(549) Second wife
Old Korea was a polygamous society where a man could keep as many concubines as he could support. However, from the 15th century, Korean law clearly stipulated that every man was allowed only one wife (remarrying after a spouse’s death was nearly obligatory for men and nearly prohibited for women).
The strict line between the wife and concubines was maintained thoroughly. In most cases, only people whose income and social standing were well above average could afford to take even one concubine. However, sons born by a concubine faced serious discrimination in their careers.
Contrary to what you might have read, such sons could enter the officialdom, but their promotion opportunities were limited. Within the household, concubines were under the complete control of the wife.
Hence, for centuries no decent woman of good upbringing would consider becoming a concubine. It was the way of the gisaeng (Korean courtesans) who wanted to quit their profession, or for girls from seriously impoverished peasant families, or for young and pretty female serfs. The name for concubine (cheop in Korean) had negative and humiliating connotations.
However, in the 1920s a new type of polygamous marriage appeared. This was a marriage between a “modern” (that is, Western-educated and, usually, affluent) man and a “modern” woman who also came from a privileged background.
Such union was based on mutual love, and often were the product of a long romantic affair. Nonetheless, the bride knew that the happy groom kept maintaining another woman as well.
But why couldn’t men just marry the women they loved, and nobody else one might ask? The reason was that it was impossible. In the 1910s and 1920s men of elite families (and we are talking here about the elite) married in their teens, perhaps when they were merely 13 or 14 years old.
Of course, nobody bothered to show them their would-be wives: the meeting at their wedding ceremony could easily be the first direct encounter of the spouses. The marriage was arranged by parents and family whose considerations were largely of a political or a financial nature.
Then, as new times demanded, the teenage boy was shipped away, to study the “new knowledge” in some Western-style school, perhaps even in Japan. His young wife, who might be pregnant by that time, stayed at home, to serve her parents-in-law as an obedient Confucian wife should.
Meanwhile, overseas the young man could meet other women. It was tacitly assumed that sleeping around was OK for a privileged young man as long as appearances were kept up and the targets of his desire were women of “low orders,” preferably those who were seen as “loose” by definition (gisaeng or, for a less affluent philanderer, waitresses in cafes etc.).
However, some people fell in love with “new women,” educated girls who could be found in cities, and also discovered the then novel idea of a romantic love union. Of course, young, bright, modern girls easily outclassed the boring and semi-literate traditional women who were left behind.
Well, and if such romance began, what should be done? Many Korean males just divorced their boring old wives (these “old wives” were usually in their 20s) and married the “new women,” with varying degree of marital success.
Such a divorce was very common, and sometimes it seems that majority of prominent Korean artists and writers of the era had such experience ― including the founder of the modern Korean literature Yi Kwang-su. To us this decision might sound natural and a good thing to do, but I am not so sure whether it was indeed the case.
First of all, usually parents were deadly against divorce. Second, the fate of the abandoned wife and her children could be very sad. In those days the women had almost no way of earning a living, and the children of a divorcee would be stigmatized forever.
In some cases the need to choose pushed people to extremes. Kim U-jin, the founder of modern Korean theater, faced the same choice between a traditional wife and his lover Yun Sim-dok, the most famous singer of the era. Finally, he and Yun chose suicide.
However, some people tried to have best of both worlds. They married the “new woman,” but still maintained the first wife as a legal spouse. Needless to say, unlike the concubines of the past years, the new wife lived in a separate household.
But what to call such women? The old “concubine,” with all its negative connotations, was seen as rude and inappropriate. Hence, a new term, “second wife,” was coined in the 1920s. This was quite new: in old Korea, as has been said, man by definition could have only one wife.
To some extent, the “second wife” was a nice euphemism, since no legal regulations envisioned the existence of such relationships. For more traditional-minded Koreans, that is, for a vast majority of people, the “second wife” was merely another concubine, and her college degree did not matter.
Educated circles, especially women’s circles, also looked upon such arrangements with great disdain since the idea of sharing the man with somebody else ran against the grain of the notion of romantic love as the sole basis for marriage, and this idea was commonly accepted among the first generation of the Western-style Korean intellectuals. Indeed, somebody said that “love in Korea began in 1919.”
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.