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Finding Agency in Chosŏn Korea- Buddhist Performing Troupes and Women Writers

During the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910), Neo-Confucian values dominated society and culture. Stemming from Confucian teachings were the principles of filial piety, chastity, and heavenly virtue. To pursue Confucian cohesiveness in society, the Chosŏn dynasty went further than other East Asian states to reform according to these ideas. It was during this creation of one philosophical hegemony that other philosophical schools of thought such as Buddhism were villainized. And social classes besides the elite men, like women, gradually lost some of their privileges according to the new laws.One might then assume that Chosŏn became a homogeneous society, where everyone followed the Confucian values propagated by the government. But this assumption ignores the lives of those who suffered under the values and ideals imposed by the new Confucian policies.

According to Kim Sung Soon’s article “Priests, Entertainers, or Prostitutes: The Three Roles of the Female Performers (Sadang) in Chosŏn Korea,” Buddhist monks in performing troupes faced numerous difficulties as members of a suppressed religion. There were also high expectations for moral and domestic cultivation for women during Chosŏn. Groups such as women and Buddhists faced much ridicule. As Michael J. Pettid and Kil Cha, the translators of The Encyclopedia of Daily Life: A Woman’s Guide to Living in Late-Chosŏn Korea, have pointed out women were expected to follow proper procedure of Confucian teaching and Buddhists were expected to abandon their previous lifestyle. This paper focuses on members of the Chosŏn community who found a way to gain agency and maintain a space for their beliefs despite these challenges.

The foundations of Confucian ideology in early Chosŏn led to the reform of Buddhist monks and their temples. In 1405, a “temple dissolution policy” and the creation of the Monk Registration System led many monks to leave their homes and remain unregistered in an attempt to avoid taxation. The Chosŏn government also shut down many temples and did not allow people to visit them. They also prohibited remaining Bhuddhist monks from settling in towns. This suppression by Confucian elites increased the number of itinerant lay monks (monks who were married or had unshaven heads, here, it refers to monks who did not lead a monastic lifestyle) and eventually led to the creation of communities of traveling performance troupes. These groups continued to garner a lot of negative sentiment from Confucian elites. These Buddhist performers even came to be called “enemies of the people” by the elites for their disregard of Confucian customs (Kim 39-40).

Despite all these obstacles, the fact of the matter was that Buddhist monks and lay monks continued to “propagate Buddhist rituals and beliefs among the general populace” (Kim 40). This continued existence after all the efforts the Chosŏn government made to eliminate them shows their ability to remain relevant in society. After losing their homes and their source of income from the temples, lay monks and female performers (called sadang) began to perform Buddhist chants, music, and dance to the Chosŏn audiences. They also “dressed in Buddhist robes, offered sacrifices to Buddha, and performed ritual dances” (Kim 41). By remaining true to their roots, while also using new ideas to appeal to the public, the Buddhist monks were able to succeed in Chosŏn.

During the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), yangban women (that is women belonging to the highest social status group) enjoyed much more freedom than those who lived in Chosŏn. In this period, women were able to inherit property and they had an easier time divorcing (Chizhova 4). But when Chosŏn society became more strictly patrilineal, many of these freedoms disappeared. Moreover, women were relegated to the inner quarters of society. This meant that they were excluded from public affairs because that was the arena of men. A woman was meant to focus solely on the duties inside a household and focus her attention on the males in her domestic sphere. This is why, in comparison to men, there are much fewer works written by women in Chosŏn (Pettid, Cha 4).

Much like the Buddhist monk’s way of creating a new space for themselves in a reformed society, the women writers of late Chosŏn were able to find their “own space for autonomy and personal growth” (Lee SoonGu 29). Society’s cravings for expression outside of Confucian morals were fulfilled, for example, through such modes as novels written by women. These women writers were able to use their restrictions to the inner quarters as an advantage to a receptive audience: more women. In women’s fictional novels, they write about romantic love from the perspectives of women. This is significant because it differed from the other tales of the day that portrayed the male characters as conquering the objects “of their lust” (Pettid, Cha 13). Through novels such as Unyongjŏn, women were made the main characters of the story and could decide their own fate like the female protagonist in the story who takes an active role in meeting her lover (Pettid, Cha 12). Just by reading these books, women might have earned the ridicule of the men around them (Pettid, Cha 11), but doing so gave them a voice and an outlet when their reality would have looked much different.

Some women used didactic writing to find a voice for themselves and encourage the personal development of other Chosŏn women. In the Kyuhap ch’ongsŏ, Lady Yi compiled everything she learned about household management. She wrote on such topics as medicine, food preparation, and prenatal care. These topics were thought appropriate for women because they were related to the management of the household. She did not forget her place as “a wife of an upper-status male” (Pettid, Cha 31). On the other hand, Lady Yi’s work was itself a mode of expression that reached beyond the inner quarters. As an “avid reader with an excellent memory,” (Pettid, Cha 17) Lady Yi showed throughout her writing an excellent knowledge of classic works including those written in literary Chinese, a language few women, even of yangban status, could read. Her encyclopedias, however, were written in the Korean vernacular, han’gul, a script that was designed to be easier to learn than literary Chinese and was therefore associated with the less-educated, including lower-status individuals and women. By doing so, Lady Yi enabled a wider range of women to access this knowledge, even if she used a script that was often ridiculed by the elite men who used literary Chinese.

Lady Yi was able to create a space for other women to excel in the only sector of life where they were able to have some agency. By providing others with this encyclopedia of the proper ways of behavior, she gave women an opportunity to be recognized and appreciated in a society that ignored them but at the same time, relied on their labor and knowledge.

Both the importance of women's writing and the continuation of Buddhist rituals by lay performers reveal how Confucian hegemony was not as complete as one might believe. Perhaps the best example would be a scene described in Kim Sung Soon’s “Priests, Entertainers, or Prostitutes: The Three Roles of the Female Performers (Sadang) in Chosŏn Korea,” where the Buddhist monks are holding a celebration in which there are Chosŏn elites in attendance. The feast lasted many days with large crowds and lay monks were performing tirelessly (Kim 42). Kim states that the Buddhist monks “appealed to the needs” of the general populace and the elites (42). Not only did the people enjoy the Buddhist performers, but the elites that were meant to despise them participated in their ritual performances. The power of Confucian values on Chosŏn society might not be as strong as it is widely believed to have been. Surely, many subjects felt the strain of Confucian influence, but it did not dictate every aspect of every person’s life. There were still chances for expression and freedom outside of its rules.


Hannah Kaufman (Asian Humanities, UCLA '23), “Finding Agency in Chosŏn Korea- Buddhist Performing Troupes and Women Writers,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024,