Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM
Room 303 (Hynes Convention Center)
One of the most distinctive socio-cultural aspects of late Chosŏn
(1392–1910) was its increasing obsession with women’s chastity, particularly as it became enmeshed with the idea of suicide. The abundance of biographies of virtuous women published during this period elucidates the consciousness of a woman’s absolute commitment to self-sacrifice by death as the epitome of fidelity. While previous scholarship tends to highlight chastity culture as a measure of the extent to which Confucianism had penetrated into the society, this assertion is based on the practices of elite women rather than actual evidence from women of all levels of the social hierarchy. By examining various marital and familial incidents in legal cases where we can access rare voices from the non-elite population, this paper explores how chastity culture became complicated by different aspirations of the state, elite lineages, and ordinary women and men. In particular, it probes into the official postscripts attached to each legal testimony, which consist of a review of the event, the motivations behind it, the punishments appropriate to the crime, and any moral edification the magistrate wished to add. Close examination of these postscripts reveal the Confucian state’s rigid view of female chastity as well as the way in which its judgments were based on social status. Magistrates often ascribed a non-elite woman’s suicide as a case of uncontrolled outrage stemming from her inborn narrow-mindedness or incapacity for moral reasoning. Yet, women in many cases apparently cared about how their deaths would be viewed and used their choice of suicide to restore their integrity, regardless of their social status. Such evidence shows the continuing fissures between official views and popular attitudes, despite the fact that the official discourse on virtue and propriety may have been well understood by ordinary people.
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