Mothers, Motherhood, and Maternal Legitimacy in Joseon Korea

Jungwon Kim, Columbia University

This paper revisits women’s shifting socio-familial position through the ritual system of mourning practice in Joseon Korea (1392-1910). In institutionalizing the ritual practice, the early Joseon court adopted the reduced mourning length for the mother which was unique to the Joseon; no such differentiation was found in contemporary Ming China. This stipulation was part of the ongoing debate over the different roles and statuses of a mother (e.g., a son’s real mother, stepmother, foster mother, remarried mother, or expelled mother), reflecting changing perceptions about women’s position that departed from the one held by Goryeo women. Only real mothers (biological mothers, along with stepmothers and foster mothers, who were regarded as real mothers) were mourned for three full years; remarried mothers and expelled mothers were mourned for a year plus three years of mourning with heart (simsang). In Confucian understanding, both one’s remarried mother (kamo) or expelled mother (ch’ulmo) were serious trespassers of the conjugal bond and spousal trust. A remarried mother symbolized an unfaithful woman who had violated the prime female virtue of serving only one husband. An expelled mother had been kicked out of the family for not fulfilling her wifely duties at the order of her husband. For a son to perform proper mourning rituals for one of these mothers therefore meant going against his father’s wish, implicitly reducing the fulfillment of the son’s filial duty toward the father. While Neo-Confucian ritualism based on obligation and discipline has been predominantly understood to be a legitimate measure to silence diverse modes of individual feelings or intimacy in family relations, this paper demonstrates the Joseon ritual system, by allowing sons to mourn for such mothers in heart, still valued one’s affective ties to his biological mother despite the possible conflict between filial propriety and filial emotion.

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 Presented in Session 165. Bringing Women Back into the History of Joseon (Korea) in Comparative Perspective