Gender in Modern East Asia: Sample


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Table of Contents



Global Context China
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
South Korea
North Korea
References and Suggestions for Further Reading


Global Context
South Korea
North Korea
References and Suggestions for Further Reading




This book covers the history of gender—both femininities and masculinities, but with a greater emphasis on women—in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultural and political realms. Beginning with an overview of the ancient and medieval eras, the book treats the history of gender in both  national and transnational contexts in the early modern and modern eras by examining the dynamic histories of sexuality; gender ideology, discourse, and legal construction; marriage and the family; and the gendering of work, society, culture, and power.

The dual approach of locating gender history within a society’s national history as well as describing its role in an integrated regional history of East Asia is novel in the field of women’s and gender history. In addition, this book examines the global context of historical changes in the three countries and, where appropriate, highlights cross-cultural themes that transcend national boundaries within and outside the region. We discuss themes and concepts such as writing and language, the body, feminism, immigration and diasporas, and Confucianism as part of an integrated history. The proximity of these three countries (now five, including Taiwan and North Korea) has long permitted the flow of ideas, people, materials, and texts throughout the region. (This flow has extended significantly beyond East Asia in the past 150 years.) At the same time, the authors are conscious of the potential problem of seeming to lump East Asian gender issues into a monolithic (and therefore incorrect) whole, and thus stress the historical contexts of both differences and similarities wherever they occur in the three countries.

An integrated history borrows much from the growing field of transnational history, which also focuses on the movements of people and material and ideas, as well as on issues of war, peace, imperialism, and economics. In this book, key issues highlight this integrative transnational approach. They include such topics as Confucian texts for men and women,    gender performance, the role of the state in gender construction, nationalism, sexuality and prostitution, New Women and Modern Girls, feminisms,  “comfort” women, imperialism and empire, and Japanese (and later East Asian) neologisms based on Western concepts but using the shared Chinese-based writing system to express them. Other transnational approaches are comparative, such as an examination of differing notions of the “family” and a study of the impact of Christianity on feminist movements and gender history in each of the three countries.

Structure of the book

Gender in Modern East Asia contains eleven chapters that treat each country’s gender history in a separate section thematically linked to the sections dedicated to the other two countries. Years of teaching courses on women’s and gender history have persuaded the authors that chronology must undergird a thematic approach, both to enhance students’ comprehension of the material and to emphasize the contemporaneous and integrated experiences of the countries studied. In addition, each chapter opens with a brief examination of global context. We ask what is happening elsewhere in the world that drives the region’s history and discuss how the cultural, economic, and social developments discussed in each chapter are approached in studies of Europe, the Americas, and Africa during the same years. East Asia does not exist in a vacuum, and we hope students will be able to see appropriate regional and global similarities and dissimilarities.

During the early modern and modern eras, the three countries alternated in exerting greater regional influence. This alternation is reflected in the organization of each chapter. Until the nineteenth century the flow of culture and ideas, although always multidirectional, originated most often in China, and thus discussion of China leads off in those chapters. From the late nineteenth century through World War II, that flow shifted and Japan became most influential. The direction of the flow of culture shifted again in the postwar era, and thus Korea joins Japan as leading off in the latter chapters of the book. Regardless of which country is discussed first in each chapter, coverage of all three is balanced throughout the book.

This volume is the first book-length work that focuses on gender in modern East Asia from both a transnational perspective at the macro level and an intersectional perspective at the level of the individual. There are numerous historical monographs and articles as well as translations of literary and other forms of artistic culture for each of these East Asian societies. Other works link East Asian gender practice and discourse with global movements of ideas, images, artifacts, and capital. But no single text has brought all these topics together in a comprehensive way accessible to undergraduates. This volume is intended as a response to changing approaches to teaching and research in the histories of gender and of East Asia by offering an integrated analysis of the region through the lens of gender.


Hyaeweol Choi would like to thank Dan Devitt, Sun Joo Kim, Ksenia Chizhova, Suzy Kim, and Robert Eskildsen for their helpful feedback on early drafts of her contributions to the volume. She would also like to acknowledge a generous grant from the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2011-BAA-2106), which afforded her teaching release that was of great help in securing time for writing. She is also grateful to Routledge for granting permission to reprint “Declaration of the Establishment of Kŭnuhoe,” which originally appeared in Hyaeweol Choi, New Women in Colonial Korea: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 199–200.

When one undertakes a project of this scope, unforeseen events almost inevitably interfere with plans. We would like to thank the editorial staff at Westview for their indulgence and understanding in accommodating delays that occurred in our original schedule.


Barbara Molony

Janet Theiss

Hyaeweol Choi

January 2016

Chapter 2

Chapter 2. Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern East Asia


Multicultural empires were the dominant form of government in much of the world before the seventeenth century. In West Africa, a series of empires rose and fell, including the empires of Ghana (eighth to eleventh century) and Mali (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). The empires of the Aztecs and Incas dominated the Americas until they were defeated by Europeans and their diseases in the sixteenth century. Eurasia was under the rule of five powerful empires at the dawn of the early modern era: in the north, Russia; in the south (India), the Mughals; in Persia, the Safavids; in West Asia and Eastern Europe, the Ottomans; and in the east, the Ming dynasty. Following wars and revolutions, none of these empires would exist by the first decades of the twentieth century. But they were already being supplanted in some areas by new state formations in the seventeenth century.

On the Eurasian periphery, in Western Europe and in Korea, monarchies were steadily consolidating their control of smaller regions into “nations”— that is, linguistic and ethnically cohesive realms. Japan would join that group as a separate and relatively unified realm in the seventeenth century. The creation of this new type of state, which initially took the form of an absolute monarchy, had profound effects on gender and sexuality. Although it was one of the great multiethnic empires, China’s Ming (and later Qing) dynasty shared certain characteristics with European monarchical nation-states, particularly the use of ideology about gender, the family, and sexuality in framing the state. As we will see in this chapter, Neo-Confucianism was employed as the basis for creating the Qing, Chosŏn, and Tokugawa states, and it linked those states’ polities with gendered laws, regulations, and customs.

Sexuality was increasingly controlled by the state in the late medieval and early modern periods. Marriage was defined in the law and came to be viewed by states as a way of restraining social disorder (adultery and extramarital sex were often punishable by death). Throughout Europe and North America until the eighteenth century, marriage was most often seen as a way of promoting family continuity, through both production and reproduction. To be sure, family members loved one another, but marriages were generally not contracted for love. Love-based marriages emerged after improved medicine and public health began to allow more spouses and children to survive and when the notion of the individual and individual happiness became accepted in European and North American thought in the eighteenth century. In European, Ottoman, and Chinese law, the family included a patriarch who had legal control of the family’s women and children; early modern states codified in law religious and customary patriarchal practices. In addition, codification of inheritance laws in Europe and North America often stripped away women’s abilities to control their own property and to inherit. In essence, by codifying some customary practices as law in order to regulate society, the early modern state was based on a gender structure that eroded the position of women. Women’s loss of inheritance and other rights in the family occurred somewhat earlier in East Asia, as the codification of Neo-Confucian marriage rules in Korea and the Japanese shogun’s response to the Mongol invasions (as we saw in Chapter 1) led to a more rigid and male-centered definition of marriage.

The early modern European state was constructed on a basis of political theory in which gender played a significant role. The British case is an informative example. Confronting notions that women rulers “defiled, polluted and profaned the throne of God,” as John Knox stated in 1558 (Hardwick 2004, 354), Queen Elizabeth I downplayed her femininity, dressing androgynously when she was a young woman and never marrying. A century later, as pro-monarchy and pro-Parliament forces struggled for political domination in the English Civil War, political theorist Robert Filmer articulated the view, taken as natural by the royalists, that the king’s rule over his subjects paralleled the husband’s unquestioned rule over his wife. Just as the wife could not terminate her marriage, the people could not break their contract with the king. But his was not the only view at the time. John Locke theorized that the state was based on a voluntary social contract among individuals, and marriages were, too. Thus both could be dissolved if necessary. It would take several centuries before these ideas of the state and individual rights would be expanded upon and used for both political and gender rights around the world, including East Asia. Mary Astell wrote presciently in 1706, “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?” (Hardwick 2004, 356).

Early modern economic developments also strengthened the gendering of society. As Europe became more urban, craft guilds, many of which excluded women by the mid-fifteenth century, played a larger role in the economy. Guilds of skilled craftsmen became quite powerful, and merchants sought cheaper production methods with less skilled labor. They developed ties to small rural producers, many of them women, in a “putting-out system.” That is, merchants might bring wool to a farm woman, who would spin it into yarn; then the merchants would take that yarn to a weaver (often a man), then market the cloth. Each producer would be paid for his or her work, although the women’s work was often seen as an extension of her household duties. The existence of urban skilled workers and rural unskilled workers increased the gendering of the work force. Fifteenthand sixteenth-century Europeans were so accustomed to this gender division that they were surprised to see that women and not men wove cloth in Central America, a practice paralleled throughout East Asia.


Early Modern Commerce, Urban Culture, and Gender in the Ming Period, 1368–1644

Establishing a new dynasty after the decades of disorder that accompanied the collapse of the Mongol empire, early Ming rulers set about reinstating the components  of Chinese political order,  most importantly the system  of regular civil service examinations. However, the dynastic founder Ming Taizu, also known as the Hongwu emperor, an uneducated peasant who rose to power as a ruthless rebel commander, was deeply distrustful of literati and merchants. He envisioned the empire as a society of self-sufficient villages living harmoniously and virtuously according to Confucian ideals of social and gender order that the emperor proclaimed routinely through hortatory edicts. Enacting policies to centralize political control and enhance the authority of the emperor, Taizu eliminated the post of prime minister, used his palace guard as a secret police force to spy on officials, and carried out political purges that took tens of thousands of lives. The political marginalization of the literati resulted in the rise of a shadow palace bureaucracy of eunuchs, much to the chagrin of scholar-officials, who saw eunuchs as illegitimate political players that violated Confucian norms by choosing castration— thereby rejecting the filial act of continuing the family line—to pursue wealth and power. The late Ming was consumed with factional conflict among literati as well as between literati and the emperor and eunuchs at court.

These political fights became entangled in philosophical debates, framed as conflicts between those who stood for the revival of orthodox ethics propagated through instruction by Confucian teachers and others who advocated a more liberal, egalitarian understanding of Confucianism that assumed moral knowledge to be innate to everyone and focused on individualized paths to self-cultivation. For embattled male literati, the tragically self-sacrificing figure of the female chastity martyr, who committed suicide upon the death of her husband, became an exemplar of moral purity and the noblest form of loyalty to rightful authority. Literati men expressed their frustrations with what they considered the moral turpitude of their day through promotion of the chastity cult. They enhanced their own reputations by publishing biographies of chaste women of their own families and communities, building shrines to honor them, and promoting  their  canonization  by  the  state.  Responding to the dramatic surge in numbers of chaste widows and chastity martyrs, the Ming state expanded the categories recognized for canonization, tightened eligibility criteria, and systematized award procedures, but the real impetus for the explosion of widow suicides and the widespread exaltation of chastity as the core element of virtuous femininity was the work of local literati.

Despite the despotism of imperial rule, the Ming state did not, in fact, exercise the systematic control over society that its founder, Taizu, envisioned. As the dynasty progressed, developments in the economy began to undermine the orthodox hierarchies he promoted, challenging in particular the status and identity of male literati and norms of gender propriety. The stability created by the new regime fostered developments in the agricultural sector and expansion of domestic and foreign trade that together radically transformed Chinese society. Since the Ming did not control the Inner Asian trade routes that linked China to markets farther west, the dynastic shift from Yuan to Ming in the fourteenth century entailed a major shift in the geographic focus of China’s foreign trade from the overland routes to the sea routes off the southeast coast. Ship transport enabled much greater volume of trade, and with the opening up of new trade routes across the Pacific via Manila in the sixteenth century, China’s exports of silk, porcelain, tea, and other products greatly increased. The most obvious indicator of this expansion of trade was the influx of Japanese and Mexican silver used to purchase Chinese products. As the economy became increasingly monetized, the  Ming state was forced to monetize its own operations in a series of reforms that commuted taxes and payments from grain and silk to silver.

At the same time, there was a dramatic expansion in domestic markets fueled by the commercialization of agriculture in core regions linked to domestic and foreign trade routes: North China along the Grand Canal, the Lower Yangzi delta (Jiangnan), and the southeast coast of Fujian and Guangdong. In these regions farmers turned in large numbers to production of cash crops such as sugar, cotton, silk, tea, and handicrafts. They came to rely on networks of rural markets to sell their produce for money to pay land rents and taxes and to purchase staple items that they no longer grew for themselves. As peasant families engaged more deeply with the market, women’s production of cotton and silk thread and woven cloth for sale became a vital part of household income that fueled China’s economic development.

With the commercialization of the economy came greater prosperity, population growth, and greater access to education. This meant that the ranks of elite families and thus the number of men competing in the civil service examinations increased. As the number of successful candidates remained constant, an individual’s odds of passing declined steadily. In a late Ming population that numbered approximately two hundred million people, there were approximately a hundred thousand students who had passed the lowest level of examinations. At most, 10 percent of these would pass the next level, becoming eligible for a government post. At any given time there were only between two thousand and four thousand men who had passed the next, highest level of the exams.

At the same time merchants grew in number, wealth, and status. The traditional distinction between merchants and literati whose wealth was based in land blurred and in some cases disappeared as the two groups intermarried. Expanding markets created opportunities for literati families to make money in the land market. Growing numbers of literati families in rich regions such as Jiangnan became absentee landlords and moved to cities. In some regions, such as Huizhou in Anhui Province, rural literati families took up long-distance trade as a core occupation, sending male family members to sojourn for months and years at a time in cities across the empire.

Like cities in seventeenth-century Japan, China’s cities also grew in number, size, and  complexity  during  this  period,  functioning  not  only as administrative seats for the state but also as centers of commerce and culture, full of merchants, literati, artisans, and entertainers. The last included courtesans (elite sex workers, many of whom were versed in literary and performing arts) and cross-dressing male opera performers, who provided companionship, sex, and cultural capital for literati and merchant patrons sojourning far from home. The commercial publishing industry expanded tremendously, churning out mass quantities of books of all sorts and prices: Confucian classics, exam preparation materials, Buddhist and Daoist religious tracts, practical manuals, and vernacular fiction and plays that catered to the tastes and sensibilities of a growing urban reading public. The short stories written and edited by Feng Menglong (1574–c. 1645) captured the social fluidity and moral ambiguity of the late Ming “floating world,” which paralleled that of Tokugawa Japan, discussed later in this chapter. Exploring the emotional lives and moral conundrums of ordinary women and men, these stories valorized the notion of qing (“sentiment” or “love”) over orthodox ritual propriety and complicated normative assumptions about the relationship between social status and morality, for example, by depicting courtesans who killed themselves when a patron died or abandoned them as chastity martyrs who exemplified the highest form of female virtue. The playwright Tang Xianzu’s 1598 masterpiece, The Peony Pavilion, a love story featuring the cloistered daughter of an official and an aspiring young scholar whose eroticized passion was powerful enough to overcome the constraints of orthodox morality and even death, generated an enthusiastic following among elite women, growing numbers of whom were literate. These popular literary works fueled a cult of qing that posed a profound challenge to the precepts of the cult of chastity and inflected it with new emotional intensity. Biographies of widows who followed their husbands in death praised the depth of women’s emotional attachment to their husbands and the intensity of their suicidal intent with graphic, melodramatic narration of the violence of their deaths and their resistance to attempts by family members to dissuade them. Late Ming anthologies of chastity martyr biographies were often published in fine editions richly adorned with the same woodcut illustrations used to depict the less edifying suicides of fictional heroines (Carlitz 2001). The infusion of the chastity ethos with qing was most dramatically evident in the phenomenon of so-called faithful maidens who were so passionately committed to the ideal of marital fidelity that they committed suicide to follow fiancés who died before the wedding, young men they usually had never met face-to-face, according to dominant rules of premarital propriety (Lu 2008). Some literati extolled faithful maidens as paragons of wifely fidelity who should be eligible for state canonization, but others criticized their suicides as selfish acts of qing that prioritized marital devotion over filial service to parents-in-law.

The competition, mobility, and moral ambiguity engendered by the commercialization of the economy and its social effects created anxieties about downward   mobility and transgression   of gender and status boundaries.

Across the most developed regions of the country,  elite  families responded to the challenges and opportunities of the age by constructing lineage organizations modeled on those advocated by Neo-Confucian scholars in the Song period to pool resources and provide a cushion in times of adversity. As in the Song, Neo-Confucian ideology linked family economic success and their sons’ performance in the examination system to the family’s moral propriety. Lineage leaders sought to cultivate habits of filial obedience to patrilineal authority, maintenance of proper distinctions between women and men, diligence, frugality, and, for women, chastity. They admonished their sons to devote themselves to study or, as a second choice, to commerce, and to resist the temptations of urban pleasure quarters and leisure activities. Concerned about the potential for sexual transgression among women left behind by husbands sojourning for official appointments, the examinations, or trade, they taught their daughters to seclude themselves within the women’s quarters of the family compound, working diligently to care for children and aging parents, managing the household, and engaging in spinning, weaving, or embroidery.

The vibrant commercial publishing industry that fostered the emergence of popular fiction and drama also facilitated education for literate elites by churning out primers, didactic books for boys and girls, books for examination preparation, and compilations of biographies of exemplary women. In elite families, boys started their education as early as three years of age by memorizing the San zi jing (Trimetrical Classic) and other primers that taught core Confucian precepts along with recognition of characters necessary for formal study of Confucian classical texts in preparation for the exams. By the middle of the Ming a growing number of elite families, especially in the wealthy and urbanized Jiangnan region, were also educating their daughters to read the canonical Confucian texts supplemented with classic texts on women’s virtue, including foundational works such as Liu Xiang’s Biographies of Exemplary Women, Ban Zhao’s Admonitions for Women from the Han dynasty (see Chapter 1), and numerous later moral handbooks and collected biographies of chaste women based on them. Communal gender norms were commonly conveyed to literate and nonliterate family members through ancestral rituals (often accompanied by didactic operas), recitation of lineage rules codified in the family genealogy, and established punishments for misbehavior.

Gender and Empire-Building in the Qing Dynasty

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Ming rule disintegrated as the politically dysfunctional regime failed to deal with fiscal crisis, corruption, and spreading rebellion. In 1644, the forces of a newly formed dynasty, the Qing, poured across the Great Wall and conquered the Ming capital, Beijing. The Qing ruling elites were Manchus, an ethnic group from the northeast distinct from the majority Han ethnic group. The Manchus, like many nonHan conquerors of China before them, recognized the political utility of Chinese political and social systems and adopted much of the Ming state structure. However, they saw themselves not as Chinese emperors but rather as universal rulers of a multiethnic empire in the tradition of the Mongols, who had unified the peoples of Inner Asia.

The Manchus also believed that maintenance of political cohesion among the minority elite as it built a multiethnic empire required cultivation of their distinct ethnic identity. In the early stages of the conquest they established the banner system, which incorporated Chinese and Mongols who allied with them into “banners,” military units that became the foundation for a hereditary ruling caste acculturated to Manchu ways whose members were forbidden to intermarry with the Chinese commoner population. Maintenance of distinctive Manchu gender norms was an essential part of this identity, along with Manchu language and family customs. In contrast to Han male literati culture, which the Manchus perceived to be decadent and effeminate, banner men were required to learn the skills of archery and horseback riding and to practice frugality. All male subjects of the Qing imperium, whatever their ethnicity, were required to display their loyalty to the regime by wearing the queue hairstyle—shaving the front part of their heads and braiding the hair into a single long braid. Early in the dynasty the Qing authorities attempted to ban footbinding, which was not a Manchu practice, but, unable to enforce this among their Han subjects, they settled for forbidding it among banner women (Elliot 1999).

The Qing conquest gave new political salience to the chastity cult, as women committed suicide to avoid rape in the midst of warfare and men and women loyal to the Ming martyred themselves rather than surrender  to the new rulers. Since the chastity martyr became one of the most potent symbols of Ming loyalist opposition to Qing rule, the Manchus could not simply adopt the Ming system of canonization for the chaste and filial. As outsiders to the Confucian cultural order, they were willing to challenge established norms and cherished ideals. They saw the chastity awards system as a tool for the civilizing mission of their universal empire. That mission included the reform of barbaric customs and the promotion of a unified standard of virtue, defined by the state, and applicable to all social classes. For Manchu emperors, the Chinese practice of widows following their husbands in death was tainted both by conflation with Ming loyalism and by its similarity to a Manchu tradition that the Qing wished to abandon because it appeared uncivilized. The Qing criticized suicide in the name of any sort of virtue as barbaric, inhumane, and unnecessary, describing it as “taking life lightly,” and forbade state honors both for widow suicides and for death resulting from extreme acts of filial piety such as gegu (cutting flesh from one’s body to feed a dying parent). They extended eligibility for honors in approved categories (chaste widows, women who died resisting rape, and filial daughters) to Manchus, Mongols, and other ethnic groups on the frontiers as well as groups previously considered unworthy of such honors, including Daoist nuns, wives of criminals, freed bondservants, and women from hereditary debased families. Over the course of the dynasty the precise rules of eligibility shifted and exceptions, even to the ban on honors for widow suicide, were not infrequent, but such variations were always vetted by the emperor and confirmed the prerogative of the state to define orthodox behavior (Theiss 2001). While the numbers of canonized women exploded, the proportion of widow martyrs recorded in difangzhi (local gazetteers that compiled information on local history, geography, economy, and customs and included  biographies  of local worthies and local literature) dropped significantly.

Over the latter half of the seventeenth century, Qing rulers pacified opposition to their rule and turned their attention to expansion of the empire into non-Han frontier regions and perfecting state control over its resources, personnel, and society at large. As imperial conquests proceeded in the eighteenth century, policy makers developed a paradigm of the imperial civilizing mission aimed at transforming the customs of newly incorporated non-Han peoples (like the Miao and Dai in the remote southwest regions), including casual social and sexual interactions between men and women  in public, courting and marriage choice, matrilocal residence, female attire that did not cover the body, and women’s labor in the fields. The imperial state also aimed to curb heterodoxy among Han subjects in the heartland through law, ritual regulation of marriage, Confucian state honors, reform of local customs, suppression of heterodox religious sects, education, and promotion of the gender division of labor encapsulated in the slogan “Men plow, women weave.” While they deployed traditional statecraft mechanisms, these policies were unprecedented in scope and complexity, reflecting a new early modern vision of a morally activist state that positioned itself as the central arbiter of normative order by inserting itself into family and community life through interventionist social reform policies.

The chastity cult, reformed to reflect the values of the new regime, was a critical mechanism for this civilizing project. Under the Yongzheng  (1723–1736) and Qianlong (1736–1796) emperors, the state became for the first time the chief patron of the cult of chastity, which was thoroughly bureaucratized with newly detailed regulations on eligibility and procedures for applications to receive imperial monies to construct commemorative arches. Yongzheng ordered that shrines to the chaste and filial be constructed next to the official Confucian temple at every provincial, prefectural, and county seat in the empire in accordance with imperial regulations on design and funding and that presiding officials conduct twice-yearly sacrifices in them.

Box 2.1: The Yongzheng Emperor’s Edict Against Widow Suicide

In an edict reiterating the dynasty’s opposition to widow suicide, Yongzheng casts the chaste woman as a model of imperial subjecthood: civilized to adhere to state-defined norms of propriety by a benevolent ruler and expressing absolute loyalty to the imperial social and political order through obedience and dutiful service to family and state.

Widow martyrs die to martyr themselves for their husbands, nobly following them down under the earth. This is certainly difficult for people to do. Yet . . . chaste widowhood is even more difficult. For those who follow in death show resolve only for a moment, while those who maintain chastity [for a lifetime] must have perpetual regard for their husbands. Those who follow in death sacrifice their lives and that is the end of it. Those who maintain chastity must be prepared to undergo hardships. Moreover, the circumstances under which widow martyrs martyr themselves for chastity . . . vary. Some suicides are pressured by poverty and lack of means of support. Some occur out of indignation and failure to think about the future. [These women] do not realize that after the husband has died, the duties that a wife must fulfill are even greater [than before]. Above her are her parents-in-law whom she must serve and nurture as a substitute in the way of the son. Below her are her descendants whom she must educate as a substitute in the way of the father. If she prepares sacrifices and manages household affairs, her duties are countless. This is why the honoring of chaste widows is stipulated in the laws and regulations [of the dynasty]. But widow martyrs are not mentioned in the statutes . . . . If many people imitated them, then there would be great loss of life, a prospect that we cannot tolerate. (Theiss 2001, 33–34) 

The dynasty used routine awards, which numbered up to fifteen hundred a year, to demonstrate the paternalistic presence of the state as the most visible and consistent patron of female chastity in local society. The strategic designation of chastity martyrs followed by shrine construction in the wake of pacification of rebellions or conquest of non-Han peoples highlighted the political role of the chastity cult in the expansion of the empire.

The canonization system itself was only one of an array of state technologies deployed to transform customs in line with state orthodoxy. Eighteenthcentury Qing officials, most of them Chinese, shared the dynasty’s vision of a paternalistic and reformist state and energetically advanced new regulations, policy initiatives, and laws to intervene in diverse realms of social life and promote proper gender order and social hierarchy. They identified myriad social problems as targets for moral transformation (jiaohua), including declining filiality and respect for family hierarchy, female infanticide, heterodox religious sects that encouraged wanton mixing of the sexes, lack of interest in the primary occupations of farming for men and weaving for women, improper marriage and funerary rituals, kidnapping of women for marriage, prostitution, sexual slander resulting in female suicide, forced widow remarriage, women going on pilgrimages and visiting temples, and even lack of sex segregation in prisons. They advocated improved moral education by local magistrates and lineage leaders, but the most commonly recommended strategy for jiaohua was expansion and refinement of the law. During the latter half of the eighteenth century the Qing legal code expanded dramatically, with dozens of new substatutes in the sections of the code dealing with illicit sex, illegal marriage, homicide related to sexual assault, adultery, prostitution, and causing a woman to commit suicide through improper behavior. These new substatutes clarified with unprecedented precision state norms of proper family behavior and gender relations and signaled a new understanding of the law not just as a source of punishment but as a tool for molding behavior (Theiss 2004).

This legal discourse clarified the parameters of a new state vision of sexual order within which the basic social unit was the commoner peasant family, whose stability required protection of the chastity of its women and the masculine integrity of its men (Sommer 2000). Already in the late Ming, literati commentators surveying the social effects of rapid commercialization noted with concern the phenomenon of itinerant single men unattached to structures of family authority, who might seduce or assault women left home alone by sojourning husbands. By the middle of the eighteenth century, sex ratios skewed by female infanticide, polygyny among the elites, and widow chastity meant that a very large proportion of the poor male population could not find wives (Sommer 2015). Marriage was not merely a Confucian ideal but a hallmark of respectability, and it was out of reach for the poorest men. Much of the new legislation on illicit sex was implicitly or explicitly directed at controlling such men, labeled as “rootless rascals” or guanggun (literally, “bare stick”), and protecting respectable commoner families from their predations, despite the fact that, as in most times and places, most sexual assaults involved familiars, not strangers.

The Qing inherited from the Ming the basic judicial category of illicit sex defined as sex outside of marriage. Men who committed rape, or “coerced illicit sex,” were punished by strangulation; attempted rape was punishable by one hundred blows of the heavy bamboo and life exile. The punishment for adultery, or “consensual illicit sex,” was eighty blows of the heavy bamboo for both partners, ninety if the woman was married. The law allowed a husband to expel his wife for failure to give birth to a son, adultery, unfiliality toward his parents, loquaciousness, theft, jealousy, or contagious disease, though he was forbidden to do so if she had performed three years’ mourning for his parents, had no family to take her back, or if he became wealthy during the marriage. However, buying or selling a divorce (that is, selling a wife to another man as the latter’s wife) was illegal and punishable with flogging for all parties involved. As in the Ming, widow remarriage was legal for all except wives of senior officials as long as the widow observed the proper three-year mourning period for her husband, but remarriage resulted in the widow losing her dowry, control of her husband’s property, and, often, access to her children. Forcing a widow to remarry was a crime; punishment depended on the relationship of the perpetrators to the widow and whether the widow’s family gained financially from the bride price paid by the new husband’s family. In conflicts between widows and their in-laws over control of a dead husband’s property, which occurred frequently, Qing jurists firmly defended the property rights of the widows and in 1774 codified explicitly a widow’s right to name an heir (Bernhardt 1999).

Qing law produced two significant innovations in the policing of sexual behavior. The first was to make prostitution illegal for all subjects of the realm, effectively holding everyone to a single standard of sexual virtue. Ming law prohibited men from allowing or forcing their wives, concubines, or daughters to engage in illicit sex, and for “respectable” commoners sale of sex was punished in the same way as adultery. But prostitution was legal for women from hereditary debased groups, registered by the state as entertainer or musician families. In 1723, Yongzheng abolished this centuries-old juridical status, thus making debased people commoners who would   now be held to universal standards of sexual propriety. In theory, this new policy criminalized all sex work, regardless of one’s status. In practice the law was directed mostly at poor, rural women, who lost access to a source of income, while courtesan establishments patronized by elite men were left alone.

A second major set of changes was made to the statute on causing a woman to commit suicide. Amid the rising tide of moral concerns about sexual transgressions, Ming jurists created a new substatute mandating punishment for causing a person to commit suicide in connection with illicit sex. Women who killed themselves to avoid begin raped or died resisting rape were also eligible for canonization as chastity martyrs. In 1733, Yongzheng took the unprecedented step of allowing women who killed themselves in response to a sexual proposition to be canonized and subsequently authorized a new substatute mandating strangulation for causing a woman’s suicide due to attempted rape or unwanted flirtation (Theiss 2004). Over the rest of the century, some fifteen additional substatutes were created to elaborate the range of circumstances under which a man would be deemed responsible for the suicide of a woman, including unintended sexual insult or “improper familiarity”; “indecent remarks,” “dirty jokes,” or “obscene gestures” made in her presence or about her; adultery; prostitution; incest; or gossip arising out of any such incidents. These substatutes not only criminalized sexual harassment and unintended sexual insult but also made a woman’s reaction to them (that is, whether she committed suicide or not) the critical determinant of his guilt. Similarly, if a widow chose suicide to avoid remarriage, those responsible for trying to force her to remarry would be sentenced to strangulation, decapitation, or military exile, depending on the closeness of their relationship to the widow. These were much heavier penalties than they would receive if she did not kill herself. The Qing paradigm of sexual order extended to men through new laws on sodomy. The late Ming code for the first time criminalized sex between men, but the term for sodomy was not introduced into the code until the early Qing, when it was categorized as a crime of illicit sex that, like other forms of sexual assault, was an attack on vulnerable junior members of respectable families. The substatute reads, “If evil rascals gather in a gang and abduct the son or younger brother of a commoner family and use coercion to sodomize him, then the ringleader shall be immediately beheaded, and the followers shall all be sentenced to strangulation” (Sommer 2000). In 1734, amid the explosion of new substatutes designed to define female virtue and assaults against it with ever greater precision, the substatute on sodomy was similarly expanded to elaborate in parallel manner all the possible variations of age, number of perpetrators, nature of coercion, and exchange of money that jurists imagined could shape the crime of sodomy. While consensual sex between men, like heterosexual adultery, was illegal, it was usually prosecuted only in the context of more serious cases of homicide or assault. The dalliances of elite men with servants, opera performers, or other male paramours were never prosecuted. The codes never mentioned sex between women.

Classic Confucian norms of gender and family propriety constructed marriage as the fulfillment of filial duty to serve one’s parents and continue the family line. They emphasized the primacy of the patrilineal authority of fathers and family elders over that of husbands. In a conflict between obedience to a husband and obedience to parents-in-law, a wife was supposed to choose the latter. The late imperial chastity cult, infused with the ethos of qing, elevated the status of the conjugal bond and intensified its allure. Though the goal of the Qing policy makers was to reinforce patriarchal family order as they institutionalized the chastity cult as a technology of state building and used law to promote chastity as a universal virtue in the eighteenth century, they unwittingly exacerbated tensions between conjugal and patrilineal notions of family patriarchy that existed widely in social practice. Conflicts over female virtue often pitted women against family authorities pushing for widow remarriage, trying to prevent chastity suicides, or ignoring sexual affronts in order to avoid disgracing the family. The Qing state allied itself with widows fighting remarriage and victims of sexual assault and harassment and made their own interpretations of chastity and insults to it central to adjudication.


Neo-Confucianism as Political and Moral Doctrine in Korea in the Chosŏn Dynasty

Historian Martina Deuchler refers to the transition from the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) to the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) as the “Confucian transformation of Korea” (Deuchler 1992). During Koryŏ, Buddhism provided the essential guiding principles not only for religion but for politics, economy, and culture as well. In contrast, the Chosŏn dynasty saw the adoption of Neo-Confucianism broadly as the governing philosophy, ethics, and legal code, in an attempt to rationalize and systematize state affairs based on stricter moral and ethical principles. First introduced in Korea in the late Koryŏ dynasty, Neo-Confucianism became prominent during the Song and Ming dynasties in China. It appealed to a new class of scholar-bureaucrats in Koryŏ who were critical of the hereditary aristocratic families and of   their abuse of power and unrestrained, indulgent lifestyles. Led by Yi Sŏnggye (1335–1408), a military commander who became the founder of the Chosŏn dynasty, this reform-minded literati class emerged as the ruling force in shaping a new dynasty centering on Neo-Confucianism as its moral, ethical, and philosophical foundation.

Throughout the Koryŏ dynasty and even in the early part of the Chosŏn dynasty, women had rights of inheritance, access to divorce and remarriage without stigma, and considerable freedom to move around in public without restraint. Daughters were listed in the family genealogies, and both sons and daughters were listed by order of birth. Furthermore, second marriages of women of the upper class were also recorded (Wagner 1983). However, the active implementation of Confucian precepts that came with the establishment of the Chosŏn dynasty fundamentally weakened the rights and privileges of women.

This dramatic shift was justified on the basis of Neo-Confucian interpretations of the universe and human nature. Neo-Confucianism is based on a cosmological belief that the universe and society are governed by the forces of yin and yang and that achieving harmony between the two in both realms is the key to peace and prosperity. (For a discussion of yin and yang in China, see Chapter 1.) The logic of the philosophy may not in and of itself induce gender inequality, but the social value attached to yin and yang brought about such practices. According to Neo-Confucian precepts and the ways they were interpreted and adopted in Chosŏn, women (identified with yin) should be subordinated to men (identified with yang). The roles that women and men play in society should also be differentiated, with women assigned to the domestic arena and men to the public domain. Any transgression of that gendered boundary was considered a serious violation of proper behavior. Even the architectural design of residences (especially for upper-class families) reflected this gendered distinction of physical space, with floor plans split between inner chambers for women and outer chambers for men. It should be noted that despite the new dynasty’s attempts to implement Confucian doctrine and practices, people continued to adhere to old customs and resisted prescriptions from the government. Thus it took several centuries for the “Confucian transformation” to prevail in Korean society, and it was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Confucian precepts, legal codes, and cultural norms became firmly rooted as the dominant force. Throughout this long period of transition the rights of women were continually eroded, not only in the ideology of the time, but in actual legal, economic, and cultural practices.

Patrilineal Family System

The most significant factor for this dramatic shift in the status and rights of women was the adoption and implementation of a patrilineal social paradigm. This new paradigm began to transform the family into a singularly male-centered system that subordinated women to their husbands and their husbands’ families. At the very beginning of the dynasty, newer practices that were intended to establish and enforce a patrilineal family system were ignored and people continued to practice the old customs. One of the first places where tensions between the old and new customs came to a head was in wedding rituals. Customary practice during the Koryŏ dynasty dictated that the groom come to the home of the bride for the wedding and take up residence with the bride’s family. This custom allowed a woman to adjust to married life in familiar surroundings with support from her family. (Note the similarity with Japanese customs around the same time.) However, Confucian scholars and high-ranking officials began to criticize the custom as inappropriate because, from the Confucian cosmological standpoint, yin (woman) was supposed to follow yang (man). In their view,  the practice  in which the husband moved into the home of the wife had yang following yin, a distortion of the natural order of things. With the aim of setting an example of proper marital behavior, the royal family adopted the new wedding custom, in which the bride would go to the groom’s home for the wedding ceremony and then live there; however, despite the model provided by the royal family and the strong condemnation of the traditional practice by leading Confucian scholars, this new wedding custom was not readily accepted, even by families of the upper class. It was only in the seventeenth century that this patrilocal marital custom became the norm.

The new marriage practice brought about significant changes in the lives of women. Unlike in our contemporary world, where “love marriage” is taken for granted, in Chosŏn Korea arranged marriages were the standard practice. Parents and relatives selected partners whom they deemed appropriate for their children. Prospective brides and grooms were not afforded  any  time to get to know each other, often meeting for the first time at their wedding ceremony. Imagine this scenario: a young woman who had until that point lived her entire life within the inner chambers of her family’s home, having had contact with virtually no one from outside of her family, is one day removed from those safe and familiar environs and delivered to the home of  a complete stranger, where by the end of the day she would be married to a man she had never met before and living with a family she did not know. Quite clearly, the separation from her natal family immediately after her wedding would have placed an emotional burden on the new bride. In addition, having to adopt a completely new role, one that put her at the beck and call of her new in-laws, while at the same time coping with the totally new culture of her husband’s family, was inevitably an adjustment.

Another significant change came in the financial aspects of life. Throughout the Koryŏ dynasty and in the early and even middle parts of the Chosŏn dynasty (late sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth), sons and daughters had equal inheritance rights (Peterson 1996, 6). Nor was birth order an important consideration for the distribution of an estate. Even after marriage, a woman was able to keep property or other assets in her own name rather than having her husband take control of them. If a woman had no children, her property would be returned to her natal family upon her death.

One justification for the relative equality between sons and daughters in terms of inheritance was the assumption under traditional practices that all children would share equally the responsibilities for ancestor worship. Family wealth was distributed to all children so that each of them would be able to underwrite ancestor worship rituals on a rotating basis. However, the idea that ancestor worship was a shared responsibility of all the children was gradually undermined with the spread of the Confucian doctrine that gave the eldest son primary responsibility for conducting the family’s rites of ancestor worship. Over time, the rationale for daughters receiving an equal share of inheritance was lost. Gendered inheritance practices were clearly in evidence from the seventeenth century on, and by the end of that century, ancestor worship was firmly established as the sole responsibility of male heirs.

The radical shift toward a kinship system centered on male heirs was justified by Neo-Confucian doctrine. Male descendants were considered the only legitimate heirs of the family lineage. Family genealogical records (chokpo) clearly show that patrilineage was firmly in place by the end of  the seventeenth century.  Historian Mark Peterson describes patrilineage  as “men related to men through men” (Peterson 1996, 3). Daughters and daughters-in-law became minor players in genealogy. Daughters were listed as “having married out and into another lineage,” and daughters-in-law were described as “having come from” their natal lineage (Peterson 1996, 3–4). A married daughter was often referred to as “one who left the household and became a stranger” (ch’ulga oein).

The patrilineal system also created a clear distinction between  primary and secondary wives. The primary wife had all the  legal  and  familial rights and prestige, but no such rights or privileges were granted  to secondary wives. This inequality led to complicated domestic  dynamics not only because of the resulting emotional tensions between wives but also because of the competition between their children, whose status was completely dependent on the status of their mothers (Deuchler 2003, 143). For instance, sons of secondary wives were barred from taking the state examinations that were the key to getting into offices in the government. This kind of rigid discrimination against secondary wives and their offspring was unique to Korea. There was no parallel behavior found in China, nor were the children of secondary wives severely discriminated against in Tokugawa Japan (Deuchler 1992, 268).

Womanly Virtues in Everyday Life

Education was a very important part of the Confucian transformation in Chosŏn. From its beginning, the new dynasty emphasized the crucial role that educational institutions would play in cultivating Confucian ideals and virtues for the future of the state. However, formal education was reserved for boys and men. Women were excluded from any institutionalized education. Informal, family-based, individual education at home was the main source of instruction for women of the upper class, with mothers or grandmothers often acting as teachers. The central focus of the education given to girls at home was often on womanly virtue, proper behavior, and industriousness  in the performance of their household duties. While they were not expected to be highly knowledgeable about Chinese classics, they still devoted time to reading and writing, and some of them read a variety of Chinese classics, including The Classic of Poetry. Im Yunjidang (1721–1793) is among the upper-class women who became exceptionally proficient in Confucian classics, so much so that they were able to engage in philosophical debate.

Confucian classics provided some justifications for gender-specific education. In the works of Mencius, one of the five cardinal human relationships outlined is the relationship between husband and wife, which was governed by virtue of their innate differences (pubu yubyŏl). This essential distinction between man and woman was the basic tenet in the socialization of the genders and dictated the nature of education. Men learned to guide women, while women learned to obey men. As noted in Chapter 1, a woman was subject to the Three Obediences: obedience to her father before marriage, to her husband during marriage, and to her son in widowhood. Along with instilling  an obedient attitude toward the male figures in their lives, women’s education also stressed weaving, making clothes, cooking, managing the household, preparing food for ancestor worship rituals, serving visitors, and labor that women could do at home, such as sericulture.

Confucian values and the principles of “womanly virtue” were broadly propagated through books, both printed and handwritten. The most influential textbook was Elementary Learning (Sohak in Korean, Xiaoxue in  Chinese), compiled by the Chinese Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi in 1189. As the title of the book indicates, it offered basic rules of personal conduct and interpersonal relationships, serving as a primer for the next level of learning. In 1518, the Chosŏn court printed thirteen hundred copies of Elementary Learning and distributed them to court officials and some members of the royal family. The justification for its distribution is found in 1517 in the Annals of the Chosŏn Dynasty:

The Elementary Learning is of critical importance in everyday use. Yet, the simple people in the alleys and the women who are unfamiliar with writing [Chinese] find it difficult to read and practice it. We beg that those books most instrumental for everyday use like the Elementary Learning be translated into the vernacular, printed, and distributed inside and outside the capital so that no one from the palace and the capital officialdom down to the little people in the alleys is ignorant of it and does not read it. If all the families in the land are corrected, the evil atmosphere will cease and heavenly harmony will prevail. (Deuchler 2003, 145)


Box 2.2: Women Reading and Writing in Vernacular Korean, Han’gŭl

The diffusion of Confucian precepts via Chinese classics such as Elementary Learning was hampered by the fact that the vast majority of the population could not read Chinese. In this regard, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that the invention of the Korean writing system (han’gŭl) in 1443 served as a catalyst in the dissemination of Confucian norms and ethics to the wider population. Prior to the invention of han’gŭl, Koreans of the upper class used Chinese script exclusively for official and personal writings. Men studied Chinese classics, which were the main texts that needed to be mastered in order to pass the state examinations for holding office in the government. Chinese language had prestige. King Sejong (r. 1418–1450) found it deplorable that the vast majority of his people were illiterate and thus unable to express their views and concerns. To remedy that situation, King Sejong gathered together a group of scholars to help him create an easy-to-learn writing system that would conform to the phonetic aspects of the Korean language.

Men of the upper class did not readily adopt the Korean writing system or appreciate its value, as it had the effect of making literacy more widely accessible, which would undercut their status as elites. In contrast, women enthusiastically embraced the new Korean writing system because it was easy to master, enabling more women to learn to read and write than ever before. To be sure, there were women of the upper class who had been trained to read and write in Chinese. However, they were discouraged from communicating in written Chinese and often hid their Chinese literacy. Thus, the Korean writing system became the main medium for reading and writing among women, and translations of Chinese texts into vernacular Korean came to be the primary vehicle for the spread of Confucian-prescribed gender ethics. Some of the key texts that were translated were Sohak (Elementary learning), Samgang haengsilto (Illustrated guide for the conduct of the three bonds), and Yŏsasŏ (Four books for women). In addition to those Chinese texts, there were also Korean works. For example, Naehun (Instructions for women) was compiled by Queen Sohye (1437–1504), who had lamented the lack of written resources that would help women cultivate their minds and bodies. She selected some important passages from well-known Chinese books, including Elementary Learning, Notable Women (Lienü), Lessons for Women (Nüjiao), and Mirrors of Sagacity (Mingjian). Prominent Korean scholars of Confucianism also wrote instructional books for women, including Kyujung yoram (Brochure for the inner chambers) by Yi Hwang (1501– 1570) and Kyenyŏsŏ (Instructions for women) by Song Siyŏl (1607–1689).

By the end of the seventeenth century the growth in literacy among women and the production and distribution of textbooks for women had had a significant impact on women’s culture. Confucian precepts and “womanly virtues” came to be internalized as the ultimate guidelines for life not only among women of the upper class, who had historically had ready access to written textbooks, but also those from the commoner and even lower classes. Beyond that, their new literacy skills gave women the ability to express the agony and suffering they experienced under the oppressive patriarchal family culture. To be sure, the majority of women adopted and even advocated Confucian precepts, taking for granted women’s devotion to and sacrifice for their husband’s family. However, it is also important to recognize that women were able to make use of patriarchal gender ideology to empower themselves, especially through their morality, a point that is further discussed in Chapter 3.

Regulating Women’s Bodies and Sexuality

The patrilineal social structure in Chosŏn began to be manifested in strict regulation of women’s bodies and sexuality. One of the legal provisions implemented to control women’s sexuality was banning remarriage for women. As discussed in Chapter 1, prior to the Chosŏn dynasty, remarriage had been freely practiced, so widows could remarry without stigma. However, under Neo-Confucian influence, a woman was expected to remain chaste for her husband, even after his death. A proposal at the beginning of the Chosŏn dynasty to outlaw women’s remarriage was not immediately embraced. Officials sympathetic to the plight of women argued that enforcement of such a law would be viewed as overly harsh, especially in those cases where a  woman had become a widow at an early age or had no place to go after her husband’s death. However, discrimination against and stigmatization of remarried women began to take legal shape as time went on. During the reign of King Sŏngjong (1469–1494), sons of remarried women were legally prevented from holding positions in government. It is notable that a majority of the Confucian officials had opposed this legal provision, yet King Sŏngjong came down on the side of the minority view and authorized the statutory change in policy in order to consolidate Neo-Confucian doctrines as state ideology. This legal provision certainly had the effect of regulating women’s sexuality. For the sake of their sons’ futures, women submitted to solitary widowhood and remained faithful to their deceased husbands.

Another powerful measure taken to control women’s sexuality was to confine them to the private space of the domestic sphere and limit their interactions to family members and close relatives. When upper-class women did go out into public areas, they had to cover their faces and wear long-sleeved clothing to avoid any improper male gaze.

However, such practices were not universally adopted. The different social classes varied in the degree to which they embraced the “inside-outside rule.” While women of the upper class followed the strict rules of behavior, commoner and lower-class women were not expected to follow the same rigorous conventions. This class distinction is particularly evident in the legal codes that stipulated women’s sexual conduct. For instance, if women of the upper class committed adultery, they were executed, while the law did not subject women of the lower classes to any such punishment (Kim 2015).


A woman with a cover. Painting of Sin Yunbok (1758–1817). National Museum of Korea

The increasing confinement of women of the upper class to the domestic arena also affected their religious lives. Unlike previous dynasties, Chosŏn systematically oppressed Buddhism as a matter of state policy. Despite this antagonism toward the religion, women continued to go to Buddhist temples during the Chosŏn dynasty. Even women in the royal family continued to be devoted followers of Buddhism. Some married women sought sanctuary in temples rather than endure the abuse meted out by their husbands and in-laws. In the face of this broad and continuing adoption of the religion, Confucian-based anti-Buddhist state policy raised debate about the danger and moral depravity that women invited by visiting temples, and there was expression of alarm at the considerable number of young women who had become Buddhist nuns rather than marrying. This behavior of avoidance and escape was thought to disturb the harmonious energy of the universe. From the Confucian cosmological viewpoint, women should be in marital relationships no matter how harsh the circumstances. In addition, a common assumption by Confucian scholars was that the presence of laywomen among the male monks would inevitably lead to sexual encounters. These imagined encounters became accepted as the basis for forbidding women from visiting temples in the name of moral purity and chastity (Jung 2011). Various textbooks meant to offer instruction for women on exemplary behavior emphasized the ideology of chastity. As in China, women were expected to remain chaste, no matter what circumstances they might be facing. The expectation of chastity was so great that some women committed suicide rather than face the social stigma of rape, especially during the invasions of Korea (1592–1598) by the Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the two Manchu invasions that took place between 1627 and 1636. Those women who chose death over a bad reputation were held up as exemplary. Monuments were erected to them in villages, providing a reminder of the meaning of womanly virtue. These women brought glory upon themselves through their heroic efforts to preserve their virtue, but ultimately that glory was reflected in an elevation of the reputation of their husbands’ families.

Women’s Empowerment Within Limits

Confucian precepts did not invariably oppress women. Women also utilized these precepts to secure power and authority within the family. For example, by following the rigid injunctions for “womanly virtue,” they were not merely complying with the dominant ideology of the time but also proactively attempting to achieve higher status through exemplary behavior and judicious life choices. One example that clearly demonstrates these twin aspects of the Confucian gender ideology and practice in Chosŏn can be found in the petition system. The Chosŏn dynasty instituted a petition system in 1401. It allowed people, regardless of their gender or class, to express grievances in either oral or written form. Initially, women were not frequent petitioners; in its early years, the system allowed petitioners to submit grievances only when they themselves were the subject of the complaint. However, by the early eighteenth century, when the categories of petitionable grievances and eligible petitioners were expanded, women took full advantage of the petition system and participated actively. Under the revised system, women were allowed to petition on behalf of husbands, unmarried daughters for their natal parents, and daughters-in-law for their parents-in-law. In this vein, “women emerged as legal  agents  who  could  seek  justice  for  their  family members,” which brought about changes that were “nothing less than epochal” (Kim Haboush 2002, 246). The vast majority of the petitions submitted by women centered on family lineage issues, adoption, and restoration of a husband’s reputation. It is clear that women petitioners exploited the public system to preserve or enhance the status of their families and thereby raise their own status as custodians of the family. Thus, rather ironically, women’s proper role in the domestic arena brought them into the public domain. Indeed, women could fully justify their public engagement as a means of fulfilling their duties and responsibilities in the private, domestic arena. With the separation in which women were relegated to the “inner” sphere and men to the “outer” sphere, a woman could gain legitimate entry to the public arena as long as it concerned the well-being and prosperity of the family.

Women also found distinctive space within the domestic sphere to empower themselves. As mentioned previously, it was the custom during Koryŏ for young married couples to live with the bride’s family for some time after their marriage. Under those circumstances, married women could maintain close ties with their natal families. However, during the Chosŏn era, this custom was gradually replaced. Upon marriage brides would move into the homes of their husbands’ families, and they would have little or no contact with their own families. Under this new marital arrangement, which became prevalent beginning in the seventeenth century, women’s lives and destinies depended on the connections, achievements, and prospects of  their husbands, and that led to a new set of dynamics in the family. Once married, a woman had to adjust to a new and unfamiliar role in the culture of a new family, and in the face of all of that novelty she was expected to maintain a unique and pure family tradition.

The only historical records describing the status and roles of women in the family are those of the upper class. They show that women of the upper class proactively enforced the requirement of womanly virtue on themselves to ensure the prosperity of their families. They were deeply engaged in managing household affairs, educating children and grandchildren, and contributing to the building and maintenance of the family economy. There is an adage in Korea: “When a country is in crisis, a loyal minister is needed; when a family is in poverty, a good wife is needed.” This proverb is indicative of the crucial role that women played in family finances. Men of the upper class remained at a remove from the actual, everyday affairs of the domestic sphere in order to cultivate their minds and study Chinese classics. As a result, women had to step in to take care of the family economy. In this context, women’s resourcefulness and industriousness were highly valued and celebrated, especially in times of natural disaster or a decline in family fortunes.

The ideology of chastity and the wealth of records regarding “chaste women” are another example of how women appropriated a seemingly oppressive gender ideology to vindicate themselves. As described previously, women’s sexuality was systematically regulated with a central focus on purity and chastity. A wide array of texts, most representatively the section on the “chaste woman” in Samgang haengsilto (Illustrated guide for the conduct of the three bonds), contributed to the reification of the ideal of chastity. Whereas the ideology of chastity certainly suppressed women from acting on their sexual desires and barred widows from remarrying, many women accepted chastity as a means by which they could assert their value and contribute to the maintenance or enhancement of their family’s standing. When a woman committed suicide rather than face the social stigma that she would be subjected to after a rape or ungrounded rumors and slander, we need to ask what motivated that extreme choice. What did she want to achieve when she made the decision to end her own life? Was it a passive act to comply with the Confucian precepts? Or could it be better understood as an effort to take control of her own body? Using legal cases involving suicide by widows to preserve their chastity, historian Jungwon Kim argues that “the act of suicide was one response available to widows to counter sexual assaults, rumors, slanders and conflicts inside and outside of the family. It was the most powerful expression of the conjunction of violence and independence in relation to a widow’s agency to control her own dignity, death and fate” (Kim 2014, 143–144).


The victory in 1600 by forces loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the most powerful military overlord in Japan, brought an end to the Warring States period.  To gain peacetime political legitimacy, Tokugawa had Japan’s emperor—an official with no political power and only traces of prestige lingering from the ancient past—name him as the new shogun. Tokugawa and his successors as shoguns created a political structure that ruled over Japan until the middle of the nineteenth century. Historians of Japan refer to the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule as Japan’s early modern era. Neo-Confucian doctrine was one of several tools used by the Tokugawa shoguns to consolidate their rule over Japan, and by the end of the seventeenth century, Neo-Confucianism had gained a foothold in early modern Japan, just as it had in Chosŏn Korea and, centuries earlier, in China.

To control Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu set up a system of self-regulating status groups, with the shogun as the supreme ruler over these groups. The groups were, nominally, the four classes of the ancient Confucian texts, recast for Japanese use as samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Self-regulating status groups contained more diversity than homogeneity; there were rich farmers and poor farmers, rich merchants and poor merchants, samurai who were powerful provincial rulers (called daimyo) and lowly foot soldiers, and men and women. Not all groups within society were equally Confucianized, and the impact of Confucian principles on gender relations, marriage, and sexuality varied among the status groups. These differences will be discussed in detail in this section. As status groups, their boundaries were less flexible than those of the social classes in China, where a young man’s diligent study of Confucian classics could potentially earn him a spot in the ruling   class.

In Tokugawa-period Japan, mobility among the bottom three status groups was not uncommon, since sons and daughters of farm families migrated as teenagers to find work either on nearby farms or in cities, towns, and castles, but it was nearly impossible, until the end of the Tokugawa period, for non-samurai to enter the samurai ruling class.

At the top of the ruling order, right under the shogun, were the daimyo. These were powerful and wealthy male military overlords who, like the shogun, controlled from several hundred to many thousands of samurai warriors as well as many farming villages whose revenues they taxed. Although the daimyo were part of the samurai status group, they were treated as a special category of warriors. The Tokugawa shoguns were most concerned with the daimyo because they were provincial leaders from whose ranks the shoguns themselves had emerged. In their consolidation of power in the early seventeenth century, the Tokugawa shoguns punished those daimyo who had fought against them in 1600 by either taking away some or all of their land or moving them to less desirable areas. More trusted daimyo were moved to territories closer to the Tokugawa capital at Edo, and less trusted daimyo were moved to the periphery of the islands. After these changes, the remaining daimyo were permitted to rule fairly autonomously within their own domains, collecting taxes and adjudicating legal disputes, as long as their laws and procedures were generally consistent with Tokugawa practice and they did not challenge the Tokugawa shoguns’ authority.

The Tokugawa shoguns also kept an eye on the daimyo by controlling their marriages and family lives. After 1615, to prevent alliances of potential rivals to the shogun, members of daimyo families were required to secure the shogun’s permission to marry. In addition, after the 1630s, the shogun implemented an “alternate attendance system” that required daimyo to travel back and forth annually between the shogun’s capital at Edo (today’s Tokyo) and the daimyo’s own castles in their domain, taking with them a huge retinue of their samurai. Maintaining a castle at home and a mansion in Edo and feeding and lodging hundreds of samurai as they moved about the country cost the daimyo a large part of the taxes they raised from the farmers, guaranteeing that the daimyo would never have enough resources to successfully challenge the Tokugawa. While alternate attendance drained daimyo resources, however, it also brought many daimyo into the shogun’s government as officials while they were in Edo.

In addition to depleting the daimyo’s financial resources, the alternate attendance system also controlled the daimyo by making use of their bonds with their wives and children. Daimyo wives and children were required to remain in Edo, where they were, for the most part, hostages in the gilded cages of their mansions. Post stations were set up at frequent intervals along the roads leading to Edo—roads carried a constant stream of commercial traffic in addition to massive processions of daimyo performing their alternate attendance—to check for the movement of weapons into and women out of Edo. Nuns, entertainers, housewives on pilgrimages or personal travel, and other commoner women could move freely, but daimyo wives’ movements were suspect and therefore strictly controlled.

The wives and daughters of daimyo and other high-ranking samurai families were not totally without employment possibilities while in Edo, however. Some were able to gain appointments to the women’s quarters of the shogun’s court, where they could act as palace functionaries, adding to their families’ prestige by carrying messages, making alliances with women of other daimyo families, and serving the shogun and his wife in a variety of capacities, including entertainment, advice giving, and sexual service. Sexual service carried the possibility of becoming the mother of a shogunal heir, a powerful position at the shogun’s court (Totman 1967, 89–110). The sons of daimyo families were also influenced by the control mechanisms of the alternate attendance system. Raised in Edo, the center of national culture by 1700, these sons helped to link the Japanese islands together culturally when they moved back to their families’ domains as adult daimyo. The rough, rustic young daimyo sons of the Warring States period were soon tamed by Edo’s urban culture, creating a new type of elite masculinity for the daimyo class.

The end of a century of warfare throughout the Japanese islands and a decade of incursions into Chosŏn also changed the meaning of life for countless samurai warriors of less than daimyo status after 1600. Over the course of a few decades, the daily practice of being samurai required them to become government bureaucrats, serving their daimyo or shogunal superiors in offices rather than as dashing warriors. At the same time, all samurai men were required to wear two swords, and nonchalant bad-boy behavior continued to be viewed as charming in samurai circles throughout the Tokugawa period. One seventeenth-century scholar even created a term for this type of cult of masculinity in his popular book on the “way of the warrior” (bushidō). The rowdier samurai initially resisted government authorities’ attempts to remold them as scholars, gentlemen, and bureaucrats. This was especially true of masterless samurai, whose daimyo had been killed or dispossessed of all their land; many of these rootless young men roamed the streets making trouble, often as armed youth gangs. It took till 1650 for masterless samurai to be either defeated or co-opted into a life of responsible manly work, similar to the life of samurai who were under the control of successful daimyo. This created a new definition of masculinity in which literacy, education, and culture were as important as martial skills.

The Tokugawa State and the Regulating of Everyday Life

Before the rise of the Tokugawa shoguns, the liveliest intellectual tradition in Japan had been found in Buddhist theology. But the new period seemed to call for a new focus, one more practical than the introspective, faith-based learning of Buddhism. Chinese Neo-Confucian thought entranced a new generation of scholars. The Tokugawa shoguns saw one of the schools of Neo-Confucianism as particularly supportive of their claim to political power in Japan. In this Japanese approach to Neo-Confucianism, the Japanese shogun was equated with the emperor of China’s Confucian ideology, while the Japanese emperor, who was in reality a figurehead with no political power, was equated with the Confucian concept of “heaven.” The militarily powerful shogun’s respect for the impotent Japanese emperor was used to justify the shogun’s right to rule. This school of Neo-Confucianism also rationalized the four-status structure that placed the samurai on top and contended that the Confucian relationships, one of which was the husband’s superiority to his wife, were natural and proper for all people and times. Small wonder that the shogun’s government encouraged the samurai to study the same Confucian texts their counterparts in the Chinese bureaucracy studied in order to qualify for jobs as officials in Japan’s early modern state. Only the samurai, who were expected to be part of the ruling class, were eligible to be educated at the government’s expense. All women and commoners of both genders, and many samurai who sought specialized education, paid for their own education. Confucian ideas were often part of their education, but learning took a variety of forms for commoners and many samurai as well.

The basic educational texts for samurai were written in a form of Chinese that educated young men in Japan were expected to learn in the early modern era, even while a bourgeoning publishing industry cranked out popular literature for the masses in Japanese kana script. New and diverse types of schools, works of prose and poetry, theatrical works and the arts, and essays on philosophy and government created new ideals of masculinity and femininity. Many of these institutions and works of art were aimed at the samurai, but most found eager cross-status consumers.

The Tokugawa self-regulation system was extended to all status groups. Each village regulated itself, and cities and towns had a variety of means   of governance. As long as the towns and villages paid their taxes, maintained the peace, and behaved in ways that roughly paralleled Tokugawa laws, farmers, artisans, and merchants generally governed themselves. The shogun’s government involved itself as little as possible in the day-to-day oversight of most commoners.

But the shogunal government stepped into everyday life when it came to relations with foreigners. By the late 1630s, fear of Christianity and Christian missionaries led the Tokugawa to allow foreign trade only with Chinese, Koreans, Ryūkyū Islanders, and the Dutch (who promised not to send missionaries) and to restrict trade to limited places. To strengthen the ban on Christianity, all Japanese were required to register their families as members of a local Buddhist temple. As a result, there are extensive temple records of births, marriages, and deaths. Together with records kept by families themselves, these temple records give us a good overview of family formation and gender relations in the early modern period (Walthall 1991). The government also involved itself in the construction of gender through social and economic policies as well as ideologies that affected people of different statuses in different ways. Even before the beginning of the Tokugawa period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo who controlled most of Japan, decreed that armed farmer-warriors had to choose between giving up their arms to become full-time farmers and giving up their farmland to become full-time warriors. A man who chose to be a samurai had to live in or near his daimyo’s castle. For his service to his daimyo (the service became increasingly bureaucratic in a time of peace) and to compensate for the loss of his land, he and his successors were paid a stipend. This policy was continued under the Tokugawa. Soon the forced movement of samurai led to the development of towns and cities called “castle towns.” Merchants and artisans migrated to the castle towns to serve the now landless samurai, building homes and furnishings for themselves and the samurai, making clothing and armor, marketing food, running lodges and restaurants, carrying out banking, publishing books, creating arts and entertainment, and running a lively business in the sex trades. Men of the samurai status were not supposed to be involved in merchant or artisan activities, although some occupations, such as medicine and scholarship, were open to all statuses (only a small handful of practitioners in these fields were women; some women were midwives, teachers, poets, and painters).

By 1700, in most daimyo domains, about 6 to 7 percent of the population were urbanized samurai, an equal percentage were merchants and artisans, and about 85 percent were farmers. Japan’s cities had grown enormously  by 1700. Edo, the Tokugawa’s own castle town, was the world’s largest city, having grown from a tiny fishing village in 1590 to over a million residents. The population of Japan as a whole grew from twelve million in 1600 to thirty million in 1720, and then it stagnated for the next 140 years.

Samurai men were at the heart of the governmental service system. They received stipends for the service, and at times supplementary income if they were particularly talented. If a samurai died without an heir, his stipend was terminated. His wife and daughters were not allowed to inherit his stipend, and they were often left penniless. As a result, many samurai wives had to tolerate their husbands’ concubines (secondary wives) to make sure there would be an heir to support them. Children born to concubines were acknowledged as legitimate, and a concubine’s son inherited his father’s stipends and property if he was the only son. The primary wife was the legal mother of a concubine’s children, which placed the concubine in the lowest position in the household—below her own birth children. (Note that the legal status of secondary wives and of the children born to them differed significantly in Qing, Chosŏn, and Tokugawa Japan at this time.)

Adoption of children and adults as heirs was quite common as well. In the samurai class, marriages were arranged and their primary official purpose was producing an heir, but most families nevertheless had loving relationships. That is not to say that samurai men did not have emotional extramarital relationships in addition to those with their wives and concubines. They did, without a sense of impropriety or shame. Samurai women’s extramarital affairs were strictly illegal, however, and popular novels and plays of the mid-Tokugawa period depict such affairs as ending in execution or suicide for the star-crossed lovers.

The everyday lives of the other two status groups in the cities—merchants and artisans—were intertwined with the samurai who patronized their shops, passed them daily on the streets, celebrated the same religious festivals,  and sat next to them in the theaters. In some other ways, their lives did not mingle. Intermarriage of samurai and commoners was highly unusual before the nineteenth century, and commoner boys’ and girls’ training for adulthood was different from that of the samurai. Commoner children of both sexes expected to play a role in commercial or artisanal houses as adults, and both needed to be literate. Marriage partners were chosen for their compatibility, and the young people themselves often played a role in choosing their mates, unlike the common practice of arranged marriages among the samurai.

Education for non-samurai urban children  was  varied  and  focused  on practicality. Many children were educated at schools run by priests at local Buddhist temples or at small private schools run by both married and unmarried women. Many teenage boys served apprenticeships with merchant houses outside their own family, and in some cases the most talented apprentice married the boss’s daughter, usually with the daughter’s approval.  That young man would become a part of his boss’s  family—a practice that echoed the earlier matrilocal marriage patterns of the elite, described in Chapter 1—and the young couple would later inherit and run the business together. Other urban boys might attend one of many private academies run by famous intellectuals for any student who could pay the tuition, regardless of their status as samurai or commoner. Some academies focused on science and mathematics; others stressed Confucian virtue. The most famous of these was the Kaitokudō Academy, founded in 1726, which expanded the principles of orthodox Confucianism to teach that the governing responsibilities of samurai and the economic activities of merchants were equally important in the community and larger society. Many boys took the Kaitokudō’s courses in reading, accounting and abacus use, and simple Confucianism (loyalty and filial piety). Those who advanced to further study analyzed Confucian texts (Smith 1988; Najita 1977).

Boys and girls over the age of seven or eight rarely studied together, as the skills they needed for adulthood were different. Urban daughters usually received less formal education than their brothers, although an unlettered young woman could not make a good marriage. Many girls were taught to read and write and especially to use the abacus and do the simple math needed to keep the family and business accounts. Urban women were expected to work in the family business; even in the richest families, brides, who did not have to perform difficult house maintenance chores, were called upon to serve their parents-in-law. Girls’ earliest education, like that of their brothers, was often in temple schools or small schools run by women teachers. Girls studied texts called jokun (precepts for women) that stressed filial piety and obedience to one’s husband and in-laws. Some well-to-do merchant families paid upper-class samurai families to take their daughters in as servants to train them in etiquette and manners (a chaperone was often sent to make sure the daughter would be well cared for). A daughter’s education could cost up to 5 percent of her family’s total income. By the end of the Tokugawa  period, approximately  50 percent of men and 15 percent     of women throughout Japan were literate; the majority of literate women lived in the cities. While these literacy rates seem very low to us today, they were among the world’s highest in the nineteenth century.

The texts men and women studied included references to the Confucian idea of women’s inferiority. Many of the jokun used in temple schools, the most famous of which was Onna daigaku (Greater Learning for Women), described the ideal woman as loyal to her husband and parents-in-law, passive, submissive, cheerful, and hardworking in her role as a wife. Onna daigaku— long believed to have been written by Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekiken (1630–1714)—was read by millions of girls from the early eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. It was considered by Japanese feminists in the late nineteenth century to be one of the reasons for women’s subordination. Yet when first published in 1716, it was just one part of a larger work, A Treasure Chest of Greater Learning for Women (Onna daigaku takara bako), that discussed numerous occupations for women, training of children, practical skills, ways to deal with medical emergencies, and literature and poetry, in addition to its notorious list of women’s shortcomings. Many scholars now stress that the message of subordination in jokun such as Onna daigaku paled by comparison with the empowering role of literacy promoted by their use as textbooks (Tocco 2005).

It cannot be ignored, however, that these works were part of girls’ education, that fewer girls than boys received education, and that women’s legal status was far below men’s. Yet that does not mean that women were not prized for what they did do. While women of samurai status were viewed as servants of their parents-in-law and childbearers for their husbands, merchant women’s status relative to their husbands was often higher. They had business roles to play in their families, and many merchant-status parents allowed their daughters to express their opinions in the selection of their husbands because family harmony was essential to the success of their firms.

Sexuality and the Arts

Early modern urban life, in which samurai, merchants, and artisans participated, cannot be understood outside the context of sexuality. The Tokugawa government sought to control the boundaries of sexuality; uncontrolled sexuality was of great concern to them. Their reaction to the rise of kabuki theater is a good example of the government’s anxiety over uncontrolled sexuality. In 1603, a woman dancer named Okuni introduced to Kyoto residents a new form of sensual dance performance—this was an early form of kabuki. At first all the performers were women, and female kabuki troupes became very popular in Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka. But onlookers often became excited by the dancers, which could lead to fights, so the authorities forced the performances to the outskirts of cities in 1608. Soon a lively sex trade involving actors and would-be performers followed the kabuki troupes, leading the government to outlaw all female stage performers in 1629. Boy actors then took over the women’s roles, but the government found that this did not solve the problem of audiences’ overly enthusiastic reactions to the actors. Many of the boys were as attractive to the male theater-goers as the women had been. Believing the audience members’ adulation of this new type of actor was as problematic as the previous type, the government went one step farther and in 1653 restricted the performance of female roles to adult males rather than boys. Theaters were moved to officially designated sexuality districts that had been set up in 1617 in Edo (the Yoshiwara district), in 1629 in Osaka (Shinmachi), and in 1641 in Kyoto (Shimabara). In these districts the sex industry was cordoned off from the rest of the city. Brothels, mostly staffed by women and girls (though some also offered boys as sex workers), were required to move to those districts. The sexuality zones attracted all sorts of arts and culture: in addition to brothels, there were teahouses, artists’ and writers’ studios, theaters, and restaurants. Street performances—including exotic animals, jugglers, musicians, and entertainers of all sorts—enlivened the zones. These zones, called “pleasure districts” (yūkaku), had been created to marginalize and control sexuality so the samurai could focus on carrying out their duties to their daimyo or the shogun. In practice, these zones attracted samurai and commoner alike. They aimed primarily at male pleasure, but many of the zones’ residents were women— sex workers, servants, teahouse attendants, and the like. Wives and daughters of families not in the entertainment business, who did not live in the zones, also entered to attend plays and other attractions.

Adult male actors had to shave their heads in the style of adult male samurai. At first they wore small scarves to cover their bald patches and later were allowed to wear wigs to perform female roles. But they continued to be objects of audience members’ desire. Indeed, many theater-goers, performers, and critics at the time believed that male actors performed femininity better than women could. The government did not mind same-sex attraction or male-male sexual relations as long as they followed proper rules of sexual etiquette. The performance of sex was part of the accepted process of adult male mentoring of samurai boys in the seventeenth century, practiced by the Tokugawa family itself, the daimyo, and all ranks of warriors. Merchant and artisan townsmen took part in sexual relations with young protégés as well. Many urban adult men had marital relationships with their wives and more casual sexual relationships with both male and female prostitutes. In the Tokugawa  era, sexual practice did not define sexual identity—that is,  as heterosexual or homosexual—as it would in the late nineteenth century (Pflugfelder 1999).

Box 2.3: Ihara Saikaku, “The Umbrella Oracle”

In 1685, comedic writer Ihara Saikaku (for more on his life and work, see Chapter 3) mocked the provincial ignorance of gullible villagers far from his cosmopolitan birthplace, Osaka. In this sketch, we see the view of sophisticated urban people toward rural sexual attitudes.

To the famous “Hanging Temple of Kwannon” . . . someone had once presented twenty oil-paper umbrellas which . . . were hung beside the temple for the use of any and all who might be caught in the rain or snow. . . . One day in the spring of 1649, however, a certain villager borrowed one of the umbrellas and, while he was returning home . . . the umbrella was blown completely out of sight, and though the villager bemoaned its loss, there was not a thing he could do.

Borne aloft by the wind, the umbrella landed finally in the little hamlet of Anazato, far in the mountains of the island of Kyushu. The people of this village had from ancient times been completely cut off from the world and—uncultured folk that they were—had never even seen an umbrella! All the learned men and elders of the village gathered around to discuss the curious object. . . . Finally one local wise man stepped forward and proclaimed . . . , “Though I hesitate to utter that August Name, this is without a doubt the God of the Sun!”

All present were filled with awe. . . . The whole population of    the village went up into the mountains and . . . built a shrine that the deity’s spirit might be transferred hence from Ise. When they had paid reverence to it, the divine spirit did indeed enter the umbrella.

At the time of the summer rains the site upon which the shrine was situated became greatly agitated. . . . When the umbrella was consulted, the following oracle was delivered: “All this summer the sacred hearth has been simply filthy,  with  cockroaches  boiled  in  the holy vessels. . . . Let there not be a single cockroach left alive! I also have one other request. I desire you to select a beautiful young maiden as a consolation offering for me. If this is not done within seven days . . . I will rain you all to death, so that the seed of man remains no more upon the earth!”

Thus spake the oracle.

The villagers were frightened out of their wits. . . . The young maidens, weeping and wailing, strongly protested the umbrella-god’s cruel demand. . . . They cried, “How could we survive even one night with such a god?” for they had come to attach a peculiar significance to the odd shape that the deity had assumed.

At this juncture a young and beautiful widow [said], “Since it is for the god, I will offer myself in place of the young maidens.” All night long the beautiful widow waited in the shrine, but she did not get a bit of affection. Enraged, she charged into the inner sanctum, grasped the divine umbrella firmly in her hands and, screaming, “Worthless deceiver!” she tore it apart, and threw the pieces as far as she could! (Keene 1955, 354–356)

Sex with a serving maid within the home or a boy who was a protégé could be practiced privately anywhere, but the shogun’s government confined sex for purchase to the segregated pleasure districts. Young women far outnumbered young men in legally licensed brothels. To be sure, life for sex workers was not pleasant. Pleasure districts were surrounded by moats and gates, preventing the sex workers from leaving. Girls sold to brothels as very young children led difficult lives, their often elegant clothing and genteel manner merely a part of the performance of sexuality. Sex workers were ranked by their artistic skills and training. The highest-ranked entertainers, called geisha, were, like their Korean counterparts (kisaeng), literate, musically skilled, and witty courtesans. They consorted with men of means, often high-ranking officials and merchants. But like their low-ranking, less skilled sisters in the sex trades, even geisha were indentured to their houses and required to pay off their contracts if they wished to change their profession. Sex workers outside the government-licensed brothels had a much tougher time. The government did not permit unregulated sex work, whether by males or females, so people who engaged in unlicensed sex for hire were arrested if caught. Sadder yet, burial records indicate that the leading cause of death for prostitutes was syphilis. The average age of death for serving girls at roadside post stations, who often engaged in unregulated sex, was twenty-one; those in the licensed sex market suffered similar fates.

And yet, in these crowded areas of sexuality, gender oppression, and artistic license, urban culture flourished. Because so many people found themselves at the mercy of the uncertainties of life and fortune, the   world of the arts and sexuality in the late seventeenth century came to be called the “floating world” (ukiyo), a concept of life’s impermanence familiar to all Japanese from the teachings of Buddhism. Life expectancy, especially for entertainers, was short, and for many people in urban areas, gender, far from being “real” or “natural,” was constituted through performance onstage and in the brothels.

Gender and Farm Families

Gender relations among the overwhelming majority of Japanese who were farmers differed from those of the urbanized samurai and commoners and were far less influenced by Confucian propriety. Farm women’s roles depended on their families’ wealth and on local customs that varied throughout Japan. As in China and Korea, Japanese farm wives, husbands, children, and other members of the family contributed to the family’s well-being (productive work) and continuity (reproductive work). Mothers bore children (reproductive work) but also had the primary responsibility for planting and threshing rice, spinning thread, and sewing clothing (productive work). Japanese fathers took charge of early childhood education and even infant care (reproductive work), and also went out to their fields daily to maintain their farms and, at harvest season, to gather in the grain and other crops (productive work). Children of six or seven years carried their siblings on their backs while playing or attending school, while their parents and their grandparents (if they were still vigorous) worked in the fields. No member of the average farm family could avoid either reproductive or productive work. Some tasks were more likely to be performed by one sex or the other, but if a woman was not available for planting or a man for harvesting, no one sacrificed family welfare and continuity on the altar of sex differences (Uno 1991). Representation in village communal associations—the heart of local governance for the self-regulating farming status—was a different story. Farm women usually took part as representatives of their families only when a suitable male relative was not available, although from time to time a senior member of a family favored a daughter over any of the sons and sent her to village association meetings. Village endogamy (marriage within the village) was the most common practice in early modern Japan, but when young people did migrate to a neighboring village for marriage, it was usually women who did that. Villages generally did not allow “outsiders” to attend meetings of the village’s shrine association, an important sign of inclusion. Women were more likely to be excluded from village leadership because they were “outsiders,” and also because of the villagers’ preferences for male leadership.


In the medieval and early modern periods, farm women planted rice seedlings in straight rows while men prepared the rice paddy. “The Farmer Planting the Rice Sprouts.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, The New York Public Library/NYPL catalog ID: b11818701

[Image In the medieval and early modern periods, farm women planted rice seedlings in straight rows while men prepared the rice paddy. “The Farmer Planting the Rice Sprouts.” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, The New York Public Library/NYPL catalog ID: b11818701]

Rural boys and girls were less likely to attend school than their urban counterparts, but a significant number did gain rudimentary reading skills. Some learned to read at home, while others attended the same kinds of temple schools or small schools run by women that were found in the cities and towns. Many more village boys than girls attended these schools. Most girls also learned household skills from their mothers or the families into which some of them were apprenticed. Starting in early adolescence, girls spent time in village “girls’ rooms,” where more senior girls and young women guided younger girls in practical skills such as sewing and good manners. Girls enjoyed learning skills alongside their female friends and having a chance to socialize at festival time, away from their parents’ eyes, with the “boys’ rooms” in the village. In some areas of Japan, this socializing among teenagers led to romance and marriage. Young people in villages were much freer to choose their own marriage partners. Families esteemed harmony, so a couple’s compatibility and the wife’s ability to get along with her marital family and contribute to its productivity were critical components of a marriage. Divorce was common among farm families when these conditions were not met, and remarriage was not stigmatized. Temple and family documents offer good records of family formation, dissolution, and reformation.

Despite the legal dominance of males as family heads and representatives in village governance, farmers were pragmatic. Samurai families could be dissolved in the absence of a male heir, but farm families could collapse without good men, women, boys, and girls to carry out their functions. Both sexes and all age groups were viewed as necessary. Unlike in samurai families, female infants were welcomed with birth celebrations and feted on particular birthdays, as were their brothers. While infanticide was practiced (illegally) by farm families, girl babies were no more likely than boys to be targeted, as families sought gender balance as well as optimal family size. Widows were not seen as superfluous. Many older women, both widows and those still married, were relieved, after a few decades of backbreaking farm work, to turn over the administration of their households to their daughtersin-law and begin to travel on pilgrimages with other similarly situated women. They could now relax with a cup of tea; the government periodically issued bans on tea drinking by women under forty to make sure they did not sit around unproductively. Because this prohibition was issued so frequently, it is clear that it could not be strictly enforced, but it is an example of the social requirement that young women work hard, leaving relaxation as a reward for senior members of the family (Walthall 1991).


Gender, family, and sexuality were used in the construction and framing of early modern states in China, Korea, and Japan. In each of these cases, Neo-Confucian ideas were used by governing officials to help define the relationship of individuals and families to the state. To varying degrees,   the people of those states adapted to their states’ principles and practices; in some cases, they either passively or actively resisted them.

Marriage, which had earlier been more informal in some cases, was a critical relationship that was increasingly defined by law and customary practices. In China, the cult of chastity limited—though it did not completely eliminate—widow remarriage. In Chosŏn Korea, the matrilocal marriages and female inheritance of earlier centuries gave way to a banning of widow remarriage.  In Japan, remarriage was acceptable after divorce and widowhood. Women’s abilities to choose their own marriage partners and their rights within marriage varied greatly by class status in Japan. In all three countries, a wife’s status relative to her husband was lower among the more elite classes than among farmers. For example, only among upper-class women was adultery punishable by death in Korea. While each of these countries permitted men to have only one primary wife, they all tacitly accepted the practice of men having concubines, or secondary wives. The status of concubines and their children differed significantly among the three countries. In China, itinerant unmarried men were viewed as dangerous “rootless rascals.” In Tokugawa Japan, the shogun controlled the highest feudal lords, the daimyo, by controlling whom they married. Thus, marriage in a variety of forms was seen as critical to the state.

The early modern period was a time of great urban growth in all three countries. This was accompanied by increasing levels of literacy and access to the arts and entertainment by a wider segment of society. Many boys and girls either attended school or were trained at home to read, and their textbooks focused on instilling moral and ethical gender roles as defined by Neo-Confucianism. The urban-based arts were practiced in what was considered a “floating world” in each of these countries. This world included theaters and the commodification of sex. In all three countries, the government sought to contain the sale of sex, which they did by permitting high-status performers—geisha in Japan, kisaeng in Korea, and courtesans in China—while outlawing the unregulated sale of sex (prostitution). Prostitution was, however, practiced everywhere.

Masculinity also varied over time and among social classes. Confucian scholars were concerned about the role of eunuchs in China; samurai gave up being warriors and became bureaucrats during the Tokugawa peace in Japan. Masculine same-sex love was practiced and featured in literature in China and Japan, though much less is known about female same-sex love in the early modern period.




Frader, Laura Levine. 2004. “Gender and Labor in World History.” In A Companion to Gender History, edited by Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. Oxford: Blackwell.

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This text is excerpted from Gender in Modern East Asia: An Integrated History, First Edition by Barbara Molony, Janet Theiss, Hyaeweol Choi. 


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