Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women

Underwood p49 Method of IroningAs one might expect, descriptions of Korean women in the writings by Western visitors that I have looked at tend to be completely dominated by the theme of pity. This goes both for the male writers and the two female missionary writings by Underwood and Bishop. Very rarely are women seen as having any power nor do they emerge in the writings as concrete individuals to whom the authors dedicate more than a few lines notice. I’ll mention a few of the important exceptions below.

More than anything, however, these writings emphasize the incredibly oppressive nature of Confucian values and education on the status of women, their slave-like status, and the fact that they are almost completely hidden from view. Underwood and Bishop, both women missionaries who often emphasize their own independence, have the most to say on this. Underwood’s first comment on Korean women is,

“Korean women as a rule are not beautiful. I, who love them as much as any one ever did, who look upon them as my own sisters, must confess this. Sorrow, hopelessness, hard labor, sickness, lovelessness, ignorance, often, too often, shame, have dulled their eyes, and hardened and scarred their faces…” (Underwood 11)

Whereas Underwood clearly connects the “dullness of their eyes” to their unloved and hard working state, Bishop sometimes doesn’t even bother to make this explicit. She often seems to be frustrated at the rude curiosity that women have towards her in the various places she travels and seems exceedingly annoyed at their lack of courtesy as they fumble through her things and try to touch the hair of the mysterious English woman who has visited them.

She occasionally makes such bitter comparisons as, “The women of the lower classes in Korea are ill-bred and unmannerly, far removed from the gracefulness of the same class in Japan or the reticence and kindliness of the Chinese peasant women.” (Bishop 339) Ladd, when expressing his own pity for the state of women in Korea also makes a comparison with Japan, “The hardest crust to break will doubtless be that which encompasses and crushes the Korean lady. In Japan there has never been anything quite comparable to the still present degrading influences bearing upon the womanhood of the upper classes in Korea.” (Ladd 87) Like most things, Itô Hirobumi’s guest Ladd sees almost everything in Korea through the lens of comparison with Japan.

In addition to being hidden away from the world with restricted freedoms and forced into a slavish servitude to their husbands, the commentators I have read almost all seem to see doing laundry and ironing as one of the most central tasks of Korean women, and this is invoked as a symbol of women’s slavery. As Bishop puts it,

“Washing is her manifest destiny so long as her lord wears white….The women are slaves to the laundry, and the only sound which breaks the stillness of the Seoul night is the regular beat of their laundry sticks.” (Bishop 45)

The sound of the laundry sticks at night is mentioned by others as well. I wonder in fact, if anyone has written anything substantial on the issue of the white dress of the Koreans and its importance in contemporary critiques of Korea? Japanese reform movements often attempted to put an end to Koreans wearing white clothes because it is seen as interfering with Koreans’ ability to do hard work. When Gale lists some much “needed reforms” that Yi Pŏmjin asked him to publish in 1898, number 9 is, “The prohibition of white as the ordinary dress.” In writings about women, however, the white dress is primarily seen as an effective way for husbands to keep their wives eternally busy.

In the works considered here, there are a few exceptions to the pitiful descriptions above. Gale emphasizes the fact that mothers and mothers-in-law have considerable power in the home, at least over other household members. This active domestic power is a theme which much contemporary scholarship also emphasizes. Underwood also suggests that women, in the countryside at least, can take charge of their husbands when they misbehave, much thanks to that distinctive mark of Korean manhood:

“It is a great pity men do not wear [a top-knot] in America. We women who favor women’s rights would soon find it a mighty handle by which to secure them, for in the hands of a discerning woman it is indeed an instrument of unlimited possibilities. By one of these well-tied arrangements have I beheld a justly irate wife dragging home her drunken husband from the saloon; and firmly grasping this, I have seen more than one indignant female administering that corporeal punishment which her lord and master no doubtly richly deserved. The Korean wife stands and serves her husband while he eats, she works while he smokes, but when family affairs comes to a certain crisis, she takes the helm (that is to say, the top-knot) in hand, and puts the ship about.” (Underwood 50)

Of course this does little to question the existing order and reminds one of similar descriptions of Western women—they may slave at the stove but, by golly, they can beat their man when he is somehow negligent in his part of that eternal division of labor.

In addition to these kinds of generalizations about women, in which individual women still remain fairly anonymous, some of the authors do have more say. I will briefly discuss three areas where women appear in the writing in somewhat different ways. One is the role of women in Korea’s “dæmonology” as Bishop puts that Shamanistic practices of Korea, and two cases where individual female personalities appear in the writing.


Popular religion and the professional shamans of Korean society make frequent appearances in Bishop and other missionary writings especially. They are overall viewed critically as a form of “dæmonology” where “demons” are called upon as the servant of the summoner or are ordered away. Despite the fact that they are seen as a troubling obstacle to the progress of Christianity in the countryside especially, the practices of the mudang shamans, mostly women, are discussed in considerable detail. Bishop and Gale especially seem interested in the complicated universe of spirits and Korean interpretations of how they influence daily life. While they see these beliefs as vile superstitions, their complexity is never denied and there are attempts to understand the hierarchy of spirits and their various abilities and roles, perhaps trying too hard to impose a rigid and consistent cosmology on what was probably a more varied and diverse set of religious practices.

I want to note two aspects of these descriptions of Korean popular religion. One is the fact that the observers seem very much to appreciate power of female “sorceresses” who have a strong influence on Korean society, even penetrating the secretive family world and creating or resolving chaos between household members. For good or ill, their influence is seen as considerable. The Shaman husbands, on the other hand, are seen as pitiful, idle, and sniveling creatures, greedy for their wife’s considerable earnings.

However, the many religious practices related to helping women give birth to sons, and which may involve consultations with these spiritual interlocutors, are strongly opposed by the observers, and in this way, (shaman) women are seen as complicit in the very system which reduces them to the role of reproductive machines. (see Ladd 138 for example).

The Assasination of Queen Min

Underwood and Bishop knew each other and the two were invited together to an audience with Queen Min. They both seemed very impressed with her, so much that both of them dedicated a chapter to the Queen in their work retelling the events leading up to her October 1895 assassination at the hands of a plot planned by Miura Gorô.

These chapters are interesting in that both of them lament the assassination and believe Japan has made a horrible mistake in allowing such a plot to be carried out by its own officials and troops in Korea, but they both seem to maintain some distance from a powerful female figure who was known for her active involvement in the politics of the time. Their descriptions are one of very few in these writings which not only describe a particular woman in detail but show considerable appreciation for complex aspects of her character.

Debating with Mary Pak

The 1930 book on Korea by H. B. Drake, a writer of supernatural (pulp?) fiction, is not a great source of detailed information about Korean culture but of the books I chose, it is the only one published after Korea was annexed. Drake’s observations tend to be the most superficial of the writings and next to Ladd, the most directly persuaded by Japanese claims about their colonial project and their judgments about Koreans.

Drake’s book, however, does have a remarkable little segment discussing the author’s debate with one Korean woman who he calls “Mary Pak” (he is concealing her real name). Drake appears to be quite smitten by the woman, and has great respect for her debating skills, language abilities, and eloquence. However, he appears to find himself at odds with her on almost every issue.

Mary Pak is an interesting example of the “new woman” of the period. Drake finds her to be too radical in her views about men and marriage for example,

“Marriage would have offered [her] no difficulty, the Easterner, however, Westernized, requiring little more than a woman in the background to order his house and provide him with sons. But for Mary Pak marriage to a Korean was unthinkable, to a foreigner impossible. Which drove her to the emphatic declaration, unnecessarily repetitive, that marriage was slavery. She would never marry; she needed to be free. She was forced to her individualistic creed; she was so absolutely alone.” (Drake 144)

He does seem to admire her stubbornness when it comes to rejecting traditional rituals, however, “Well she has at least achieved independence. For instance, she needn’t kneel to her father on New Year’s Day and knock her head three times upon the floor. And for a Korean girl that is emancipation beyond the flight of dreams.” (Drake 152)

Most of Drake’s disagreements and discussion with Mary, however, surrounds the question of Korea as a colony of Japan. Mary is a strong nationalist and argues passionately for Korean independence. Drake finds her blind and misguided patriotism so frustrating that their discussions finally help him conclude once and for all that the Koreans are simply too irrational and ignorant to take care of themselves. Mary Pak finally put him over the edge:

“I became an ardent champion of imperialism, of strong and ruthless Government, of ‘the white man’s burden,” of the duty of the powerful to rule the weak for their own good.” (Drake 143)

Failed states, corrupt and plagued by domestic violence as they are, become a threat to everyone,

“Left to themselves the Koreans would rot, which would affect not Korea alone but the whole world…No nation, however insignificant, however mean its contribution to mankind, can be allowed to fall into neglect and decay.” (Drake 148)

While Drake can appreciate a people’s desire for self-determination, some peoples are simply not up to the task and he tries in vain to convince Mary that,

“…the fact remains that Japan found Korea in a state of apathetic exhaustion due partly at least, and many will declare entirely, to the misrule of the native Korean Court, and from this apathetic exhaustion Japan is striving, with all her resources of ingenuity and power, to lift the country to the level of a modern nation.” (Drake 146)

We obviously get a good deal of Drake’s own conclusions and the various ways he attempts to convince Mary of the virtues of the Japan’s civilizing efforts. However, it is clear that Mary remains unconvinced and despite Drake’s frustration with her dangerous idealism, he does at least seem to respect her as an intelligent and worthy debate partner.

Continue with the next part in this series:

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part V – The Korean Mind and other Characteristics

Earlier parts in this series:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness


  1. I don’t know if anyone has seen this article or pix before. This article, originally featured in the journal _Korean Culture_ is now available online. It describes a film made in the 1930s by a Canadian businessman in Korea. Interestingly, it is on the Buddhapia website, a newly revamped website on Buddhist within and without Korea, that is itself a nice place to wander for a spell.

    The article itself isn’t earth shattering, but for those of us whose time-machine dreams include visions of early modern Korea. . . . this scratches a particular itch.

  2. Whom it may concern:
    I end up this site for searching missionary Horace Underwood I’s the prayer for Chosun in English version–I have a Korean language one. Recently I encountered with the letter…it touched my heart so deep! I would like to share with my Christian fellows in Philippines, where I am serving as a missionary.
    Hope someone will reply.

  3. I feel like koreans are just being put down in this site. It seems very one sided and propaganda-like. Ideas seem very forced a certain way.

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