Three Questions About Western Historiography and Korea

Living Dangerously coverAnother excerpt from Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea, and two three questions:

Given the speed of change in modern Korea, it takes some mental effort to recall the conditions of diet, health, housing, education, and living standards that prevailed in Korea at the time of liberation. In the 1930s, for example, life expectancy was thirty-six years for men and thirty-eight years for women. Women were treated like chattel by their own relatives. They had little autonomy or even identity of their own. They were known as so-and-so’s mother or daughter or wife and their given names were so seldom used that their family members, and sometimes the women themselves, could not remember what they were…

Now, the questions:

1. Is this business about names accurate? I do know for a fact that women born in the 1930s and 1940s were sometimes (often) given names that translate as “Disappointment” or “Boy-Next.” (섭섭 and 후남, respectively: these examples are taken two geriatric patients treated by a doctor I know.) But those women’s names were known, right?

But I also know that not a few South Korean women today get referred to by all kinds of other titles than their names most of the time: during my wife’s nephew’s visit over the last few weeks, I heard her called “Imo” (auntie) and I was called “Imo-bu” (auntie’s husband) much more than I was called my name. More than a few of our kid students’ moms called themselves, on their KakaoTalk accounts, as so-and-so’s mother, and one presumes they do this willingly. (Mrs. Jiwaku tells me it’s not really inconceivable that a housewife and mother who doesn’t work outside the house might in fact go for weeks at a time being called nothing but “Mom” or “Wife” or “Honey,” but I’d wager that some stay-at-home parents everywhere experience this.)

So, is the use or non-use of names really a viable metric for oppression? And did Korean women really go for so long never hearing their own names that they actually forgot them? Does the Korean housewife today who signs up for a social network under the handle “Jeongseok’s Mom” really have “little identity of her own” in the way Clark seems to suggest–that is, as a result of implacable, dehumanizing misogyny?

2. What does this suggest about “The Rectification of Names”?

My experience in Korea suggests that Koreans use labels a lot.

People are addressed with titles based on the minutiae of their family relationships. They are often called by job titles in a professional context. Likewise, Koreans seem more comfortable or expectant of visual labeling, in the form of uniforms. Even yogurt sellers wear them, … and plenty of young adult Koreans find it almost distressing to see a young Korean not dressed in a school uniform. “Students should look like students,” is the saw.

Of course, that sounds a lot like the Confucian concept of The Rectification of Names: the idea that a given thing or person ought to conform to its official label. A father should behave as a father, a royal subject as a royal subject, a wife as a wife, a king as a king. It doesn’t take a genius to see the potential for some serious repression of women, children, royal subjects, and so on. But does the “Rectification of Names” really work more effectively as a means of ideologically blocking peasant revolts?

I’m not sure. My readings in Korean history suggest that, inter-state warfare aside, it wasn’t like China, where practically 50% of the time, throughout its history, there was a peasant uprising going on somewhere within its borders. In the late Joseon Dynasty there were a series of peasant (And presumably slave) uprisings, but from what I’ve read, they were not that common through the majority of Korean history. Internecine warfare, yes, but not peasant revolts.  (I could be wrong, or could have read histories that skewed the narrative toward a picture of stability, though.)

Ultimately, though, it’s hard to narrow things down to one particular cultural feature as the stabilizing influence. I’ve also read that shamanic religion provided a lot of pressure-valve-like functions in pre-modern Korea: that the trance possession and elements of that religious substructure–like the ecstatic hysterias of certain Protestant religions and other “possession” cults–gave people an outlet for the frustrations and rages of suppression, oppression, poverty, and rage. Who can say whether Confucian ideology played a bigger role than the consolations of shamanism?

(I mean, surely someone can say something about it, but how definitively, and with what support, I’d like to know.)

3. What does “treated like chattel” mean?

Clark doesn’t provide a link, though one imagines he sees the body of expatriate memoirs as general evidence of a kind. It’s important to remember, though, that chattel slavery did exist in late Joseon Korea, and was even practiced, under the table, some ways into the Japanese occupation–I’ve read that it went on in some places even as late as the 1930s. How much can we separate classism from misogyny, for example, given that slaves (people “treated like chattel”) were also seen as members of an inferior class?

Even clarifying “chattel” to mean “personal property” doesn’t much help either: in what ways were women treated like personal property?  I’ve read that girl children were bought and sold sometimes, but the context doesn’t seem to be primarily about discussing this? And how different is that, really, than what went on in the European countryside or the Old West in what is approximately (if not exactly) the same time period?

Not that I dispute Clark’s claim, necessarily, or mean to bash a book that manages to be insightful and fascinating at certain points–especially the points when the focus isn’t missionaries–but it’s just that one wishes he’d bothered to get into a little more detail with his claims.

2 thoughts on “Three Questions About Western Historiography and Korea

  1. Also, that business about life expectancy… I’m sure the author realizes that most people who survived infancy would have made it at least to their fifties? (I say fifties because of the custom of Hwangap Janchi, but I’m wondering if even that was all that uncommon). To know that and then to say the average life expectancy was only into the thirties in that way is, though not a lie, rather irresponsible on the author’s part. But oh well, that’s one sentence among many.

    I do know that in the Confucian family registers, or Jokbo, women’s names are not noted, just that a daughter from such and such family married into such and such other family. Perhaps that was what he was referring to?

    1. Good catch! Or, at least, it raises a lot more questions that didn’t even occur to me. Is that counting all the infant mortality into the average rate? I’d have thought that those would have been excluded from the average, given that at least a fair bit of the time the names wouldn’t actually even be recorded. (And not just in Korea, though the institutional insistence on recording every birth seems to kick in later, as part of modernization.)

      I mean, I’ve actually met people who had names like “Dog Shit” for the first few years of their lives (because unappealing names ward off death), and whose “official” birth date is a couple of years later than the real one… but that makes me wonder just how faithfully people reported stillbirths and infants that died in their first six months or year or so. I would imagine there are only very spotty records of infant mortality rates for anyone outside the highest echelon of Korean society. (Though of course guesstimates are likely possible, going by global averages and going by popular accounts and so on.) It’s possible he’s not counting the infant mortalities; it’s possible he’s counting the average lifespan only of people who made it past that first hurdle. Or maybe he’s just using the sense of “average” most people have in their heads, which is to say, “Most people lived to about this age.” I have no idea, though I’d hope a professor at Trinity University isn’t just flubbing in the way you suggest. I’d hope, but… well, I have no idea. I’m curious, but not quite curious enough to email him… not about this, anyway.

      (And as for trying to find more on infant mortality rates in the 1930s, I can’t find much online, though this article on Koreans’ height and living standards in the 1930s and 1980s is tantalizing… not that I can access it!)

      All this makes me suddenly makes me curious whether infanticide of female children happened, and with what frequency. (Given the things I’ve heard about sex-selection via abortion (and even the legislation regarding its prevention) I can’t help but feel like it must have happened at least occasionally, probably in families where one more mouth to feed, and a female one at that, was just not deemed feasible. But I suppose that wouldn’t have been tracked in any great detail in the 1930s, either.)

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