Faithfulness and Women in East Asia, 17th – 19th Centuries

We get married. Sometimes we divorce. Today, we are living in a world where one out of two married couples ends in divorce.

 It is not only an issue in the US anymore, it is also an issue in many other countries.  Some people are worried about the high divorce rate because they think they are also going to get divorced someday, or they think people are taking the sanctity of marriage for granted.

But, have you ever imagined if we never divorce? If it was against the law? Almost every country has a history in which people were forbidden to divorce. In East Asia, from around the 17th ~ 19th centuries, ‘No Divorce’ laws were the norm and impacted women greatly.

Zhu_xi.jpgDuring the 17th ~ 19th century in East Asia, there was a really strict atmosphere that was forced women to be “faithful”. This atmosphere was mainly displayed in China and Korea because these two countries followed Zhu Xi’s philosophy. Zhu Xi, was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 12th century who desired to keep strict social order. Women’s faithfulness played a large part of his ideals and the idea grew stronger with every passing year. Between the 17 ~ 19th century was the peak of the idea of extreme faithfulness.

At that time, people thought that faithfulness was more important than life. In this time, people strongly believed that “Death is a very trivial thing. But being unfaithful is the ultimate sin.” (This opinion was insisted by Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, who were brotherhood philosophers who influenced Zhu Xi greatly.)

This strict trend dominated people’s thinking for several centuries. Of course, the king and the government really defended this issue. Here are the most famous laws which were related to women’s ‘No Divorce’.

  • Women can only get married once.

According to a Genealogical Record of Andong Kwon Clan which is the oldest genealogical record in Korea, only 17 of 3265 women who were written on the list could get married again. Of the 17, 13 got married again before a code of Chosun dynasty’s law was published. The code included content which restricted women’s remarriage. This content also stated if remarried woman had children, the children couldn’t be public officials.

Chinese kingdoms also restricted remarriage like Korea.

  • Door for faithful woman

This law was established by the first emperor, The Hongwu Emperor, of Ming dynasty. Korea also followed this law. If a woman had been infamous for her faithfulness, the king built “A Door for faithful woman” in her village, and the government put her on a list that proved her faithfulness. It was a kind of certification that said ‘she was a faithful woman’ to the public. It was recognized as a really honorable thing to her family, so many families really desired the ‘Door’. Sometimes it looked like a competition between families. In Ming dynasty, though the numbers of various records have big differences, the number of these “faithful women” on the list was usually over the 10,000. According to this record, almost 2,200 of 10,000 “faithful women” were from just one village.

Under this trend, the only focus for people and families were their honor and faithfulness. As a result, women’s rights were totally ignored.

  • Even if their husbands died very early, wives couldn’t divorce with their dead husbands and couldn’t get married again.

For example, in the Qing Dynasty, one woman’s husband died really early. She had to live alone because of course she couldn’t get married again. Every night was a really painful time for her, and she began to play a game in the middle of the night. In her game, she spread out one hundred coins on her front yard. Then she sought the coins all night to forget her loneliness. After she had played this game for 60 years, all the coins got worn away by her hands so coins became shiny from her touch. She had kept playing this game every night until she died.

  • When the government heard some information which was related to faithful women, sometimes public officials had to check whether they were faithful or not, they did really stupid and shocking behavior to the women.

Danwon-Huwonyuyeon.JPGIn the Ming Dynasty, One girl who was 14 years old met thieves in the forest. Thieves tried to rape her, but she fought against them desperately to keep her innocence. Thieves got angry due to her resistance, so they killed her. After the government heard this sad story, some public officials went to her hometown to check whether the story was true or not. The story was true. But they inspected her body to determine if she had been raped. They said, “If the thieves raped her that meant she had lost her innocence so she wouldn’t have certification to be called a ‘faithful woman’ anymore.

Nowadays, those customs have become an outdated part of history in Asia. Divorce rates are also high in many Asian countries, but still, some older people think negatively about that. However, divorce means women now have a choice and agency in their lives that did not exist previously. Divorce and faithfulness are not tools to shame women with. There is a proverb, “We can see our future with our past.” It means we can learn from our mistakes in our past, and then we must never repeat this mistake and we must remember their pain.


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