Confucian Marriage: The Depiction of a Wife’s Role

The Japanese symbol (Tsuma) for wife.

The Japanese symbol (Tsuma) for wife

Contrary to the Western world’s view of equality within a marriage, Eastern cultures uphold strict requirements for each spouse. In both Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots,” the Confucian role of a wife is spotlighted in order to underscore the level of loyalty and respect that Asian society expects wives to maintain and ceaselessly provide their husbands.

Introduction

Asian philosopher, Confucius, is regarded for his perspectives on five various interpersonal connections and relationships.  In particular, the Confucian relationship between a husband and his wife concisely summarizes the overarching perspective that Asian social culture endorses—the man should be the protector and provider of his family while the wife must remain loyal and supportive of her husband in every way possible.  Whereas Eastern cultures adhere to stringent guidelines and expectations for the corresponding duties of each spouse, the Western world challenges these norms by providing both husband and wife equal opportunity to have their voices heard and needs met.  In doing so, females have obtained a stronger sense of freedom and independence; they are able to be their own person and not limited to the title of “wife” or “mother.”  For instance, in her literature, Marriage and Family, feminist reporter, Mary Ann Glendon notes, “Today, women’s opportunities have improved to the point where there is virtually no gender gap between the earnings of women and men who have made similar life choices” (17).  The American opinion of a husband and wife’s relationship stands to be quite open and unrestrictive, compared to that of Asian marriages.  There is a larger acceptance for the self-sufficient woman.

Moreover, the dynamic between a husband and wife within an Asian context ultimately originates from its cultural foundation.  According to the author of Marriage in Traditional Society, Janice E. Stockhard, “Asian marriage united not just individuals and nuclear families, but also extended family networks in particular class positions.  Marriages entailed strategies to unite families in such a way as to maintain or advance these positions in society” (40).  Within the Eastern world, arranged marriages were and are still quite common; since not all Asian marriages are voluntarily chosen, the responsibilities of a wife are not solely for her own benefit.  Thus, there are often ulterior motives for which Asian couples are joined in matrimony—most commonly, that the marriage will advance each family’s social status.  In addition to serving as the ideal wife to her husband, the female also bears the burden of maintaining and fulfilling her family’s reputation within Asian society.  Therefore, the surrounding culture ultimately influences the internal relationship between a man and a woman; further, the woman is virtually living a life of service and duty to her family and husband.  Asian culture demands that wives adhere to the needs of her husband and often choosing her husband’s side over her own voice.

A Wife’s Role: As Seen In Taiko

The cover image of the book Taiko depicting samurai in feudal Japan.

The cover image of the book Taiko depicting samurai in feudal Japan

Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan, written by Eiji Yoshikawa, serves as an intensive, action-packed tale that follows the journey of a young Hiyoshi and his transformation into the great samurai, Taiko.  Though the novel, itself, is primarily focused around the main character’s trials and tribulations that occur while on the road to becoming a fearful samurai leader, several supporting character roles provide additional dynamics that enrich the story’s overall plot. Even though not heavily dominant and present throughout the entirety of the epic, marital relationships are brought to the reader’s attention very early on in Taiko.

Though Taiko provides an excellent example of the aforementioned dynamic between husbands and wives in Asian social culture, the epic actually begins with an interesting, yet, contradictory (to Asian social norms) marriage. In Book Onethe first marital relationship the audience witnesses, is that of Yaemon and Onaka–Hiyoshi’s parents.  Early on, it becomes known that Yaemon had been injured during battle; due to her husband’s permanent physical impairment, Hiyoshi’s mother, Onaka, finds herself burdened with the responsibility to take care of her family.  In addition, since Yaemon’s career abruptly ended, he hopes for and encourages his son to become the man he was never able to be.  However, Onaka possesses a completely opposing opinion and strongly forbids Hiyoshi to follow in the path of becoming a future samurai.

The fact that Onaka disagrees with her husband sheds light on the fact that Onaka commences as an atypical Asian wife.  Though she later on takes on the role of the quintessential, respectful, subdued wife throughout her second marriage, her relationship with her first husband stands out as being unique–she actually disregards and does not adhere to the Confucian values of which Asian wives typically abide. Since she maintains a more authoritative motherly role in place of her weak husband, Onaka actively disagrees with Yaemon in order to protect her son from a potentially dangerous career.  In fact, this is the only time that the audience really sees Onaka taking charge and exercising her own voice, which is something that becomes missed and diminished throughout the rest of Taiko.

Eventually, Yaemon passes away, leading Onaka to remarry; however, her second marriage to an aggressive samurai, Chikuami, proves to be quite different from that of her marriage to her late husband.  Whereas Yaemon was debilitated and fragile, Chikuami is extremely outspoken and hostile. Not only is he a demanding stepfather, but he is also a belligerent drunk who abuses his power.  Fearful of her safety, Onaka transforms into a more submissive, cooperative wife who supports her husband’s judgements rather than contradicting them.  Because of Chikuami’s intimidating nature, Onaka resumes the role of a domestic, subservient wife.

Representation of Onaka choosing to look away from Chikuami's aggressive behavior

Representation of Onaka choosing to look away from Chikuami’s aggressive behavior

A Wife’s Role: As Seen in “Tree With Deep Roots”

Marriage is a universal ideology that continues to be a timeless component of society.  Though Western and Eastern cultures value this concept, each uphold societal norms that are representative of their own beliefs.  “Tree With Deep Roots” showcases the Asian cultural perspective of marriage and social expectations of both spouses.

Over the course of the series, several marriages are highlighted that further reinforce the Confucian relationship between a husband and his wife. First, it is important to note that Confucius believed that the most important aspect of any family as well as society, is the marriage between two individuals.  This special commitment must be founded upon values of love, harmony and virtue.  However, unlike most Western cultures, Confucius’ Eastern standpoint emphasizes the idea of arranged marriage; matches are less about the individuals being married and more about what is in the best interests of the families.

The most prevalent and obvious marriage illustrated throughout the drama is the relationship between King Lee Do and Queen Sohun.  As the King of the Joseon Dynasty, Lee Do serves as the figurehead; yet, his father, Taejong, actually acts as the governing ruler who maintains absolute power over the entire country.  Notoriously known for his violent, murderous actions, Taejong eventually takes the life of Queen Sohun’s own father. In most marriages, the husband is considered as the fighter and protector; however, Eastern cultures highly impress respect upon family members.  Moreover, rather than standing up for his wife and his now deceased father-in-law’s honor, King Lee Do actually fears his own father.  In the earliest episodes, he allows Taejong to intimdate him, which ultimately affects his own marriage to Queen Sohun.  Arguments begin to arise between them as a result of the queen being outraged of her husband’s lack of stamina and retaliation against his outlandish, unruly father.

Queen Sohun hiding her grief from her husband

Queen Sohun withholding her grief

Understandably, Queen Sohun (play 00:43:45 to 00:22:30) is overcome with grief upon the death of her own father.  Once she begins to feel a sense of resentment and anger towards Taejong, she expects her husband to do something about it. Yet, King Lee Do instructs her not to do anything, for fear of having more innocent victims killed.  Thus, the queen must grasp with the reality that she has no other choice but to sacrifice her own feelings for the sake of the people. This foreboding presence of a disliked family member–especially one of authority–proves to drive a slight wedge between the married couple.  Rather focusing on just his marriage, King Lee Do channels his Eastern values of respect for his elders before attempting to strategize a way to challenge his father in later episodes.

 “Do you not want to lose it? Your position as Queen?” —King Lee Do

It is important to note King Lee Do’s final comment within this video clip, for he presents his wife with a difficult proposition.  Ultimately, he is challenging her to decide what is more important: her father or her title as queen.  As the audience watches, Queen Sohun stands dumbfounded with her husband’s ultimatum.  Though she obviously feels strongly convicted to protecting her own father, Queen Sohun ends up biting her tongue for the time being so as to preserve her presence within the royal family.  Thus, this political decision further underscores the aforementioned point about how Eastern Asian culture values what is best for the whole, rather than the individual.  In this case, Queen Sohun makes the decision to not immediately revoke her title as queen, in order to save her family’s reputation and name within society.

Even more, this scene sufficiently showcases one of the drastic differences between reactions of Western and Eastern (Asian) women.  If an American wife was faced with the ultimatum of choosing between her title and her own family members, more likely than not, she would choose her family.  Furthermore, she would not tolerate the disrespect and insult that her husband elicits as a result of instilling such a decision.  Therefore, this clip demonstrates the types of trials and tests the leading female characters endure, and how they respond to the given situation.  Rather than rebelling against King Lee Do, Queen Sohun keeps her level of loyalty and trust with her husband, even though her internally emotions do not align with her external actions.

“Tree With Deep Roots” is an intense, captivating Korean drama that spotlights various aspects of ancient Korean culture ranging from samurai society to familial ties and war.  However, it also accentuates the royal relationship, thus providing the audience with the opportunity to see the inner dynamics of an Asian marriage.

Conclusion

In summation, both Taiko and “Tree With Deep Roots” act as adequate representations of the stringent expectations that Asian social culture places upon wives, in terms of how they are supposed to act towards their husbands.  Within Taiko, Onaka maintains a contradictory personality, for she initially rebels as the uncharacteristic Asian wife who stands up for her own opinions, yet, she later transitions in a model wife when she becomes married to a more authoritative husband. Her conversion to having a submissive and timid disposition upon remarrying to Chikuami ultimately makes the readers lose slight faith and hope in her.  She loses her voice and becomes compliant with the orders and actions of her aggressive husband.

Similarly, “Tree With Deep Roots” also incorporates a female role that addresses the difficulty of being a wife within ancient Asian culture.  Although Onaka’s family origins or ties do not trace back to nobility, her voice becomes just as limited as that of Queen Sohun’s.  Having married into the royal family, Queen Sohun’s title provides both her and her own family an elevated status within society.  As a result, she is presented with the double burden of not only adhering to proper wifely duties, but she must also act accordingly with the duties bestowed upon her royal title.  Eventually, both responsibilities collide together and she must decide whether to protect her own family or remain loyal to and cooperative with her husband.

Though Onaka and Queen Sohun stem from two entirely different families and contextual situations, both women exemplify and embody the Confucian, Asian societal expectation that is placed upon women to be dedicated, respectful, archetypal wives.

Bibliography

“English Channel.” English Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Gilbert, Kathleen R.. Marriage and family 99/00. 25th ed. Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1999. Print.

Hennon, Charles B.. Families in a global context. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Stockard, Janice E.. Marriage in culture: practice and meaning across diverse societies. Orlando, FL.: Harcourt College Publishers, 2002. Print.

Tree With Deep Roots. Dir. Lee Jeong Myeong. Perf. Jang Hyuk and Shin Se Kyung. Drama Fever, 2011.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992.Print

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