Goryeo and the construction of tradition

I’ve been reading Martina Deuchler’s The Confucian Transformation of Korea, which addresses the way that Neo-Confucian values came to play such a prominent role in Korean society during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). To make sense of it, she tries to piece together a picture of social norms — marriage, inheritance, mourning, and the like — during the preceding Goryeo period (918-1392), which is exceedingly difficult because of limited sources.

Deuchler’s scholarship is admirable. She’s obviously put tremendous effort into reading a ton of Goryeo documents, and it’s not like they’re nicely indexed to let you know when they’re going to start talking about marriage laws. Reading them is presumably difficult, since it means reading Koreanized medieval Chinese as preserved in some very old hand-written books. Furthermore, the existing evidence is almost entirely for the upper classes, as it is for Heian Japan (784-1195) around the same time, so we have to make do with a limited picture of the upper echelons of society.

What Deuchler finds is interesting. Though the evidence is fragmentary, it appears that women had far more power in Goryeo than in later Joseon, just as they did in Heian Japan and in Tang China (618-907). That is not to say that they were equal to men or that there was anything like a patriarchy. But inheritance laws meant that estates were divided at the discretion of their owners, and it seems that they were customarily split evenly among both sons and daughters. Matrilineal prestige was important in claiming oneself as an aristocrat, and men often moved in with their wives’ families rather than vice versa. There also seems to have been a lot of what we would consider incest: marriages with cousins, even with half-siblings, which kept wealth contained in a tightly knit family unit.

There are two points that I want to make about all this. The first is about shamanism, where some theorists have claimed that shamans were probably men in an earlier period, and only later shifted to women when shamanic practice became disparaged. I find this idea unlikely, and there’s little evidence for it. It seems far more likely to me that shamanism became a less diffuse, more specifically identified set of practices only when it was distinguished as heterodoxy, but that shamanic practices probably went on long before, and probably had plenty of female practitioners.

Secondly, the evidence about Goryeo and how different it was — and about Heian too — should remind us that “traditional” culture is generally a modern invention, developed in contradistinction to modernity. What’s considered traditional culture in Korea — hanbok, Chuseok, all the traditional music and dances — is largely Joseon, and late Joseon at that. Typical presentations of traditional culture make it seem as though people lived a certain way statically since time began, and then suddenly they got modernized (European sailing ships, the first streetcar, an ethnic man in eyeglasses, a war of some kind, skyscrapers). And modernity does have certain distinct characteristics. But what’s labeled as “traditional” is often something like “How I remember it from before modernity arrived,” or “How my grandmother used to do things in the old days.” Most of the scholars doing the remembering that established traditional cultures across Asia were doing it in the 1890s forward, which has meant that traditional culture is whatever people were doing in the mid-19th century. Those scholars, further, had particular motivations: to make their societies seem legitimate in the eyes of the West, to establish a national culture and character, to make the case for or against modernity. So certain things get kept in as legitimately traditional, and others get tossed as hillbilly nonsense.

This is important to remember no matter what culture you’re looking at, including American culture, where pundits are often trying to reconstruct an imaginary 1950s or 1960s, or an imaginary time of glorious freedom back in the late 19th century. It’s true in Judaism, where the Orthodox like to dress the way their rabbis did in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

Tradition is a construction, always. The actual past is more complicated, and far more interesting — and we can always plunder it to construct new traditions.