The Chosŏn dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, observed Confucian values and principles. Its establishment marked a period of cultural reform, establishing traditions and ideologies that can still be seen in Korea today. This regime’s new vision of Korean society limited the role of Chosŏn women; even so, women were still able to contribute to society on a cultural and intellectual level. For this discussion, I want to bring light surrounding specifically pregnancy through this essay.
Neo-Confucian ideas provided the basis for how society should be run in Chosŏn. Korean society centered around the patrilineal family and its legacy, while Neo-Confucianism laid out sets of rules for each member of the family, especially between father and son, parents-in-law and daughter-in-law. When a woman is married, she would leave her birth family for her husband’s, taking up the responsibility of caring for both her husband and his parents, rather than her own. Ksenia Chizhova, in her book Kinship Novels of Early Modern Korea, describes these relationships within a family revolving around the patriarch, with a distinct gender hierarchy favoring men over women. It was during this period that, elite (yangban) women started to lose the social freedoms they once enjoyed and became enclosed within the spaces of their husband’s family, with their own roles limited to prescribed domestic duties, and slowly eliminated lives to live for themselves.
Chosŏn women were very limited in what they could do compared to men. This mainly applies to yangban women, who were constrained by Confucian rules in ways that their lower-status counterparts were not. Nevertheless, yangban women did have access to culture and knowledge. The women who could read and write created fiction novels filled with romance and fantasy for other women to enjoy. Chosŏn men had a disdain for fiction and claimed it was not in touch with reality. They disparaged these words for being filled with otherwise normal human emotions by men (Chizhova, 5). One yangban woman named Pinghŏgak Yi-ssi, more referred to as Lady Yi even wrote a The Encyclopedia of Daily Life: A Women’s Guide to Living in Late-Chosŏn Korea, a culmination of food recipes, remedies, medicines, essentially tips for women who had access to this book to help them fill their domestic role in society.
The Encyclopedia of Daily Life: A Women’s Guide to Living in Late-Chosŏn Korea served as a handbook for a woman’s everyday life. It was filled with lifestyle suggestions, including recipes for dishes, remedies for common illnesses, as well as care during pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum. These areas of knowledge might appear trivial in a modern context that someone could find easily on a blog. Still, during these times, it was these women’s responsibility as the caretakes of the household. Given the sheer range of things a woman needed to do, it is reasonable that some of these women might not know how to even do anything and perhaps needed some guidance. I suspect this information is particularly useful for newly-wed wives, and first-time mothers, as the section for pregnancy and birth discusses methods and remedies for many different situations that would be helpful to these very women.
In Chosŏn patriarchal society, the favor accorded to men is even visible in pregnancy. There were even practices that were supposed to ensure that a fetus’s gender was a boy. These included practices such as never sleeping in the opposite direction, never sitting on a seat that is not right, never hearing an obscene sound, never cutting food that is not straight or correct in shape, and never speaking unrighteous words (Yi, 136). Some of these seem absurd from a modern view because gender is random with a 50/50 chance of it being a boy or girl. To some, these are unavoidable given their circumstances. However, these were the taboos women needed to observe to ensure they had a boy. This was the responsibility placed upon women in a society where boys were preferred, especially for the yangban elite, whose sons were to inherit their father’s estate and rank, carrying on the patriline, while a daughter would be married off to another family.
There were also many rules about how Chosŏn women were supposed to manage pregnancy. These included common-sense rules such as not wearing too many clothes to avoid overheating, not drinking too much or even at all, not using medicine carelessly, never carrying heaving objects, never laying down for too long, and making sure to walk around (Yi, 136). It is interesting that these practices are still recommended today, meaning that they have been passed down to modern Korean women, and were clearly effective in giving birth to more children. One other piece of advice that was interesting to note is if the one pregnant is a young girl, she should be more diligent in taking care of herself because her health might be weaker than older women who have already given birth (Yi, 137).
Some of the food taboos for pregnant women are related to how a particular food would affect the course of pregnancy and the circumstances of birth. If horse meat or fish without scales is eaten, delivery will exceed the due date, and this makes labor difficult. It even outlines what foods should not be consumed, as they would result in miscarriage. These included pigweed (pirium namul), adlay, and mountain goat. These sorts of taboos persist in the modern world, where pregnant women are recommended to not eat certain foods because they might lead to complications. These include herbal medicine taboos such as wolfsbane tuberous root (Aconitun carmichaelii), wild kudzu, and mercury, all of which I assume are among the medical ingredients that should be avoided during pregnancy (Yi, 137).
There were methods to find out the gender of the fetus, and even methods to turn a female fetus into a male before birth. When a pregnant woman walks facing toward the south, if she turns to her left side when someone calls her, the baby is a boy. If she turns around to her right, the baby is a girl. I found this method interesting because I’ve known about this myth from my own cultures, meaning there just might be some truth to it (Yi, 138). There are different methods in turning a female into a male. Before three months of pregnancy have passed and without the knowledge of others, women dress in their husband’s hat and clothes, go to the well of the house alone around midnight, walk around the well in the left direction three times, and implore “man is yang and woman is yin” (namwiyagnio, yŏwiumira) three times, bend the body to make a reflection of herself in the well, and return to the house without looking back, then she will definitely have a boy. If a pregnant woman hangs a sack of unghwang on her clothes, the yang energy will rise and she will deliver a noble baby (Yi, 139).
T’aesal is described in the Encyclopedia and has many details about its taboos, when and how to avoid them. T’aesal is claimed to be an evil spirit that will harm or kill the fetus. When pregnant, it warns to avoid any place where t’aesal plays around. If a woman is assaulted, that may be with a knife, mud, a stick, this will lead to damage to the fetus in either shape or color, even if the fetus is not miscarried. It outlines the places where t’aesal stays each month, for example in the first lunar month, it stays on the bed in the room, or in the fourth month, it stays in the kitchen. Lady Yi also describes the days of t’aesal, days when the t’aesal stays in the twelve earth branches, and where ghosts play in the room. During these times, and even now, these myths and folklore were heavily expressed in Chŏson society, where evil spirits were dangerous to pregnant women. In my own culture, a woman must avoid cemeteries or places that may contain lingering spirits as they may cause harm to the fetus (Yi, 139-141).
Apart from methods of changing genders and avoiding evil spirits, Lady Yi describes methods of birthing. Useful methods with descriptions of what to do if there happen to be complications with the birthing process and what to do when and after the baby arrives. One method is outlined for a situation where the placenta isn’t coming out. Causing the mother to vomit by feeding her an egg with water and salt will have the placenta come out, which claims to be the most effective method of them all. It also describes that when the baby is newly delivered to not immediately cut off the umbilical cord, instead wrap it in thin blue silk, wrapped around a hand and cutting it with someone’s teeth, ensuring that there are no harmful consequences if the umbilical cord gets too dry by the child’s stomach, becoming too tight (Yi, 142). There are ten important items for raising babies, some of which include keeping the baby’s back, stomach, spleen, and feet warm (Yi, 145).
Even in pregnancy, in Yi’s encyclopedia, she said that for women to be pregnant is to receive the nature of the father and to return back to the father, as it is one of the Three Obediences, holding significance (Yi, 147). The Three Obediences are that a woman should first follow the opinions of her father, then those of her husband after marriage, and finally those of her son after the death of her husband (Yi, 242). To even be a mother, she must hold her father, husband, and son up higher. Motherhood itself is a woman’s connection to her child, regardless of the child’s gender, a humanly and overall loving experience. Yet it still finds a way to go and focus on the patriarchy, which is why many women found it to be their duty to ensure they had a son. It’s unjust to the women who endure these hardships of motherhood, but in the end, their work would be credited back to the father of the child.
In conclusion, this work illustrates what the women of Chosŏn, considered important and worth sharing with other women. That despite their limitations were able to provide women with the help to fulfill their duties in this society. See to it that they thrive in a society that holds them back.