in urban labor markets provided some women (though
        not nearly
        all) the opportunity to defy their parents, husbands, etc.,
        enabling them to
        exert agency in ways that looked surprisingly similar across
        linguistic and cultural
        boundaries. It seems clear that the demand for female domestic
        labor did rise
        in Chosŏn Korea, as it did elsewhere, that such laborers were
        more and more
        valuable, and that some purchased women began to work on fixed
        contracts rather
        than in hereditary slavery. But I have two basic questions that
        I can't figure
        out: (1) Were there any maidservants working for wages in Korean
        cities and
        towns? (2) When female slaves ran away, did they look for work
        in urban
        marketplaces? Or did they generally run off to rural areas and
        try to get by as

      Eugene Y. Park
Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History
Director, James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies
University of Pennsylvania

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