Chinese Eunuchs Confuse Me

What role do Neo-Confucian notions of the “life force” (ki) play in buttressing modern Korean patriarchy?

Warm Nest(Warm Nest by Eugenia LoliCC BY-NC 2.0)

Many years ago,Taeyeon Kim’s “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” was my Communist Manifesto of Korean gender relations. It was short, to the point, and instantly melded everything I knew about the subject into a simple, coherent narrative. It didn’t galvanize me into taking up arms against the bourgeoisie exactly, but it did encourage me to study more, ultimately leading to this blog. Take these quick excerpts to see why:

First, from page 99 (references removed; italics in original):

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.”

Then, from page 100 (ditto):

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did. Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life. Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children—particularly boys. “During the Yi [Choson] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary.”

Upon reading that, suddenly I saw a Matrix-like ki (기) pervading everything, providing the ideological bedrock to the many, blatantly patriarchal aspects of Korean society. For instance: Koreans’ preference for sons and consequent sex ratio problem (resolved, but with a legacy of an excess of increasingly misogynistic 20-something men); the hoju system (호주제), only abolished in 2008, under which only fathers or husbands could be heads and/or legal representatives of a family; the traditional (and still prevailing) custom of only having men perform jesa (제사), or ancestor worship rights, and usually only at the eldest son’s home; and Korea’s extremely low adoption rates, with 70% of those that are adopted domestically are girls. Indeed, as The Economist explains of that last:

Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons.

Korean Domestic Adoptions 70% girls(Source: Netizenbuzz)

Of course, ultimately I did realize that ki didn’t explain all that much actually. That, alas, Korean gender relations remained a messy subject, and that I still have a lifetime of learning about it ahead of me. But I hadn’t come across anything to challenge Taeyeon Kim’s characterization of the concept either, so I retained my lingering affection for it.

Then I listened to an episode about eunuchs on the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. That week, it featured Michael Hoeckelmann talking about eunuchs in China, Karen Radner about them in the Assyrian Empire, and Shaun Tougher in the Roman one. Jumping ahead to the sections which made do a double-take (several, in fact, as I’m sure they will to you too):


Michael Hoeckelmann) Most eunuchs came from the lower strata of society. So, if not the eunuch himself had decided to undergo castration—there are some cases in Chinese history where some eunuchs are known to have castrated themselves—then the decision rested with the family. So families that could not afford the Confucian education that was necessary and required for [a career in officialdom], they would decide to have one of their sons castrated, and to send him into the palace, in the hope that once he rose to a considerable position of power he would help his own family, his own kin.


Karen Radner) [The eunuchs, unlike] all the other people in Assyria, did not identify themselves with reference to their father’s name. Everyone else was such and such son of such and such, they were not. That’s very important. Also, as we’ve already discussed, a key attraction [for the royal family] is that they cannot father children; that’s hugely important in a society where the existence of the family across generations is one of the key incentives of human life…you achieved eternal life by having children who would invoke your name in regular rituals. Obviously that couldn’t happen with a eunuch…the royal family instead took on that responsibility. One can describe the eunuchs almost as adopted children of the royal family.

Melvyn Bragg)But then what happened in China, as you began to say Michael, the eunuchs began to adopt children in order that these children would do exactly as Karen was saying—have prayers or whatever…ceremonies after their death to keep them alive as their ancestors.

Michael Hoeckelmann) Yes, indeed. And just as Karen was saying, like in ancient Assyria, kinship and family was all important in China…and when eunuchs were castrated they even kept what was formerly attached to their bodies in order to be buried with them (the so-called “Three Treasures”) kept in a jar because they had to show them to regulators at the imperial court. Anyway, so the eunuchs start to adopt children at a very early stage in order to bequeath their property and in order to continue the family line. Because what they had done, or what had been done to them—the castration—was actually a breach of filial piety; they were not able to continue the family line…at least not biologically.

I know what you’re thinking: Ancient China is not Korea. Also, if Taeyeon Kim’s definition of ki has substance to it (and, my youthful naivety aside, there’s still no reason to suppose otherwise), then it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t very much provided an ideological buttress to various aspects of Korean patriarchy today. And probably in China also, where, among other things, boys command a price twice that of girls in the lucrative trade in kidnapped children.

But, if it turns out that in Korea too, jesa was and/or is more important than continuing ki—indeed, really quite separate and distinct from it—then I’m still left feeling a little chastised that I came to accept something so readily without examining it properly, simply because it provided a handy, scholarly confirmation of my pre-existing views.

But what you’ve also probably thinking is that Taeyeon Kim is just one source. And, although I’ve read more about Neo-Confucianism since then, most recently The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender edited by Li Chenyang (2000), I have to admit I’ve read nothing about ki specifically. So, on that note, let me end this post with not a revelation sorry, but a), if nothing else, a link to a very interesting podcast for you to take away from it; and b), my again posing the question provided in the introduction: what role, if any, do Neo-Confucian notions of ki play in modern Korean patriarchy?

Thanks in advance to any more learned readers than I who can provide any clarification, and/or suggest links or books for further reading. Also, please feel free to raise just about anything (Neo)-Confucianism-related in the comments, including any interesting stories about what your Korean family and/or friends do during Chuseok or Seolnal, and their attitudes towards the notion of women performing jesa. Thanks!

Related Posts:

Why are Korean and Japanese Families so Similar? Part 1: Neo-Confucianism

Korean Family LG Printer(Source: LG 전자; CC BY 2.0)

According to a recent study, Japanese women living with their parents-in-law are three times more likely to have a heart attack than those just living with their husbands. This, in a country famous for its very low rates of heart problems overall.

Which got me wondering about Korea. Korean family structures and gender roles are very similar to those of Japan, so it seems reasonable to suppose that the Japanese study has great relevance to Korea, and that a knowledge of Korean family life can reliably inform our interpretation of it.

Or does it? This is the question that has occupied me for past nine days, and, for readers by definition interested in Korean social issues, it is much less abstract and pedantic than perhaps it first sounds. Let me explain.

As a writer about Korean society, but often lacking in English-language material, frankly it is always a temptation to stress its similarities with Japan, just for the sake of having something to work with. But seriously, the huge Japanese role in the development of both the modern Korean state and economy has left profound and enduring legacies. Add that I’m a big proponent of the Marxian concept of base and superstructure—basically that much of a society’s oft-claimed timeless and enduring culture (one aspect of the superstructure) changes pretty damn quickly once economic structures or modes of production change (the base)—too, then it stands to reason that, with still broadly similar economic structures centered around horizontal and vertically-integrated conglomerates known as keiretsu and chaebol respectively, then much about daily life in both societies (workplace culture, working hours, drinking-culture, male-breadwinner based welfare systems, gender divisions between work and the home, and so on) would also be very similar. And it wouldn’t take much reading of just this blog alone to find that this indeed the case.

With that background and strong inclination however, there is always a danger of taking similarities as a given. And particularly in this case, where the authors of the study point out that:

One of the overwhelming things that stands out is that it doesn’t matter for Japanese men what the living arrangements are…they’re immune from stresses in the home (source, right: Urânia – José Galisi Filho).

And from which Samhita of the Feministing blog argues:

The article feigns surprise in finding out that men don’t have these same health problems, but fails to make the obvious conclusion that women get inordinate amounts of pressure from their in-laws to live up to certain expectations that increases stress in their lives. Many women are choosing not to get married or have as many children in Japan, but the culture of expectation around how women should act in the home seems resilient. I wonder if a similar correlation can be made with women that are living with their in-laws in the states?

Which is equally true of Korean brides, where those expectations include assuming the bulk of housework duties, and utter subservience to their mother-in-laws. Naturally, the ensuing potential for domestic tension and conflict make such living arrangements a staple of Korean dramas for decades, one such playing at the moment being You are My Destiny (너는 내 운명, but not to be confused with the 2005 movie with a similar name) starring the decidedly unhappy-looking bride Yuna below. Having said that, just like the traditional hanok houses that many of these dramas are inexplicably set in, one can’t help but assume that women’s disdain for eldest sons and the nuclearization of the Korean family mean that these living arrangements are increasingly rare in practice, which begs the question of why dramatizations of them remain so popular even today.

Writing a week ago, I thought it was because, in practice, living in separate homes has not diminished many parents’ intimate involvement in their childrens’ married lives, and hence the exaggerated situations of dramas still strike a chord amongst married couples and those of marriageable age. Indeed, the combination of Korea’s small size and improvement in Korea’s transport and communications infrastructure has made this even more possible and likely over time. Note that even as recently as the 1970s, a move to Seoul might entail not seeing parents and siblings in the countryside for many years, let alone friends who moved elsewhere in the country. (Source, above: HKGolden.)

But, to spare you the reflections on my preconceptions and academic baggage that took up much of an earlier version of this post, there comes a point where you need evidence. Much of those nine days were spent looking.

Fortunately, I was successful. But in the process, I discovered the question was much more difficult than I thought. Again, to spare readers from a frankly rather incoherent argument in a previous version of this post, in sum I learned that:

  • According to Yoshio Sugimoto’s brilliant An Introduction to Japanese Society (2003, pp. 175-176), Japanese dramas likewise dwell on intergenerational conflicts in households with extended families.
  • In fact, Japan has many of more such households than Korea (which will be discussed in Part 2).
  • But why? Crucially, Japanese society lacks the (Neo-)Confucianist ideology that underscores such family arrangement, and the ensuing conflicts.

Or so I thought. But, after a decade of constantly reading how Korea is the most Confucian country in the world, and “more Confucian than China,” I’d considerably underestimated Confucianism’s influence on the rest of East Asia.

Korean Woman Bench Sitting Gallery(Source: thomas park; CC BY 2.0)

This was revealed to me by Robert Smith in his chapter “The Japanese (Confucian) Family: The Tradition from the Bottom Up” in Tu Wei-Ming (ed.), Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (1996), and who aims to show:

…that it is impossible to advance a plausible argument that the Japanese family today is Confucian in the strict sense. It is equally impossible to argue that it has been completely purged of the effects of attempts by the authorities to structure it in terms of selected Confucian principles. (p. 157)

Some selected excerpts to make up the remainder of this post then. Please forgive me if there’s rather a lot of them, and apologies to any Japan-based readers who already started saying “Well…Duh!” to the computer screens some time ago, but hopefully they’ll still be helpful for any readers like myself that aren’t/weren’t as familiar with Japanese social history as they thought they were.

First, on why I had that impression that I did:

I have asked a hopelessly unrepresentative sample of Japanese colleagues, acquaintances, and friends whether contemporary Japanese think of themselves or their families as Confucian. The spontaneous answer is a resounding no, often supplemented by a dismissive reference to the conservative, reactionary, or feudal (a favorite term of opprobrium in Japan) character of its teachings. The implication is that one’s grandfather or great-grandfather may have been taught Confucian ethics and might even have internalized them, but in 1945 the Japanese consigned Confucianism to the dustbin of history. (p. 157)

There is one obvious difference between the role of Confucianism in China and Japan, where is has always been only one of many competing ideologies, philosophies and ethical systems, and never, as in China, “a way of life encompassing the ultimate standards for Chinese social and political order.” (158)

And the Japanese tend to underplay the Confucian influence in their own society because:

Japanese Confucianism started as a cultural ideology serving the needs of the Tokugawa Bakufu (or Shōgun, or Army Commander)….Although for a time Confucianism had been discredited along with everything else associated with the shogunate, it gained currency again with the consolidation of conservative power in the late 1920s and 1930s. (p. 158-9).

The latter of which was the decade when:

…Japanese society was being reduced at the hands of fanatics to its most stifling condition of oppressive irrationalism [and] in which the ideals of the Japanese educational world were closer to those of its Togukawa past than at any time since 1870….Is it any wonder that today’s Japanese, if they have thought about it at all, are likely to view Confucianism in a negative light? (p. 159, my emphasis)

Now, why the influence of Confucianism on the Japanese and particularly the Japanese family remains pervasive nevertheless:

Were the Japanese ever Confucianists in, say, the same sense as the Koreans? No one claims that they were. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which the Confucianist concern with hierarchical relationships and its emphasis on harmonious families as the basis for harmonious states seems to have influenced Japanese society. Be that as it may, it is just as likely that the Japanese selectively utilized Confucian teachings to reaffirm and strengthen characteristics of their society, which was deeply rooted in the pre-Confucian past.

Presumably one of the domains in which Confucianism did not simply reinforce and justify older social practices is the treatment of women, for it is widely argued that they enjoyed a far more favorable position in Japanese society before the introducton of Confucianism. It may well be, however, that the decline of women’s status in Japan actually began with the popularization of Buddhism. (pp. 160-1, my emphasis)


The question is not whether Confucianism is a religion. It is rather: Does Confucianism, broadly defined (or, perhaps better, undefined) have anything at all to do with religion in Japan?

The “rules” by which religions are tacitly expected to operate in Japan are, more than anything else, Confucian. As so often in Japan, Confucianism plays the role of a moral and ethical substratum that, its preconditions being met, allows a harmless surface diversity. Indeed, one could argue, as many have, that these principles go back beyond Confucian influences on early Japan to the values inherent in ancient clan structures and an agricultural society with their demands for loyalty and cooperative effort; Confucianism did not so much crate as articulate the values by which Japanese society works.

Virtually all religions that have endured in Japan have adapted external forms agreeable to the patriarchal family model and have made their peace with the state. (p. 171, my emphasis)

At this point, a more thorough blogger than myself would probably move onto those passages where Smith discusses that latent Confucianism within Japanese families (and the education system) more specifically, but I think that readers can reasonably extrapolate those from the big picture that I have already provided rather than requiring me to add those too. Ergo, Japanese families are indeed (Neo) Confucianist, and I’m especially glad that demonstrating that gave me a legitimate opportunity to get stuck into my recently purchased copy of Tu-Wei Ming’s book. But while 2500 words is a rather short post (for me), given the long time this one took and that Confucianism, Demographics and Biological Anthropology are much more discreet subjects than what I normally blog about, I’ll wisely end this post here!


Although they’re not really related to the topic at hand, the questions of: a) to what extent the US could be described as a “Christian country” and b) whether Confucianism is a religion or not came up in the comments, and are interesting in their own rights. And while I’m usually reluctant—yes, really—to type out literally entire pages from books here, Robert Smith does answer both much better than I could:

To what extent has the Japanese family ever been Confucian, and to what extent is it today? Would that the question could be so easily answered. Even the most casual survey of the vicissitudes of Confucianism in Japan suggests the need for caution. Indeed, I was tempted to indicate just how cautious one must be by titling this essay either “Confucianism Is in the Eye of the Beholder” or “Confucian Is as Confucian Does.” That is to say, how Confucianism is described, the praises sung of it, the importance assigned to it, and the terms by which it is denounced are all very strongly colored by the historical period in which the assessments are made, the position in the social hierarchy of the person expressing the opinion, and – not least in recent times – the age and gender of those who views they are.

I hasten to add that in these respects Confucianism seems to me rather like all other philosophical, ethical, and/or religious systems of whatever time or place. An example, drawn from personal experience with one such system, involves one of the myriad subcategories of the southern United States brand of Protestantism. Fifty years ago its construction of Christianity was a finely crafted one that had no place for Catholics, who were thought of as idolaters, or for Quakers, of whom few had ever heard. Depending on the particular church and the position of its minister on the issue, it was not always entirely clear that Methodists and Presbyterians were Christian either.

Be that as it may, did my relatives and neighbors think that they themselves led Christian lives? Of course they did, or tried to. Were it to be pointed out that someone had committed some “unchristian” act, the usual explanations were that all are conceived and born in sin, that it all happened before the miscreant had found God – or perhaps it was because Christ had found him. It is all now too far in the past for me to recall the full inventory of shifting grounds on which our neighbors and relatives took their unshakable Christian stands. Would they have agreed – and do they still – that the United States is a “Christian country”? Of course. They have never doubted it….Yet I wager that in the course of conducting interviews on the subject, you could collect scores of definitions – some of them flatly contradictory – of just what the term “a Christian country” might mean. There is bound to be some overlap, to be sure, but no consensus. Are we then to conclude that the United States is not a Christian country? I think not. But I submit that consensus on the religious and ethical dimensions of Christianity is not much more likely to be achieved than agreement as to precisely what Confucianism might be and whether the Japanese family is a Confucian institution.

It is possible, of course, that I am looking in the wrong place for an authoritative definition, and would be better advised to seek it among the philosophers, the theologians, the ethicists, or the intellectual historians. My reading of the relevant sources, however, strongly suggests that consensus at the tip is even more difficult to achieve than at the bottom. In any event, my anthropological training predisposes me to start at ground level. (pp. 155-157)


Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 3 (Final): Nation, Family, Self

busan-focus-06-03-2013-p-5(Source: Focus, Busan ed.)

Anti-Communist Fashion

As promised in Part 2, in just a moment I’ll jump straight into outlining and discussing the the second part of Taeyeon Kim’s 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society.But before I do, I should mention that I’ve also started reading SeungSook Moon’s book Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (2005), and it’s made me realize just how narrow a focus Kim’s article has.

That’s not really a criticism: in the 16 pages available to her, Kim does an excellent job of explaining how the 19th Century Joseon Dynasty’s Neo-Confucianist views of the female body were warped by, adapted to, and ultimately cam to survive and proper in the 20th Century. And that endurance does go a long way towards explaining the question I first posted in Part 1 — namely, why are Koreans so conformist in their fashion choices?

korean-anti-communist-posterBut what Moon’s book has also made me realize is that, however outlandish the connection sounds at first, today’s Korean fashion can’t be explained fully without mention of the postwar Korean state’s anti-communist ideology too.

Let me run with this for a moment. In a nutshell, Moon’s book gave me a more bottom-up perspective on life in postwar Korea than what I’m used to (decidedly top-down Troubled Tiger is one of my favorite books), and the more I read about it, the more I learned just how pervasive that ideology was in people’s everyday lives, and how almost any form of legitimate dissent or creative difference was often regarded by the state as nothing short of “leftist” subversion. I could give you examples, like Korean men with long hair being publicly shaved in the 1970s, or the police checking that women’s skirts were long enough (albeit more as an excuse to simply harass women), but you get the drift (source, right: theturninggate).

These attitudes didn’t suddenly disappear upon democratization in 1987. In hindsight, it’s incredibly naive for me (or anyone else) to account for conformity in modern Korean life without reference to it. Yes, even in something as innocuous-sounding as fashion.

(Update: I suddenly remembered this ad. But while it’s a good play on how the “rule” for miniskirts has completely reversed since the 1970s, the conformity remains the same. How else to explain wearing miniskirts in winter? An otherwise extremely wasteful use of the body’s resources to demonstrate one’s physical prowess to mates, just like a peacock’s tail?)

But that will be the subject of later posts. First, let’s finish Kim’s article, sans political ideologies (Update: after reading it, I recommend this recent post of the Metropolitician’s on Korean fashion, lest you feel that I give too pessimistic and conformist an image of Koreans; honorable mention should be made of this post of Roboseyo’s post too). The second part starts by placing the endurance of Neo-Confucian images of women’s bodies in modern times in the context of the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in Korean society as a whole:

Confucian Fundamentalism and Korean Identity

The first thing of note is that, despite how it may at first appear, the endurance of Neo-Confucianism in modern Korea is probably more because of Korea’s turbulent 20th Century rather than despite it, as 余 涵 彌fundamentalism of any stripe is usually a reaction against painful, forced transitions to modernity. As Kim says, in Korea’s case Japanese colonization and then civil war and division meant that its postwar search for national identity (source, right):

“…became essential to Korea’s postcolonial and post-war project for national reconstruction. Neo-Confucianism came to stand for essential ‘Koreanness’ and was quickly embraced as the authentic culture of Korea – so much so that challenges to Neo-Confucian principles were branded as threats to national integrity. Neo-Confucianism also maintained its gloss as part of the elite culture, and as more and more Koreans were becoming upwardly mobile, many strove to identify themselves with the former [elites], making what was originally an ideology and culture of the elite minority into the culture of all Koreans” (pp.102-103).

Some other consequences of that quest for self-identity include Korea’s bloodline-based nationalism (although the origins of that were closer to 1900 than 1953), and military regimes deliberately nurturing the idea that Korea has suffered invasions more than most, both now counter-productive (to put it mildly). Ironically though, for women it also ultimately meant a reaffirmation of the ideals of taegyo (태교), despite women’s entrance into the workforce for the first time and the nuclearization of the Korean family. There are two reasons for this, one speculative and one more concrete.

First, one increasingly under-appreciated aspect of postwar Korea was overcoming the psychological trauma of the physical dislocation and separation of Korean families due to the war, and until I started today’s post I didn’t realize that that may have affected Korean’s women’s postwar lives much more than men — remember that, under Neo-Confucianism, they weren’t really thought of as of as individuals in the Joseon Dynasty, and thus their families had been the primary source of their identity. But then, not only were they suddenly and violently brought out of the inner, private sanctum of those families and homes by the war, and then into the public sphere of schools and factories for the first time, those families also moved from the farm to the cities, and nuclearized in the process. Given those circumstances, it is natural to suppose that women might yearn for the good old days of certainty, especially former upper-class women to whom Neo-Confucian tenets had been most vigorously applied.

Rosie the Riveter We Can Do ItSecond, while for a time women’s physical labour in factories came to be regarded (rhetorically at least) as just as important and useful as their traditional domestic work in the home (as was, I might also add, their equally “needed”, expanded roles as sex workers too; I’ll save that for a later post), ultimately (source, right: Mike Beauregard; CC BY 2.0):

with the advent of a post-industrial, consumer capitalist society in the 1980s, women became more important as consumers than as factory workers, shifting the utility of their bodies from national labor production to national consumption, becoming, in effect, what Byran S. Turner (1996) calls the capitalist body. (p. 102)

Later, I feel that Kim exaggerates how “post-industrial” Korea is, but that doesn’t detract from the basic point that women, once exhorted and educated to work in the factories, were once again extorted to stay at home upon marriage, and to then focus on producing and raising children. Seeing as a good third or so of the blog is about how the Korean economy and minimalist welfare system is predicated on that fact, then I don’t feel the need to elaborate on and justify that here. Instead, of note is how they are also urged to consume as housewives and mothers, both for the sake of national development, and for the sake of obtaining the items necessary to secure and advance their family’s social status, as explained in Part 2. Ergo, it’s taegyo all over again, although I’ll admit that it sounds neither particularly Korean or even Neo-Confucian at the moment.

The Ensuing Social Malaise

But just like in Western countries after World War Two, you can’t expose most women to working life and equal education and then expect them to meekly return to the home once the economy and/or national emergency no longer requires their economic services; the contradiction leads to the appearance of various social malaises, such as the “housewives’ syndrome” that Betty Friedan so adroitly recognised in 1963. In Western countries, that recognition and the civil-rights movement led to Second-wave Feminism. But Korea has so far lacked the former, and is only just beginning to experience a form of latter, often more because of the signing and implementing of UN conventions on gender issues and so forth rather than domestic pressures. What unresolved social malaises then, have arisen in Korea?

Kim argues that uprooted Korean women naturally found solace in new, postwar media images of women, and following the new rules of fashion was certainly easier and more personally satisfying to most women then embracing new, entirely alien concepts of liberalism, individualism and feminism to which Korea’s new relationship with America exposed them to. Hence:

The Neo-Confucian values of harmonizing as one, proper behaviour and self-cultivation, [re-emerged] in the guise of conformity, propriety and self-improvement. (p. 107)

But as we’ve seen, while self-improvement for men involved training of the mind, resulting in transcendence of the individual self, women were considered incapable of this. Hence women’s primary means of self-improvement came to center on the physical body instead, and this ultimately explains the why of today’s social malaises in Korea today, notably that:

Hence taegyo is Korean and/or Neo-Confucian, because while plenty, if not most, Western women consider getting plastic surgery for the sake of bettering their chances in job interviews and marriage prospects so forth, very few do explicitly for the sake of their father’s and or husband’s families.

Finally, now for the how.

Correcting the Flawed Eastern Female

Oriental Girls(Source: Joel Ormsby)

I’ve already explained that Korean women tend to embrace conformity rather than individuality in their fashion choices, and articles about fashion in women’s magazines too are less “Western” than they may first appear. While opening paragraphs seem to promise articles “promoting liberation from the edicts of fashion, and self-expression over blind conformity,” for instance, what they actually do is set up strict guidelines for Korean women to follow, the authors often failing to recognise that their exhortations not to follow fashion magazines’ fashions, but their tastes and styles instead, actually amount to the same thing. Indeed:

What is right for [the authors] must be right for everyone else, for there is a blurry distinction between [the authors] and others, a legacy of the subjectlessness of the Korean woman. (p. 104, emphasis in original)

Sure, much the same can be said of Western women’s magazines, which Kim should have acknowledged. But remember the importance of the notion of “subjectless bodies” in Kim’s article (see Part 1), and that for Korean women the philosophical concept of the individual self, defined not by ki and the family but by the physical limitations of the corporeal body, is very new. Hence Korean authors and readers may not see the contradiction that their Western counterparts may. Moreover, articles often present:

…what [they] consider to be particular features of the Korean women – short legs, big face, yellow skin – as problem features that can be corrected by certain types of clothing and colours….[they] imply that the imperfect Korean body is disordered but can be put back in order through the tricks of fashion. The body is something to be rearranged so its apparent flaws are concealed or eliminated. These flaws themselves stand out as imperfections because they are features unique to Koreans and absent in white models (p. 104, emphasis in original)

I could go on to discuss the details of huge plastic surgery industry in Korea, but it’s been done to death elsewhere, and I think the above photo and this article sum it up better than any virtual ink spilt on the subject. Having said that, numerous sources have claimed that Korean women’s desires to look Caucasian are the result of an inferiority complex towards and cultural colonization by the West, but I think that both that desire and those influences have been grossly exaggerated. Consider this:

All three elements, the Neo-Confucian woman’s subjectlessness, the perception of Korean bodies as imperfect, and fashion’s function to re-order the disordered Korean bodies, make Korean women’s bodies particularly prone to alterations, rearrangements and re-creations of the body. (p. 104)

The biggest thing I’ve gained from these writing this series of posts (and I just so happen to think that it’s quite an original point too), is that in that statement above you can replace “Korea” with China, Japan, and/or Taiwan, and that argument would still be just as valid. Arguing that their shared plastic surgery mania is because all four countries share a history of cultural colonization and have inferiority complexes towards the West is tenuous at best, and if even if true, surely it would mean that Korean men too, say, would aim to look more Western? But no, they don’t, and not even with the huge size of the Korean male beauty industry today. But all four countries do share a history of Neo-Confucianism. On that basis, is it too much of a jump to argue that the Neo-Confucianist combination above is precisely why plastic surgery is so popular amongst women in this part of the world?

Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 2: We’re not in Kansas Anymore


The ParadoxSong Hye-gyo sofa

For new readers, Part 1 was an outline and discussion of the first part of the 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society by Taeyon Kim. To quickly recap it, she argues that women weren’t really thought of as individuals in Joseon Dynasty Korea, as the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism considered them incapable of the spiritual transcendence that men were. Instead, the best they could aim for in life was continuing a husband’s “ki”, or spirit, through the production and upbringing of sons and the efficient management of his household. Hence Kim describes them as “subjectless bodies,” as not only were they not really individuals but their physical bodies were not really their own either, merely being vessels for and tenders of the more precious ki instead (source, right: jingdianmeinv)

In terms of the ideals for women’s appearance, this meant that the physical attributes required for those were prized more than beauty. On top of that, adornment and/or alteration of the body was not condoned for either sex, as the physical body was one’s inheritance of ancestors’ sacred ki. And herein lies the paradox, as on the one hand Neo-Confucianism still pervades all aspects of Korean life today (I’ll take readers knowing and agreeing with this as a given), but on the other hand, modern Korea appears to be in the midst of a decidedly non-traditional celebration of youth and the female form. What gives?


Neo-Confucian Consumption Motives

The short answer is that appearances can be deceptive. It is certainly true that modern media images of Korean women are not Neo-Confucian in the 19th Century sense described above, and it’s difficult to argue just by looking at them that advertisements, for instance, are any different to their counterparts in Western countries. Of course, systematic cross-country analyses of numbers and types do reveal significant and telling differences, and if readers are interested in those then I highly recommend reading the 2006 journal article entitled “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisments: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, downloadable here. But surveys like those do not chronicle average Korean and Western women’s reactions to them, and herein lies the essential differences between them.

Barbie Dolls ConformityAs a rule, in Western countries most (although not all) advertisements for a product have to actively suppress and disguise the notion that people may feel compelled, influenced or forced into purchasing that product, whether by the ad, by peer pressure, or some other unwritten social rule. Instead, people are encouraged to conceive their purchase in terms of personal choice, individuality, empowerment, and — especially if the target consumer is young — maybe liberation and rebellion too. And of course, these advertising norms undoubtedly operate for a good proportion of advertisements in Korea too. But in the case of advertisements for products related to one’s appearance, be they cosmetics, clothes, or plastic surgery, it turns out that a great number of Korean women make purchases for precisely the opposite reasons. Indeed, not only is there no stigma in doing so, but they positively embrace the opportunity to conform to and harmonize with social norms through their consumption choices (source, right: Kiran Foster).

Lest that assertion sound like a typical exaggeration of a Caucasian male, surveys that Kim cites indicate that most Korean women explicitly justify their choices in those Neo-Confucian terms, and definitely not the individual empowerment, entitlement, and personal assertion of one’s individual choice that Western women tend to do in similar surveys. That is not to say that Western women (or men) can’t and don’t also passively follow fashions, and it’s not necessarily a negative or dehumanizing thing either. But very few Westerners would admit to it.

I see no reason to doubt the results of those surveys (which I can provide the details of if readers wish), and while my own female Korean friends for instance, are certainly as liberal and free-willed as any Westerner in their clothing and cosmetic choices — and lifestyles; indeed, that’s why we’re friends — they can’t counter the mass of empirical evidence Kim provides, and even the anecdotal evidence from the media and on the streets of Korea. If Neo-Confucianism is pervasive in modern Korean life then, and Korean women consume cosmetics, clothes, and undergo plastic surgery operations largely for the sake of Neo-Confucianist motives, then it’s time to call a spade a spade and argue that Korean society’s new emphasis on women’s appearances is (somehow) Neo-Confucianist too. Indeed, it would be strange if only this particular aspect of Korean life was so different.

Enjoy Capitalism T-shirtHence the second part of Kim’s article is about how this modern phenomenon is a warping of and adaptation of Neo-Confucian ideals of women’s roles to new capitalist and consumerist circumstances. But while I originally wanted to outline and discuss that in this post, I’ve moved that to Part 3, because first I wanted to place those circumstances in their historical context, which I think considerably adds to and strengthens Kim’s argument (source, right: Jacob Bøtter).


The Developmental Context of East Asian Consumption

I’ve already demonstrated that although Korean women and, say, American women, can both be labelled as “consumers,” they can and do both make radically different consumption choices; or, make the same choices, but for radically different reasons. Sure, this is obvious, but I’m as guilty as anyone in generalizing and using labels here, so it’s good to remind ourselves of it. But if we shift our attention to the differences between most Westerners and most Koreans (and East Asians) as a whole, the first fact of note is the fact that most Korean university students’ parents easily recall the days when possession of some must-have items like a fridge, radio, color TV and car were essential signifier that one’s family had made it into the then swelling ranks of the middle-class. On that basis, it may be fair to say that they still imbue their consumer goods with much more status and importance than most Westerners do. (Hell, many of the university students themselves too.) This explains Koreans’ love affair with big cars and SUVs for instance, and in one of the most oil-lacking, mountainous and densely-populated countries in the world.

(Update, April 2013: Actually, the Korean preference for big cars is more due to the [inordinate] social status they provide.)


On top of that, Korean governments since 1961 have explicitly and fervently extorted Koreans to consume these items, provided that they were made in Korea. It’s easy to simply attribute this to and write off as mere nationalism, only different in degree to, say, the “Buying Kiwi-Made” campaign in New Zealand, or Democratic presidential candidates in the US criticising NAFTA in election year. But this is quite wrong. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, to properly understand women’s fashions in Korea you need to understand a little of it’s well, political history first. No, really.

When Park Chung-hee/박정희 took power through a coup in 1961, while his military regime of course relied on the use of force, it would be naive to assume that it didn’t have a great deal of popular support. And so, originally at least, his military regime’s sole claim to legitimacy was its perceived ability and capacity to produce the economic development seen as necessary for national security after the chaotic years of the Syngman Rhee/이승만 presidency. While linking the economy and security this way may sound absurd in 2008, it’s important to be aware that North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea economically until the late-1960s, and in addition to this Park was (justifiably) deeply concerned about the US possibly withdrawing its security guarantees to South Korea in the wake of its foreseeable withdrawal from Vietnam. Hence the development of POSCO and the Korean steel industry for instance, which, far from being the carefully planned and coordinated developmental success story it is often touted as today (it is the third largest steel producer in the world), was pursued despite the advice of Korean economists at the time, let alone American ones. Instead, as Mark Clifford explains in chapter five of this must-have book, Park didn’t care about the economics of it; he simply wanted the ability to produce tanks and ships should the US no longer provide them.


This is why Korea is often known as a “Developmental State,” as too are Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which faced similarly dire circumstances in the Cold War and reacted in similar ways. Neo-liberal economists in particular are loath to admit that state-led development can be successful, and so they continue to critique the economic policies of these Developmental States decades later, but this excessive focus on economic minutiae has overshadowed the fact that they were and are primarily socio-political, not economic, phenomenons (right: Posco Center, Seoul, by Ian Muttoo).

Hence consumerism has links to national security in Developmental States, and all the choice government slogans like “Consumption is Virtuous” that I saw in old photographs of Korea from the ’70s in economic journals in the archives room of my university library. And while the corollary of Park’s developmentalism was authoritarianism, and average Koreans were expected to be content with and prolific buyers of Korean goods, imports being shut out by high tariffs in order to develop Korea’s own industries (which is why such a stigma remains on imports today), what I want you to take away from all the above is that:

  • Koreans are used to being told what to buy.
  • These choices have often been couched in terms of contributing to a higher purpose.
  • Those that didn’t subscribe to these higher purposes were given few alternatives, and the state was encouraged in stigmatizing them.

It is no great conceptual leap for Neo-Confucian women to go from being subservient to the higher purpose of ki, and their bodies to be imperfect versions of men’s, to furthering the higher purpose of improving the economy and maintaining national security by consuming Korean goods, and finding common identity in a turbulent century by following the new fashion industry’s edicts to improve their imperfect bodies by following their rules for fashion, cosmetics, and body shapes. Those will be the subject of Part 3.

(Update, April 2013: An important rejoinder to my fuzzy memories of reading in my university library is the book Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), which I describe here as:

…essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the 1990s in Korea, and in particular the frequent government and media campaigns against over-consumption (in practice aimed almost exclusively at women, these were important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” stereotypes of the 2000s)

See my “Revealing the Korean Body Politic” series for more on those campaigns and stereotypes in the 2000s, especially Parts 3 and 4.

Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 1: Their Neo-Confucian Heritage

Dasepo Naughty Girls 2006(Screen capture from the movie Dasepo Naughty Girls/다세포소녀. Source: martin francisco)

“Koreans are conformist because of their Confucian heritage…yada yada yada”

Even though I’ve chosen to live in Korea a long time, like most expats I often find it to be a frustrating and exasperating place sometimes. That’s not necessarily a criticism, and indeed this love-hate relationship may even be part of its charm—certainly my adopted hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, never aroused such strong emotions in me. On the other hand, it does lead to so many one-liners about the place, endlessly repeated by fresh rotations of expats.

But are they always wrong? Don’t some have a grain of truth? To answer, let me examine one that I and probably most readers have made at some point in our stay here, but which I personally wouldn’t have been able to justify before I did my research for this post. And certainly won’t ever be making again.

What I have in mind is your gut reaction to watching the following commercial, about three years old:

(Update, July 2012: Unfortunately, the video has been taken down, and I didn’t save a spare copy back in 2008. Hopefully, the screenshots will still give you the gist of it!)

According to Marmot’s Hole commentator mins0306, to whom I’m very grateful for finding the video, the message the commercial wanted to convey was “What she selects will become a trend. And since she selected a Prugio apartment, Prugio apartments will also become a trend.” Instead, it has inadvertently become of a symbol of Korean people’s conformism, particularly of women’s attitudes to fashion.

But before writing this post, had I been pressed for why so many Korean women seem to so blindly follow the latest trends, be they mini-skirts in winter or getting double-eyelid surgery, I would have mumbled something about Confucianism and the education system discouraging individuality. That is still technically correct, but—let’s face it—most of us blame so much here on Confucianism, but actually know little more about it than what we read in Lonely Planet Korea in the week before we came. But how,exactly, is it to blame? Why?

On the surface, it may not even have anything to do with Confucianism at all. Consider this statement from the 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” by Taeyon Kim (details and abstract here):

“For 500 years, Korea adopted Neo-Confucianism as its official ideology and strove to create a Neo-Confucian state by following its precepts as closely as possible. Neo-Confucians believed the body was sacred. Since it was bequeathed by one’s parents, in accordance with filial piety, the body had to be respected and remain unaltered…The Korean aversion to manipulation of the body seems to have been a long-standing cultural principle – only whole-heartedly abandoned in the last few years of proliferating plastic surgeries and various other manipulations of the body. Why has what appears to have been such a strong cultural value been so suddenly and completely abandoned?” (p. 98)

Like I said, I didn’t know that Joseon Dynasty Korea adopted “Neo-Confucianism” rather than merely “Confucianism” its state ideology either; from now on, I’ll make sure to blame all Korean ills on that instead. But now that she mentions it, yes, I do recall that Confucianism…oops, Neo-Confucianism I mean…did not condone alteration and adornment of the body, which is why it was so dishonourable for men to have their ponytails cut off.

How then, can Korea still be described as “more Confucian than China” when: Korean women adorn fashion and accessories to the point of what Michael Hurt describes as “fetishization;” female friends of mine wear excessive make-up to work upon fear of being fired if they don’t; others think nothing of wearing it to the gym; and Korea leads the world in the number of plastic surgeries made per capita? The notion now sounds absurd.

But Kim goes on to argue that the prescribed Neo-Confucian role of women’s bodies is essentially the same today as it was in the Joseon Dynasty, albeit adapted to and/or warped by democratization and capitalism. I don’t entirely agree with everything she says, but more in degree than in substance, and she certainly does make a decent stab at solving that paradox above.


Because her two-part argument is very long, and I actually have a lot of my own thoughts and ideas to add to her arguments about postwar Korea, I’ve taken the wise (but unusual for me!) decision to split my original 3500 word post on her journal article into two. In the remainder of this first one then, I’ll outline what Kim says about how Neo-Confucianism viewed women’s bodies and their roles, and in the next one I’ll discuss how these adapted and changed to, but ultimately survived, the 20th Century (source, right: natebeaty).

Neo-Confucian Women’s Bodies as Mere Vessels

Before reading the following, bear in mind that only Joseon Dynasty elites—possibly as little as 1% of the population—would have subscribed to the Neo-Confucianism edicts described (Kim does acknowledge this). But the vast majority of Korean women worked on their farms, and were integral economic parts of the household; indeed, I’ve won arguments with older male students of mine on this point, who thought that “Korean tradition” justified them in literally forbidding their daughters-in-law from working after marriage. I concede though, that they would have remained an ideal.

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.” (p.99, italics in original)

For learners of Korean, this “ki” appears to be “기,” which has a hanja character on p.38 of my Korean vocabularly ‘bible’ that, in addition to “spirit,” also means “air,” “atmosphere,” and “energy.” And for everyone, I admit, at the moment it sounds very similar to a mere family name or bloodline, but those are quite vague concepts at best, whereas ki does sound like a well-thought out—albeit sexist and fundamentally flawed—philosophical concept. Elaborating on it further:

“The force of ki constituted one’s sense of the body and self more than the corporeal body. It followed that the family body, within which flows the same ki,was considered the essential self more than one’s own physical body. The emphasis on non-distinction between self and others produced a sense of self that was non-individuated and fluid, with no boundaries to determine a distinction between one’s family and one’s self.” (p.99)

Hence the Hoju System/호주제, a family registry system, rather than one of individual birth certificates like in Western countries, that was not abolished until as late as this year. Under it, upon marriage, women would be transferred from one family’s certificate to her husband’s family, almost like property. In practice, female divorcees suffered greatly from it because:

  • Given that it was often required for job applications, it meant that applicants’ marital status was readily apparent to employers. I’ve read, but am not sure how applicable it is now given the high divorce rate, that female divorcees were often discriminated against by employers as a result, ironically at a time when most would have needed employment more than ever.
  • Custody of children was overwhelmingly awarded to fathers; after all, the women were no longer part of the ki/family.
  • For those women married to fathers that abandoned their families, divorcing them would mean years of adminstrative problems with children in schools and so forth, as it meant that they were no longer their legal guardians. In Japan, with a similar system, these issues came up with ex-prime minister Koizumi after he divorced in 1982.

Promising to abolish this system was one reason I supported the election of Roh Mu-hyon back in 2002, and while he did prove to be quite a lame duck president, and least this promise was fulfilled. To continue (source, right: theturninggate):

“Neo-Confucian techniques of self-cultivation of the mind and body only applied to men. Women in the Neo-Confucian view were incapable of achieving sagehood and therefore had neither the need nor the ability to strive for transcendence of the self and body. While men produced their selves through the mind (study of the classics) and body (maintenance of the family body through ancestor worship), women were occupied with maintaining and reproducing the family body through the corporeal bodies of the family.” (p. 100)

Koreans are by no means alone in having philosophical or religious beliefs justifying an inferior status of women, but this particular one could lead to some very strange-sounding results. For instance, Kim explains that one study of a villagers in 1990 found that they thought women were inferior to men because they did not carry the ki that men did, meaning that “women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life.

It also meant that beauty and wealth were secondary to possession of the physical traits required to bear sons, and gave rise Korean Folk Villageto an elaborate system of prenatal education known as taegyo/태교 which, rather than the notion of women and child’s health that the word brings to mind today, back then was more the idea of women as bodies rather than subjects or individuals, because “their conduct and thoughts were for the sake of the other abiding in their bodies, and they were valued mostly for the children and labour that their bodies could produce.” Hence, women “were regarded as subjectless bodies.” (pp. 100-101), the consequences, in sum, being that (source, right: InSapphoWeTrust):

“While [men] aimed to transcend the body, women could never do so – their bodies were too valuable. A man’s mind and ki were considered more valuable than his corporeal limbs while a woman was most valued for her body and its reproductive labour. As a result, efforts were made to maintain sole control over women’s bodies, subjecting them to a protection and concealment that practically rendered their bodies invisible.” (p.101)

Indeed, while the hanbok is much more comfortable to wear and walk around in than a kimono (or so I’ve heard), it’s not exactly a celebration of the female form. Also, this protection and concealment literally meant that elite women’s homes became prisons, as they weren’t allowed to leave: those “traditional see-saws,” for instance, were actually so popular because they allowed elite women rare glimpses of life outside of the walls of their courtyards, and I remember reading somewhere of a woman escaping from her village to Busan during the Korean War, despite all the death and destruction around her actually having an exciting time, as it was the first time she’d left her house in decades!

Next week: Part 2, which will continue the discussion into the postwar period.