“Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”

An interesting theme running through Martha Deuchler’s work on what were perceived as female virtues during the period of the Choson dynasty in Korea is that the education of women was not important in its own right.  Rather the value of such education was primarily, if not solely, for its benefits to the patriarchal structures of Confucian Korea. It appears that the main reason why women and girls were educated was that it made the lives of men easier, for marrying off their daughters or to better assist their husbands.1   Indeed, the importance of educating women did come from any sense of fairest or respect for women, but the exact opposite, because it was believed that women were deficient and it “was imperative for rectifying the womanly nature and bringing it in line with the moral exigencies of a Confucian society.”2  Education for women in Korean society was critical because of the risk caused by their lack of knowledge, not for their own benefit.  Any possible gains that women might obtain from such education were not the purpose of the education, but only a bi-product, since the main goal was to assist their husband and his household.3 This seems to be an unfortunate trend in how women’s education was justified in both Confucian societies and those societies seeking to reject the Confucian ideals, such as the New Culture Movement in China. Specifically, the reformers involved in the New Cultural Movement “advocated education and rights for women as necessary tools for improving the nation’s wives and mother.”4 This was not done to address the plight of women in China, but in terms of “national strengthening.”((Ibid)) This echoes, ironically, what the Korean Confucians were seeking to do vis-a-vis female education.   


In one of the first Korean treatises directed towards women, unsurprisingly called Instruction for Women written by Queen Consort Sohye, Lady Han in 1475, it is noted that “The rise or fall of the political order, although connected with the husband’s character, also depends on the wife’s goodness. She, therefore, must be educated. . . .”5   Clearly, the education of women was viewed as important, but it was not a value in its own right and always seems to circle back to what benefits it could provide to their husband. Likewise, an educated woman was seen as a valuable resource to assist with her children’s education (particularly the education of sons), but had little importance or respect as it related to her own worth or talent.6In a similar manner educated women could assist and support their husband’s career as scholar or in the civil service, but such actions were “behind the scenes.”7  Women might garner respect for such service to their children and husbands, but that was all it was – service to others – not for their own accomplishments. This represents a depressingly sexist and unflattering rationale for educating women.  However, it does not seem to have been limited to Korea, or just during the period of the Chosun dynasty. Indeed, years later during the new Cultural Movement in China reformers advocated for female education to make women “better companions” for their husbands and, therefore, to help advance China as a nation.8   This education initiative for women was to help men and to help China as a whole.  None of it was really proposed for the direct benefit or support of women, or because it was fair and just that women be educated for their own personal growth. Moreover, this education did not even change the status of women in their homes.9   Interestingly, this appears very similar to what Lady Han was seeking to do in Korea at a very different time.


  1. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, (University of California Press, 2003), p. 148. []
  2.  Ibid at 147-48. []
  3.  Ibid at 149. []
  4. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, (University of California Press, 2003), p.25. []
  5. Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan R. Piggott ed., Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea, and Japan, p.147. []
  6. Ibid 150. []
  7. Ibid 152. []
  8. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, p. 78. []
  9. Ibid. []

“Divorced from Reality?”

Susan Glosser highlights an intriguing and seemingly ironic circumstance in, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, when she explains that despite the fanfare and propaganda that Communists (CCP) made regarding the rights of women and the need to smash old traditions, the new Marriage Law of 1950 made it harder, rather than easier for women to obtain a divorce than under the earlier 1931 marriage code promulgated by the Nationalist government (GMD). While both laws allowed divorce if each party consented, the 1931 code provided ten specific circumstances where either the husband or wife could sue for divorce.1 On the other hand, the 1950 Law required that couples seeking a divorce undergo meditation before the local government and if the mediation failed, the contested divorce could be heard in the county or municipal court where the court’s primary interest was also to reconcile the couple.2 This system seems to be in stark contrast to propaganda used by the Communists to promote their marriage law, “This lawfully expresses the spirit of the Central People’s Government toward the equality of men and women. The fundamental spirit lies in enthusiastically actualizing the uplifting of women and the destruction of the evil remnants of feudal society.”3 Allowing women to escape abuse or abandonment would seem to be in line with the rhetoric of the law, but not the reality. Moreover, at first, it seems odd that the GMD would provide more options for women than the CCP in the realm of divorce. This restriction on divorce appears to be an important lens through which to understand the limitations on women’s rights under the regimes established by the CCP versus the GMD.

The Nationalist and Communist views of divorce seem contradictory to what one would think of their political philosophy and the marketing or rhetoric that goes along with it. Indeed, the Communists’ practices regarding the granting of divorce seem antithetical to their propaganda of equality of the sexes. Moreover, an important element of Communist propaganda and philosophy was to raise the conditions of women in the new state, and initially, it appears that divorces increased under Communist rule, particularly amongst peasant women, but then the numbers rapidly decreased.4 It has been argued that the initial increase in the divorce rate led to difficulties for the Communists because it was negatively impacting peasant families (or more likely male peasants) and that, in turn, hindered support for the CCP’s land restructuring efforts.5 Thereafter, perhaps to no surprise, the ability to obtain a divorce was made much more difficult.5 In addition, it was until 1980 that the marriage law was revised to allow for a divorce if mediation did not result in the couple reconciling.5 On the other hand, one might have expected the Nationalists to be more conservative and less willing to grant divorces to women, given their philosophy expressed by Sun Yatsen, that “‘devotion to one’s own family would expand into devotion to one’s national family.’”6 However, the Nationalists’ marriage code specifically provided for near-equal rights to both genders to be granted a divorce and removed previously abusive practices that allowed men to obtain what was referred to as “arbitrary” divorces.7The GMD code thus seems to support women’s interests notwithstanding the nationalist philosophy that the strength of the family unit is crucial to state success, without which the Nationalist regime would suffer great strains. However, despite this apparent support for women and the fact that the GMD code did seem to provide more options for divorce and less state control over exiting a marriage than the CCP’s Marriage Law, it did not necessarily mean that divorce would be freely obtainable. Nonetheless, the GMD code did seem to provide women with a much greater degree of control over their lives in the realm of divorce than the CCP.4

The Nationalist and Communist policy on divorce might reveal the CCP’s greater need to pander to the peasant’s more conservative views on marriage, at least initially, as well as the CCP’s more effective efforts to engrain state control over all elements of family life. It has been claimed that Mao, when faced with losing support from his predominantly peasant soldiers or promoting women’s rights, stuck with his soldier.8 However, this does not explain why divorce remained extremely difficult long after Mao and the CCP were victorious. In fact, it seems that a critical factor at play was the CCP’s successful implementation of his philosophy that the state must be held above the individual that explains the CCP’s restriction on divorce.4The limitations placed on the ability to obtain a divorce without explicit state sanction and after extraordinary measures to reconcile couples demonstrate that the Communist’s interest in women’s rights was substantially subordinated to the state’s interest in maintaining control over the family unit. Unfortunately, such a stance dooms abused women to remain tethered to their abusers and clearly does not serve to establish real equality between the genders.

  1. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953, (University of California Press, 2003), p. 172.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. at 175.
  4. Ibid. at 173. [] [] []
  5. Ibid. [] [] []
  6. Ibid. at 98. []
  7. Ibid. at 111. []
  8. Ibid. at 168. []

Predicting your own Fate

Kotoku Shusui explains in his seminal treatise, Imperialism (1901), that patriotism is one of the twin pillars of imperialism along with militarism. (Robert Thomas Tierney, Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kotoku Shusui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement,1 Kotoku argues that politicians, in league with capitalists, for their own selfish gain foment hatred towards foreigners to seek imperial gain and to distract citizens from local disparities and troubles, “they seek to divert the hatred that individuals feel towards one another onto foreign enemies in order to derive profits for themselves.”2 He further notes that these same politicians and capitalists then savage anyone who has the temerity to challenge this hatred of foreigners, “[t]hey reproach anyone who refuses to go along with this project by saying: “You are an enemy of the nation, a traitor.”3 Looking back on the carnage of the experiences of the First and Second World Wars, Kotoku’s statements seem prescient. This hatred of the other and the effort to demonize dissent provides valuable insight into the conflagration that the “wildfire” of imperialism will bring. Moreover, Kotoku’s warnings about patriotism and militarism seem to foreshadow his own doom and that of the Japanese socialist movement in the aftermath of the High Treason Incident.

Kotoku writes, in reference to the socialist movement in Germany post Bismarck that “we realize clearly that a patriotism based only on an empty bride in military victory and a hatred of enemy nations can only be a hindrance to the mutual respect and spirit of brotherhood among different peoples of the world.”4. This demonstrates the challenge that patriotism presents in discouraging cooperation between workers in different nations and also helps explain the Japanese government’s calculated plan to use the High Treason Incident in 1910 as a basis to neutralize opposition to their imperialist ambitions. Indeed, Kotoku and numerous other socialists were rounded up after an assassination attempt on the Emperor that constituted the High Treason Incident. In the end, twenty-four of the suspects were convicted and sentenced to death, eventually, Kotoku and ten other suspects were hanged in 1911. Throughout this process the government and their willing allies in the press were quick to label those involved as “traitors”, hauntingly echoing Kotoku’s own warning about how the imperialists utilize patriotism to demonize dissent.5 Robert Thomas Tierney notes that while there was really no connection between the imperialist annexation of Korea and the High Treason Incident, the idea of a “conspiracy” gave the government “an important weapon to discredit its enemies” who were opposed to their imperialist agenda.6 Similarly, Japanese papers, in league with the government, sought to connect the alleged plot against the Emperor with Korean opposition to the Japanese annexation, suggesting that there was “coordination between Japanese socialist and colonized Koreans.”7 This seems to directly follow the imperialist playbook as laid out by Kotoku with the imperialistic government seeking to drum up hatred towards the Koreans as Japan’s annexation plans progressed. At the same time, the government also sought to direct anger towards anyone, in this case, the socialists, who opposed imperialism by branding them, traitors. Thereby the government was able to ensure that any anger or difficulties that workers and poor were experiencing could be funneled against foreigners and dissidents, rather than the government itself, as essentially predicted by Kotoku.

Kotoku, towards the conclusion of Imperialism, explains that imperialism destroys freedom and equality and “exacerbates the inequalities in the world. There is no greater danger to civilization than imperialism.”8 This sentiment also appears to apply to the danger imperialism represented for him personally. However, Kotoku did not seem to be afraid of his position, early on staking out his opposition to Japanese patriotism, “ I cannot bring myself to extol the love of country that arises when men hate and attack their enemies, as is the case with the patriotism of all times and places.” (( Id. at 158.) In fact, Kotoku’s principles ultimately seem to have sealed his fate, but they are consistent with his position that if the world does not confront and stop imperialism “we face a future as bleak as the darkest circle of hell.” (( Id. at 206.)

  1. California Scholarship Online, 2016), p. 143. []
  2. Id. at 149. []
  3. Id. []
  4. Id. at 157. []
  5. Id. at 128. []
  6. Id. at 127. []
  7. Id. at 129. []
  8. Id. at 205. []

Son Pyŏng-hŭi naive or calculating?

A fascinating issue is raised by Carl F. Young in Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo Movements and the Twilight of Korean Independence, where Son Pyŏng-hŭi is criticized for the consequence of evolving the Tonghak to include the ideology espoused by its former enemies, the reformers of the Kabo Reform government. This “association” is claimed to have “made him naive to Japanese intentions” and that his involvement and intrigue with the Japanese was a “very dangerous game to play and would be replete with consequences for the future.”1 With the eventual Japanese conquest of Korea, Young suggests that Son was either blind to Japanese intentions, or he was gambling that he could use the Japanese to his and the Tonghak’s advantage, while not suffering any ill consequences.

It seems likely that the answer was more the latter rather than the former: Son seems to be cynical rather than naive. During Son’s exile in Japan, he calculatingly sought to expand the reach and power of the Tonghak. Finding common cause with his fellow Korean exiles from the Kabo Reform government as well as the Japanese, who were both enemies of the Tonghak during the 1894 rebellion, was a shrewd political move. Indeed, Son sought to use the reformers and the Japanese to assist Tonghak’s efforts to challenge the existing Korean conservative government. The reformers and Son both held personal and, obviously, political grievances against the Korean government.(( Id. at 69.) However, Son saw more than just a common cause with the reformers. It appears that the reformers were a critical connection to Western ideas, which Son believed needed to be utilized for the benefit of Korea. Son wrote that “[t]he Westerners are riding on the destiny of the world, and they are more lucid and thorough than the people of the East.”2 Son’s view was not an abstract appreciation of Western ideas of government, instead, he saw a practical benefit of incorporating such ideas, “if we can now change politics… [we can] cultivate capable people and develop and bring to light their accomplishments, and radiantly bring to light our brilliant culture to the world.”3 Son wasn’t envisioning an entire shift to the West, but to use Western political ideas to assist the Tonghak to establish a better Korean society. Specifically, he applied Western concepts to “reinterpret and expand on ideas existing within Tonghak Tradition.”4 With this in mind, it is understandable why Son would seek to plot with General Tamura for Japanese support to assist the Tonghak in its aborted plans to attack Seoul and take over the government.5 Son is tagged with using the excuse frequently used by the Japanese to justify their policies, that he was trying to “promote peace in the Orient.”3 However, this does not make him a stooge of the Japanese.

The fact that Son, and other Koreans exiled in Japan, looked to Japan as an example of the successful incorporation of Western ideals and accepted Japanese support in their attempt to remake Korea does not mean that they were blind to Japan’s agenda. Indeed, Son and the Tonghak certainly remembered suffering at the hands of the Japanese after the failed rebellion of 1894. However, faced with limited options with a stagnating regime in Seoul and concerns of Western powers, particularly Russia, seeking to gain a foothold in Korea, alignment with Japan was not obviously foolish. In addition, given Japan’s imperialistic ambitions it is likely they would have looked towards Korea for territorial gain with or without Son’s actions.

  1. Carl F. Young in Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo Movements and the Twilight of Korean Independence, University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, p.77.
  2. Id. at 72. []
  3. Id. [] []
  4. Id. at 76.) Son was thus able to use the popularity of the Tonghak with the common people in league with the elite reformers who were imbued with new Westernized theories to reform Korean society and to usher it into the modern world. This was a calculated move by Son, not a naive or fumbling decision.

    Likewise, Son sought to use the Japanese to assist the Tonghak’s triumph over the Korean government and their Russian allies. While in hindsight this might be seen as a fateful decision with tragic consequences for Korea, it is not clear that Son’s decision was unintelligent. Instead, it seems more like a necessary gamble. It is argued that Son anticipated the Russo-Japanese War and reasonably believed it would be advantageous for Korea to be aligned with the power that was more likely to succeed. (( Id. at 65. []
  5. Id. at 66. []

Blog Entry Week 2

Thomas P. Kasulis in Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History raises an intriguing issue when he confronts Maruyama Masao’s theory that Ogyu Sorai represented an early signal of Japan’s eventual descent into a racist and totalitarian state. In fact, Maruyama connects Sorai to Machiavelli because they both composed their political works to absolute rulers and sought to assist such rulers in maintaining their position, which they posited was more important than personal morality. Moreover, Kasulis claims that Maruyama in his post World War II analysis sees Sorai’s brand of Confucianism as an early example in Japan of politics being separated from any religious or moral principles, which can, in turn be used to explain and comprehend the ethnocentric and facist development of Japan. However, Kasulis makes a compelling argument that Sorai and his understanding of the role of Confuciansim was not just as a tool to provide support to a ruler or shogun’s ability to maintain their authority, but rather a mechanism to chart a path for leaders to be more virtuous and connected with the needs of those who they have authority over. On the one hand it is not hard to see Sorai and his concept of the “accomplished ones” or the ruling classes being an obvious signal and early warning sign of the future fascist and racist Japanese imperial state. Nonetheless, It seems that the Kasulis’ argument is that such an analysis is too simple and reductive. Sorai’s philosophy and Confucianism in general, albeit representing conservative principles, does not inextricably explain the development of the modern state in Japan. Kasulis seems to be arguing that such a post-World War II analysis needs to be confronted in order to better understand the philosophical reach and context of scholars like Sorai. Indeed, Kasulis explains that while Sorai takes a dim view of “Buddhist egalitarianism” and clearly understands that some individuals are simply better than others, he still tasks rulers with needing to be “attentive to the people’s concerns”. This is a much more nuanced analysis of Japanese Confucianism and its import. The interpretations by different Confucian scholars, shows a wide range of beliefs, on many different points along the political spectrum. This is further proof that governments and ideologies are often imbued with contradictory elements and bright lines connecting a philosophical position to a specific political outcome should be viewed with suspicion. In fact, it seems odd that Sorai’s veneration of the sage kings and his emphasis on reading and learning Chinese to properly emulate these sages would be precursor for the ethnoracism displayed by the imperial Japanese regime. Furthermore, Sorai’s respect for the ancient culture of another country does not seem to comport with the imperialistic and nationalistic tendancies that developed in Japan. Kasulis effectively suggests that it is too simple to trace a direct line from philosophers like Sorai to a racist, ethno-nationalist and imperialist Japanese society. While Sorai’s theories seem to neatly fit within a feudal world view it does not seem inevitable or reasonable that such views will lead to facism and racism. Kasulis is clear that his “agenda” is not the same as Maruyama, but obviously he has an agenda as well as well, which is to promote a more complex understanding of Sorai that focus on Sorai philosophy as an intellectual construct, rather than an explanation for how Japan developed politically. This forces one to take sides on whether certain political and philosophical thinkers are best to understand and evaluate independently, or to see them as proof of how state and political movements evolve. Why should a politically conservative philosophy necessarily lead to fasicism? Why should historians be quick to spot connections that support the analysis that suits them rather than to go where the analysis takes them. In a way Kasukis appears to be arguing against a form of outcome bias that connects Sorai to the eventual outcome of the Japanese state even though other factors could be the causal basis for the sins of imperial Japan. It is telling that Kasulis ultimately rejects seeing Sorai simply through either a Machiavellian or a Platonic lens. This may be a warning to historians to avoid seeing straight lines of development and to question trying to connect one moment to another without a critical analysis of whether the connection is truly accurate. The interpretations of historical philosophy and cultures with a set agenda can lead to pigeon holing and confirmation bias.