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University of Washington

Jackson School of International Studies - Asian Studies General


Bachelor Research Paper

Chinese and South Korean Womens Social Status


Changes after World War II

Xueer Liu 1136406


JSIS A 448
Professor Clark W. Sorenson
June 5th, 2015

Abstract
This research studies the ongoing changes of womens social status in China and South
Korea after World War II. There are both differences and similarities in various aspects on
womens social position between China and South Korea. The post-war era is an important
watershed in the development of international feminism movement. Therefore, this article
aims to analyze and compare changes in political, economical, educational, employment,
marriage and family aspects between the two country after World War II. By comparing the
development and phenomena of womens modern social status, this dissertation intended to
explore the underlying reasons for these changes, the attitudes of the two countries
government and people towards womens social statuss improvement.

Historical Background
China and South Korea both located in East Asia. For a long time, the two country have
impacted and interpenetrated each other in some ways, especially on the profound influence
of Confucianism. Thus, this article first begins with historical background of Chinese and
South Korean womens social status.
(1) Feudal Period of China
During Emperor Han Wudis period (156-87 B.C.) of Han dynasty, minister Dong
Zhongshu proposed to abandon other philosophies and promote only Confucianism. Since
then, Confucianism became the dominant official political ideology of the Chinese imperial
states, and patriarchal system, feudal ethics and rites largely defined the mainstream

discourse on gender in China from the Han dynasty onward1. Among which, patriarchy, act
as core idea in traditional family, set distinct differentiation of men and womens master-slave
roles. As a result, latter feudal laws became powerful tool to oppress feminine rights and
maintain male dominant position.
The three obediences and four virtues, also known as wifely submission and virtue, was
the core of the oriental female culture. Women were born humble, submission and respectful
toward parents, and husband was their living principle, and fertility and serving was the
meaning of their existence. Marriage matches were arranged by parents order and on the
matchmakers word. No matter who your husband is, whether he is good or bad, a girl has no
alternative but to live with the man obediently for the rest of her life. After marriage, women
became belongings of their husbands. Some women were treated as funerary object and was
at husband familys disposal.
Chasity is another quintessence of the oriental female culture that bound and control
women in Confucianism feudal society. The Li Ji (Book of Rites) advocates woman only
married and serve one husband throughout her whole life. Neo-Confucianism of Song
dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) had strong emphasis on females virginity is more important than
life, and widow shall not remarry. During Qing dynasty (1644-1912 C.E.), bounds for female
on marriage came to a peak: widows remarry is shameful, if husband or fiance died, women
should not married for her whole life, or die for maintaining chastity. If a widow remarried,
she could take nothing, a married daughter had no right to inherit anything from her parents
either.

Adler, Joseph A. (Winter 2006). "Daughter/Wife/Mother or Sage/Immortal/Bodhisattva? Women in the Teaching of


Chinese Religions". ASIANetwork Exchange, vol. XIV, no. 2. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
2

Female had totally become a tool of fertility to carry on the family lineage. Husband
were allowed to dispose infertility wife, and it is legal for rich families to get more than one
concubine. Mothers honor increases once she give birth to a boy, and her position in the
family rise as her sons position rises. Womens family status has such close relation with
their fertility, that those who are infertility and gave birth to girls were often turned a cold
shoulder to by husband family, and were often discriminated and insulted by people around
them.
In the feudal system of Imperial China, only sons, especially the eldest son can have
legal qualification of inheritance. Thus women did not have personal property, their dowry
belongs to husband family as well. Law in Ming and Qing dynasty claims that remarried
widows dowry would be handled by previous husbands family.
Educationally, women were not encouraged to study or become literate. They only learn
basic characters that is necessary for daily life. In the feudal society, women without talent or
knowledge would be regarded as virtuous. Family technical skills only pass on to male
instead of female. Women were educated with Confucian ideas including the three
obediences and the four virtues, men are strong and women are weak, and men should
manage external affairs while women should take care of internal family affairs. With these
ideas deep in mind, women consciously become the slave of feudal moral codes and
patriarchal society.
Feudal ethical codes tightly prescribed females behavior, talk, clothing, expression, and
manner. Among those, the most representative and notorious custom is foot-binding. The
custom spread in the Song dynasty and eventually became common among all for a long time

until Qing dynasty. Numerous women lost labor capacity due to this corrupt customs, and had
to endure both physical and mental torment.
Female in feudal imperial China also did not have the right to participate in politics.
Rulers divided the labor and role of male and female distinctively, women participated in
politics would be regarded as shameful. Rulers also restrict womens accessibility with
outside world and social life by forbidding talking, giving or receiving anything from male
outside of her family.
(2) Feudal Period in Korea
The Tangun Myth, story about the first king of Koreans, might be an early watershed of
matriarchal systems collapse and patriarchal systems establishment. It is also the time
period when Confucianism first introduced to Korea.
During Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 C.E.), Emperor Gwangjong created the national civil
service examinations in 958 and it became a systematic and powerful methods for achieving
or maintaining privileged status and good family background. Womens chastity and virtue
ethics started to be widely promoted, though women was able to receive education while they
work on housework and production. As for marriage, though monogamy was still legally
promoted, concubinage was fairly popular among royal nobles. Womens right on divorce
was also highly limited, it was often one-side decision by husbands. Moreover, the right of
inheriting family property, land and slaves belongs to male, female can only inherit when
there was no legal male successor.
Entering Joseon period (1392-1897 C.E.), intensive agricultural society gradually started
to take its shape, Confucianism idea became the mainstream of thought, and sex

differentiation came to a peak. Paternal ancestry centralization and distinctive treatment


toward male and female gave male absolute dominant position. Three obediences became
moral rules that female must follow, they were excluded from politics, they had no status in
lineage inheritance system, their grand child would not be count as member of the original
family, they could never become householder and they did not have right to hold worship
ceremony. Widow should not remarry is another product of formation process of male
dominated system.
During Joseon period, female virtues and chastity ideas were the biggest constraint of
women. Obedience and chastity became the standard evaluation of womens morality. As an
result, women did not sit together with men by the table, hanged out as less as possible, and
talked in extreme careful way. Wives were born for husbands, thus they could not talk with
males who are not close relative, they could not attend any social activity, and they had to
cover their face and head when go out. Transgressor would be punished severely. Women
were also regarded as outsider after they get married, so there was no necessity to educate
them or give them a name. In a word, Joseon women were born for others, they must obey
parents order. The only purpose of marriage is to fulfill family need, personal happiness were
rarely considered.

Political Changes
(1) China after 1949
After the founding of Peoples Republic of China in 1949, socialist system was
established. The new leader of this country, Mao Zedong, gave high appraise on womens

political, economical and social influence, and promoted liberation of women. Mao
demanded on the verge of revolution in 1945 that it ensure freedom of marriage and equality
as between men and women.2 Latter in 1955, President Mao insisted that in order to build a
great socialist society, womens power is needed in productive activity, and women should
receive equal pay for equal work as men in production.3 These exciting quotes largely
encouraged women at that time and help awaken womens self-consciousness.
The Election Law issued in 1953 and the constitution enacted in 1954 claimed that
female owns the same right to vote and to be elected, which clearly legitimate womens right
to participate in politics. In the first National Peoples Congress (NPC) in 1954, 12% of
participated representatives were female. This percentage raised up to 27% in 2005.4
In 1990s, Chinese womens political status increased a lot again, due to governments
goal that by the year 1995, 100% counties and at least 50% of all towns in China should have
female leaders, and increase the percentage of female ministers. In 2001, the percentage of
female cadres in Chinese government took up to 17%. By the year 2005, the percentage
reached up to 29%.5
The reason why Chinese womens political status increased rapidly was largely based on
government policies. Nowadays in China, up to the nations highest governing institution,
down to local village organization, women are participating in various election and practicing
their political rights. Females political status has been improved in all-round way.
(2) South Korea after 1945
2

Chapter 31: Women, The Little Red Book, Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, 1955.
Chapter 31: Women, The Little Red Book, Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, 1955.
4
Li Jinghua & Li Xu, Chinese Womens Status: From Half of the Sky to Strong Women, Xinhua Website, Focus Point
Discussions Column, Feb 20th, 2006.
5
Female Channel:The Percentage of Female Cadres in Central Governmental Departments Continuous Growing, Mar 6th
2006.
3

After liberation in 1945, a female nationalist party that only facing towards female and
represent female rights was established.6 In 1946, four women joined interim government as
constitutional committee members. However, as a whole, womens participation in politics
still depend on male leaders need at that time.
Republic of Korea finally ensured womens political rights in 1948 through the
introduction of the new Constitution Law that assured women's rights, including the right to
vote, to be elected, to undertake official affairs, and to join parties equally with men. Women
was brought into mainstream of politics and gender equalty was officially addressed. After
1973, calls for revising Family Law was increasingly rising, feminist movements were more
and more influential. In addition, the worldwide feminist movement rose during 1960s and
the feminist movement activity held by the United Nation largely encouraged Korean women.
In 1983, an expert institute that direct at womens issue, South Korean Women Development
Institute, was established. South Korea joined the Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1984. In 1988, a female specialty
committee which direct to president was founded, and started to work for improving womens
political status.7
Though South Korea formulated a series of law on promoting gender equality, the result
of these pursuing were not very effective. When looking at the ratio of male and females
electoral participation of each generation of members of congress and the election of
president, the difference is small. However, the number of women working in national

,,: South Korean Women Political Participation after Liberation and its Future Development, Page
119-127, South Korean Women Development Institute and South Korea Culture Press, July, 2001.
7
South Korea Ministry of Legislation, Republic of Korea Fifty Years of Legal System History (Volume 2), Page 1886-1932,
South Korea Ministry of Legislation Press, Nov 1999.
7

authority institution was very small. Up to the fifteenth congress, the scale of female senators
only took up to 15%. Yet among those local senators that elected by citizens directly, female
only take up to 13%.8 Ever since the promotion of men and womens employment equality
law in 1987, the number of female civil servant increased a little. In 2002, female civil
servant were 21% of all servants. Yet female who could participate in upper than 3-levels
important policy decision process were only 13%, those who could participate in upper than
5-level were 19%.
Over time, the South Korean government continued the process of improving women's
political participation. Laws and rules were gradually introduced to address gender equality
in politics. As a whole, the ratio of female in administration positions raised year by year,
however most of them still concentrated in lower positions. This might gradually change
since Park Geun-hye has made history by becoming the first female president of South Korea
in 2013, and she made womens rights one of the cornerstones of her campaign.

Economical Changes
(1) China
After the foundation of the country, Chinese Communist Party implemented gender
equality through encouraging women participate in class revolution and political activities,
while also encourage women actively participate in social production to free themselves. The
implementation of Land Reform Law in 1947 gave women right of land ownership. This
became a chance to subvert traditional feudal patriarchy system and Confucian androcentric

,,, South Korean Women Political Participation after Liberation and its Future Development, Page
228-260, South Korean Women Development Institute and South Korea Culture Press, July, 2001.
8

concept. Private property ownership become a strong weapon for women to fight against
patriarchy.9
When the country was founded in 1949, Chinas urban women employment was six
hundred thousand people, which was only 15% of all employment. After the reform and
opening-up policy in 1978, womens employment reached up to 1.28 million people, which
took up to 32% of all. This number of percentage raised to 43% in 1982, and 49% in 1990.
Nowadays in some big metropolis, female employment are about 50%.10 During this period,
Chinese males accession rate was about 31%, while female was about 73%. This statistic
shows surprising high rate of growth on female employment. In addition, the Labor Law,
which was passed in 1994, states that men and women have equal employment rights and get
same pay with same amount of work, as well as provides women special labor protection,
including ensuring security of labor rights during pregnancy.
With effects from all these above, women labor force devoted over 40% to Chinas GDP
in 2001. Up till 2000, female professionals and technicians reached up to a hundred million
people, which is about 40% of all professionals in the country. Education lead many women
to better career, more specialized work, and even entrepreneurship.
However, female employment problem is still severe in China. According to statistics
from National Federation of Trade Union in 2005, among laid-off workers, there are about
61% female, and only 39% male, which create sharp contrast between the two gender.11
After 2000, female college students also start to face huge employment pressure. Many firms

Wu Chengming & Dong Zhikai, Peoples Republic of China History of Economy (1949-1952), Page 298-307, China
Financial Economic Press, 2001.
10
Sha Jicai edited, Chinese Women Status Study, Page 21, China Population Press, 1998.
11
Pan Jintang, Chinese Females Employment and Social Security during Economic Transformation, World Management,
2002, No.7.
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refuse female workers in disguised forms, like only signing a contract of three to five years,
or employ women only within their golden age and would not renew contract after expiration,
in order to avoid females wedding, pregnancy and perinatal period. All these become great
obstruction on womens employment.
(2) South Korea
At the beginning of 1960s, South Korea began to participate in worlds capitalistic
economic system through product output and intensive labor industrialization. In contrary to
decreasing men participation rate, womens participation rate raised from 28% in 1960, to
49% in 1997. Except the slow increase period in early 1980s, female economic activity
participation rate are always on the increase. For the past ten years, South Korean womens
economic activities gradually start to isolate from family, and start to enter into society to
pursue for self-value. More and more women appear on labor market. The rate of female
wage laborer raised from 12% in 1960 to 49% in 2004.12
Meanwhile, the remain force of traditional patriarchal system is still a restraint on
women entering society. Firstly, some jobs requires more female while some do not. About
99% of nurses and house service worker are female; in manufacturing industries, over 80%
female stays in production department, only 1% can work in specialized professional
department, and no more than 15% female work in management level. Secondly, there is still
big gap in wage differences between men and women. In 2004, female employees income
were only about 59% of males.13 Though South Korea started minimum wage system early
since 1988, womens income are still far less than men, and makes South Korea one of the
12

,,, , Press, Page 268-275, Feb 1999.

13

, Oct 14th,2004.
10

countries that has the biggest income gap between men and women in the world. Thirdly,
getting married and giving birth to baby are the main reason that force women leaving their
job. Although part of women would return to society after their kids become relatively
independent, many of them lost employment competitiveness due to reasons such as aging
and lack of training. These women usually end up with working in temporary occupations,
which caused great waste of human resources. Last but not least, working environment is also
another important element that affect womens participation in social economic activities.
Thus sexual harassment became severe problem when evaluating working environment. In a
male centered culture like South Korea, female have been treated as fertility tool for a long
time in the history. This is the underlying cause of employment inequality between men and
women.

Educational Changes
(1) China
The economic recovery in 1950s, the economic system reform in late 1970s, and the
strategy of revitalizing China through science ad education in 1990s has accelerated Chinas
higher education development and education scale enlargement. In the year 1986, the
Compulsory-education Law was passed in April and stipulate that all children at or over the
age of six has the right to receive compulsory education.14 This is a turning point of Chinas
general education. By the end of 2001, the enrollment rate of female children aged between 7
and 11 raised from 20% in 1949 to 99.01%. At the same time, the increasing number of

14

China Education News Website, Focusing on the Compulsory-education Law.


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regular higher educational institutions as well as increasing enrollment scale play an active
driving role in helping Chinese women to receive higher education. Girls proportion of the
total number of students in higher education institute raised from 17.8% in 1947 to 43.95% in
2003.15
However while big progress has been made, there are still many problems in female
education aspect in China. According to the 2012 China Demographic Census Data, China
still has about 9.4 million illiteracy, among which 49.3% are female. Other than this, China
has 30 million dropout students, and 70% of them are female.16 By the time we are trying to
reduce illiteracy, new illiteracy and dropout student are occurring. In regular higher education,
female are not only lower in rate, but also tend to choose subjects like languages, history, law,
literature, economics and art. Among students who choose scientific or technical subjects,
there are much more male than female. In addition, the rate of female in advanced degree
including master and doctor are far less than male.
(2) South Korea
The South Korean constitution promulgated in 1948 stipulates in Article 31 that
regardless gender, age and family background, all citizens have the right to receive education,
and it is also one of the basic rights of citizens. Ever since the South Korean constitution gave
female equal right of receiving education as male, female education developed rapidly. The
Education Law revised in 1949 set primary school education as compulsory-education, since
then the enrollment rate of both male and female reached 100%. In 2001, the rate of female
students in four-year college was 47%, which is twice over 22.5% in 1980. Also in 2001,

15
16

China Education News Website, Focusing on the Compulsory-education Law.


Demographic Information of China Website, Current Situation of Female Education.
12

there were 70.4% female received higher education, which is also twice over 33.2% in 1990.
Meanwhile, there are 72% female have chance to enter college, which reached the worlds
highest level.
However, in South Korea, professional sex ratio imbalance phenomenon is still a big
challenge. The rate of women in agricultural and technical school is still very low, about
11.4% in 2000 and 12.8% in 2001. This gender difference also occurs in choosing career.
Female with degree in Bachelor or higher find it harder to achieve work opportunity than
male with same level degree. Also during the socialization of production process, ideas that
some jobs are more suitable for female gradually implanted in peoples mind, and thus
influence students a lot while they are choosing major and career. Many women choose to
study specific knowledge and work for female occupation like nurse, teacher and so on. This
lead to a trend of waste of high educated female resources. Moreover, there are clear
difference on parents expectation on boy and girl. Parents usually have less expectation and
lower standard for daughters, which could largely affect females view of life and view of
self-value. Parents education or behavior potentially formed the concept of gender
differences in kids mind when they are still very young, and will lead to negative influence
on females future education.

Changes in Marriage and Family


(1) China
The Marriage Law was passed in 1950, and it became the important legal basis for
women to break the traditional family bondage. The Marriage Law stipulates marriage

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freedom, monogamy, equal rights on both sides, prohibition on money and goods acceptance.
Its implementation revolutionary overthrew the Three Obediences and Four Virtues idea
that had been dominant Chinese ethics for over two thousand years, and largely drove the
awakening of Chinese females awareness of freedom. As female employment rate rapidly
increased after the Reform and Opening-up policy, housework division start to change in
many area in China. Particularly in urban area where female employment has become
common phenomenon, couples sharing housework become fairly popular. As for rural area,
traditional concept of male in charge of external affairs and female takes care of internal
housework also started to shake. Especially when huge amount of rural population has rushed
into urban area for wages job, both male and female labor force in rural area are entering the
job market.
In 1981, the Marriage Law added elders legal rights and interests protection policy and
one-child policy. In 2001, the Marriage Law revised to clarify the property right for both
sides of husband and wife, invalid marriage, and child can follow the surname of either father
or mother. These revising action broke down the traditional ideas like having no male heir is
the biggest offense against filial piety and mothers honor increases when she gives birth to
a son. The concept of sons and daughters are the same gradually gain more and more
popularity among people. Yet there are still some abandoned baby girls happen in remote
rural area. As a whole, the Marriage Law stipulates that male and female have equal right of
inheritance; property gained after marriage are regarded as couples common property, unless
they signed specific agreement, both husband and wife share equal right to dispose; property
gained after marriage would be divided in half to each side when they divorced. This enable

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female to stand on the same status as male in family.


(2) South Korea
The Constitution Law promulgated in 1948 claimed in Paragraph 1 of Article 36 that
marriage and family should be formed and maintained base on ensuring personal dignity and
gender equality, and this will be guaranteed by the nation. There is an emphasis on male and
females equal status in marriage and family life. However, patriarchal system has not been
entirely abolished. In aspect like marriage, divorce, census register and remarry, there were
still many terms that ignore female dignity or against gender equality. As calls for womens
right was increasingly rising, the Family Law finally revised largely in 1990. Based on
gender equality principle in the Constitution Law, female dignity started to be paid much
attention to in family structure, and emphasized forming democratic family life model. The
revision of South Korea Family Law shows improvement of womens legal status.17
New laws gave women right of inheritance, yet married female with child lies behind
unmarried male on inheritance priority. This is actually the legacy of preferring boys to girls
custom. As for full-time housewife, since they do not have economic status, they can hardly
share equal rights with husband in a family. In todays Korea, averagely 70% housework are
still taken care of by female. The common idea that housework is womens duties and
responsibilities, and it is unpaid labor, are still lying deeply in peoples mind, and is the
reason why women are often treated unfairly in workplace. Meanwhile, couples rarely share
responsibility for housework in South Korea.

17

South Korea Ministry of Legislation, Republic of Korea Fifty Years of Legal System History (Volume 1), Page 925-941,
South Korea Ministry of Legislation Press, Nov 1999.
15

Comparison
Politically, it is apparent that both China and South Korea put much effort on improving
female social status and political participation, and it is undoubted that womens status has
increased a lot in both countries. However, policies on female rights in South Korea were not
thorough enough than those in China. Enforcement strength is stronger and cover various
areas in China. Though Chinese society was very turbulent and human rights were corrupted
during ten-year Cultural Revolution, womens participation in social activities were highly
encouraged, and traditional ideology were rejected, thus womens participation were
relatively admitted in Chinese society. After Reform and Opening-up Policy in 1978, women
actively participated in economic activities by entering workplace. Therefore womens right
in China catch up fast and reached a relatively high level within Asia. On the other hand,
South Korean society still commonly believe that womens responsibilities is getting married,
give birth to baby, and take care of parents and housework. New ideology promoted by law
was not commonly accepted in South Korea, thus the implementation of law became a mere
formality. Nowadays, residual traditional thought on females role is the biggest challenge
that bounded female in both China and South Korea. It affect their education, future career
choosing, and awareness of freedom and self-value. Women in both China and South Korea
are still facing discrimination in workplace, South Korea is worse. Many parents-in-law in
South Korea still tend to expect daughter-in-law stay home full time to take care of elders,
kids and housework. Companies are not willing to hire female for long term concerning they
will be leaving work for a long time for pregnancy and their family.
Though there are some traditional ideology left in South Koreans mind, their efficiency

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on popularizing compulsory-education and improving economic growth is very well-known


in East Asia. China has difficulty approaching remote rural area when carrying out new
policies, since traditional ideology and custom are rooted deeply in those area while they are
not exposed to new ideology like urban areas. Therefore illiteracy and dropout students
become big problem in those areas. Fortunately, more and more rural population rushed into
cities to look for higher wage job, people will be facing a more democratic society in urban
area. Also, marriage freedom encourage people to communicate and pursue their own
happiness. Female slowly start to realize they should handle their own life instead of
following traditional ideas.

Conclusion
In conclusion, both China and South Korea putted much effort on improving womens
status through carrying out laws and promoting new ideology. Womens rights in both
countries have large degree of increase, comparing to feudal period in the past, women are
able to receive higher education, participate in politics, pursue personal value in workplace,
and have more protection in marriage. However, gender inequality still exist in nowadays
China and South Korea, and still have large impact on womens life. In many cases, women
have to put more effort than men to gain the same amount of pay, respect and even happiness.
Residual traditional ideology is the biggest challenge for society to pursue gender equality,
and for women to free themselves. Therefore, improving womens own quality, conducting
feasible policy and creating complete social welfare system are effective measures to improve
womens social status in both countries.

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