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How Women in Chosŏn Korea Legitimized Han'gul

During the Chosŏn Dynasty in Korea (1382-1897), women's roles were drastically redefined by Neo-Confucianism. Women were expected to "display chastity, obedience, and faithfulness," (Seth 79). These values restricted women's behavior to their husband's needs and wants. Additionally, women lost the ability to divorce, remarry or inherit property, rights they possessed previously in the Koryŏ dynasty, and were housed separately from men (in "inner" chambers) (Seth 106). But even during this extremely restrictive time, women were astonishingly able to develop a fruitful female literary culture. In fact, one could argue that Korean women were the ones who legitimized the Korean alphabet, now known as han'gul. The han'gul alphabet, first introduced in 1443, was called ŏnmun (vernacular script) or amgul (women's script), and was considered "vulgar" or inferior to the Chinese script because the latter was used in the government and by elite men, whereas han'gul had more widespread usage across social classes (Kim 46).

One of the first ways Korean women used han'gul was to keep track of their household duties. For example, cookbooks were popularized as among the first books written by women. According to Ro Sang-ho's article, "Cookbooks and Female Writers in Late Chosŏn Korea," the two female authors of Umsik timibang and Kyuhap ch'ongsŏ, both cookbooks written around 1670, transformed the act of cooking from an illiterate to a literate task (Ro 5). By doing so, they encouraged literacy and education among Korean women. However, women used han'gul for more than just cookbooks: they also documented dress sizing and kept track of religious dates (Cho 14). Each of these household uses of han'gul encouraged a more literate female population.

During the previous Koryŏ dynasty, most Korean women were illiterate (Seth 128). However, the availability of cookbooks and the use of writing for household management showed that female literacy was increasing. Women learning to read and write were only taught han'gul because it was much easier to learn to read and write than the classical Chinese taught to the scholar-elite, who were all men (Kim 55). Elite women were especially well-versed in han'gul because they used reading and writing for their household duties. In fact, even before the advent of han'gul, elite women that were literate read Confucian texts in order to learn their filial duties first-hand. Additionally, women in court were expected to write greeting letters, keep household registries, and copy books for the libraries (Cho 13). Interestingly, another great encouraging force for many women to read came through the spread of the Christian religion in the nineteenth century. The "Bible Women," called kwŏnsŏ puin, encouraged multitudes of Korean women to learn han'gul in order to be able to read the Christian Bible for themselves in an effort to convert them (Cho 34).

Because women could now read and write, they also inserted themselves into the legal system of petitions by expressing their wŏn in writing (Kim 6). Expressions of wŏn (suffering) were an important component of any legal case, and because women could now write in han'gul, they also used it when submitting petitions---impressive considering petitions in han'gul were initially not allowed. By inserting han'gul into the legal system, women legitimized it in the eyes of the Korean government and society (Kim 20). In some instances, women would even ask scribes to submit a petition in Chinese script and submit another themselves in han'gul to increase their chances of a favorable verdict. Ultimately, by using han'gul, Korean women altered the existing legal and literary space, elevating the prestige of the han'gul script.

In addition to using han'gul for household duties and legal petitions, some women also wrote for pleasure. Women wrote many letters during this period. Women who wrote could communicate with those outside of their immediate family, a privilege that not everyone enjoyed (Cho 16). One major change elite and other women made to letter writing was completely changing the spatial landscape thereof by introducing spiral letters, a phenomenal contribution that their husbands later copied (Cho 21). Although women generally had their mobility restricted, letter writing provided literate women with a wider range of social interactions (Cho 11).

Women also wrote poems and novels, and were likely the main consumers of novels as well. The most popular kind of poem women composed in han'gul was the sijo, which was adopted both by the elite and women of lower social status (Cho 10). In these poems women often expressed their true feelings of loneliness about living in the inner chambers or the sadness of love (Seth 104). Women liberated both themselves and their script through art forms like letter writing, and the composition of novels and poems.

Korean women during the Chosŏn period legitimized the Korean vernacular script, han'gul. They were so successful in this endeavor that han'gul is still used in North and South Korea today as the official script. In North Korea it is even called "Chosŏn muntcha." The women legitimized the script through its use in cookbooks and household writing, inserted the script into the legal system through petitions, and employed it in art forms such as letter writing, novels, and poems. The use of han'gul provided women with a separate, female outlet. Women began to prioritize their education, increasing literacy rates, and could now access an all-female audience that related to their feelings of loneliness at home.




Lucy Kaff (Physics, UCLA' 24), “How Women in Chosŏn Korea Legitimized Han'gul,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed October 1, 2023,