Have Koreans always been materialistic in choosing a spouse?
By Kim Da-ye
Money and marriage have never been separable although the nature of the connection has transformed over time.
“The Cultural Landscape of Marriage and Dating” published by the National Institute of Korean History chronicles the impact of economic factors on marriages at different times.
According to the book, relationships between men and women were rather casual back in the period of the Three Kingdoms (Shilla, Goguryeo and Baekje) which lasted from a century before Christ to the 9th century.
While marriages had to be arranged by matchmakers and officiated by parents in China, tales regarding the birth of three kingdoms’ founders and leaders often showed women getting pregnant in a brief relationship and raising the children on their own.
In addition, part of Buksa, a set of Chinese history books, on Goguryeo says that if men and women were in love, they were married off. A groom’s family sent some pork and wine to the bride’s but no monetary gift was involved. If the bride’s family accepted any kinds of fortune, people would regard it as a shameful act of selling the daughter as a slave.
Entering the Goryeo dynasty with a caste system, people were forced to marry within the same class. Because interclass marriages left children taking the lower one, people tried to obey the custom. The book says that various classes existed within a caste, narrowing the range of people one can tie the knot with.
Interestingly women didn’t live with their in-laws but with their own parents. Jung Do-jeon, a powerful aristocrat and scholar in the late Goryeo and early Joseon dynasties, even complained about women gaining too much power from living with their own parents.
There is no record of discrimination against women. Women were included in family registers which recorded children in the order of birth, not sex.
“Brides’ families must have needed much financial capacity because wedding costs were high and they had to live with the groom. There were some women who couldn’t marry because of the lack of financial means,” the book says.
In the Joseon Kingdom that lasted from 1392 to 1910, people from different classes still couldn’t wed and marriages had to be arranged.
Women’s families prioritized men’s capacity to succeed and the status of his family in choosing a spouse — men already in civil service would be the most eligible. Men’s side put much importance on the wealth of the women’s families, followed by physical appearances. It was generally expected that brides’ families would financially support grooms’ careers.
The law demanded people, especially women, to marry before reaching certain ages. The state would financially support children of men of national merit, who were unable to marry due to a lack of funds, and punish those who did not marry off their daughters by the age of 30.
In the 18th century Joseon Kingdom, aristocrats had a wedding ceremony at the bride’s house and a bride spent a year or two at her parents’. After giving birth, she would start living with the in-laws. Noblemen were banned from lavish weddings, but various historical records tell of troubles and conflicts caused by extravagant dowries. Because of excessive preparations from brides’ families, the death of a baby daughter would be consoled for saving of dowries, the book says.
Marriages among servants involved only simple ceremonies and often just sleeping together.
In the late Joseon Kingdom when Catholicism was introduced, a new type of a simple wedding emerged. Brides would tie up a topknot for grooms who in turn put brides’ hair in a bun. Weddings also involved white hanbok and veils.
“Modern women,” many of whom were feminists, began advocating love as a precondition for marriage while under patriarchy, some compromised to separate dating from marriage. A survey done in the late 1930s showed that 90 percent of female students separated dating from marriage. They listed qualities of an ideal partner as a good career, a stable income, an understanding of women, interest in the arts, and a brave and righteous personality, the book says.
While women struggled to improve their rights, the book says that the introduction of Japanese culture to Korean households during the colonial period encouraged them to clearly divide their jobs by sex — men to work outside and women to support them from home.
Hwang Sang-min, the psychology professor at Yonsei University and the author of “Partner, Love,” says that before the Seoul Olympics in 1988, people prioritized education in evaluating future spouses.
In the 1990s, however, money became more important as it was proven that highly educated people do not necessarily make much money and degrees can be “bought” with money through expensive private lessons and studies abroad.