A Joseon Woman of Great Knowledge of Neo-Confucianism
Neo-Confucianism was established by scholars of Song and Ming Dynasties of China. During the era of the Korean kingdom of Joseon, it was very challenging for women to engage in their academic pursuits in any field of study. But even during that period, there was a woman who studied neo-Confucianism characterized by the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius. Her name is Kang Jeongildang.
She led an extraordinary life as a woman of letters and scholar of neo-Confucianism. Who is Kang Jeongildang?
Crying out for Gender Equality in the Joseon Era
Dominated by Confucian values, the Joseon Dynasty drew a clear distinction between men and women, while restricting women’s social and cultural activities. Women’s education was all about good manners and family affairs. And this type of education was only allowed for women who belonged to the royal family or the noble class.
Beginning in the 17th century, women in noble families, one after another, started to read Confucian scriptures and write poems and prose. These women of letters include Shin Saimdang, Yim Yunjidang(임윤지당), Seo Youngsuhap(서영수합), Yi Sajudang(이사주당), Yi Bingheogak(이빙허각) and Kang Jeongildang.
Kang, among others, studied neo-Confucianism in depth, which was difficult even for men to explore. She also maintained that men, in essence, are not any different from women.
Born with High Virtue
Kang Jeongildang was born in 1772 in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province. She came from a noble family where the ancestors held government positions. But her family was poor because her grandfather and father died rather early.
Kang’s mother had a special dream when she was pregnant. In her dream, her deceased grandmother brought a young girl and asked her to take care of the child, who is a woman of virtue. After the dream, Kang was born. Apparently reflecting the dream, Kang’s childhood name was Jideok(지덕), meaning a person of high virtue. According to Haengjang(행장), a book that recorded Kang’s life, she had a calm temperament and was good at controlling her feelings.
Overcoming Poverty and Grief, Devoted to Studies
Kang had to overcome poverty from childhood. But she also had to endure sorrow after she was married to Yun Gwang-yeon(윤광연) in 1791.
She gave birth to nine children—five sons and four daughters. Unfortunately, they all died less than a year after birth. At the time, it was common to lose children due to inadequate food and lack of proper medical facilities. Still, losing all nine children was inconsolable grief.
Kang advised her husband to prepare for the state civil service exam. She used to sit by her husband while he was studying and did needlework to make a living. While listening to her husband reading books, she also studied. When she heard something she didn’t know, she asked what it was and then memorized it. Once she read something, she never forgot it. Her talent was even greater than her husband’s, and the couple had academic debates on some topics.
When the husband found it difficult to enter government service, Kang recommended that he teach children. The couple spent time together, reading books and debating, throughout their lives.
Despite poverty and personal sorrow, Kang devoted herself to her studies. After a great deal of effort, she wrote about ten books.
Kang’s writings were later made public, thanks to her husband Yun, who thought highly of her abilities and loved her deeply. Yun preserved his wife’s poetry and prose well. Four years after she died, Yun spent his entire fortune in compiling his wife’s writings into a book and publishing it, despite tough financial conditions.
Kang had a remarkable talent and great enthusiasm for learning. But she couldn’t showcase her abilities and passion properly due to the social restrictions at the time. Kang’s writings indicating her ideas were compiled in a book titled Jeongildang Posthumous Work, which is available today.