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«Matrifocality in Korean Society: Hindrance or help towards gender equality? HYUN-KEY KIM HOGARTH The Royal Anthropological Institute ABSTRACT ...»

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Matrifocality in Korean Society:

Hindrance or help towards gender equality?


The Royal Anthropological Institute


Matrifocality, which literally means ‘mother-centeredness’, should not be confused with

matriarchy or matriliny. Matrifocality usually occurs in societies where man folk are

absent for various reasons and women have to fulfil the double role of mother and breadwinner of the family unit. However, I would argue that it existed in patriarchal Confucian-orientated Korean society even in the pre-modern age, and that it has gained strength in ever-changing but persistently male-dominant contemporary South Korean society.

The ideology of namjonyŏbi (honoured man, subservient woman), derived from the Confucian cosmology, still permeates in most sectors of Korean society. Despite the much improved women’s status in recent years in terms of legal rights, the traditional concept of male superiority is a long way from being eradicated, but analyses of the past records and contemporary case studies suggest that matrifocality in Korean society is not a paradoxical figment of feminist imagination.

Will matrifocality in the Korean family structure help or hinder in achieving gender equality in Korean society? It can be said to be a double-edged sword. While it is an ideology that restricts women from political participation and public activities, confining them to the domestic circle, it is underpinned by respect for women, which may help restore a higher social position once held by them.


The mother figure has always been important in Korean society: the ideal womanhood is defined as hyǒnmo yangch’ǒ (wise mother and good wife) in Korea, which originated in Japan where ‘good wife’ precedes ‘wise mother’ (Pae 2007, 169). The reason for the reversal of the word order is that traditionally to the Korean woman being a mother is more important than being a wife, which testifies to the strong presence of matrifocality in Korean society (Pae Ibid.). Even during the Confucian orientated patriarchal Chosŏn dynasty, when women’s subordination to men was sanctioned by the prevailing cosmology, paradoxically matrifocality was clearly present in the family structure. It has been further strengthened by the recent economic development and social changes (Pae 2007, 167-171).

Matrifocality, which generally refers to the mother-centred form of family, should be distinguished from matriarchy or matriliny. Since matrifocality per se is not a kinship system in the usual structural sense as matriarchy, it can be found within a variety of kinship types. It occurs in families in which the role of the mother is structurally and culturally central and this centrality is legitimate.

With the introduction and subsequent establishment of Neo-Confucianism in Korean society from the 14th century, the Korean people’s everyday life has been strictly guided by Confucian ideology. Ancestor worship playing the pivotal role in society, filial piety has been considered a prime human virtue (Yi Nŭnghwa 1926/1990, 484; Lee Kwangkyu 1975; Choe Chaesŏk 1982 ; Pae 2007, 161 & 164). Since filial piety does not distinguish between male and female parents, a woman’s power was largely derived from her sons.

This paper discusses how Korean women maintained the central position in their family mainly through their sons’ filial piety under Confucianism. It examines the current situation of the position of the mother in the family through domestic economic structure and other important issues, such as the children’s education. It then attempts to analyze the effects of matrifocality in gender equality, in light of the changing women’s position in society, the shifting male and female roles, and the marriage pattern in contemporary Korean society.


The term ‘matrifocality’ was first coined by Smith (1956) to refer to the black family structure in British Guiana. Since then matrifocal families have been identified in diverse societies ranging from urban England (Bott 1957), Java (Geertz 1961), the poorer sections of Naples (Parsons 1969) to African American communities (Smith 1973). However, matrifocality per se is not a kinship system, since it can occur in a variety of kinship types.

It is therefore important to distinguish matrifocality from matriarchy or matriliny.

According to the Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology (1986), it refers to ‘mother-centred family forms which are usually defined by the absence or weak roles of the father and the corresponding emphases on the female role in the domestic group.’ It is therefore sometimes taken to refer to the family in which the husband/father is absent, incapacitated and/or un/underemployed, such as the black families in the Caribbean countries, and the economically underprivileged African Americans (Stack 1974). The matrifocal family often carries negative connotations (Tanner 1974) owing to the implications that females become family heads through the necessities which are beyond their control.

This definition is problematic, however, since it does not take into account the division of the male and female spheres, and the roles that they play in a particular domain. In societies, where there is a clear demarcation between the spheres of male and female, the mother’s role in domestic sphere is usually much stronger than that of the husband/father. In these mainly patrilineal societies, men have jural and economic power in the public sphere, but wield little influence in the domestic sphere, which includes housekeeping and childrearing. I would argue that ‘matrifocality’ can exist in this type of situation through analysis of the Confucian family structure.

Matrifocality should not necessarily be defined in terms of a dysfunctional family or a temporary state. It can be found in a variety of socio-economic contexts, and can also be said to be an integral part of an overtly patriarchal society. However, some generalities can be drawn despite variations in socio-economic settings in which it occurs.

According to my definition, in the matrifocal family the mother has authority, influence, responsibilities and solidarity of the domestic group, as well as their affection and loyalty. There may or may not be the male head of a family, who has politico-jural power in the society although he plays a peripheral role in the domestic domain.

An important feature of matrifocality is that its priority of emphasis is placed upon the mother-child relationship, while the conjugal relationship is expected to be less solidary and less affectively intense (Smith 1973). Tanner (1974) also points out the emphasis on the mother-child bond in a matrifocal society.


It is a truism to say that women have long held a low social status in Korean society. The concept of namjon yŏbi (honoured men and subservient women) has been so firmly embedded in Korean people’s psyche, both male and female, that it has provided a simple explanation for the severe gender inequality that has prevailed in all sectors of society. It was derived from the Confucian ethics and cosmology, which governed every aspect of daily life during the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910).

There is, however, documentary and historical evidence to suggest that women’s status in pre-Confucian Korean society was not always that low. During the Shilla period (57 BC – 935 AD), there were three queens (not queen consorts), namely Queen Sŏndŏk (632-647), Chindŏk (647-654) and Chinsŏng (887-897). Although the family system has long been patriarchal and patrilineal, there is strong evidence to suggest that uxorilocal marriage was prevalent in Korean society, at least for the first years of marriage (Yi Nǔnghwa 1926/1990, 120-124). According to Yi, this custom of namgwi yŏga (the man entering his wife’s natal home) existed from the ancient times in Korea, and carried on throughout the Koguryŏ period (37 BC – 668 AD), down to the Koryŏ period (910-1392).

This age-old custom was severely criticized by prominent Confucian scholars during the Chosŏn dynasty. Yang Sŏngji deplored this custom in his book Nuljae-jip, and Chŏng Tojŏn lamented in Sambong-jip that this custom of the man living at his wife’s natal home made the wife think lightly of her husband, relying on her parents’ support, so it had the effect of yin dominating yang, which he insisted was totally against the absolute cosmological law. The father-in-law of Yi T’oegye (1501-1570), one of the greatest Confucian scholars, moved into his wife’s family home after marriage, which according to Chŏng Sun-mok (1991, 42) was quite common in those days, and eventually inherited the old man’s estate after he died without a son. So it would appear that the custom never died out entirely despite the repeated kings’ orders prohibiting it, which were issued in the 7th year of King Sǒnjo’s rule (1567-1608) and the 25th year of Yŏngjo’s rule (1724-1776).

The trace of that widespread practice still remains in today’s language; the Korean phrase for a man getting married is ‘changa tŭlda’ which literally means ‘entering into his inlaw’s house’ (Yi Nŭnghwa 1926/1990, 120). Women joined their husbands’ kin as mothers later in life, often as matrons in charge of their own households. Women also inherited a share of their own parents’ property, as in the case of Yi T’oegye’s mother-inlaw, which accorded them an important social and economic role.

Confucianism was adopted by the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) as the guiding ideology for social organization.1 The Korean version was based on the literal interpretation of and the rigid adherence to the Neo-Confucianism developed in Sung dynasty China in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the status of Korean women, who had previously enjoyed a much higher status.

Engels’ (1884/1972) well-known theory about virtually universal male dominance links it to the development of private property from the original communal ownership, men’s exclusive ownership of it, and the subsequent relegation of women’s work from what he calls social production to personal domestic slavery. According to him therefore women’s lowly position is a phase in the developmental history of the family structure, which can and will change with the prevailing economic and social conditions.

According to Deuchler (1977 & 1992), it was a gradual process; the total confucianization took more than a century.

To Neo-Confucianists, however, women’s subordination was an unquestionably natural and proper phenomenon, based on the unchangeable absolute cosmological law.

They believed that the human world had to be in equilibrium with the cosmic order, otherwise disasters would befall it. To be in complete harmony with the universe, humans must observe the rules of the moral imperatives, which are commonly known as samgang (the three basic bonds) and oryun (the five moral rules in human relations). Samgang meant that subject should obey sovereign, son should obey father, and wife should obey husband. Oryun decreed that there be loyalty between sovereign and subject, intimacy between father and son, distinction between husband and wife, order of priority between junior and senior, and trust between friends. Thus all human relationships were vertically structured; there were no horizontal relationships, even between friends, since they were either one’s senior or junior. These rules governing human relationships stressed the hierarchical order of the world, and formed the basis of the social matrix.

Correlated with the hierarchical order of society was the notion that each human being had to recognize his/her proper position in society and stay there. In cosmological terms, heaven (yang) dominated earth (yin) and correspondingly, male had precedence over female. Female subordination was thus cosmologically sanctioned, and was considered essential for the proper functioning of human society. A woman had to follow her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her eldest son after her husband’s death. To prevent sexual passions from interfering with this order2, the Confucianist drew a sharp distinction between the man’s outer or public sphere and the woman’s inner or domestic sphere.

The wife in theory assumed authority in the domestic sphere. Housekeeping was analogized to the administration of the state. Domestic peace and prosperity depended on the way a wife exerted her authority. The domestic sphere, however, contained a female hierarchy, and existed within the framework of the lineage.

Neo-Confucianism emphasized the concept of lineage as the fundamental device for social organization. In Chosŏn dynasty Korea, a lineage was patrilineal descent group that traced its origin from a common ancestor, and was identified by a common surname and ancestral seat. Lineage membership was genealogically traced through the male line to the founder of the lineage. He and his direct agnatic descendants were regularly honoured by memorial services. Ritualized ancestor worship was an essential institution that emphasized the line of descent as well as the sense of community of living members.

Marriage was the most important contractual institution in Confucian society.

According to the Confucian Book of Rites, marriage was intended to be a bond of love between two surnames, with a view to securing the continuation of the family line.

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