Maiden Korea: modern women learn old manners
One day I got up and found myself fed up with being an impetuous and brash female reporter. I wanted to become ladylike and coquettish. To me, it appeared as if it were my demure friends who seemed to be marrying well and living successful lives. Perhaps they all secretly went to etiquette school and didn’t tell me about it. I thought that maybe being a feminist is all about being feminine. So I mustered enough courage to register at Yejiwon.
Founded in 1974, Yejiwon is the oldest institution in Korea that teaches modern and traditional etiquette to prospective brides, married woman, or unattached single women like yours truly. There are three-month courses in the spring and fall, and one-month crash course in the summer and winter. This “bridal preparation” program is called “Gyusu Class” (meaning “maiden,” or “accomplished lady”). There are other programs offered by Yejiwon for adults (married women) and for school children ranging from modern etiquette, ceremonial tea-making and traditional manners, among others throughout the year. But it’s the Gyusu Class that the institute is famous for.
On the fifth day in September, about 20 or so young women sat nervously in a classroom, dressed in formal suits or dresses, with impeccable make-up, and poised like true ladies. There was one girl in jeans that day, who seemed very out of place and agitated. She never came back to the class again. The founder and director of Yejiwon, Kang Young-sook, gave the first lecture, which was about what it means to be a well-mannered, elegant lady in this day and age. She discussed topics such as how to address elders and dating, saying that one should shake of at least three attempts by a man trying to hold a damsel’s hand.
“And you must only kiss a man who courts you only after he proposes marriage,” Ms. Kang said. “You must not be so easy to give your heart to a man.” I could hear giggles coming from the back, and I had a difficult time struggling to hold back my laughter. Talk about being anachronistic.
But there was something endearing about these old-fashioned dating tips. It seemed to hark back to bygone days that I read about in history books or in Victorian novels. Outmoded and antiquated these “dating tips” might be, the novelty of it all gripped me. Being prim and proper sounded almost comical, but it was fascinating at the same time. Yejiwon’s first lesson was, “A woman should act like a woman, be feminine and maternal at the same time,” ― a maxim that would be reiterated throughout the program.
Classes were held three times a week, for three hours every morning. The subjects included marriage and family relations, cooking (making traditional pastries and kimchi), table decorations, manners and etiquette, interior design, dress and make-up techniques, flower arrangements, needlework and most importantly, traditional manners, in which students put on hanbok (Korean dress) and learned numerous bows for different occasions. Constantly having to get up and sit down to bow was physically stifling, and I couldn’t help being glad that I was born in the 20th century and not during the Joseon Dynasty.
There were sessions on how to choose a perfect wedding dress, honeymoon locations and wallpaper for the newlywed’s home. But it was the 10 or so hanbok wearing sessions that were the most difficult. It felt like I was wearing a tight corset all day long, and some students even had dizzy spells from having to bow so many times.
The lecturers came from all walks of life: university professors teaching about healthy eating habits and lifestyles, a jeweler from Gangnam teaching about how to tell the difference between fake and real pearls, a former model teaching us how to walk like a lady (with a good measure of confidence), a woman gynecologist teaching us about post-marital birth control (premarital sex was not spoken of; virtually regarded as taboo), and Yejiwon’s own in-house lecturers who taught the simple things of running a household, such as, “Never talk back to your mother-in-law, for the sake of keeping peace in the house.” My favorite tip on being a smart wife was, “Don’t prepare a Korean-style breakfast for your husband, because it’s too burdersome for women. Train your husband to appreciate an easy-to-make western-style breakfast such as cereal and toast.”
There were three married women in our class, while the average student age was about 28. The youngest was a 23-year-old, who had married just three weeks before the start of the program; The oldest was a 34-year-old single woman still in search of a soul mate. This writer was no exception to searching, but was glad to find that about a third of the class was also single, unattached and preparing to be a bride in case one ran into one’s future husband on the subway. Their professions ranged from a former flight attendant to an employee at Samsung, graduate school students, and even women who had never worked. Most came at the behest of their mothers, some came at the recommendations of their friends and others came voluntarily, in hope that the program would revamp their image.
“I found the program most useful,” said Kim Seung-hwa, one of the students. “The teachers are very passionate and I’ve learned so much about preparing for marital life.” Ms. Kim comes from a family of three brothers and said the lectures on traditional manners were most informative, which she could not possibly have learned at home. Chang Yoon-sun said, “We do learn useful tips on preparing for married life, but the classes are a bit too perfunctory. We don’t delve into details.” Some complained that the course was suited for women in the 1970s or 80s, some found the teachers hilarious in the way they seem to emphasize “ladylike” qualities, while others said the program was too long and should be shortened.
A friend of mine said that she considered Yejiwon to be a place where a woman is dissuaded from becoming independent-minded. I beg to differ. Learning about traditional tea-making, how to wear a hanbok, designing one’s home and even needlework does not equate to losing one’s Girl Power. It’s about being knowledgeable and in control of what’s inevitable for those who choose to get married. The traditional values and etiquette that are taught at Yejiwon also enable us to inform others about our heritage and culture. Yejiwon does not tell us that a woman’s place is always in the home. To me, the simple wisdom is that a “Yeji” (meaning “wisdom of manners”) woman should behave like a woman of virtue, adored by all, and simply be in control.
A life spent instructing women in real virtues
Kang Young-sook has been Yejiwon’s director since she founded the institution in 1974. The earliest program consisted of a one-month program on traditional manners taught to the wives of government ministers and high officials.
A former broadcasting journalist at MBC, Ms. Kang founded Yejiwon with the former First Lady Yook Young-soo, the wife of the late president Park Chung Hee, as an institute to educate modern women about moral teachings and traditional etiquette.
Tragically, a North Korean infiltrator assassinated the first lady just a month before Yejiwon opened, but the institute evolved into the nation’s oldest and most renowned ettiquette school for women.
“In the 1970s, we were at the point of rapid economic development, and our society’s morals were falling apart. Adultery, materialism became commonplace, and it was in these changing times that I felt we needed to reeducate women on traditional virtues,” Ms. Kang said. “We started with the women in high places in society, for there is a saying in Korea that ‘good water must trickle down from top to bottom’.”
Ms. Kang was also instrumental in reviving the traditional tea making ceremony (Dado), which had been shunned during the Confucian Joseon era, by teaching tea making courses at Yejiwon.
“Subjects have changed to accommodate changing times, but the fundamental virtues do not change,” Ms. Kang said. “They include traditional ceremonies at weddings, manners for when dealing with elders, and that women should be in charge of the household and raising children ― these are timeless.”
by Choi Jie-ho