The tragic fate of Joseon women

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The tragic fate of Joseon women


During the second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, Qing soldiers from China were eager to capture Joseon (Korean) women to keep as concubines or sell for money. When Ganghwa Island fell to the Qing Army in January of 1637, the suffering of Joseon women reached its peak. To avoid the disgrace of getting raped by Qing soldiers, many women chose to commit suicide. In the midst of the chaos, noblemen even urged their mothers, wives and daughters to kill themselves.

Women who survived the Qing’s wrath were taken to Shenyang, where an even harsher fate awaited them. The generals’ wives were jealous of the Joseon women and tortured them with boiling water and other punishments.

Many women were lucky enough to be repatriated to their hometowns after a ransom was paid. But their joy was short-lived because they were stigmatized as spoiled. Married women from the noble class were not allowed to reunite with their husbands. In 1638, the 16th year of King Injo’s reign, two high-ranking officials, Jang Yu and Han I-gyeom, submitted separate appeals to the king asking for divorces for their sons. Jang pleaded with the king to let his son get a divorce because his family could not let his daughter-in-law, who had just returned from captivity in China, prepare food for ancestral memorial services. Han asked the king to stop his son-in-law from remarrying his daughter, who had also just returned from China.

The royal court’s opinion was divided. Some courtiers opposed a divorce, saying that if divorce was permitted in these two cases “no Joseon woman will want to return home, and many will die in a foreign land, resenting their fate.” But others insisted that divorce should be allowed, saying that the vows of marriage were broken because a wife who returned from China would have lost her chastity, even if she was taken against her will.

King Injo initially said that divorce should not be allowed. But support for divorce grew and in June 1638, the courtiers of the Ministry of Justice proposed a compromise. Both sides - those who wanted to be reunited with their husbands and those who wanted to divorce their wives - would be allowed to do as they wished. This ultimately made it legitimate for men of the noble class to repudiate women returning from China. The pain Joseon women had to suffer during the second Manchu invasion did not stop even after the war was over.

*The writer is a professor of history at Myongji University.

By Hahn Myeong-gi
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