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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Agency and oppression in Chosǒn religious women’s lives : an analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Catholic virgins in Korea Song, Jee-Yeon


This dissertation explores Korean female virgins’ practice of autonomy and their ability to confront oppression that was present in Confucian society and the Catholic Church during the late 18th and 19th centuries in Chosǒn, Korea. The adoption of the Catholic notion of virginity and the establishment of the nascent Catholic Church in Chosǒn, Korea allowed Korean women to escape the demands of forced arranged marriages during the late 18th century. Korean Catholic women confronted opposition from their families and persecution from society for choosing a religious life of perpetual virginity. Another challenge began when French missionaries from the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (hereafter MEP) arrived in 1836 and attempted to control Korean virgins by prohibiting them from practicing perpetual virginity autonomously and imposing strict regulations. As a result, Korean virgins developed new forms of subjectivity by valuing the development and realization of the self and practicing renunciation based on Catholic teachings. Therefore, they considered themselves to be Christian virgins without the approval or recognition of the Church. Although it seemed that they were subordinate to the authority of the Church and clergy, in reality, Korean virgins resisted their authority and achieved freedom by practicing Foucauldian ethical subjectivity. Korean virgins’ resistance and agency were ignored by Korean historians throughout the 20th century. The general understanding was that Korean virgins were part of the modernization (i.e., women’s liberation and gender equality) that Catholicism brought to Chosǒn, Korea throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this dissertation challenges this line of thinking and suggests that the Catholic Church did not liberate Korean women from patriarchal oppression or create gender equity for Korean women before the 20th century. Instead, their resistance to clerical controls and the development of a new form of subjectivity shows that Korean Catholic women replaced Confucian patriarchy with Catholic patriarchy, thus emphasizing the authority of the Church and its priests.

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