Women lived their lives being excluded from the outer realms readily available to their male counterpart during Joseon Dynasty. Their existence was recorded in the history with respect to their natal families or their husbands, and the records were mostly focused on the royal ladies and noble women. This was mainly due to the historians at that time being closely related to the upper class and they had little to no interaction with the lower class citizens. Although they were not as rich as the aristocrats, commoners and the humble births were the main contributors to Joseon’s economy as they were larger in number compared to the yangban. Women of the lower class in Joseon also played important parts in shaping the dynasty to become the Joseon we know today.
Below the royal family and the aristocrats called yangban, there were several social classes, ranging from the middle class people to the lowest class citizens of the nation. They made occasional appearance in the records but the mentions of these people were mainly included when they committed either great deeds or heinous crimes. Little facts were known and if they did exist, they were from the novels penned by the commoners and the paintings drawn by the painters with deep interests in the people, such as the famous Shin Yun-bok.
Jungin (중인) or the middle class people did not flourish in the Joseon Dynasty until later and women in this circle were the wives and the daughters of the lower level government officers who were involved in various technical jobs. Interpreters, accountants, astronomers, physicians, artisans, craftsmen calligraphers, musicians, jurists, and local magistrates were some of the examples of middle class people’s jobs. Although they were considered lower in status compared to yangban, their lifestyle was more or less the same with that of the nobles. Marriage between different social classes was rare but women from this social class would be chosen to become brides to yangban men occasionally. One of the things these middle class people hated was to be treated like commoners by yangban.
The social class which constituted to the majority of the Joseon citizens was the commoners or sangmin (상민). Since most of the commoners were farmers, the women were also involved in the farming activities and they would go to help out their male relatives who were working on the field. Besides that, they also had to do the housework, take care of the children, and weave cotton to be made into clothes. The women of the commoners’ class led a busy life centered on their families. Besides farming the grains for food, they also farmed cotton to be harvested and spun into clothes for daily use. Cotton was a highly sought commodity and it could be used as a form of currency in daily trade at the market and also to pay taxes. Weaving other types of fabrics such as silk, hemp, and ramie, also provided a source of income for these women. Since commoners were the largest contributor to the nation’s tax, it could not be denied that the wives of the commoners also played an important part in supplying income for the tax.
Commoners were resourceful when it came to finding means of earning and the women were creative to support their families. Besides cultivating their own crops, they would pick wild vegetables to be sold at the market. Some of them also sell their home-cooked food such as rice cakes to other people. In ancient Jeju Island or Tamra, the women were the breadwinners of their families by working as divers. These female divers of the island, known as haenyeo (해녀), went to the sea to collect various sea products, such as abalone, shellfish, and seaweed. While they were busy in the sea, their husbands took over the task of taking care of the children, but that did not mean these women neglected their domestic tasks. Their catch was offered as tributes to the central government and when they were not diving, the female divers would tend to their fields, working hard to support their families.
At the bottom of the commoner’s class was the merchants, sangin (상인). Although they were wealthy, these traders were viewed as materialistic. In the traditional four classes of society, they were at the bottom of the list: Sa Nong Gong Sang, 사농공상 (士農工商) – scholars or aristocrats (seonbi), farmers (nongbu), artisans (gongjang), and traders (sangin). Peddlers, traders, and merchants were looked down upon by the aristocrats since their act of selling things which were not their own and raking the profits to themselves were deemed greedy and vulgar.
Amidst the stigma against the tradesmen, a female trader emerged and made a name for herself. Merchant Kim Man-deok, native to Jeju Island, were born from a relationship between an aristocrat and a female diver. She was made a gisaeng but managed to free herself from the life of a courtesan based on her noble status on her father’s side. She then became a merchant and became successful trader, thanks to the wide connection she had when she was a courtesan. Although she was the richest woman at that time, she sold most of her assets and donated her wealth to Jeju’s people when the island was struck with famine. Her great contribution reached King Jeongjo’s ears and she was going to be rewarded handsomely, but she only asked for permission to travel to Hanyang and Mount Geumgang, as people from Jeju were not allowed to leave the island at that time.
The humble born and the inferior births, cheonmin (천민) or the vulgar commoners, were at the lowest social status of Joseon’s citizens. Although they were often ridiculed and received no respect from the noblemen, these people played an important part in assisting the so-called aristocrats. Without them, the yangban would have a difficult time conducting their daily lives and business. In fact, those of humble born were actually in frequent contacts with the nobles despite the big social gap between them.
Cheonmin were made up people from variety of jobs: the vulgar jobs such as slaves, courtesans, and entertainers; those who believed in religions other than Neo-Confucianism such as shamans and Buddhist monks; and the people who were associated with death such as executioners, butchers, tanners, shoemakers, bier carriers, and grave diggers. Thus, the eight lowest class of Joseon of Joseon shidae palcheon (조선시대 팔천) were: slaves, entertainers, shamans, butchers, monks and nuns, courtesans, pall-bearers, and blacksmiths.
They were probably the most popular members of the lowest class in Joseon. Gisaeng (기생), also Romanized as kisaeng, was known by various names, for instance ginyeo (기녀). They were the entertainers, courtesans, and hostesses of Joseon Dynasty. Gisaeng usually lived in the courtesan’s house or gibang (기방), where they would spend their lives undergoing the training and serving their guests until they reached the age where they would be deemed unfit to continue their service as a gisaeng. Apart from the usual training conducted at the gibang, training schools known as gyobang (교방) were also the hubs throughout the country for the gisaeng to receive their education before they could be declared competent to become full-fledged courtesans. These training institutes would be more prominent towards the latter years of Joseon Dynasty.
Once in every three years, a number of girls would be formally selected from the daughters of the courtesans, the young girls who were sold into slavery, and the daughters of fallen yangban who were sold to the gibang. The chosen girls had to be of decent beauty and possessed adequate intelligence since they would be taught to read and write. They were between six to ten years old when they started the training. The candidates were sorted according to the skills or specialization and assigned to various places, ranging from the palaces to provincial offices. They would be taught about etiquette, poetry, music, and dance, thus they were more educated compared to the ordinary women during that era. As their job required them to spend most of the time with the noblemen, gisaeng had to equip themselves with sufficient skills to be outstanding courtesans.
Among the job itself, there were three classes of gisaeng. Ilpae (일패) were the most prestigious with outstanding skills, giving them the chance to perform for high ranking officials and join important events while ipae (이패) were gisaeng of 30 years old or older who could only perform at private gatherings. Sampae (삼패) were the lowest ranking gisaeng who could only perform in small occasions. Sampae gisaeng were prohibited from performing the dance or any other performance reserved for the upper classes since they were frequented by the middle class and commoners. They were often forced to provide bed services like their wandering counterpart sadangpae.
Gisaeng could be divided into three groups: gyeonggi (경기) – those who belonged to the capital government in Hanyang or modern day Seoul; gwangi (관기) – the courtesans who belonged to local offices who were also known as provincial courtesans or hyanggi (향기); and yeonggi (영기) – gisaeng belonged to military. Gyeonggi had the chance to be absorbed into the team of court entertainers. These entertainers, known as seonsanggi (선상기), were specifically trained for court ceremonies. The courtesans’ names would be recorded in a gisaeng registry since they were technically the government slaves and their activities were monitored by hojang (호장), a headman in the local office where the record of occupations were kept. However, there were privately owned gisaeng who had their own patrons and most of them ended up as the noblemen’s concubines.
When they reached a certain age, gisaeng would have to retire from their posts unless they had outstanding skills and most of them would end up operating the taverns or local inns known as jumak (주막). The retiring courtesans had to bring in their daughters or their female relatives in order to take over their vacant places. Gisaeng with talents would be allowed to learn basic medicine skills and practiced their skills as uinyeo. They were also known as yakbang gisaeng (약방 기생) and they would work in the public clinics or hyeminseo (혜민서).
Although being declared as government slaves, they had the privilege to wear silk and adorn themselves with ornaments, something which only women of the higher class could experience in that era. Outgoing and bold, they were free to express themselves through every medium possible – from music to literature – unlike the restrained yangban women who had to stay loyal and virtuous. They were envied by every woman, yet they became the trendsetter for the era. For instance, the usage of wig or gache was popularized by the gisaeng and it became a sign of status among the yangban women until it was banned by King Jeongjo. But then, the gisaeng were not affected by the ban and they continued to use the wig.
Besides serving the local gibang, gisaeng could be invited to public events and royal banquets to entertain the guests. They were appreciated for their beauty and talents and they managed to make themselves known to the whole nation through their own abilities, Take Hwang Jin-yi for example, who was well-versed in music and sijo poetry; and Maechang, who was a famous poet. Gisaeng was different from prostitutes, in the sense that they provided service with their acquired skills in art while it was different for the latter and the law dictated that they didn’t have to provide intimate services to their customers; but then, the law was unable to protect the pitiful gisaeng who were often forced into submitting themselves to the men, especially those with influence and power. They were powerless and defenseless, plus with their low status, they had no other choice.
Gisaeng flourished during Yeonsangun’s reign. Large number of the courtesans was recruited to become court entertainers and most of the nation’s assets and taxes were spent on the courtesans by the king’s order. There were talks and suggestions to abolish the system but it was maintained in order to keep the peace and order of the society; without these courtesans, the elite men might resort to other means such as assaulting the noble women to satisfy their needs. At one time, it was permitted for gisaeng to have husbands of their own, often coming from lower class like their own status. These husbands, known as gibu (기부) or gidungseobang (기둥서방), acted as protectors of their gisaeng wives, but they were also managers of the courtesans’ activities. Their roles would be the same as pimps nowadays, since they lived on their wives’ income.
The street entertainers or performers, known as changwoo (창우), were on the same level as gisaeng, the had low social standing but they are favoured by the upper class citizens such as the royals, elites, officers, and rich patrons. These performers started out as entertainers on the street and they would conduct a big show during market days. They were also known as sadangpae (사당패) or sadangpa (사당파). The male performers or namsadang (남사당) were believed to be originated from the young Buddhist monks, who put their martial arts skills into usage by conducting performances outdoor. Some of the acts were acrobatics, tightrope walking, mask dance, and puppet shows. These young monks were often called flower boys since they possessed great talents and had youthful figures.
The performances branched into different types of art, performed by different types of members in the group: gwangdae (광대) were those who focused on theatrical acts such as mask dance and storytelling in the form of pansori; jaein (재인) excelled in acrobatic acts like tightrope-walking, pole climbing, and tumbling; mudong (무동) were those mastering in various dances, for example monk dance or seungmu (승무), sword dance or geommu (검무), and exorcism dance or salpuri (살푸리); and goin (고인) were the musicians playing instrumental music, usually accompanying the dances and acts. Female street entertainers or sadang (사당) were often forced to provide intimate services to the commoners as part time jobs. This was done to cover their traveling expenses as well as their daily needs such as food and clothing. The performers with private patrons had better lives, though the women would suffer when their patrons asked for more than entertainment.
Despite the bad treatment they received from the noblemen, these entertainers played an important part in exorcisms and harvest rites, where they would perform various dances. They were also invited to ceremonies and festivities as a source of entertainment. Some of the acts such as pansori were favoured by the aristocrats and it evolved into a form of indoor entertainment.
Although their numbers dwindled throughout the dynasty, slaves were still the majority in the lowest class. There were several instances how the slaves or nobi (노비) fell into the status; either hereditary, offense, debts, money, bankruptcy, abandonment, and war prisoners. Children of the slaves who inherited either one or both parents’ status were the most common occurrence for one to become a slave. There were also people who were demoted from their high status as punishment for crimes, such as having family members charged with treason. In severe cases, the male members of such family would be executed while the women would become slaves. As for the commoners, they could turn into slaves in the case of debts and bankruptcy, especially among the farmers when they failed to pay their land lease on time. This situation could also lead to the commoners selling themselves as slaves in order to pay their debts. Children who were abandoned also became slaves since there was no method to determine the children’s real status. Prisoners of war were rare occurrence during Joseon Dynasty and it was only common during Goryeo Dynasty.
Various laws had been dictated regarding the slaves who inherited the status from their parents. Marriage between the slaves themselves was common but the inter-class marriage between slaves and commoners was also gaining popularity. During Goryeo Dynasty, in order to reduce the growing number of commoners, any children of the marriage between a slave and a commoner would become slaves as one of their parents. This law was known as Ilcheonjukcheon (일천즉천). A new problem arose in the beginning of Joseon era, where the number of slaves was far beyond that of the commoners. Since the marriage between male commoners and female slaves were widespread, King Taejong passed a law: Jongbubeop (종부법), dictating that the children from the inter-class marriage would follow the status of the father’s side.
King Sejong then made another law during his reign: Jongmobeop (종모법), stating that the children would follow the mother’s status. King Sejo further expanded the law and included in the Gyeongguk Daejeon (경국대전) or National Code, the law that declared any of the slave’s children as slaves, bringing back Ilcheonjukcheon which was used during Goryeo Dynasty. Although they were aimed to solve the population issues, the two laws also caused several problems regarding their possession, especially when the slaves from two different masters got married. Their children would automatically inherit their parents’ status, but they would have to follow their mothers according to jongmobeop. In order to maintain their number of slaves, the owners of male slaves would encourage marriage with the female commoners so that the children would become their slaves. This was because Ilcheonjukcheon or the hereditary law overrode Jongmobeop or the mother lineage law in the issue.
Slaves could be divided into two big groups, namely gongnobi (공노비) and sanobi (사노비). Gongnobi were the slaves owned by the government, while sanobi were the privately owned slaves, usually belonging to the governing class or sadaebu. Both groups of slaves had two types: live-in slaves and outside slaves.
Seonsang nobi (선상 노비) were specifically chosen to work in the palace and government offices. Also known as ibyeok nobi (입역 노비- meaning live-in?) and gwanbi (관비- meaning local office’s slaves), these slaves did the chores and sometimes assisted the government officers in menial tasks while receiving small salary from their job. The reason for this type of slaves was to supply enough manpower to carry out various duties at the central, as well as the local government offices. The slaves were also allowed to do part-time jobs, such as becoming farmers, craftsmen, and artisans. As for napgong nobi (납공 노비), they lived a completely different life compared to seonsang nobi, working as government slaves on the state lands as farmers. They usually stayed in the countryside, unlike gwanbi who stayed in the vicinity of the government offices.
Solgeo nobi (솔거 노비)were the privately owned slaves, whose names were included in their owner’s family register and lived together with their master. They were the family’s maidservants as well as slaves doing odd chores. They often received little or no respect from their masters although they were loyal. Not all private slaves worked in the household of their masters and there were oegeo nobi (외거 노비). Their job scope was similar to that of napgong nobi, in the sense that they lived separately from their owners and worked on the land as farmers, but they only worked on their owners’ land. The number of this type of slaves was higher compared to the live-in private slaves and they had more freedom compared to their maidservants’ counterpart. They also got more chance to accumulate their own wealth, but they still had the obligation as someone’s slaves.
The slaves were also referred to according to their tasks. Some of the known types of slaves during Joseon Dynasty were:
- Gokbi (곡비) – Female slaves paid by the head mourners of the yangban family to cry and sing mournful songs during funeral as dirge singers.
- Banggi (방기) – Female slaves who were used as courtesans when the gisaeng was short in number.
- Mujayi (무자이) – Water maid or the servants whose job was to draw water from wells. Also known as mul damsari (물 담사리).
- Ddong damsari (똥 담사리) – The slaves who cleaned the filth.
- Chwibi (취비) – The servants who prepared the rice.
- Chanmo (찬모) – The servants who prepared the side dishes.
- Chimmo (침모) – The servants who did the needlework.
- Yumo (유모) – Wet nurses who were paid well since they took care of the family’s young masters and ladies.
- Anjamjagi (안잠자기) – Attendants of the young maidens of the family, waiting and protecting them as maidservants
- Munanbi (문안비) – The servants who greeted the visitors at the entrance, similar to gatekeepers.
- Suno/ ganno (수노/간노) – The servant who managed the household’s slaves and could be regarded as the house’s butler.
There was a job that was well-known despite the fact that the people who worked in the fiend was of low status. Damo (다모) or the low ranking female detectives, were originally female slaves in the local government offices who were assigned to make tea for the officers. They played bigger roles later, acting as secret detectives and assisting the police officers to inspect the women and their quarters during investigations. There were special requirements for those who wanted to become a damo at one time, such as specific height (five cheok, about 1.52 meters) and weight (five mal, about 40 kg), plus the ability to drink three bowls of makgulli in one shot. They could be regarded as Joseon’s policewomen.
The female slaves mostly lived a hard life since they were treated like things which could be bought and sold. Selling female slaves to courtesan house was a common practice, especially for the women who came from the fallen families since they were sought out for their beauty and literary talents. Some would be sent away as gifts and the helpless slaves could end up being forced to sleep with their masters. Just like their male counterpart, female slaves during Joseon Dynasty experienced almost the same fate, with the harsh treatment received from people above them.
The illegitimate children born out of the relationship were considered lowborn due to the mothers’ status. If the female slaves were lucky, they could end up as concubines, but it was so rare since having a slave as a concubine would be a disgrace to the nobleman. If they did become one, their status was much lower than the primary wives. Children of the concubines did not really have that many privileges and eolja (얼자), the sons of aristocrats with the vulgar commoners (including slaves and courtesans), had little to no chance of career advancement in their lives, except when they were formally adopted into the noble families. That was not a guarantee for them to lead a comfortable life since their blood was seen as tainted with the low status of their mothers. Daughters from the relationship between nobleman and his concubines were not deemed suitable to become primary wives and they had to undergo the same fate as their mothers. Children born out of wedlock would face social discretion and would never get the same treatment as the children of the primary wives despite the noble blood running through them.
The children of the slaves had to submit to the fate that they were born to parents who were slaves; hence they had to inherit the low status and continue to serve either the government or their lords. The slaves could buy their freedom by paying sufficient amount of money to retrieve their slave contract, but the price was often so high that they could not afford to buy their freedom themselves. While most of the slaves lived their entire lives obeying their masters, some of them ran away to escape the hardships and even created gangs known as geomgye (검계) to fight for the slaves’ rights. These slaves were also involved in rebellions and seek protection in the mountains to avoid being captured by the authorities. The number of slaves was more than that of yangban at one time, but the number dwindled throughout the years due to various reasons: escapes and even status forgeries, which become widespread towards the late Joseon Dynasty.
Shaman was commonly known as mudang (무당) and female shamans were called munyeo (무녀). They conducted rites to appease various gods and deities, besides serving as mediators between the gods and the humans. After the founding of Joseon Dynasty, shamanism was considered impure and the shamans were prohibited to live in the capital, preventing them to associate with the public. Occasionally, they were required to attend rites such as praying ceremonies together with the Buddhist monks. They also worked at the public clinic or hyeminseo to heal patients but they could face punishment if they failed to do so; however, success would allow them to be exempted from tax. Although the practice of shamanism was prohibited, the royal ladies themselves often called the female shamans into the palace to conduct prayers for the king’s health or blessings. The female shamans also got involved with the conflicts in the royal palace, for example the infamous case of Lady Jang Hui-bin’s curse.
Since the women were more willing to seek for shamans in times of need, female shamans extended their influence and contributed to the diminishing number of male shamans. The noble women often turned into shamans to ask various things, such as praying for relief of sickness or success for their family members in examination, leading to the shamans being known as fortunetellers or jeomsulin (점술인). Talismans and good luck charms were also popular among the women and shamans were the main providers aside from the Buddhist monks.
Buddhism was held high during Goryeo Dynasty’s reign, but Neo-Confucianism took over the role of being the nation’s philosophy. The change led into lands used for temples and monasteries, including their assets, being taken over by the government. They were relegated to the lowest social class and it was only permitted for the monks to build the monasteries and practice their religion deep in the mountains in order to separate them from people. They were even prohibited to come to the capital, just like shamans. Most of the nuns and monks were treated badly and monks were often absorbed into military services and it was not easy to become one: they had to undergo an examination – a step to reduce their numbers – but still forced to do odd jobs fit for servants, such as bearing carriages for noblemen and becoming labourers. Although men of Joseon Dynasty were more into Neo-Confucianism, the women still carried on the practice of Buddhism, such as praying and visiting the temples. It was a way for them to seek for Inner peace and soothe their souls amidst the restricted lives in the patriarchal society of Joseon. Royal women also supported Buddhism since most of them are Buddhists and there were several conflicts between them and the government officers, since the officers believed that no other religion should exist in a Confucian state like Joseon. Despite the strong objection, the royal women continued to exercise their power in the matter, with some of the kings also showing interests in the religion.
Apart from the groups stated above, there were other types of vulgar commoners, such as pall-bearers, butchers, blacksmiths, boatmen, and horsemen, just to name a few. Since these were mostly the men’s jobs, I’ll just provide a short description of their work here. pall-bearers or sangyeokkun (상여꾼) were those men who would carry the coffins during funeral and they were considered unclean since their job was associated with the dead, same with the grave diggers and jail keepers. Baekjeong (백정) could be translated as butchers but their scope of work was actually wider, involving any kind of activities associated with the animal remains, like butchers, tanners, and even shoemakers. They were frowned upon since their job required them to kill animals and this belief could be traced back during Goryeo Dynasty that upheld Buddhism. Although they used to be an isolated group, they came to be grouped together with the slaves and others under the vulgar commoners. Gongjang (공장) was roughly translated as manufacturers but it was actually used to refer to the people who were involved in metal work, similar to today’s blacksmith. This was also considered an unclean job. Horsemen or mabu (마부) and boatmen or baetsagong (뱃사공) were pretty self-explanatory and they were known to be male.
Phew, finally I managed to finish the post! I know that it is nowhere near perfect but I hope that this can be a starting point for those who are interested to know more about the women living in Joseon. Although these people were only portrayed as supporting characters in dramas, they lead colourful lives, each of them with their own stories to be told. It was not easy to dig up the information about them but each description about them is as precious as their lives. Even though women in that era were not as active as their male counterparts, they still made a difference in the lives of their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, sons, and even grandsons with their contributions. Without these women as the grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, granddaughters, and even lovers, the history would be incomplete. Thus, they could be regarded as contributors to the longevity of the 500-year dynasty.