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Neo-Confucianism, Women, and the Law in Chosŏn Korea

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Dao Companion to Korean Confucian Philosophy

Part of the book series: Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy ((DCCP,volume 11))

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By examining women’s petitioning practice during the Chosŏn, this paper aims to show how women’s legal practice allows us to reconsider the Confucian gender norms such as the Thrice Following (samjongjido 三從之道) and the Doctrine of Spheres, inner and outer (naeoepŏp 內外法). Through capitalizing on the right to petition, women demonstrated as legal agents of negotiations who simultaneously embodied and defied Confucian gender norms. By examining Madam Yun’s case in detail, the paper demonstrates how she challenged the two pillars of Confucian gender norms and how the state construed gender norms not as fixed but as a fluid entity that could be contested and negotiated between the state and subjects.

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  1. 1.

    In China, the May Fourth reformers rendered traditional Chinese women as oppressed objects; this perception, as Dorothy Ko argues, stemmed from confusing normative prescriptions with actual practice in premodern society and was a political and ideological construct that reflects Chinese modernity.

  2. 2.

    There was a parallel phenomenon in Ming China (1368–1644) when elite women actively participated in cultural life through writing; this period was when they similarly experienced a loss in their legal and economic status compared to the Song (960–1279) dynasty (Ko 1994: 1–26).

  3. 3.

    By “legal subjects,” I mean those who had the capacity to engage in legal activities such as filing petitions or suits, entering into contracts, buying or selling, borrowing or lending, and making bequests (Kim 2015a: 3−21).

  4. 4.

    The Chosŏn state maintained a hereditary status system throughout its dynasty that distinguished its subjects according to one’s social status. There was a small group of governing aristocrats at the top of the society known as the yangban 兩班. This group enjoyed most of the socioeconomic privileges in the Chosŏn. Due to status instability in the late Chosŏn, people acknowledged as yangban did not immediately signify the ruling class, whereas sadaebu 士大夫 did refer specifically to the ruling group. In the status system there was another small group known as the “middle people” (chungin 中人) that consisted mostly of technical specialists and functionaries. Under the middle class, there were the commoners, most of whom were peasants known as yangin 良人 or sangmin 常民. These people made up the majority of the population and carried most of the burden of taxation, military service, and corvée labor. Lastly, the lowborn known as ch’ŏnmin 賤民 were mostly slaves but also included those with debased occupations such as butchers, tanners, shamans, and female entertainers.

  5. 5.

    During the Chosŏn dynasty, the state applied the criminal law of the Great Ming Code (Tae myŏngryul 大明侓) in addition to Korea’s indigenous legal codes.

  6. 6.

    I borrow Dorothy Ko’s translation in Teachers of the Inner Chambers (Ko 1994: 6–7).

  7. 7.

    For further details of the performance of petitioning in the Chosŏn, see Jisoo M. Kim’s study (Kim 2015a: 42–73).

  8. 8.

    In examining the discourse of Muslim jurists, Tucker argues that the focus was not on demarcating boundaries of public and private but on promoting public interest; jurists sought to regulate sexual activity through controlling male and female interactions in space and dress. Similarly in the Chosŏn, whenever officials cite inner and outer in dealing with legal cases, they are primarily referring to women’s sexual conduct (Tucker 2008: 175–217).

  9. 9.

    Madam Yun’s case originally appeared elsewhere in Jisoo M. Kim’s study (Kim 2010: 221– 43). I would like to acknowledge Kim Hyuk-Rae for giving the permission to republish Madam Yun’s case here.

  10. 10.

    In Confucian society, a posthumous official title allowed the deceased’s family members to preserve honor and privileges, which was crucial in order to maintain the family lineage.

  11. 11.

    Madam Yun’s adopted son, Yi Sŏnjŏng, was a biological son of Yi Ch’anggŭp.

  12. 12.

    Han only mentions the existing three petitions of Madam Yun (Han 2006). However, if we read the petition written in 1805, Madam Yun herself mentions that she had previously written petitions in 1802 and 1803.

  13. 13.

    Madam Yun’s adopted son, Yi Sŏnjŏng, also petitioned twice regarding Yi Ch’angim, in 1808 and 1809.

  14. 14.

    Regarding the details of this novel, see Han Kil-yŏn’s study (Han 2005: 329–61).

  15. 15.

    Madam Yun’s novel A Record of Good Deeds of the Paek and Kye Families is listed in the Ŏnmun ch’aek mongnok 언문책목록 [A list of vernacular Korean novels] (1872), which gives the titles of both vernacular Korean and translated classical Chinese novels. Han argues that there is a high possibility the title listed in the Ŏnmun ch’aek mongnok is Madam Yun’s work (Han 2005: 329–61).

  16. 16.

    During the Chosŏn, the official written language for writing petition was literary Chinese. However, women also petitioned using vernacular Korean. For further discussion of the usage of literary Chinese and vernacular Korean when writing petitions, see Jisoo M. Kim (2015a: 42−73; 2015b).

  17. 17.

    This part of the text is not clear but I think Madam Yun is referring to the interrogation record in which others called her husband an “uncanny old man.”

  18. 18.

    In Chŏngjo sillok 正祖實錄, the record shows that Chŏngjo stated he could not believe Ch’angim was involved in the case (Chŏngjo sillok 正祖實錄 1776/04/26).

  19. 19.

    Madam Yun is referring to the statement Crown Prince Sado had made to her late husband that he was “a traitor and a man of small caliber.”

  20. 20.

    Duncan compared Sohye Wanghu’s Naehun and the Chinese Wen Huanghou’s Neixun and points out that Wen does not mention in her preface about specific roles of women or the reasons for the importance of women’s education. In contrast to Wen, Sohye expresses the importance of women in the realms of society, culture, and politics along with her claim for the necessity of women’s education (Duncan 2004: 29–32).


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Kim, J.M. (2019). Neo-Confucianism, Women, and the Law in Chosŏn Korea. In: Ro, Yc. (eds) Dao Companion to Korean Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 11. Springer, Dordrecht.

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