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Nowadays, Koreans have not completely discarded customs and traditions derived from the Confucian system. They can be found in rituals, kinship organization, and ideology. Confucian beliefs are also incorporated in the ordering of human relationships and morality in Korea. For instance, senior people are still treated with great respect, while younger people are required to serve them on all counts. Confucianism reinforced male authority, one of the ideals of earlier societies, emphasizing the succession of the patrilineal lineage. This system had a great impact on the role of women in this country. Confucianism could not be considered fixed structure, as it merged with different events, movements, or policies. Thus, the image of a Korean woman underwent changes and was developing with the progress of culture. Present paper will focus on the concept of womanhood in Confucian Korea during different eras, its advancement and shift.
During the period of Shang dynasty in power, Confucianism reigned in Korea creating harmony between human affairs and nature. Family was considered the basic social institution, and marriage between related clans was prohibited. During this time, women were not regarded structurally relevant members of the society. Inheritance provisions favored sons over daughters. The eldest son would succeed the headship of the family no matter his age. This situation continued to take place long after Shang dynasty. Confucianism exerted a strong effect on political life of the country. There were no impulses to change the status of women or the beliefs prevailed in relationships between sexes. As the visual arts were establishing, they also symbolized the relegated status of women. Due to the good relations with China, the culture of the Korean people resembled that of the Chinese. However, Zhou often fought with the people of the Northern China. The bad treatment meted out to military officers. Thus, in 1180 a coup d’état was initiated. Nevertheless, not even the frequent conflicts helped elevate the status of women.
During the Zhou Dynasty, women were forced to remain chaste before marriage in accordance with neo-Confucian ideology. They were prohibited from remarrying upon the death of their husbands. During that time, the subordination of women in the society altered, for instance, the tradition of men moving into their in-laws house was stopped. Women began moving into the apartments of their in-laws after marriage. In this epoch, the division of ladies into two groups (authentic wives and mistresses) was strongly stressed. Besides, the legitimate inheritable status of women changed. The act of equivalent inheritance of women and kids was ceased. Instead, first conceived children would inherit everything upon the demise of their fathers. Hence, the patriarchal system was fortified; women's rights got to be progressively confined. Not even the education received by women belonging to the ruling class would change their status above other classes. It can be inferred, therefore, that the collapse of the Zhou dynasty due to the breakdown of public morals ushered new Confucian era where gender relations changed and regulations governing women’s lives were increased.
Women were rewarded for meeting the expectations of the society, though their acceptance depended on clan. Women from the yangban class who preserved their chastity made their families treated as honorable ones. On the other hand, more common families were exempted from forced labor. Lowborn women gained more common status. The rewards made women seek to maintain their virtue. The invasions that characterized latter period of the Zhou dynasty resulted in deaths of many men, and the consequent need for women to remain virtuous in new extremes. They were keen to maintain their virtue despite many ongoing challenges.
During the Goryeo Dynasty, Confucianism took newer approaches due to changes in the influence and status of Buddhism. Buddhism was characterized by divisions among the people with regard to religious beliefs (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003). The approach towards women’s role in families and societies took a radical turn in urban areas. Rural women reflected more on the significance of continuity in traditions. Confucian scholars were divided into two groups: those producing faith rooted religious texts and those teaching contemplative faith. Eventually, radicalism spread into rural areas.
Confucianism impacted on ideals and actualities of womanhood in many ways. First, the overall objectives of the marriage institution to enhance the succession of the paternal linage and carry out ancestral rites were made by households and not individuals. Therefore, women were actively involved in deciding their roles and status in society. The traditions, therefore, helped strengthen the institution of the family and women’s stronghold. Females who were married off between 14 and 20 years started making early conscious decisions to be submissive but supportive to their families (Ko, Haboush, & Piggott, 2003).
The subservience of women was adopted into later dynasties and is still practiced today, although at a lesser rate. Confucianism led to the emergence of women guiding fellow women with regard to maintaining virtues. It became a basis for educating them on etiquette, self-discipline, household management, humility, relationships with in-laws and chastity. The subservience of women and the role of women guiding fellow women have been documented in books. Their unselfish loyalty and willingness to help their husbands and families still inspires a lot of women. Confucianism developed ethical norms that impacted not only women, but also other members of the society. To women, they emphasized family obligations, respect for elders, filial piety, rules of courtesy, and social obligations. The set of norms developed over the centuries into moral laws and the basis of civil examinations.