(517) Merry Widows!
By Andrei Lanov
In old Korea, widows were viewed with deep suspicion. Everybody with even a cursory knowledge of pre-1900 Korean literature knows that widows were usually depicted as lecherous creatures, driven by their insatiable and immoral sexual desires ― and, as we shall see, any sexual desire in their case was immoral by definition.
The old fiction sometimes mentioned chaste widows as well, but it was often stressed that one had to be a woman of exceptional virtue to successfully resist the manifold temptations available.
Traditional Korean morals held that women should be ``chaste": virginal before marriage and unconditionally loyal to their husbands during the marriage. But what about widows who were bound to be numerous in a society with an average life expectancy in the early 1920s?
They had to remain loyal to their late husband. Thus, in the official parlance, a widow came to be known as ``mimangin" or ``not-yet-dead-person." As the name suggested, a decent widow had to wait for her death. It was laudable or even advisable if she sped the process up by committing suicide, thus avoiding all dangerous and ruinous temptations.
But the works of fiction leave little doubt that Koreans did not believe that many women lived up to the lofty ideal of chaste widowhood. The marriage of a widow was formally banned until 1894, and even after it was lifted such marriages were discouraged.
These age-old fears resurfaced in the 1950s when Korean society had to deal with the ``widow problem" on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Even though during the Korean War both sides demonstrated a remarkably equal approach to the sexes when it came to indiscriminate killing, men still had many more chances to perish.
Thus, according to the 1957 data, there were 550,000 war widows in Korea. Most of them were wives of South Korean soldiers and policemen killed in action during the Korean War (there was also a very small number of women whose husbands perished while fighting on the other side).
Only 34,000 were single, while others took care of families ― not only children but also elderly parents and younger siblings. Almost a million (910,000, to be more precise) people were members of families headed by the widows.
The situation was bad, since Korea was desperately poor and it could not provide adequate work even for able bodied and skilled men.
The opportunities for female employment were very limited, especially since only 640 war widows (or 0.1 percent of the total) had a college education, while approximately half of them had never attended any regular school at all.
Thus, in 1957, half of the widows had no jobs, or had jobs that did not pay enough to support their families.
The government established special centers for widows where they could find housing and support. Throughout the 1950s, there were some 60 to 65 such centers (for example, 64 in 1957) with 7,000 to 8,000 women resident at any one time.
But this was but a tiny fraction of all the widows. Since only a small number of women could be possibly accepted, the centers were usually open only to widows with small children.
Such centers not only provided women with housing and food, but also gave them some training in potentially useful occupations: hairdressing, dressmaking or knitting. However, it would be overstating the case to say that those women left the shelters with marketable skills: The data we have indicates that their employment rate was low.
Apart from the shelters, there were also vocational training centers, but they hardly fared much better. For most women, the 1950s and early 1960s was a period when they had to struggle along with odd jobs (largely in small trade) until their children grew old enough to take care of themselves and their aging mothers. Fortunately, for most widows, this was eventually the case.
And, of course, society could not stop worrying about widows' sexual mores. According to established tradition, the chaste widows were to be glorified: In 1955 Pak Nam-ok, one of the few female directors then active in Korea, produced a movie called ``Widow" which tells the story of a brave and chaste woman resisting all temptations and advances of predatory males.
However, should such advances always be resisted? In 1956, well-known novelist Chang Tok-jo published an essay in which he stated that for a childless woman re-marriage and perhaps even love affairs could be permissible.
However, he did not doubt that for a widow with children such frivolities should not be tolerated, and he also made clear that a love affair of a childless widow should in due course lead to a proper marriage and motherhood.
Some authors went even further, and challenged the centuries-old assumptions, even suggesting that re-marriage could be suitable even for those widows who were taking care of children.
Amusingly, in their polemic they often cited the alleged sexual insatiability of widows, which could lead to social incidents and complications.
A female journalist wrote, ``If [widows] cannot control their sexual desires, remarriage is much more suitable and honorable [solution]" ― presumably, more suitable and honorable than promiscuous liaisons with married men.
Indeed, the 1950s was a time when many old assumptions about proper behavior met with a powerful challenge.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.