Even though the term “chastity” that we use today is usually accepted asa tradition-bound word, it is a new sign system that has been reproducedfrom the historical and cultural perspective. Since the ancient times of China,the discourses of “chastity” had been established through various channelsincluding the publication of Biographies of Exemplary Women (列女傳) andwere later spread to East Asia in general after the Ming and Qing dynasty.
Right after its foundation, the Joseon dynasty chose the three cardinalprinciples in human relations (三綱; or the three bonds) as the symbol ofstate management under the principle of Neo-Confucianism as state ideology.
“Chastity” was a major element of the three cardinal principles. During theJapanese colonial period, the discourses of “chastity” were reorganizedthrough the influence of the West and Japan. First of all, the term “chastity”was used in Japan during the Meiji Restoration (明治維新, Meiji Ishin)period in the same meaning as used in China and Joseon. In the 1910s,however, the term was confined to the space of “home” amidst a mixture ofa variety of concepts such as cultivation of mind and body, the study ofsexual desires, the idea of monogamy, and the discourses of free love. Thus,the discourses of “chastity” not only became the criterion of judgment in the “virgin vs. harlot” frame but also functioned as the major discourses of“good wife and wise mother” under the system of monogamy.
Meanwhile, the colonized Joseon has to witness the reorganization of the“chastity” discourses because its time-honored discourses of “chastity” –prohibition of remarriage – was influenced by free love, monogamy, thestudy of sexual desires, cultivation of mind and body imported from Japan.
In the 1930s, the discourses of “chastity” in the colonized Joseon developedinto the discourses that combined the discourses of “chastity” and the ideasof fidelity imported from Japan. Meanwhile, the newly formed discourses of“chastity” became the object of the benefit and protection in both civil andcriminal laws, thereby acquiring its concrete qualities free from the abstractdiscourses. In terms of civil law, “chastity” functioned as both the right andthe duty of citizens and as a major pillar of maintaining the patriarchalfamily system. In terms of criminal law, losing one’s “chastity” functioned asa major crime along with extramarital relations, rape, and adultery. In theprocess, “chastity” was inclined to stick to the part of the female subject’sbody rather than helping protect the personality of the female subject whocould receive the benefit and protection of the law. Besides, such discoursesof “chastity” that had been legalized in terms of discourses was concernedwith a crime related to “chastity” in the new criminal law in 1953 afterKorea’s liberation from Japan. It continued to retain its historicity as thediscourses of “chastity” after Korea’s liberation.