What can we learn about the status and roles of women in the Joseon Palace as presented in Dae Jang Geum?

women in dong yi

One of the interesting things about the drama Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace, MBC 2003) for me is that it’s the story of someone who is unable to follow the social rules of Joseon society. She is a woman who does not ‘know her place’! 😉 or at least refuses to stay within those boundaries.

When the king offers Jang Geum  the position of Royal Doctor, there is outrage. And not only from the MEN at court. Jang Geum is chastised by one of her female peers who tells her that she should stop rocking the boat and should just do her best quietly without standing out and drawing attention to herself!

However, Jang Geum is not able to blend in and she can’t help being noticed by the royal family and eventually the king. And the more Jang Geum shines, the more the government officials and even the other women around her distrust and hate her. Her only supporter within the government, apart from the king, is Sir Min. :)

So in this post I want to look at how the role of women in the Joseon court is portrayed in Dae Jang Geum. First I’ll take a look at the general ideal of the virtuous woman yollyo. Then I’ll do a brief overview of the female hierarchy in King Jungjong’s palace. Attitudes to education can tell us a lot so then I’ll take a look at how women’s status is portrayed through attitudes to education and books. And finally the importance of social structure and how the opposition to Jang Geum taking the job are based on the idea of ‘knowing your place’ and the belief that breaking social hierarchy rules will lead to chaos.

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Jang Geum and the king on a daily walk; Jang Geum and Lady Han; The queen mother enjoying a banquet; Queen Munjeong and her son

THE VIRTUOUS WOMAN ‘Yollyo’ 열녀 

The ideal Confucian woman was virtuous and pure. Yangban women especially were expected to live exemplary lives. And of course court ladies who worked around the king should be not only be hard-working and loyal but also morally excellent! 

We see this from the very beginning of the drama as soon as Jang Geum enters the royal court. All the girls join the palace when they are 4 or 5 years old and take a ‘test’ to make sure they are still virgins. (The blood of a parrot is put on the child’s hand and if the blood doesn’t run then she is still a virgin!) But since the girls are so young the test is merely a ritual probably to enforce in the girls how important it is to remain pure: they have to ‘make sure’ that the girls are all virgins before they can even be accepted into the palace.

Once accepted as virgins they are told that they are the king’s women and are not allowed to ‘commit adultery’ which includes not even thinking of other men. Anyone who breaks this rule will be punished in the ‘secret court lady way’ – forced to drink poison.

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young court ladies training

We are given two examples to show that this is not just a threat. In episode 1 we see Lady Park Jang Geum’s future mother framed by Lady Choi who says she has ‘witnesses’ Lady Park fraternising with a royal guard. This is illegal in the court and Lady Park is smuggled out of the palace by the head court lady and forced to drink poison. She is only saved by an antidote given to her by her friend Lady Han. The other ladies are warned that this will happen to them too if they ‘commit adultery’.

Another reminder comes in episode 8 in the mandu dumplings episode where Jang Geum ends up in a predicament when her flour is stolen right before a cooking competition. The girl who stole her flour was a seamstress who was sharing her room. She wanted to make her mother some mandu as a final meal before she left the palace. The court lady is old and it’s time for her to retire. Jang Geum hears how the girl was born in secret in the palace and the other court ladies brought her up. But the truth is that the old court lady is not her real mother. A young kitchen lady was raped by an envoy and became pregnant. Her purity has been taken so after giving birth the young mother was forced to commit suicide because of the shame. And the baby was brought up in secrecy within the court by other ladies.

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Lady Park is framed and punished in the ‘secret court lady’ way

Of course the treatment of women in the royal court was very strict as they were around the king. But this ideal of yollyo continued throughout Joseon society and became more important later during the Imjin and Manchu invasions when many women in Joseon were raped by the invaders. Rather than remain alive and stain the reputation of their family, these women often committed suicide and were honoured posthumously for their noble action!  A dishonoured lady could not marry well and married women could be disowned by their husbands if they were kidnapped or raped by foreign invaders. The kings of the time King Seonjo and then Gwanghaegun tried to stop this practice.

Rules about the behaviour between men and women was very strict and any kind of relationship between men and women at court was taboo. Jang Geum’s growing romance with military officer Min Jung Ho must be kept secret otherwise we are warned that he will be fired from his position and she will be killed! (A much worse punishment for her than for him!) Choi Geum Young who is in love with Sir Min herself and jealous of his relationship with Jang Geum threatens to reveal their relationship if he doesn’t back down from investigating her unscrupulous uncle, Merchant Choi. Up until this point Sir Min refuses to back down but the very real threat to Jang Geum’s life makes him retreat.

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Choi Geum Young watches jealously as Sir Min and Jang Geum chat together

FEMALE HIERARCHY IN THE PALACE

Jang Geum arrives in the palace at the bottom of the hierarchy ladder as a child bride and rises to become the king’s personal doctor. The women in the palace play supporting roles to the king and government but they also have a strict hierarchy:

The Queen Mother’s influence 대비마마

The strongest influence in the palace of all the women is the queen mother. As the mother of the king she has the highest status and although she is not supposed to be involved in politics, she has the power to persuade the king to change his mind on decisions he makes (usually through emotional blackmail!). Filial piety is very important in Confucianism and King Jungjong doesn’t want to go against his mother’s wishes. The government officials also know this and use her to their advantage at times when they want to change the king’s mind.

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The queen mother often resorts to emotional blackmail in Dae Jang Geum 

The Queen 중전마마

The queen holds the top female rank in the court and she is in charge of all the court ladies. If she has a son he will become the crown prince and next in line to the throne. In Dae Jang Geum the queen’s position is politically fragile as the crown prince is the son of the king’s first queen.

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Queen Munjeong worries about enemies trying to kill her son

The Concubines 후궁 hu-gung and Special Court Ladies 승은상궁 sung-un sang gung

There can only be one queen at a time, but there can be several concubines and special court ladies. The concubines hold the top positions of the court lady ranking system. (Take a look at the concubine ranking system here) And having the king’s baby is a good reason to be promoted up the ranks.

A concubine position was a respected one. So when the whole court is against Jang Geum becoming the king’s doctor, a solution is offered: the king should make Jang Geum his concubine if he likes her so much! The government officials are enthusiastic about this suggestion as then Jang Geum will not be able to work anymore as a doctor and their problem will be solved: Jang Geum will be promoted but into a socially acceptable position for a woman. Luckily for her career the king doesn’t make her his concubine.

Most of the court ladies have nothing directly to do with the king but some special court ladies sang gung are picked out by the king. And if they are chosen they have no choice but to do as the king wants! Jang Geum’s friend Yeon-Saeng is noticed by the king and is made a special court lady sungun sang-gung 승은상궁 but this is not concubine status and seems a bit meaningless. She wears grander clothes and doesn’t have to work in the kitchens anymore. But she has no servants herself and the other kitchen ladies don’t respect her at all until she becomes pregnant and is promoted to Suk-Won concubine status. Now she is given two attendants to look after her. So for the concubines the aim is to have the king’s child and then they can be promoted.

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Yeon-Saeng is made a special court lady and then promoted to Suk-Won Concubine

Court Ladies sang gung  상궁

The Head Court Lady (제조상궁'(提調尙宮) overseas all the court lady affairs and reports directly to the queen. In Dae Jang Geum the Head Kitchen Lady (cheigo sang gung 최고상궁) has a big role. The Choi family women have kept these two prime jobs in the palace for the last 5 generations and will do ANYTHING to keep it that way. But their positions are fragile and that’s where all the trouble starts. The king is told several times that he is not supposed to concern himself with ‘petty’ court lady business. So when he is asked by Lady Jung to hold a competition for the next head of the kitchen (to make things fair) he agrees to be the judge but later he has to hand the job over to his mother as he should not be involved here!

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The Choi women are always scheming to keep their top court lady positions

During their training the little girls have to recite all the ranks of the court ladies in order: “Bi, Bin, Gwiin, Soui, Sugui, Soyong, Sugyong, Sowon, Sugwon, Sanggung, sangui, sangbok, sangsik, sangchim, sanggong, sangjeong, sanggi, jeonbin, jeonui, jeonseon, jeonseol, jeonje, jeoneon, jeonchan, jeonsik, yeongsa, daejehak, jehak, bujehak, jeonhan, eunggyo, bueunggyo, gyori, bugyori, suchan, busuchan” ..

It’s obviously important that the young girls learn about the hierarchy at court right from the beginning …

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Young court ladies learn the court lady ranking system

The court ladies join the palace as children and then gradually move up the ranks. But ladies can move down as well as up. After Lady Han and Jang Geum are exiled from the palace, all the ladies associated with Lady Han suffer under Lady Choi. Later when Jang Geum comes back as a doctor she finds her old friends have been demoted to maids who look after the king’s bath water and toilet. They complain that they have never seen the king’s face, just his backside!

The Importance of Social Status 

I don’t think there are any top yangban ladies in Dae Jang Geum because yangban ladies didn’t work. But the ladies in court are selected from ‘good’ middle and upper class families. So even though the girls all start at the bottom of the hierarchy and so in terms of court lady rankings  are technically the same level, they still create their own mini hierarchy by checking each other’s family backgrounds. Jang Geum is looked down on when she arrives and is called a peasant. She wants to tell the others that her father was a military guard in court and her mother was a court lady but she is afraid since they told her NEVER to mention this.

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Jang Geum is ostracised by the other girls at court because of her peasant background

Even the Choi ladies are not immune to the stigma of the class system. In episode 1 lady Choi is a young kitchen lady and is reminded by the head kitchen lady (her aunt) that as their family is only middle class and not yangban, their jobs at court are the best positions they can possibly hope for in life. Whilst Lady Choi’s uncle is a merchant, the women in the family have held the top kitchen lady’s position for 5 generation and they have learnt that to keep this position they must take sides with those who are in power. And they sometimes have to play dirty to keep their positions. They console themselves with the fact that they may not be yangban but at least they have money and power.

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Lady Choi has to do many bad things to protect her family and keep them at the top

When Lady Choi loses the cooking competition to Lady Han she is desperate to get her place back. So she uses the excuse of class to try to get Lady Han fired from the Head Kitchen Lady position. She gets the other court ladies to turn against Lady Han by saying they can not serve under her as she is of lowly birth (her mother worked in a gisaeng house and was raped by a yangban) The queen mother agrees that Lady Han’s low social status is a problem and that Lady Choi is a more suitable choice for Head Kitchen Lady as she, at least, is middle class.

Female Doctors

The female doctors are not even classed as court ladies so are below them in status.  During their training the court ladies are told that they are higher in rank to the servant ladies and the female nurses so they should act accordingly. So they treat the female doctors like servants calling on them to to massage their aching feet or give them a treatment for their dry skin! Jang Geum must spend the first year running errands for the senior doctors. Geum Young, Jang Geum’s old rival and now Head Kitchen Lady, tries to humiliate Jang Geum by making her massage her feet, but it seems to backfire when Jang Geum massages her feet and can feel all the health problems that she has.

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Jang Geum returns to the court as a lowly female doctor below the court ladies

ATTITUDES TO WOMEN AS SEEN THROUGH EDUCATION AND BOOKS

Because of her low status in court, Jang Geum often has to be a bit sneaky regarding how she gets hold of information and becomes so knowledgeable about food and medicine. But she has no choice as educational institutions and libraries were often closed to the lower classes and women

Education is power

In the Joseon period educational institutions were only open to yangban boys so yangban girls were usually educated at home either by parents or a private tutor. (Males from the middle classes could study ‘miscellaneous’ subjects such as medicine, languages, and art at vocational institutions (japhak) around the country. But peasants just had to muddle through life as best they could.)

The main aim of the education system was to prepare the upper class boys to pass the civil service exam to become government officials. So there was not much point girls going to school since they couldn’t work in the government anyway! (remember the uproar when King Jungjong tries to promote Jang Geum to a level 9 official in the government for all her exceptional work as a doctor! There had NEVER been a WOMAN in the GOVERNMENT before! )

Printing technology was already well developed and printed books were available but women were not as educated as yangban men and could not read Chinese characters so hangul books were written for women, less educated men, and children. We can see Jang Geum’s frustration as a child wanting to go to school and learn to read Chinese characters like the yangban boys that she plays with can. But she is punished by her mother and reminded that only yangban boys are allowed to go to school! And as they are now living as baekjong (백정 白丁 literal meaning butcher) she has no business hanging out with yangban and could get in trouble for this.

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As a child Jang Geum gets punished for wanting to study with the yangban boys

Even Recipe Books Are Power

Although the Confucian classics may have been off-limits to women as they were written in Chinese characters, which most women couldn’t read, other books were available for them.  For example recipe books in the Joseon period were a practical source of education for women. And along with recipes and cooking tips the writers could also express their own ideas and thoughts.

We discover that this is also true in the royal kitchens where even a recipe book is power.

In Dae Jang Geum we have the Head Kitchen Lady’s Recipe Book and Jang Geum’s mum’s recipe book. The Head Kitchen Lady’s Recipe Book is a precious book handed down from head to head and is a great source of education as it contains information on recipes spanning many generations of cooks. But education is power and so even here there are restriction as to who is allowed to read the book. It is meant for the head kitchen lady’s eyes ONLY. But the Choi ladies hide the book when Lady Jung becomes the new head as they want to keep the book (and the power) in their own family. Later when the recipe book is discovered in Lady Choi’s chamber, Lady Han refuses to read it until she wins the cooking competition and becomes the head kitchen lady and ‘deserves’ to read the book.

The Head Kitchen Lady’s Recipe Book is also the place where Jang Geum can write down her mother’s grievances. From the beginning this is what her mother wants her to do, so that future head kitchen ladies will know what happened to her (she was falsely accused of having a relationship with an official and poisoned) and it will never be forgotten. Jang Geum’s mum’s recipe book is Jang Geum’s secret book so she can read it in private and develop her cooking skills.

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Jang Geum finds her mother’s recipe book: Lady Jung discovers that Lady Choi has been hiding the Head Kitchen Lady’s book. 

The library

There are various libraries around the court meant where government officials can brush up their knowledge on the Confucian classics. In episode 8 we find Jang Geum in a library. But women were not supposed to enter the library so Dr Jung has to send a letter to his old friend the librarian asking him to do him a favour and let Jang Geum borrow the Confucian classics. But his friend is not at the library any more – Sir Min Jung Ho is there instead. Any other official may have turned her away, but Sir Min is open-minded enough to encourage Jang Geum to read (even though she’s a woman!)

Since Jang Geum seems to want to read and improve her knowledge on all topics including Confucianism Sir Min continues to lend her books. But they have to meet in relative secrecy and it looks like he probably shouldn’t be meeting her or lending her books 😉 Later when she needs to find out specific information about the effects of foods and medicinal herbs, she has no choice but to go to Sir Min to ask for books on medicine as she can’t go to the library herself. It just shows that even if women wanted to educated themselves there were restrictions for them when it came to reading books even if there was a library right on their doorstep!

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Jang Geum bumps into Sir MIn Jung Ho at the library. 

The Confucian Classics teacher

Before Jang Geum even joins the royal pharmacy we see the real discrimination that women doctors face in the outside world when (ep 32) she cures a young yangban boy. His father is against a woman treating his son since all the male doctors have already failed.

And when Jang Geum enters the Royal Pharmacy we discover that there is very little respect for female doctors here either. The female physicians are not court ladies and are of much lower status. So it goes without saying that they are nowhere near equal to the male doctors either. They are hired to look after the female members of the royal family and the court ladies so as to maintain the strict codes of conduct between men and women. But when there is a serious illness, a bamboo curtain is put up between the female patient and the male doctors so that the male doctors can give advice through the curtain. But they can not enter and deal with the patients directly.

The low status of the female doctors is reflected in the attitude of the court ladies and even their own Confucian Classics teacher. Whilst her medical teacher is very hard on the students, the Confucian classics teacher seems to see no point in educating women. So since Jang Geum can read a lot of Chinese characters, he puts her in charge of ‘teaching’ the class!

The same teacher then wants to make the female medical students into prostitutes when there is an officials event. We learn that this practice was started during Yeonsangun’s reign but is a habit that is hard to stop now. Only Jang Geum and her friend Shin Bi turn up for Dr Shin’s class since all the other ladies were persuaded to go and entertain the officials. To make things worse the Confucian Classics teacher then tries to FAIL the two students for refusing to become prostitutes!

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The female doctors also have to double up as prostitutes, a practice that King Jungjong tried to stop. 

The Medical Records Library

The lack of respect and access to information could hold most women back but Jang Geum is determined and often with Sir Min’s help is able to get the information she needs.

She wants to clear Lady Han’s name (she was accused of treason for poisoning the king with her duck soup) but to do that Jang Geum needs to find out more about the king’s health and what really made him sick that day. But she can’t check the king’s pulse because only male doctors are allowed to do that. She wants to get into the library to see the royal records but they are guarded by the eunuchs. As the queen’s doctor she is allowed to enter the library but is not supposed to touch the king’s records. So she ends up sneaking the king’s records out and getting caught.

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Jang Geum is arrested and questioned by the eunuchs

KNOW YOUR PLACE: BREAKING SOCIAL STRUCTURE LEADS TO CHAOS

It seems that Jang Geum is going to be expelled from the court and poisoned by the eunuchs but instead she is put in charge of finding out what is wrong with the king and she manages to find a cure. But even after having saved the lives of most of the members of the royal family, this is still not enough for the government officials. Because when the king wants to reward her by having her as his personal doctor, there is UPROAR!

At this point Jang Geum has cured the queen, crown prince and the prince and the king himself, so he wants to make her his personal physician but all the officials are against this. The whole court is outraged – even the female doctors. The official-scholars lead the way in their outrage arguing that social order must be kept. Everyone must know their place otherwise there will be chaos. And a woman can NEVER become the king’s doctor!

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Scrolls of complaints are piled up in front of the king. Jang Geum tries to make peace with the head of the pharmacy as she has taken his job!

Scholars gather outside the palace kneeling on their mats begging the king to change his mind. And the doctors in the pharmacy all start writing letters of resignation in disgust. They try to argue that it goes against the constitution that a woman should become a government official – Jang Geum will have to be promoted on the men’s ranking system if she is to be the king’s doctor. Only Sir Min is on her side and says that they must interpret the constitution to mean that the best person should be chosen for a job not the best man.

But Jang Geum finally is promoted to become the king’s doctor. But still when she goes to the library, the other officials have to bow to her as she is now a level 3 official. But they don’t like it and they mutter under their breath at the absurdity of a woman being allowed to read the books. They are all worried that the structure of Joseon will collapse into chaos if women don’t know their place!

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Jang Geum cures members of the royal family

In the end the king reaches a compromise. Jang Geum is promoted to be his personal doctor and so promoted to level 3 in the government. But this is not a hereditary position as it is with the men and she is not in charge of the royal pharmacy as she would be if she were a man.

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So what have we learnt about the roles of women in the Joseon court in Dae Jang Geum? Well, it seems the woman’s role in the palace was to look after the needs of the king and be in charge of domestic duties – the kitchen ladies cook, the maids clean and sew, and the female doctors look after the health of the females in court and support the male doctors. The highest position a woman can hope for is the Highest Court Lady position. But if she gets noticed by the king she can become a concubine and rise even higher to the top of the court lady rankings if she has his child. But women can’t enter the government or be directly involved in politics. So formal education is reserved for the upper class men who will need to study Confucianism for their future government positions. 

The ladies also have to remain pure, loyal and virtuous. We learn that anyone who breaks this rule will end up exiled and poisoned! But Jang Geum even manages to break this rule by falling in love with Sir MIn Jung Ho when she should stay faithful to the king! But we are shown that their romance never goes beyond an emotional romance – there’s not even any kissing – until they leave the palace. 

And what about status? I think only the queen mother and the queen have a high status at court. Outside the royal family the ladies jostle for their place in the court lady hierarchy – which is below the male officials. And beneath the court ladies are the lady doctors and maids!

But the court is not isolated from the outside world. The social status that the ladies have before they come into court plays a role inside court. (This is the same for the men too) Jang Geum struggles as she is considered to be a peasant and Lady Choi causes lots of trouble because she is only middle class! 

And everyone is encouraged to know their place and not try to aim beyond that. But it’s interesting in the drama that at first even the lady physicians are against Jang Geum’s rise into the male domain at court. They even chastise her for standing out and being noticed! The rules of social behaviour have been so ingrained that they don’t want to see the rules broken even it it means opening doors for them too! ( I hate to say it, but isn’t it true that even today a lot of women hate to see other women doing well in their careers?…. ) Some of the lady doctors come to Jang Geum’s side though, when they realise that if she can do it then maybe one day so can they …

Some of the information in this post I read in the following books:

A Review of Korean History vol 2. Joseon Era by Han Young Woo (2010, published by Kyongsaewon)

Women and Confucianism in Chosun Korea; New Perspectives edited by Youngmin Kim and Michael J. Pettid (2011, published by Suny)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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