Notes on the Status of Korean Women during the 1890s

Notes on the Status of Korean Women during the 1890s

Taken from ‘Korea and her Neighbours’ by Isabella Lucy Bird (pub. 1898)


From the chapter ‘Korean Marriage Customs’[1] p.114-20

PAIK-KUI MI was not without a certain degree of life on that Sunday. A yang-ban’s[2] steward impressed boats for the gratuitous carriage of tiles to Seoul, which caused a little feeble excitement among the junkmen. There was a sick person, and a mutang or female exorcist was engaged during the whole day in the attempt to expel the malevolent daemon which was afflicting him, the process being accompanied by the constant beating of a drum and the loud vibrating sound of large cymbals. Lastly, there was a marriage, and this deserves more than a passing notice, marriage, burial, and exorcism, with their ceremonials, being the outstanding features of Korea.

The Korean is nobody until he is married. He is a being of no account, a ”hobbledehoy.” The wedding-day is the entrance on respectability and manhood, and marks a leap upwards on the social ladder. The youth, with long abundant hair divided in the middle and plaited at the back, wearing a short, girdled coat, and looking as if he had no place in the world though he may be quite grown up, and who is always taken by strangers for a girl, is transformed by the formal reciprocal salutations which constitute the binding ceremony of marriage. He has received the tonsure, and the long hair surrounding it is drawn into the now celebrated ”topknot.” He is invested with the mangan, a crownless skullcap or fillet of horsehair, without which, thereafter, he is never seen. He wears a black hat and a long full coat, and his awkward gait is metamorphosed into a dignified swing. His boy companions have become his inferiors. His name takes the equivalent of “Mr.” after it; honorifics must be used in addressing him — in short, from being a “nobody ” he becomes a “somebody.”

A girl by marrying fulfils her “manifest destiny.” Spinsterhood in Korea is relegated to the Buddhist nunneries, where it has no reputation for sanctity. Absolutely secluded in the inner court of her father’s house from the age of seven, a girl passes about the age of seventeen to the absolute seclusion of the inner rooms of her father-in-law’s house. The old ties are broken, and her husband’s home is thenceforth her prison. It is “custom”. It is only to our thinking that the custom covers a felt hardship. It is needless to add that the young couples do not choose each other. The marriage is arranged by the fathers, and is consented to as a matter of course. A man gains the reputation of being a neglectful father who allows his son to reach the age of twenty unmarried. Seventeen or eighteen is the usual age at which a man marries. A girl may go through the marriage ceremony as a mere child if her parents think an ” eligible ” may slip through their fingers, but she is not obliged to assume the duties of wifehood till she is sixteen. On the other hand, boys of ten and twelve years of age are constantly married when their parents for any reason wish to see the affair settled and a desirable connection presents itself, and the yellow hats and pink and blue coats and attempted dignity of these boy bridegrooms are among the sights of the cities.

A go-between is generally employed for the preliminary arrangements. No money is given to the bride’s father by the bridegroom, nor does the daughter receive a dowry, but she is supplied with a large trousseau, which is packed in handsome marriage chests with brass clamps and decorations. There is no betrothal ceremony, and after the arrangement has been made the marriage may be delayed for weeks or even months. When it is thought desirable that it should take place, but not until the evening before, the bridegroom’s father sends a sort of marriage-contract to the bride’s father, who receives it without replying, and two pieces of silk are sent to the bride, out of which her outer garments must be made for the marriage day.

A number of men carrying gay silk lanterns bear this present to the bride, and on the way are met by a party of men from her father’s house bearing torches, and a fight ensues, which is often more than a make-believe one, for serious blows are exchanged, and on both sides some are hurt. Death has occasionally been known to follow on the wounds received. If the bridegroom’s party is worsted in the melee it is a sign that he will have bad luck; if the bride’s, that she will have misfortunes. The night before the marriage the parents of the bride and groom sacrifice in their respective houses before the ancestral tablets, and acquaint the ancestors with the event which is to occur on the morrow.

The auspicious day having been decided on by the sorcerer, about an hour before noon, the bridegroom on horseback, and in Court dress, leaves his father’s house, and on that occasion only a plebeian can pass a yang-ban on the road without dismounting. Two men walk before him, one carrying a white umbrella, and the other, who is dressed in red cloth, a goose, which is the emblem of conjugal fidelity. He is also attended by several men carrying unlighted red silk lanterns, by various servants, by a married brother, if he has one, or by his father if he has not. On reaching his destination he takes the goose from the hands of the man in red, goes into the house, and lays it upon a table. Apropos of this emblem it must be observed that conjugal fidelity is only required from the wife, and is a feminine virtue only.

Two women who are hired to officiate on such occasions lead the bride on to the veranda, or an estrade, and place her opposite the bridegroom, who stands facing her, but at some little distance from her. The wedding guests fill the courtyard. This is the man’s first view of his future wife. She may have seen him through a chink in the lattice or a hole in the wall. A queer object she is to our thinking. Her face is covered with white powder, patched with spots of red, and her eyelids are glued together by an adhesive compound. At the instigation of her attendants she bows twice to her lord, and he bows four times to her. It is this public reciprocal “salutation” which alone constitutes a valid marriage. After it, if he repudiates her, he cannot take another wife. The permanence of the marriage tie is fully recognized in Korea, though a man can form as many illicit connections as he chooses. A cup of wine is then given to the bridegroom, who drinks a little, after which it is handed to the bride, who merely tastes it.


Afterwards within the house a table with a dainty dinner is set before the husband, who eats sparingly. The bride retires to the women’s rooms, and the groom rejoices with his friends in the men’s apartments. There is no simultaneous banquet. Each guest on arriving is supplied with a table of food. Such a table, in the case of people of means, costs from five to six yen (from 10s. to 12s.), and a very cheap wedding costs seventy-five yen, so that several daughters are a misfortune.

During the afternoon the husband returns to his father’s house, and after a time the bride, bundled up in a mass of wedding clothes, and with her eyelids still sealed, attended by the two women mentioned before, some hired girls, and men with lanterns, goes thither also, in a rigidly closed chair, in the gay decorations of which red predominates. There she is received by her father and mother-in-law, to whom she bows four times, remaining speechless. She is then carried back to the house of her own parents, her eyelids are unsealed, and the powder is washed from her face. At five her husband arrives, but returns to his father’s house on the following morning, this process of going and returning being repeated for three days, after which the bride is carried in a plain chair to her future home, under the roof of her parents-in-law, where she is allotted a room or rooms in the seclusion of the women’s apartments.

The name bestowed on her by her parents soon after her birth is dropped, and she is known thereafter only as “the wife of so and so,” or ” the mother of so and so.” Her husband addresses her by the word yabu, signifying “Look here,” which is significant of her relations to him.

Silence is regarded as a wife’s first duty. During the whole of the marriage day the bride must be as mute as a statue. If she says a word or even makes a sign she becomes an object of ridicule, and her silence must remain unbroken even in her own room, though her husband may attempt to break it by taunts, jeers, or coaxing, for the female servants are all on the qui vive for such a breach of etiquette as speech, hanging about the doors and chinks to catch up and gossip even a single utterance, which would cause her to lose caste for ever in her circle. This custom of silence is observed with the greatest rigidity in the higher classes. It may be a week or several months before the husband knows the sound of his wife’s voice, and even after that for a length of time she only opens her mouth for necessary speech. With the father-in-law the law of silence is even more rigid. The daughter-in-law often passes years without raising her eyes to his, or addressing a word to him.

The wife has recognized duties to her husband, but he has few, if any, to her. It is correct for a man to treat his wife with external marks of respect, but he would be an object for scorn and ridicule if he showed her affection or treated her as a companion. Among the upper classes a bridegroom, after passing three or four days with his wife, leaves her for a considerable time to show his indifference. To act otherwise would be “bad form.” My impression is that the community of interests and occupations which poverty gives, and the embargo which it lays on other connections, in Korea as in some other Oriental countries, produces happier marriages among the lower orders than among the higher. Korean women have always borne the yoke. They accept inferiority as their natural lot ; they do not look for affection in marriage, and probably the idea of breaking custom never occurs to them. Usually they submit quietly to the rule of the belle-mere, and those who are insubordinate and provoke scenes of anger and scandal are reduced to order by a severe beating, when they are women of the people. But in the noble class custom forbids a husband to strike his wife, and as his only remedy is a divorce, and remarriage is difficult, he usually resigns himself to his fate. But if, in addition to tormenting him and destroying the peace of his house, the wife is unfaithful, he can take her to a mandarin, who, after giving her a severe beating, may bestow her on a satellite.

The seclusion of girls in the parental home is carried on after marriage, and in the case of women of the upper and middle classes is as complete as is possible. They never go out by daylight except in completely closed chairs. At night, attended by a woman and a servant with a lantern, and with a mantle over her head, a wife may stir abroad and visit her female friends, but never without her husband’s permission, who requires, or may require, proof that the visit has been actually paid. Shopping is done by servants, or goods are brought to the veranda, the vendors discreetly retiring. Time, which among the leisured classes hangs heavily on the hands, is spent in spasmodic cooking, sewing, embroidering, reading very light literature in En-mun, and in the never-failing resources of gossip and the interminable discussion of babies. If a wife is very dull indeed, she can, with her husband’s permission, send for actors, or rather posturing reciters, to the compound, and look at them through the chinks of the bamboo blinds. Through these also many Korean ladies have seen the splendors of the Kur-dong.[3]

When the Korean wife becomes a mother her position is improved. Girls, as being unable to support their parents in old age or to perform the ancestral rites, are not prized as boys are, yet they are neither superfluous nor unwelcome as in some Eastern countries. The birth of a girl is not made an occasion for rejoicing, but that of the firstborn son is, and after the name has been bestowed on him, the mother is known as ‘* the mother of so and so.” The first step alone of the first boy is an occasion for family jubilation. Korean babies have no cradles, and are put to sleep by being tapped lightly on the stomach.



Taken from the chapter ‘Social Position of Women’ p.340-3

It is really difficult to form a general estimate of the position of women in Korea. Absolute seclusion is the inflexible rule among the upper classes. The ladies have their own courtyards and apartments, towards which no windows from the men’s apartments must look. No allusion must be made by a visitor to the females of the household. Inquiries after their health would be a gross breach of etiquette, and politeness requires that they should not be supposed to exist. Women do not receive any intellectual training, and in every class are regarded as beings of a very inferior order. Nature having in the estimation of the Korean man, who holds a sort of dual philosophy, marked woman as his inferior, the Youth’s Primer, Historical Summaries, and the Little Learning impress this view upon him in the schools, and as he begins to mix with men this estimate of women receives daily corroboration.

The seclusion of women was introduced five centuries ago by the present dynasty, in a time of great social corruption, for the protection of the family, and has probably been continued, not, as a Korean frankly told Mr. Heber Jones, because men distrust their wives, but because they distrust each other, and with good reason, for the immorality of the cities and of the upper classes almost exceeds belief. Thus all young women, and all older women except those of the lowest class, are secluded within the inner courts of the houses by a custom which has more than the force of law. To go out suitably concealed at night, or on occasions when it is necessary to travel or to make a visit, in a rigidly closed chair, are the only “outings” of a Korean woman of the middle and upper classes, and the low-class woman only goes out for purposes of work.

The murdered Queen told me, in allusion to my own Korean journeys, that she knew nothing of Korea, or even of the capital, except on the route of the Kur-dong.

Daughters have been put to death by their fathers, wives by their husbands, and women have even committed suicide, according to Dallet, when strange men, whether by accident or design, have even touched their hands, and quite lately a serving- woman gave as her reason for remissness in attempting to save her mistress, who perished in a fire, that in the confusion a man had touched the lady, making her not worth saving!

The law may not enter the women’s apartments. A noble hiding himself in his wife’s rooms cannot be seized for any crime except that of rebellion. A man wishing to repair his roof must notify his neighbors, lest by any chance he should see any of their women. After the age of seven, boys and girls part company, and the girls are rigidly secluded, seeing none of the male sex except their fathers and brothers until the date of marriage, after which they can only see their own and their husband’s near male relations. Girl children, even among the very poor, are so successfully hidden away, that in somewhat extensive Korean journeys I never saw one girl who looked above the age of six, except hanging listlessly about in the women’s rooms, and the brightness which girl life contributes to social existence is unknown in the country.

But I am far from saying that the women fret and groan under this system, or crave for the freedom which European women enjoy. Seclusion is the custom of centuries. Their idea of liberty is peril, and I quite believe that they think that they are closely guarded because they are valuable chattels. One intelligent woman, when I pressed her hard to say what they thought of our customs in the matter, replied, ”We think that your husbands don’t care for you very much” !

Concubinage is a recognized institution, but not a respected one. The wife or mother of a man not infrequently selects the concubine, who in many cases is looked upon by the wife as a proper appendage of her husband’s means or position, much as a carriage or a butler might be with us. The offspring in these cases are under a serious social stigma, and until lately have been excluded from some desirable positions. Legally the Korean is a strict monogamist, and even when a widower marries again, and there are children by the second marriage, those of the first wife retain special rights.


There are no native schools for girls, and though women of the upper classes learn to read the native script, the number of Korean women who can read is estimated at two in a thousand. It appears that a philosophy largely imported from China, superstitions regarding daemons, the education of men, illiteracy, a minimum of legal rights, and inexorable custom have combined to give woman as low a status in civilized Korea as in any of the barbarous countries in the world. Yet there is no doubt that the Korean woman, in addition to being a born intrigante exercises a certain direct influence, especially as mother and mother-in-law, and in the arrangement of marriages.

Her rights are few, and depend on custom rather than law. She now possesses the right of remarriage, and that of remaining unmarried till she is sixteen, and she can refuse permission to her husband for his concubines to occupy the same house with herself. She is powerless to divorce her husband, conjugal fidelity, typified by the goose, the symbolic figure at a wedding, being a feminine virtue solely. Her husband may cast her off for seven reasons — incurable disease, theft, childlessness, infidelity, jealousy, incompatibility with her parents- in-law, and a quarrelsome disposition. She may be sent back to her father’s house for any one of these causes. It is believed, however, that desertion is far more frequent than divorce. By custom rather than law she has certain recognized rights, as to the control of children, redress in case of damage, etc. Domestic happiness is a thing she does not look for. The Korean has a house, but no home. The husband has his life apart; common ties of friendship and external interest are not known. His pleasure is taken in company with male acquaintances and gesang; and the marriage relationship is briefly summarized in the remark of a Korean gentleman in conversation with me on the subject, “We marry our wives, but we love our concubines.”



[1] The notes on marriage customs which follow were given me by English-speaking Koreans and were taken down at the time. They apply chiefly to the middle class.

[2] Yang-ban = noble

[3] An annual royal procession through Seoul.

7 thoughts on “Notes on the Status of Korean Women during the 1890s

  1. Indeed if you want to create a societal restrictive world for the women in your novels, referring to oriental history including Korea(which used to be heavily influenced by China), China(some concepts in this article, like the “casting wife off for seven reasons”, can be also found in ancient China) and Japan is a good idea. Ancient China may be the most restrictive country for women. They have “Three Obediences and Four Virtues”(you may look up it in Wiki), footbinding, concubinage, they have a whole ideology to restrict women and this ideology to some extent is related to Confucianism. Dorothy Ko and Robert van Gulik both have some books about women in ancient China.


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