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Korea - Traditional Korean Families

gender poverty family family husband women chosun

Families were very different among the three historical periods of the Shilla (57 B.C.E.–C.E. 935), Koryo (C.E. 918–1392), and Chosun (C.E. 1392–1910) Dynasties because of their religious orientation.

Buddhism was introduced in Korea during the Early Kingdoms (C.E. 372) and was adopted as the state religion for a millennium. With its emphasis on rejecting worldly values and concerns, including the family, Buddhism delivered a message contrary to that of Confucianism. But Buddhism's influence was limited to the sphere of individual self-enlightenment and discipline, and it appealed principally to the ruling class because the majority of people, who lived at a subsistence level, had few material possessions to renounce. As a result, relatively few people were affected by the self-abnegation and antifamilial monasticism that Buddhism taught (Han 1981; Park and Cho 1995a). The religion's influence declined further during the late Koryo Dynasty (918–1392) when Buddhist groups in Korea became corrupt. They constructed extravagant temples, and followers of the religion observed only superficial rituals (Lee 1973; Hong 1980).

When the Chosun Dynasty succeeded the Koryo in 1392, it adopted Confucianism as the familial and state philosophy, suppressing Buddhism. The term Confucianism is used to refer to the popular value system of China, Korea, and Japan. This system is derived from the synthesis of the traditional cultural values espoused by Confucius and his followers and subsequently influenced by elements of Taoism, Legalism, Mohism, Buddhism, and, in the case of Korea and Japan, Shamanism (Park and Cho 1995a). Confucianism declares the family the fundamental unit of society, responsible for the economic functions of production and consumption, as well as education and socialization, guided by moral and ethical principles (Lee 1990; Park and Cho 1995a). In its teachings, Confucianism has traditionally deified ancestors, institutionalized ancestor worship, and delegated the duties of ritual master to the head of the male lineage, that is, to the father and husband. Confucianism is a familial religion (Lee 1990). As Confucianism took hold, the ideal of male superiority within the patrilineal family became more prominent in the late Chosun dynasty than it had been during the early Chosun dynasty (1392–1650) (Park and Cho 1995a).


Values and functions of the family. The family is the basic component of social life in Korea, and its perpetuation has been of paramount importance under patriarchal Confucianism. In a Confucian patriarchal family, the family as an entity takes precedence over its individual members, and the family group is inseparably identified with the clan. The most important function of family members is to maintain and preserve the household within the traditional Confucian system (Lee 1960). Society became organized around two principles: that males shall dominate females and that elders shall dominate the young (Kim 1993). Growing old in Korea had advantages for both women and men, for age was respected. According to this perspective, women were often self-assertive and highly valued, as the family finance managers, decisionmakers in family matters, and educators of children (Brandt 1971; Osgood 1951).

Traditionally, the ideal family type in Korea was a patrilocal stem family. The stem family typically consists of two families in successive generation, a father and mother living in the same household with married oldest son, his wife, and their children. The eldest son generally inherited the family estates. The other sons were expected to live in separate residences after their marriages (Cho and Shin 1996). The central familial relationship was not that between husband and wife, but rather between parent and child, especially between father and son. At the same time, the relationships among family members were part of a hierarchy. These relationships were characterized by benevolence, authority, and obedience. Authority rested with the (male) head of the household, and differences in status existed among the other family members (Park and Cho 1995a).

Marital roles and women's roles. During the Shilla and Koryo period, among commoners, couples entered freely into marriage with their chosen partners (Choi 1971). This changed, however, during the Chosun dynasty; strict rules were imposed on the selection of partners, and all marriages were arranged. Naehun (Instruction for Women), compiled by the mother of King Seongjong in 1475, was the most important and influential textbook used to teach proper Confucian roles to girls and married women. The book emphasized the basics of womanly behavior such as chastity, and it prepared girls for their future functions as moral guardians of the domestic sphere and providers for the physical needs of their families. The book also elaborated on a married woman's role, including being a self-sacrificing daughter-in-law, an obedient and dutiful wife, and a wise and caring mother (Kim 1993; Deuchler 1983).

Based on Confucian values, families observed strict gender differentiation in married life. Traditional Korean women's responsibility was restricted to the domestic sphere. As an inside master, the woman established her own authority and became a financial manager, symbolized by the right to carry the family keys to the storage areas for rice and other foods (Kim 1992; Lee 1990). Also, husbands and wives strictly observed a hierarchical relationship. A wife would sacrifice herself completely to serve her husband and family in an exemplary manner. In accordance with the rule of three obediences, a woman was required to obey her father, husband, and son, in that order. Under this system of severe discrimination, women of the Chosun Dynasty were confined to the home. Nevertheless, the position of women, at least those with children, was not hopeless. Just as women occupied a subordinate position in relation to men, children were subordinate to their parents and were required to revere their mothers as well as their fathers (Choi 1982a; Park and Cho 1995a).

Traditionally, Korean society considered divorce and remarriage deviant and problematic family events. Only the husband had the right to divorce his wife; if he did so, she had to be expelled from her family-in-law according to the traditional marital code that held the husband's authority and absolute power to govern his wife. A husband could legally divorce his wife when she committed the following seven faults (chilchul); being disobedient to one's parents-in-law; not giving birth to a son; committing adultery; expressing jealousy of the concubine; contracting a serious illness; and being garrulous or thievish.

Three exceptions (sambulgeo), however, prohibited a husband from expelling a wife who committed the above faults: The husband was not allowed to divorce his wife if she spent more than a three-year mourning period for her parents-in-law; if she had no place to return after the divorce; or if she married in poverty and contributed to the wealth and the social position of the family. The woman was forced to serve the husband's family after her husband died. Thus, people blamed remarried women for denigrating the reputation of their kin as well as themselves. Although a husband could not divorce under these circumstances, he could make an alternative arrangement. If, for example, a wife bore no son, it was common for the couple to adopt one or for the husband to keep a concubine.

It was customary for a man seeking remarriage to select a spinster from a lower-class family, because women who had been married before were socially unacceptable. Also, according to the patriarchal norm, Korean women were socialized to break their relationships with birth families and be thoroughly absorbed into families-in-law, and to assimilate their traditions. This meant that a woman whose first marriage was to a previously married man occupied a very humble position. These women were likely to want their own children to insure marital stability and secure their own position in the family.

Parent-child relationships. One of the most important doctrines of Confucianism was the requirement that children be dutiful to their parents. Filial piety has been the highest moral principle of the parent-child relationship and has greatly influenced the Korean family system. It guided the socialization of children enforced the moral rule that adult children should obey and serve their elderly parents and to repay them for their work as parents by looking after them for the rest of their lives (Chung and Yoo 2000). Thus, the stem family began to be considered an ideal type.

But what constituted filial behavior changed from the Shilla to the Chosun Dynasty. In Samganghangsil, the most important expression of filial TABLE 2

TABLE 2
Traditional concepts of filial piety of Shilla, Koryo, and Chosun
[Frequencies, percent]
Category of filial piety Shilla Koryo Chosun
SOURCE: H. Chung and K. Yoo. (2000). Filial Piety and the New Generation in Korea.
Support and material services 3 (75) 5 (8.1) 55 (8.1)
Nursing 1 (25) 8 (12.9) 279 (41.2)
Self-sacrifice 0 (0) 11 (17.7) 136 (20.1)
Funeral services and worship 0 (0) 38 (61.3) 207 (30.6)
Total cases(percent) 4 (100) 62 (100) 677 (100)

piety during the Shilla Dynasty was supporting the material needs of elderly parents. In contrast, in the Koryo and Chosun periods, filial piety was best demonstrated in formal and ritual services, such as funeral services and worship in the Koryo and nursing in the Chosun period (see Table 2). In particular, nothing was as important as worshiping of the spirits of one's ancestors as well as one's parents in the period of Chosun (Chung and Yoo 2000).


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almost 2 years ago

Wow... i did not know before how complete family role in Korea. interest, but in some point eventhough its good, but i guess it too much, esp for remarried status. Well thats just my idea, but honestly overallm i love this complete description

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about 1 year ago

Thank you very much. SARANGHAEYO <3