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An SNU Researcher Reveals Joseon Dynasty's Fertility Decline

  • November 14, 2011
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Low fertility is not only a problem of today. The royal family of the Joseon dynasty was also worried about this issue. They wanted high fertility to the extent that they called the birth of a son in the royal family -- the celebration of Jongsa' (Jongsa is a type of Korean grasshopper which lays 99 eggs at once). However, the royal family's fertility declined more and more until eventually, during the reigns of Gojong (26th King among all 27 Kings in Joseon dynasty) and Cheoljong (25th King), the royal family had to adopt sons from collateral family members.

A research paper which investigates the demographic changes and socio-cultural reasons for the declining fertility of the royal family of the Joseon dynasty has been published.

Dr. KIM Jiyoung, a researcher at SNU's Institute of Cultural Studies, has published a paper titled"Fertility of the Royal Family of the Joseon Dynasty" in the fall issue of the quarterly journal Mind and Culture Studies. She concluded that the intensification of Confucianism and fertility decline evolved together.

The royal family was always worried whenever the birth of a son of the king was delayed, since this might threaten jongmyosajic, a Korean term which means the royal family and the state altogether. When they hired an official to preside over various ceremonies, whether or not he had good fortune regarding offspring was important.

However, after the Injo regime, the total number of offspring declined from 183 to 90. Many queens did not bear even one child.

During the Joseon dynasty, of 273 children, the queens had 93, and concubines had 180 children.

Number of Kings' Children in Joseon Dynasty

There were two types of concubines: gantaek and seung-eun. The former were chosen to become concubines after formal processes, like queens, among daughters of noble classes. The latter were selected from among court ladies.

King Taejong laid the foundation of the system of concubines so that a king could have three gantaek concubines. King Sejong selected three concubines for his son Munjong. During the early years of the Joseon dynasty, the average number of concubines was 7 to 8. However, this dropped to 3 during the latter years of the dynasty. Also, during the early years, there were more gantaek concubines than seung-eun concubines, but this trend was reversed during the latter years.

The reason behind this change was the decline of the social status of gantek concubines. During the dynasty's early years, these concubines sometimes became queens. During the latter years, however, there were rarely such cases.

The reason for this change was the intensification of Confucianism. The distinction between a queen and a concubine had become clearer, and also more rigid, and the status gap between them had been enlarged. This made the noble classes reluctant to send their daughters to become gantaek concubines.

Moreover, celibacy of the kings made the problem worse. After the mid-Joseon dynasty, Confucian order had been strengthened, and a longer period of celibacy was required for people in the royal family, including the king. As time went by, the number of memorial days that had to be observed increased so that the celibacy period of kings also was elongated. Thus the royal family could not escape from the problem of low fertility.

Dr. Kim explained,"This shows that the Joseon dynasty's intensified Confucian order exerted a fundamental influence over personal lives even in such areas as childbearing."

Written by PARK Ziho, SNU English Editor,
Proofread by Brett Johnson, SNU English Editor,
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