Confucius Talks about the Family – Expressions #9

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Gender Roles

Confucianism in Korea has assigned some interesting gender roles that still pervade the culture in many ways. Here are some more notes about each expression:

#1: Man is the Seed, Woman, the Field

Basically, traditionally, everything belonged to men - and men had all the rights. Even today, a married woman’s name is crossed off her family’s register and transferred to her husband’s. Her children are his. She is his. “A married daughter is no longer your child,” is the common understanding. Confucianism stated that women must obey three masters:
  1. Their fathers
  2. Their husbands
  3. The eldest son (after a husband’s death)
Sons still receive nearly all the inheritance and most daughters don’t argue with it. At holidays, the men drink, smoke, talk, gamble, watch TV, etc to their heart’s content while the women slave away in the kitchen - first at their husband’s family’s home, then at their own family’s home. Family ties:
  • Stepbrothers with the same father = “brothers from different bellies.”
  • Stepbrothers with the same mother = “from different seeds” (not really brothers)
  • Adopting orphans = “different seeds” or “different blood” (adoption in Korea is VERY rare because of this).

#2: Relatives on the wife’s side are at the bottom of the hierarchy

#3: In-laws are considered distant relatives

But Koreans are very careful to track the family trees of the father’s side of the family.

#4: The bossy wife

Traditionally, wives were expected to show unconditional devotion to their husbands. This idea still lives on in many places. At one time, women weren’t even allowed to eat at the same table as the men - they ate separately in the kitchen or on the floor.

#5: The overbearing mother-in-law

Even today, there is often strong tension between a new wife and her female in-laws who generally try to rule over her. Her husband typically isn’t a lot of help in these cases either since it is his own family doing so and he doesn’t distinctly separate his old family values from his new family values like many Westerners do.

#6: The expression for newlywed women

Another traditional expression for her new mother-in-law was “You should break in your new daughter-in-law while she’s still in her rainbow (wedding) dress.”

#7: Possible Reasons for a husband to divorce his wife

Notice wives have no similar checklist.

#8: The widow

It was once a big disgrace for a wife (especially a young one) to outlive her husband. People would say (of her and her children), "a child who grows up without a father lacks discipline and has bad manners."

Do these expressions make it a bit easier to understand the "Family Ties" you witness in Korea?

They sure are eye-opening for me. I'm married to a Korean woman and can see many of these either fully or partially still believed/lived today. Particularly noteworthy is the continuing idea that MAN IS FIRST AND BEST and WOMEN EXIST TO SERVE MEN. These ideas are slowly changing, but it is still interesting to note how often men choose to ignore the advice of their wives; how tongue-in-cheek submissive wives can be; and how everyone tends to ignore the advice of people younger than themselves.

**These expressions are from How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions.For more in-depth explanations, buy the book.

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