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Paper presented at the 121st American Ethnological Society annual meeting, Portland, Oregon, March 2528, 1999.
"‘Husband Is to Wife as Heaven Is to Earth’:
Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society”
Chunghee Sarah Soh, Ph.D.
San Francisco State University
Sherry Ortner's article entitled “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” is perhaps the
best known anthropological attempt to explain the “universality of female subordination”
by conceptualizing female to male relations in terms of the nature/culture dichotomy à la
Levi-Straussian structuralism. First published in 1972, the article was republished two
years later in the edited volume, Woman, Culture, and Society (Rosaldo and Lamphere
1974), which became a cornerstone of feminist anthropology. It is one of the best
remembered texts of my graduate days in the 1980s and I was rather surprised to find that
it was still being used as the main text for The Anthropology of Women class taught by a
Women Studies instructor at San Francisco State University in the fall 1994 semester
when I joined the University. (I might add here that at my institution the course,
Anthropology of Women, is cross-listed by the Departments of Anthropology and
Women Studies, and the two departments take turns in offering the course each semester.
So, when I taught the same course in the spring 1995, I adopted Gender in Cross-Cultural
Perspective, a 1993 volume edited by Caroline Brettell and Carolyn Sargent. In the next
semester, I noted with mixed feelings the disappearance of Woman, Culture, and Society
from the syllabus of my colleague in Women Studies, who adopted the same text as
As many of you may know, the volume contains among others two more seminal
articles, one by Michelle Rosaldo and the other by Nancy Chodorow, both of whom
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 2
attempted to theorize the secondary status of women in society as a universal, pancultural fact. Michelle Rosaldo, in her essay, "Woman, Culture and Society: A
Theoretical Overview," regarded the universal dichotomy between the "identification of
women with domestic life and of men with public life" as the underlying structural
framework that supported women's subordinate position in society in terms of power and
authority. Nancy Chodorow's article, "Family Structure and Feminine Personality,"
posited that women acquire feminine psychic characteristics due to universal female
socialization experiences and that the feminine personality characteristics—such as
personalism and particularism—were devalued in comparison with the masculine
personality characterized by objectivism and abstraction.
These two articles together with Ortner's received a lot of attention and generated
heated discussions. Some found their analyses persuasive while others were critical of
their universalist assumptions and dichotomous approaches to women's roles, statuses,
and personality characteristics. Based on ethnographic research on Korean culture and
society, I found Rosaldo’s analysis the most convincing among the three universalist
acccounts of women’s secondary status in society. In traditional Korea, which was a
highly stratified society organized under the patrilineal kinship system, the division of
workspace by sex along the domestic/public sphere distinction resulted in the inverse
relationship between women’s social status and public roles. There were only four
service jobs available for women in the public sphere: those of a shaman, medicine
woman, courtesan, and palace woman. My study of women in Korean politics has
reported the lack of the so-called widow’s succession in the Korean political history,
which I interpreted as an illustration of the strength of the patrilineal bloodline and the
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 3
sexual division of labor in Korean society. The arguments by Chodorow and Ortner were
less applicable in the Korean case. In considering the impact of family structure on
feminine personality, for example, I have hypothesized the influence of the father in the
daughter’s acquisition of androgyny by discussing the phenomena of the “absent father”
and the “nurturant father with egalitarian worldview” based on my study of women
legislators in South Korea.
This paper problematizes the simplistic conception of nature in Ortner’s article
and reconsiders the oppositional concepts of nature/culture in the anthropological
interpretations of gender roles and relations. In contrast to Ortner's dichotomous linkages
of nature to female versus culture to male, I argue that in the traditional Korean discourse
on sex/gender relations, the relationship between the concepts of nature and culture is not
oppositional but encompassed in hierarchical but complementary manners. That is,
culture is immanent in nature by marking or inscribing the components of nature such as
heaven and earth as male and female reflecting the cultural gender order, thereby
appropriating nature to illustrate and to reinforce the hegemonic Confucian ideology of
male superiority. In contrast, in contemporary South Korean society, I suggest that
nature is culturally tamed in the political processes of consolidating democratization by
legislating the principle of gender equality and the emerging feminist concept of
“women's rights as human rights” for both domestic and public lives.
In the first half of the paper, I will analyze the instances of what I may call the
“naturalization of culture” or culture in nature, by examining the idiomatic phrases and
axiomatic expressions in the Korean discourses on sex/gender roles and relations that
make use of the items or components of nature to support the Confucian ideology of male
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 4
superiority in heterosexual relations. In the second half of the paper, I will explore the
dynamics of culture change in the patterns of sex/gender relations in contemporary South
Korean society where democratic ideology of gender equity and the concept of human
rights are deployed by feminist activists to change the traditional patterns of sex/gender
relations through legislation in order to bring about more egalitarian relations between
men and women.
Nature in Culture, Culture in Nature
Now, before discussing the Korean case, I should mention here that the written
languages of China, Korea, and Japan, as the members of a common Confucian culture
region in East Asia, all use the Chinese ideographs, and that the Chinese character for
sex, which is pronounced song in Korean (sei in Japanese; xing in Chinese), refers
primarily to the biological and physiological dimensions. As a result, the dimension of
socially constructed sex differences, i.e., the concept of gender, is obscured and the lack
of the term gender has contributed to the popular understanding of gender inequity as an
inevitable consequence of natural sex differences.
In South Korea, as far as I know, the terminological discussion of the sex/gender
distinction in printed media first appeared in 1995 on the occasion of the World Women's
Conference in Beijing. For example, Chosun Ilbo, a major vernacular daily, featured a
special article on the Beijing Conference on August 25, the day before my departure from
field research in Seoul back to the States. The article was generally informative but in it I
found a confusing explanation of the differences between the two terms of sex and
gender. As an anthropologist specializing in the issues of gender and sexuality, I felt it
my duty to write a short piece that explicated the analytical distinction between sex and
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 5
gender. In it I also introduced the concept of a third gender, and suggested inventive new
terms, saengsong (“biological sex”) and munsong (“cultural sex”) for the Korean
language. It was published in the September 12 issue of Chosun Ilbo, but the Korean
language still lacks the term for gender. In comparison, in Japan, they have adopted the
English term, gender, while in China, they have added a character for distinction to the
character for sex in their attempt to denote the concept of gender. The point here is that
the lack of the term, gender, in the languages of the Confucian cultures is symbolically of
great significance for our discussion. I suggest that it has contributed to the generalized
view of ‘anatomy is destiny,’ thereby naturalizing the problem of socially constructed
gender discrimination.
Now going back to Ortner’s conceptualization of nature in opposition to culture
and the linkages of nature to female and of culture to male, one might criticize it for
being a Western and rather masculine conception of nature and gender. In the Korean
worldview, human beings as organisms originate from nature and return to it at the end of
life, and as such humans are in nature and part of nature. Social functional arrangement
of the sexual division of labor (such as men’s role in warfare and women’s role in
childrearing) has been perceived as a natural consequence of sex differences in
physiological characteristics. Even the unequal power and prestige relations between
husband and wife are naturalized by metaphoric expressions such as “Husband is to wife
as heaven is to earth.” Both heaven and earth are, of course, part of nature and yet earth
takes a secondary position to heaven in the Korean mind. From the Korean cultural
perspective, Heaven as the abode of ancestral spirits and other supernatural beings is
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
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“naturally” aligned with male, while earth as the field from which humans obtain fresh
fruits and vegetables may appear “naturally” linked to female.
For the purpose of this paper, I define culture as core values, beliefs, and patterns
of behavior shared by the majority of the members of society. In Korean culture, binary
oppositions are familiar features of classificatory thinking, and the Taoist principles of
yin and yang serve as fundamental sources for medical diagnoses, moral discourses, as
well as philosophical and poetic musings. As Sherry Ortner has noted, yin, the female
principle, and yang, the male principle, are given equal weight in the ideology of Taoism.
However, to suggest, as Ortner has,1 that maleness and femaleness are equally valued in
the general ideology of Chinese culture is a mistake. For one thing, Taosim as
philosophy is only one component of Chinese culture in which Confucianism as political
ideology has exerted much greater influence over the general patterns of social relations.
And Korean society is recognized as the most Confucian among the three East Asian
countries. Thus, despite the equal weight of heaven and earth in terms of the yin/yang
principles in Taoism, in practice, especially in the context of gender relations, yin, the
female principle, has been secondary to yang, the male principle, in the symbolism of
power and prestige.
In the metaphors of procreation, for example, male as the provider of the “seed” is
more valued than female as the field (earth) in which the seed will grow. In the agrarian
worldview of human reproduction, it is the seed, i.e., the male, which is attributed to be
the generator of life. It is in this cultural context that a phrase of a song says, “Father has
given birth to me and Mother has raised me.” The symbolism encoded in the ritualized
announcement of the birth of a baby in Korean society again utilizes natural items to
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 7
make a symbolic statement of the sex of the baby. When a baby is born, the entrance
door of the house is decorated by a straw rope, which hangs across the top of the door. If
the baby is a boy, red peppers and small rectangular shaped charcoal pieces will be
inserted in the rope. If it is a girl, the rope will have only the charcoal pieces. The festive
color of red peppers symbolizing the boy’s penis will be missing in the straw birth ropes
for baby girls.
I have given the above discussions of Korean cultural ideologies and practices as
ethnographic examples of “nature in culture” rather than “nature versus culture”: That is,
nature is culturally marked to illustrate and to support the hegemonic ideology of male
superiority. My analysis of the Korean case points to the intertwined relationship between
nature and culture in the construction of gender power relations, complicating
anthropological interpretations of the concepts of nature and culture in theoretical
understandings of their impact on sex/gender relations.
Culture over Nature
Let me now turn to the competing ways in which culture exerts control over
nature in traditional versus in contemporary Korean society.
“Women turn into foxes when three days pass by without their having been
beaten up,” (Yŏja-nŭn sahŭl-man mae-rŭl an-mazado yŏu-ga toenda.) is a well-known
Korean old saying that rationalizes domestic violence in the form of wife battering. The
saying is commonly used in the context of a newly married couple. The folk belief is that
husband needs to tame wife in order to establish proper power relations in the conjugal
life. Here, we see the Korean version of Ortner’s analytical linkage of women to
nature—in this case, women in the image of wily foxes and the linkage of men to culture
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 8
in the image of controllers of unruly nature, as husbands batter wives to “tame” or
domesticate them.
It is only from the late 1980s that the issues of the culture of violence against
women have been discussed as a serious social problem. Until then, the naturalization of
gender relations in Korean traditional culture has prevailed over the democratic ideology
of gender equality stipulated in the South Korean Constitution. Well-educated and
belonging to the upper-middle class, a devout Buddhist widow in her mid-seventies in
Seoul, for example, would blurt out “You should pray to be born male in your next life!”
to any discussions or complaints of gender discrimination by her women friends. In
contrast, some women of her own generation have been leading the “comfort women”
movement for redress on behalf of the survivors. They have defined as sexual slavery the
forced prostitution thrusted upon young females of colonized Korea (1910-1945) to serve
the military of imperial Japan during the Second World War. The Korean women leaders
demand Japan to recognize its legal responsibility for the war crimes of gross violations
of women’s human rights and to offer official compensation to the survivors.
In fact, in contemporary Korean society, which is characterized by a dualistic
structure of gender ideology deriving from the historical legacy of Confucianism and
from the modern adoption of the democratic institutions, a culture war has raged for
decades in the legislative arena. From the 1950s to early 1990s, the battle was fought
mainly over the revision of the Family Law by women’s organizations against the
traditional forces of opposition symbolized by the National Association of Confucians.
The 1998 revised law of citizenship exemplifies one of the latest victories of gender
egalitarianism over traditional masculinist culture by stipulating the principle of
“Nature and Culture in Sex/Gender Relations in Korean Society” (Soh 1999)
Page 9
bilaterality--in place of the traditional practice of patrilineality--in conferring Korean
citizenship to children of international marriages (Han’guk Ilbo 6/24//98). Most
remarkable legislative achievements of late are the revised Equal Employment Law that
includes stipulations against sexual harassment at workplace with stiff fines for violators
and the special law against Domestic Violence that allows women to bring charges
against their husbands for the first time in Korean legal history.
To conclude, the Korean case partially supports Ortner’s analysis but also
complicates the relationships between the concepts of nature and culture in the gender
ideology and relations. It demonstrates the primacy of ideology and the significance of
terminology in the particular configuration of the relationship between the concepts of
nature and culture in mapping and sustaining the patriarchal patterns of gender relations
in specific cultural contexts. It also indicates the impact of social activism in the
legislative arena that helps in the processes of culture change toward more egalitarian
gender relations in a society characterized by structural dualism.
Ortner, Sherry. 1996. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” In Making Gender: The Politics and
Erotics of Culture, pp. 21-42. Boston: Beacon Press.