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THE KOREAN FAMILY IN TRANSITION

(1995)

 

           The Korean family has undergone many changes since the beginning of the Yi Dynasty (1392) and its concurrent adoption of a radical form of Neo-Confucianism. The institutionalization of Confucianism was affected by a group of conservatives partially for the purpose of purging an opposing faction from their positions of power and also to further strengthen and insure the longevity of their positions in the Yi hierarchy. In so doing, they also seem to have set the stage for their own downfall. Unable to foresee the coming industrial revolution they set up a system so rigid that it would end up trapping their descendants into a constraining Neo-Confucian framework that would lead to a never ending struggle for the survival of each and every family.

          

           Prior to and throughout the Yi Dynasty Korea was an agricultural based society in which the participation of every member of the family was essential to the familys very survival. The harsh conditions and lower (as compared with today) standard of living virtually assured that there was no dead weight among the family members. Larger families were also prized as they provided more manpower to work the land and produce household goods, more descendants were a further benefit as they increased the probability that the parents would be well taken care of in their old age. The families welfare and future was dependent on the land which was, of course, was owned by the male head of the household.

           The industrialization of Korea in the early to middle of the 20th century has slowly reversed many of the characteristics that were so common in Yi Korea. Originally the importance of the mother in the Korean family was to produce several sons to carry on as the head of the household (the high mortality rate required extra sons, in case of death) and other children to help with the family work, or in the case of daughters, to be used to build familial ties with other families. If the mother failed to produce the requisite sons she could be replaced or sons could be obtained though agnatic adoption or through another (second) wife. The modern day Korean mother has a similar responsibility to produce a son (modern medical practices negates the need for an extra) and to insure he will grow up capable of fulfilling his role as the head of the household. This includes overseeing every aspect of his education up until the time he enters a university. She also has the further responsibility of managing the entire household while her husband is working.

           There are those that say the Korean woman of the past had much more power in the family structure than she has today, that she not only controlled the household and raised children, but also contributed directly to the familys prosperity, by helping with production, and indirectly through providing additional workers in the form of children. Although she was essentially replaceable, once she had proven herself as a worthy mother by producing a son she wielded great power both over her husband, her children and her any daughter in laws who came into the sphere of her power. She could be considered to reign supreme in her home.       

           The modern wife faces a similar situation even today, a wife who is barren or unable to produce a son is often condemned by the in laws and in such situations is generally not supported by her husband (blood ties in Korea are still much stronger than those ties created by marriage). The same way that parents support the son during husband-wife conflicts the son will also usually support the parents wishes over the wives should a disagreement occur. This may be related to the mamas boy syndrome which has inundated East Asia and can be traced back to the period after the end of World War II during which Japan became a completely industrialized society (in contrast to a society which has industry but whose economy is not based on it, like Korea in the decades following the end of the war). The advent of an industry based society first in Japan and then in Korea had the effect of shifting the burden of economic support from the entire family to the male head of the family. This shift in the economic burden also tended to move the remaining responsibilities to the mothers, where as in earlier times sons were dependent upon their fathers for guidance from the time they were old enough to work, they are now dependent upon their mothers for the majority of their lives. Modern fathers contribute little to the growth of their children except in the form of economic support, the primary contribution fathers seem to make to their childrens successful attainment of a good position in life is in the form of passing on the family headship to the oldest son or securing them a pre-ordained position in society; all emotional support comes from the mother.   

           Though Koreas particular brand of Neo-Confucianism is the most radical of all the East Asian countries (radically conservative) the current educational and economic situation which contributed to the male head of households role as the sole means of economic support has also pushed the man to the outer fringes of the family, many children know so little about their fathers that they dont even know if they like them or not, they are frequently seen by the children as some automaton-like member of the family who leaves before they do, comes home after they do and sleeps away a  good portion of the weekend. The image of the strong head of the family male figure, as envisioned by the Yi confucianists, has slowly been eroded and now all that remains is a facade. Essentially, what started out to be a group of conservatives looking to cement their power over both the country and the family has turned out to be a bunch of cowboys who have hung themselves with too much rope, they have corralled themselves into their unenviable new roles as the economic pack mules of modern Korea as they slowly work themselves into early graves ( called karoshi in Japan) presumably driven by the hope that their children will have it better than they do.       

          

           From the plight of the Korean men we might assume that Korean women have got it made, that they control all the family power and the men do nothing more than offer financial support. In a sense this is true, with the one exception of the primary economic support, they do have control of all aspects of the family life; they are responsible for all financial decisions (including housing), education of the children, upkeep of the home etc. most of them are even blessed with an abundance of free time in which to pursue their personal interests. Indeed they do seem to have great personal freedom, but it is not true freedom! Their freedoms are limited by the restraints inherent in their positions as Korean mothers.        

           Generally considered by men to be little more than fancy accessories, Korean women do not prove their worth, and hence gain power in the family until the time when they produce children; especially a male child. Upon the completion of the marriage ceremony the Korean wife is locked into a yoke of restrictions which will be with her until all her daughters are successfully married off and her sons have graduated from college. In her new role as the overseer of  the running of the family she has become too valuable a commodity to allow any misfortune to come her way, in the past the woman was essentially replaceable but the modern role makes her nothing short of irreplaceable. Where the man provides only economic support and the family could survive (with difficulty) without him, the mother nurtures the children and provides intangible things which the father could not duplicate in the event of the loss of the mother; the man, in short, is expendable. This has led to the overprotection of the Korean mother; they are coddled, kept from dangerous situations, prohibited from engaging in many activities which the man, or his family, see as counterproductive to her ability to nurture  the family and generally denied some basic freedoms. All this institutionalized responsibility heaped on the back of the mother in Korean families has served to enslave her; much in the same way that the men are imprisoned by their economic responsibilities, the mothers too are trapped and must eventually overcome these institutions if they ever hope to attain their liberation.

 

           Though the tides have changed from the time of the Yi Dynasty and the responsibilities for the familys progress have shifted both in nature and in their position it would indeed seem that while trying to improve their familys lot in life the modern Korean family has become imprisoned by its desire to succeed. This is not to say that things are not better, the modern Korean mother seems to have considerably more freedom than her ancestors did; as for the father, though the quantity of work may have stayed the same the quality of living has certainly improved. One thing that hasnt changed is the feeling of constant struggle that permeates the Korean family as they constantly battle to improve their position amongst their peers. Korea has suffered under numerous invasions, annexation and hard economic times, in the past and it was this sense of a need to struggle in order to survive which originally cemented the structure of the nuclear Korean family into the extreme case which we can see today. This survival instinct has gone a long way towards the preservation of countless family lines but it has been an impediment to the cause of Korean nationalism. Even today it contributes heavily to the decay of many of the nations institutions as virtually any form of deceit or fraud can be justified if one is doing it for the betterment of the family.