Korean Confucianism - 8. Modern Korean Women and Confucian Values: Change and Assimilation

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Understanding Korea Series No.3
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7. Confucianism and Globalization: National Identity and Cultural Assimilation 8. Modern Korean Women and Confucian Values: Change and Assimilation 9. Ancestral Rites and Family Moral Spirituality: A Living Tradition in Today’s Korea

This chapter discusses women and Confucian values in modern Korea. The subject of Confucianism and women in the Chosŏn dynasty (1393-1910) has been studied to some extent by historians, while other works articulated Chosŏn Korea’s social and political structures.[1] However, it is important to understand the interplay between women and Confucian values in modern Korea as well.[2]

1. Women and Family in Confucianism

In modern times, East Asian countries have been criticized for utilizing Confucianism in their legacies of maintaining a rigid tradition of patriarchy, authority, and hierarchy. Critics often blamed it for subordinating the status of women to men not only at home but also in many social and political circles. The mainstream view that Confucianism resulted in a “subjugation” of women stems especially from the recent feminist critiques of its historical and social repercussions. These interpretations denounce Confucian ethics for promoting a “patriarchal” and “androcentric” oppression of women in traditional East Asia.

The “patrilineal” Confucian notion of family had an immense impact on the lives of women in Korea, China, and Japan, which often involved male guidance or control over all stages of female life by father, husband, and then mature son. Marriage was considered mandatory, as women played the central role in preserving their husbands’ families and clans. Before marriage, a young woman was to train herself in the four aspects of feminine character: virtue, speech, comportment, and work (Book of Rites, ch. 12 and 44). Thus, education for Korean girls normally meant to prepare themselves for the married ideal of a “wise mother and good wife.” When a daughter married a man, she was immediately called “an outsider leaving (her natal) family.” In other words, she joined her husband’s family, and her domestic duties included serving him and his parents, thereby maintaining traditional customs and family reputation as well as educating children.

We need to note that Confucian humanism emphasizes interpersonal relationships in terms of ethical values and norms. As de Bary pointed out, “the Confucians sought to reconcile the egalitarian claims of a common humanity with the need for a hierarchy of values, which they saw as a natural and essential outgrowth of...civilizing activity and also indispensable to the maintenance of any social order” (de Bary and Bloom 1979:6). Among the so-called “Five Relationships” (parent-child, husband-wife, sibling-sibling, friend-friend, and ruler-minister),[3] the parent-child, ruler-minister, and husband-wife relationships are known as the “three bonds” (samgang in Korean; san-kang in Chinese) that underscored the principle of reciprocity as the universal basis for maintaining human relationships. Ideally, the former had to show guidance and instruction in a virtuous and caring manner, while the latter was expected to demonstrate respect and compliance. As Julia Ching pointed out, Confucian ethics has “served to strengthen a basic belief in human equality” (Küng and Ching 1988:89).

Indeed, the Confucian conjugal relationship precedes all other human relationships. In analyzing various Confucian texts written for women, Kelleher pointed out that: “She [a Confucian woman] has a stake in the maintenance of the family order and thus submits to the discipline of family relationships” (1989:147) This statement suggests that in coping with Confucian culture, Korean women’s concerns for maintaining family and social harmony were central to their practice of collective norms and roles.

Confucian ethics emphasizes the principle of reciprocity for the duality of gender in terms of yin-yang unity, role specialization, and harmony. Here, we need to understand the common Korean proverb that the husband-wife relationship means the “one mind-and-heart and same body.” This Sino-Korean symbol entails an awareness of biological and psychological diversity and unity between male and female; more significantly, it underscores the distinctive-yet-complementary aspects of the conjugal relationship.

2. Women and Confucian Values in Korea

In Korea, especially from the sixteenth century, Neo-Confucianism played a powerful role for both men and women in maintaining moral and social orders. But the politicized manipulation of this role has engendered an elite bureaucracy on the one hand and an authoritarian tradition on the other hand. For five centuries of Confucian feudalism in Chosŏn Korea, family symbolism and its social structures are thought to have sustained a patriarchal tradition. Korean women were required to be serious in learning and practicing the “feminine arts”: virtues such as chastity, obedience, and modesty.[4] By the eighteenth century, the Chosŏn dynasty generally accepted this tradition, while Korean society was transforming itself into what Kim Haboush calls “a Confucian normative society” in the context of maintaining “patriarchy” as well (1991:91-103).

Furthermore, Buddhism and shamanism provided Korean women of all classes with an important way of religious life in personal local settings, for women were the special devotees of these two traditions. Post-World War II ideological confusion permitted traditional forms. Since the early 1980s, democratic ideologies have become stronger. As economic prosperity gained its full momentum in the mid-1980s, South Korea experienced more significant changes including the higher status of women and their strong roles in society. Korean women made a definite departure from the status quo, taking necessary steps to adjust to the new needs of a modern society. The traditional “ideal of womanhood” was still expressed in terms of being a “wise mother and good wife” (hyŏnmo yangch’o) based on Confucian values. As a contemporary bride, a married woman was expected to fill the position of “housewife.”

The husband-wife harmony was expressed in terms of “public-domestic” and “out-in” roles. When married women meet, they usually saw each other’s social status in terms of not only her education, occupation, and even wealth, but also those of her husband and children. To put it in another way, a woman usually found herself socially “accepted” in a network of her social groups such as marriage, family, school, work place, and so on. This combination of acceptance and security was predicated on the public belief in traditional norms.

Since the 1980s, most mothers have become deeply involved in the education of their children. This is known as the phenomenon of kyoyuk ŏmma or “educational mother,” a commonly used term for a mother actively engaged in a social mania for pushing her children upward in their education. The mother’s role at home in South Korea certainly contributed to educational and economic development. This dimension of family life and educational culture is said to be an essential part of the Confucian tradition. Much of the mother’s role focused on influencing the child’s education, school, and teachers.

Since the 1980s, new democratic ideas and alien values filtered down to the interpersonal and organizational levels quickly. As a result, there emerged new patterns of change especially with respect to women’s status and gender relationships.

3. Change and Assimilation in Today’s Korea

Since the early 1980s, rapid industrialization and urbanization have advanced Korean women into the modern standards of life that challenged traditional feminine values associated with Confucianism. While traditionally viewed as the inner guardians and managers of their country’s well-being, they have become the powerful architects of economic progress and social change in the past three decades. As a result of the far-reaching economic and social changes set in motion, democracy, liberty, and privacy are all elevated to the status of an official ideology in most institutions and work places in today’s Korea, and egalitarian and Western values have already gained much more authority. There now exist old and new ideas, values, and ways of handling things and human relations.

In today’s Korea, the younger generations’ perspectives in both urban cities and rural areas are exerting a much stronger impact on all aspects of society, as indicated in recent Korean statistical surveys. The identity and roles of women have changed rapidly according to new standards and needs. Accordingly, traditional family values are coping with this changing social reality. Some generational gaps and their ideological issues exist here and there because college students, young career women, or young husbands and wives express more individual freedom, liberty, and privacy, thereby following a number of Western and global patterns. College education for women has expanded rapidly since the early 1970s. All daughters in Korea want university education not only for intellectual maturity and good employment, but also as a basic requirement for finding a good marriage prospect in a Confucian-based society, where one’s educational level is a major determinant of one’s status and ability.

Korean women have now become far more active in various occupational, institutional and social arenas on the national level; the employment rate for women in the professional and managerial works strongly increased since 1980s. Several obvious reasons for this trend should be noted here: first, more job opportunities for women; second, more women seeking professional careers; and third, a much more positive attitude toward working wives or mothers, rejecting the traditional custom that “women should work at home”; and so on.

As indicated in the recent public statistics, the average marriage ages for men and women have been increasing rapidly in the last two decades.[5] This also demonstrates a new trend where more women delay marriage for few common reasons: higher education; professional career; no interest in marriage; heavy financial burden for marriage and raising children; and so on. Overall, the traditional view of daughters as “outsiders after marriage” no longer exists. This also indicates an increasing trend of conjugal intimacy and privacy for married women. Most husbands now share household duties with their wives because of changing social attitudes toward women’s roles, which no longer tolerate the traditional taboo that “no male should step into the kitchen.” Certainly, all of these changes suggest that women’s status and roles have improved substantially, and that the wife has much more decision-making power in relation to all family matters. In other words, the Confucian tradition of patriarchalism and the weight of a patrilineal family system and father-son relation have weakened significantly or even no longer exist.

The average size of family has been shrinking every year. Until the mid-1980s, to have two or three children several years apart was considered most ideal, but the average “ideal number of children” on the national level has drastically dropped to 1.14 in 2003.[6] Young married couples now prefer one child or even “no child” for certain inevitable reasons as follows: the high cost of living and education; the difficulty of raising children; and other related reasons. These changes certainly indicate that the husband-wife relationship in a small family became much more private and intimate than that in the traditional large family.

In general, Korean women’s views of traditional (or Confucian) values tend to be differentiated depending on various factors. Among many modernists, the traditional value system associated with Confucian ethics is strongly challenged or even rejected by the adoption of modern economic, social, and legal standards. Many home dramas on T.V., for example, portray teenage girls, college students, or career women as a new generation that has an independent or Western view of women’s identity in terms of education, career, fashion, consumerism, romantic life, marriage, and so on. As products of the “post-industrialization” system and hi-tech “digital age,” these women in today’s Korea are much better educated than the older generations. They often ignore traditional role expectations and demand full freedom and opportunities, thereby setting their own standards for the family, social and institutional structures. These modernists even doubt whether marriage and motherhood rather than professional career while remaining single would even represent an ideal path to a woman’s self-fulfilment at all.

4. Conclusion

Having been influenced by Confucian values on the one hand and stimulated by economic affluence, social changes, and democratic ideas on the other, Korean women now have much more opportunity to think about their present and future status. Their increasing criticism of the traditional expectations and norms means a definite weakening of Confucian feminine values. But the patterns of gender conflict seem less intense or wide-spread in South Korea than in North America.

There are now new patterns of human-relatedness and those of gender harmony and conflict. Particularly striking is the extent to which Western values and democratic ideas have been integrated with traditional Korean identity at both individual and collective levels. The public and legal status of Korean women has improved rapidly, as much as the Korean economy has together with institutional and political changes. Women are now seeking a meaningful way of portraying a new identity. Such a challenge involves not only a variety of generational, educational and ideological gaps, but also a great deal of other complicated issues, including the moral, legal, and social systems, which all tend to be intertwined with one another.

The current situation in South Korea appears to be a way of managing and integrating the traditional in the modern. Embedded in this situation is an inevitable process of cultural and social adjustment to new challenges and opportunities. To conclude, a major issue is to consider Korean women’s new identity while addressing the gender-inclusive global culture that entails women’s life outside the home, marriage or family.


  1. Good sources for this topic are Deuchler 1992, 1977; Kim Haboush 1991, 1988; and Palais 1975.
  2. See Chung 1994a for a detailed discussion of Women and Confucianism in Modern Korea.
  3. “Affection between father and son; righteousness between rulers and subjects; separate functions between husband and wife; an proper order between old and young; and faithfulness between friends” (Mencius 3A:4).
  4. The upper-class Korean women had to study and respect those Chinese and Korean Confucian texts written for women. A good discussion of the Chinese texts is Kelleher 1989; for these and Korean texts discussed in the Korean context, see Deuchler 1977 and Kim Yung-Chung 1976:59-161.
  5. Korea Gallop Research Center; Chosun Ilbo (chosun.com; daily newspaper), Aug. 11, 2003.
  6. Ibid.

Understanding Korea Series No.3 Korean Confucianism

Foreword · Acknowledgments I · Acknowledgments II · Note on the Citation and Transliteration Style

1. Confucianism: Great Teachers and Teachings

2. Korean Confucianism: A Short History

3. Eminent Korean Thinkers and Scholars

4. Self-Cultivation: The Way of Learning to be Human

5. The Ethics of Human Relationships: Confucian Influence on Korean Family, Society, and Language

6. Education, Confucian Values, and Economic Development in Twentieth-Century Korea

7. Confucianism and Globalization: National Identity and Cultural Assimilation

8. Modern Korean Women and Confucian Values: Change and Assimilation

9. Ancestral Rites and Family Moral Spirituality: A Living Tradition in Today’s Korea

10. Koreans and Confucianism in the West: Some International Reflections

11. The Relevance and Future of Korean Confucianism in the Modern World

Selected Bibliography · About the Author