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Reviewed by:
  • Women and Confucianism in Chosŏn Korea: New Perspectives
  • Martina Deuchler
Women and Confucianism in Chosŏn Korea: New Perspectives. Edited by Youngmin Kim and Michael J. Pettid, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011, 170p.

This handsomely produced volume “offers a fresh, multifaceted exploration of women and Confucianism in mid- to late Chosŏn Korea (mid-sixteenth to early twentieth century). Using primary and secondary sources and perspectives from social history, intellectual history, literature, and political thought, contributors challenge unitary views of Confucianism as a system of thought, of women as a group, and of the relationship between the two.” With these introductory words the two editors raise high expectations, and while their intentions to present new perspectives on a not so new topic—women and Confucianism—are clear in all the contributions, the result scarcely satisfies the interested reader’s curiosity. Sadly, the volume, which contains chapters written by American scholars and translations of previously published work in Korean, is very uneven in style and presentation. It would have needed a lot more editing to enhance the overall language quality and smooth out the obvious differences of approach and methodology between the chapters.

After a brief Introduction in which the editors outline their views on the complexity of what is generally called “Neo-Confucianism” and propose various ways by which Chosŏn women reacted to the “system,” Youngmin Kim starts his chapter, “Portrait of Two Women,” with a somewhat repetitious discussion of how Confucianism has hithertobeenreducedtopatriarchy. Neo-Confucianism, he insists, was not a monolithic system, but on the contrary, a multilayered system of thought that allowed women to find their own agency. True enough, but instead of attacking the views of previous researchers, it would have been more illuminating if Kim had laid out in greater detail the background for his comparison of the Chinese “Tale of Yingying” with the Korean Ch’unhyang story. To state that “Confucianism is not one but many, and that Confucianism is more of a configuration than a system” (p. 13) and similar statements do not seem to be very helpful for understanding the differences between the two tales. Kim Youngmin is also the author of Chapter 5, in which he applies his ideas on Confucianism to the lives of two late-Chosŏn female Confucian “philosophers,” Im Yunjidang and Kang Chŏngildang. These were indeed remarkable [End Page 154] women, but Kim’s presentation of their lives and thought remains sketchy because he is again preoccupied with “a general inquiry: What is Confucianism?” Would it not have been better to attempt an answer (if there is one) right in the Introduction and then concentrate on examples?

Similar problems surface in the two contributions by Lee SoonGu. One chapter, “The Exemplar Wife,” describes the life of the now famous Lady Chang of Andong; the other one deals with the position and function of a deceased primary son’s widow (ch’ongbu). These chapters are rather clumsy translations from the Korean and marred with inaccuracies of fact, faulty transcription, and awkward sentences. Extensive editing would have been needed to bring these chapters up to scholarly standards. In contrast, Chapter 7, entitled “Questions Concerning Widows’ Social Status and Remarriage in Late Chosŏn,” by Jung Ji-Young, though a translated piece, is a well-written and well-researched paper. How far commoner women can be treated according to the same criteria as yangban women is, of course, questionable. Although the census registers seem to show conformity, the commoners’ lives were certainly less affected by Neo-Confucian dicta and their family constellations may have differed considerably. Indeed, life varied for yangban and commoners alike and was often controlled less by ritual niceties than by economic issues.

Milan Hejtmanek is the author of Chapter 8, “Devalued Bodies, Revalued Status—Confucianism and the Plight of Female Slaves in Late ChosŏnKorea.” His major focus is on female slaves of P’iram Sŏwŏn, but he also provides a short description of Chosŏn dynasty slavery. His treatment of mixed marriages between slaves and commoners—a very complex social issue—is, however, too brief to be intelligible to the general reader. Some major terms, such...


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