Aug 5, 2020 in Analysis

Women of the Joseon Dynasty

People are familiar with men from the Joseon Dynasty particularly the famous figures and kings since their names are recorded in annals of Joseon Dynasty. However, less is known about women in that era. The women lived according to their husband’s ranks and in other circumstances the social statuses relied on the line of the job such as entertainers or court ladies. A woman's life during Joseon Dynasty took a different turn because the nation adapted to neo-Confucianism that changed the state into a patriarchal society which focused on men. Even though women of the Joseon Dynasty dwelled in a controlled partial system, some of them managed to create their names known to the entire nation and are remembered till today. Women were not offered the chance to hold government posts, and they were not permitted to interact freely with the men outside the family circle. Thus, they wielded the power in their rights and revealed their contribution in developing a nation. Neo-Confucians referred hard work refrain from bad behavior, purity and politeness as valuable and desirable human qualities. It was significant that every individual understood their standing in the community and behaved accordingly. The Korean community placed utmost significance on hierarchy between younger, and older individuals stressed family values, keeping of harmony and order and the inferior social status of women.


According to Youngmin Kim, East Asian women in particular and Korean women Confucianism have been used as dominant group and term of analysis. Most interpretation of the East Asian women supported, attempted, or presupposed to prove they were victims of Confucianism that the interpreter took to be a powerful political ideology in the pre-modern East Asia. It is also evident in The Servant 2010 Confucianism not only deprived women of their primary right but emphasized a strict social structure which was not conducive for the recognition of women’s dignity and talent.  While keeping such concerns, the chapters of the volumes tried to define clearly particular situations and spaces where women would realize the degree of empowerment through employing few aspects of Confucianism. Young Kim claims that Confucianism was rendered almost coextensive with the notion of patriarchy. In The Servant, Chun-Hyang is coached by her mother to marry into money. Thus, she lets herself to be courted and later bedded by Mong-ryeong. She uses Confucianism to her advantage because all that matters to her are wealth.


Status of Gisaeng Daughter in Joseon

Throughout the Joseon and Goryeo periods, gisaeng held the status of cheonmin which was the least in the society. They shared the status with entertainers as well as slaves and butchers. The status was hereditary, so the children in the gisaeng were of cheonmin rank and the daughters automatically became gisaeng. In The Servant 2010, Chun-Hyang is a gisaeng. She usually lived in a courtesan's house, and she would spend most of her time serving guest and training. Apart from usual training conducted at the gibing, there also hubs all over the country for gisaeng to receive their education before they would be declared competent to be full fledge courtesans. The training institutes would be more famous towards the later years of Joseon Dynasty. They had to undergo training to ensure they will meet the needs of the rich men in the parties.

After every three years, a few girls could be formally chosen from the daughter of courtesans. They were sold to slavery and daughter of fallen yangban would be sold to gibing. As in the film, The Servant 2010, the selected girls had to possess adequate intelligence and decent beauty since they could be taught to write and read. Chun-Hyang was very beautiful, and that is why his master fell in love with her. Moreover, the candidates were classified according to specialization and skills assigned to a different place, starting from the palaces to provincial offices. Here they would be taught about music, poetry, dance, and etiquette. As a result, The Servant 2010 shows that they were more educated compared to ordinary women of that period. Most of their time was spent with noble men and gisaeng had to furnish them with enough expertise to be exceptional courtesans. Chun-Hyang spent time with the magistrate because he was trained to meet his needs. Her position in the society mainly relied on her back ground. Even though she denied to 

After reaching a certain age, gisaeng could retire from their position unless having outstanding skills and many of them would end up working in local inns or taverns. In The Servant 2010, one sees that Chun-hyang’s mother recruited her to take her place and taught her to be manipulative especially when money is involved. Therefore, the retiring courtesans have to bring their female relatives or daughters to take over the vacant places. Gisaeng with talents could be permitted to learn primary medicine skills and work in public clinics.

Since the government declared them slaves, they had the opportunity to wear silk and decorate themselves with ornaments. These are things that only women in the higher class would experience during that time. Besides serving local gibing, gisaeng would be invited to royal bouquets and public events to amuse the guests. In the film, The Servant 2010, Chun-hyang has the duty to entertain the guests. Additionally, gisaeng were different from prostitutes, in a sense that they offered services with their obtained skills in art whereas it was different compared to the latter. Consequently, the law dictated that they did not have to offer intimate services to the clients. However, the law could not defend the pitiful gisaeng who were forced to submit themselves to men particularly those with power and influence. They were defenseless and powerless, and their low statuses leave them with any other choice. 

In The Servant 2010, the magistrate is seen in the back room trying to sexually excite Chun-hyang since Mong-ryong told him that she could fulfil his desires and bow to his wishes if he was violent to her. As a result, Bangja tries to cause a commotion to make the magistrate release her although is saved from been beaten by guards when Mong-ryong appears with large contingent of guards. Therefore, Mong-ryong seizes the magistrate and has Chun-hyang whipped for insolence until Bangja impedes stating she is married, and she opts to remain faithful.  As a result, Chun-Hyang pierces herself with a small blade telling Mong-long she wants news about her death to be taken to Master Lee.

Radical Feminism 

The concepts of sex class and patriarchy are chief ideas in a link to the understanding of the position of women and experience in Korean society. In The Servant 2010, Chun-Hyang clearly reveals the position of women in the society. She falls in loves with the master and later falls for the servant. Additionally, patriarchy has existed in every known human society and it pre-dates the capitalist forms of gender inequality. The patriarchal associations are deemed to have paved way for the capitalist forms of gender and exploitations. Moreover, sexual inequality is institutionalized in the society. Thus, it is impossible to attain sexual fairness by legal means or by altering the attitude of people. The magistrate tries to exploit Chun-hyang sexually even after she denies because she is from a poor background.

Here, men are also seen as the enemy of women. The latter is seen as a sex class since they share a general interest in freeing themselves from the male oppression. The women of the Joseon Dynasty must follow what men in the Korean society claim. The universal cause of patriarchy is considered to be the misuse of female biology to men. The marriage-based families link in which the men are left to control the behavior of the woman. In The Popular Culture in the Late Choson Era, the capital-based theory societies of late 19th and 18th century reflected the sentiment.

The rights and roles of women were mainly reduced and compared to the previous period in Korean history. The yangban women were mostly hidden from the world, and all the women had to be conventional to the Confucian ideals of obedience, faithfulness, chastity, and purity. In The Servant 2010, we see how Chun-Hyang followed what men told her without denying. As a result, women are subjects of male dominated during their lives. They had the duty to listen to their father-in-law, firstborn sons, husbands, and fathers. Additionally, the homes were divided into female and male quarters to separate both sexes.

Chun-hyang’s Depiction as a Feminist

In the film, The Servant (2010), Kim Dae-Woo depicts Chun-Hyang as a feminist through the role that she assumes in the romantic drama. Although women in the Joseon Dynasty were regarded as inferior to the men, the director of the film seeks a different outcome though Chun-hyang's character. Particularly, she is presented as a lady who makes difficult choices to keep herself valuable and does not submit to the sexual desires of the magistrates who looks down upon her because she is a lady. Also, the magistrate is under the impression that she will give in easily because she is gisaeng. Unfortunately for him, Chun-hyang stands her ground and does not give in to his demands. The magistrate imprisons Chun-hyang because she is defiant to him but she does not give up her dignity. In fact, Bangja seeks help from his former master to help rescue the woman he loves. Fortunately, Mong-ryong interferes as the magistrate tries to defile her violently. The ordeal ends when Bangja tells his former master that Chun-hyang was defiant to the magistrate's demands because she is faithful to her husband. Her firm stand against the abuse of a man in power is a clear indication of her feminist side. Besides, Kim Dae-Woo successfully passes the message to the viewers that it is possible to remain firm in your decision despite the traditions or the challenges that one may face. Chun-hyang's bravery and refusal are the utmost illustrations of feminism in this scene.

Secondly, Chun-hyang’s defiance to submit to men because she is a gisaeng illustrates feminism in a way of breaking from traditions and beliefs. As noted earlier, gisaeng were the people in the lowest class during this era. As a result, they endured everything they were subjected to without question or contrary opinion. She breaks from the beliefs of Confucius and affirms her desires to be viewed differently. Her courage and bravery against the magistrate is an illustration of her commitment to acquire equality for women in society. The art of inequality in society is often associated with our forefathers, the traditional beliefs, and practices. The first step in feminism is detaching oneself from such beliefs or practices. These norms are used as elements of unclear hurdles against the need for equality. Hence, the initiative by Chun-hyang not to pour drinks for the magistrate as well as the refusal to be associated with the roles of a gisaeng is one of the greatest steps towards fighting for equality. More importantly, it is a break from the ties of traditional beliefs and practices that often hold people hostage of the societal expectations, which are not always fair. Hence, one must be willing to break ties with aspects of the society that only pull one backward if he or she wants to fight for feminism. 

Additionally, Chun-hyang’s bravery is illustrated when she stabs herself with a small blade as part of her strategy with Bangja. She instructs him to spread the news of her “death” to his master (Mong-ryong). This act of shedding her blood to fight for what she believes is the truthfully hers and other women in society is a further illustration of feminism. She is not afraid to take risks to ensure that her voice is heard. Unlike the traditional Joseon women who would be afraid of the men and hence play by their rules, she is courageous to take the initiative that would set her free to live her life as she wanted. This act of selflessness is an initiative towards ensuring she does not end up with a man who disrespects and disregards her. Although it was deceitful, it was a strategy to get away from Mong-ryong. Besides, she was brave enough to face her consequences when he found out that they had been planning this with Bangja behind his back. She did not fear being thrown over the waterfall, neither did she fear standing up to him nor to tell him she would not leave Bangja. In all these instances, her acts of bravery are illustrations of the lengths she was willing to go to fight for her rights, and hence, feminism.

Notably, Chun-hyang is caught in a thin line between two men who are in different social classes. Going by the teachings from her mother as a gisaeng, it would have been obvious that she would have chosen Mong-ryong because he had money, and he was the master. However, she chose true love and ended up with Bangja, the servant. She was not afraid of the threats from his master that instead went to all odds of ensuring that she secured her relationship with Bangja. In the end, she openly told the master that she would not leave Bangja behind. This revelation was despite knowing that it could lead to dire consequences. Her firm stand for what she wanted and believed to be fair is the pure illustration of a feminist who would not give up the fight for the same.

Overall, Kim Dae-Woo’s depiction of Chun-hyang as a feminist is a lesson to the viewers. She is passing on the message that we are not tied to traditions or societal expectations especially in cases where they are unfair. She poses the possibilities of breaking the norms of society in pursuit of one’s happiness and freedom. In essence, it is a lesson to the viewers to learn the importance of bravery and courage when the purpose is to attain the set goals. Chun-hyang is a true depiction of feminism that all women should be willing to uphold and attain utmost equality in society.


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