By Yang Sung-jin
Remaining unmarried is no longer a novelty. Freer lifestyles and economic independence among the younger generation are boosting the number of “voluntary singles.”
Yet centuries-old social custom in favor of marriage has not yet retired to the sidelines. Newly established private dating services and TV programs devoted to blind dates are thriving.
More importantly, a host of industries are anchored by a constant supply of soon-to-be-newlyweds who are more than willing to spend lavishly on their nuptials.
Unlike today’s marriages, which are mingled with commercialization, marriage carried tremendous social and political significance for Choson people.
For instance, those who failed to find a spouse were deemed the most wretched social class in the Choson Kingdom.
The Choson government made systematic efforts to help poor singles to find Mr or Ms Right. It offered subsidies to yangban daughters whose financial situations would otherwise have prevented them from marrying before 30.
The government also punished the heads of families who were rich and yet failed to marry off their daughters.
For the most part, their failure to tie the knot in a timely fashion was for economic reasons. The deaths of parents or festering poverty stood in the way of the happily-ever-after dreams of countless young women.
The yangban class, who made much of their dignity yet had little property to provide for wedding expenses, were thus especially likely to find their offspring unmarried.
Local magistrates and governors sometimes acted as matchmakers. While working as a local magistrate, Lee Chi-ham, widely known for his still popular fortune-telling book, called on the central government to find a spouse for a poverty-stricken 60-year-old bachelor who had spent much of his life fruitlessly searching for a bride.
Curiously, Choson rulers treated the so-called marriage problem quite seriously. They believed unmarried men and women were likely to harm the balance between yin and yang in the universe, thus inviting natural disasters.
Therefore, if a drought continued for an extended period, the government conducted a search of every last village in the kingdom to find those who had failed to get married. The aim was to appease the heavenly forces balancing the positive and negative.
Though this philosophical balance played a part in marriage, there was little equality when it came to married life.
A closer look into the overall marriage system is telling. Officially, Choson authorities espoused monogamy. In practice, age-old double standards were the norm.
For women, it was absolute monogamy. For men, it was absolute polygamy.
While men were allowed to keep concubines, women were banned from remarrying even if their spouses died. Furthermore, divorcees were treated as virtual outcasts.
Choson’s peculiar marriage system cannot be explained without an understanding of the Koryo Kingdom (913-1392).
During the Koryo period, monogamy was the rule for both men and women. Unlike Choson’s discriminatory marriage system, Koryo’s men and women were allowed to divorce and remarry freely.
But Koryo’s relatively well-balanced marriage system underwent a sea change in the kingdom’s latter period, when the social strata began to collapse.
Notable was a sudden imbalance in the ratio of men to women. Years before the Koryo Kingdom disintegrated, the number of women exceeded that of men, leading to the development of new custom by which men accepted other women as concubines.
Koryo’s polygamy was viewed as an affront to the Confucian principles of Choson’s founders.
Choson rulers and officials sharply criticized polygamy, citing the possibility the practice could undermine the hierarchical family order and inheritance system.
In 1413, King Taejong issued a decree banning polygamy, a directive which was widely ignored.
Numerous ways around the decree were immediately popularized by wealthy and powerful yangban men.
The government beefed up the regulations as a warning to those who had several wives. Under the newly minted regulations, those who took more than one wife were subject to a penalty of 90 cudgel strokes and a forced “divorce” from their concubine(s).
Meanwhile, any husband who replaced his legitimate wife with a concubine was subjected to 100 cudgel strokes and his actual spouse was restored to her rightful position.
Despite the government’s determination to drive out polygamy, the ill-practices did not disappear.
At the same time as the government was rolling up its sleeves in an attempt to put the marriage system in order, wedding ceremonies were becoming even more important as an official tool to identify a man’s legitimate wife.
For prospective bridegrooms, authenticating their soon-to-be-wife’s status was critical enough to determine the future course of their lives.
During the Choson period, the wives of yangban class government officials were given titles and property from the government in accordance with the status of their husbands.
But concubines and those who remarried were excluded from the government-led system and their children were banned from taking the state examination, generating social discord.
The underlying problem was that the Choson government ended up officially recognizing the concubine system in the process of “eliminating” polygamy.
In general, the concubine system was designed to perpetuate the pleasure- seeking lifestyles of high-class men.
It was the consensus among the Choson populace that the existence of concubines did more harm than good to society. But men’s desire for concubines never subsided while Choson wives kept mum about this ill-practice for fear of being labeled “jealous women.”
Their long silence was broken only in March of 1899, when a group of women’s rights activists belonging to the first “feminist” civic group, Changyanghoe, tackled the issue publicly.
They placed a large hanging screen in front of Toksu Palace criticizing the social system which sanctioned concubines.
In addition, the group some 50 women’s rights activists sent an appeal to King Kojong, urging him to set an example by returning all the royal concubines to their homes.
They staged daily demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for over a week, waiting for the king to resolve the issue.
Interestingly, rumors spread that foxes who had disguised themselves as housewives were taking up positions in front of the palace every morning. As a result, the spot soon became a gathering place for people hoping to get a look at these foxes-turned-women.
The reason: these Choson-era women’s rights activists had chosen to call themselves “yowuhoe,” the Chinese characters for which mean
female friends group.' Unfortunately for them, in Koreanyowu’ also refers to a fox.