#AsiaNow Speaks with Jisoo M. Kim

Jisoo M. Kim is Director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Korean Studies and Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History, International Affairs, and East Asian Languages and Literatures. She is author of The Emotions of Justice: Gender, Status, and Legal Performance in Chosŏn Korea, published by University of Washington Press and winner of the 2017 AAS James B. Palais Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

By asking the question of justice in premodern Korea and how it was shaped by emotions, my book contends that the state’s recognition of the sentiment of being wronged permitted every subject regardless of gender or status to seek justice by voicing grievances to the state. This study illuminates the intersection of law, emotions, and gender in premodern Korea. In its approach, the work contests the typical image of the Chosŏn state (1392–1910) as being socially rigid because of its hereditary status system, slavery, and Confucian gender norms. The Emotions of Justice reveals a surprisingly complex picture of a judicial system by showing how legal subjects of different genders or statuses, including even female slaves, were equally empowered to express their sense of injustice through petitioning the state. I argue that the state’s validation of the sentiment of being wronged generated the distinctive legal culture that was intricately interwoven with the hereditary status system in a Neo-Confucian polity.

What inspired you to research this topic?

In my first graduate Korean history seminar class at Columbia University, late Professor JaHyun Kim Haboush introduced women’s petitions written during the Chosŏn dynasty. I was intrigued by those petitions because it allowed me to ask so many different questions that shed light on women’s and gender history of the Chosŏn period. Furthermore, it led me to rethink the Confucian judicial system and the whole idea of justice in the context of early modern Korea. What really fascinated me was that subjects regardless of gender or status, including female slaves, were equally empowered to address grievances to the state. This enabled me to write how legal practices in the Chosŏn distinguished it from neighboring countries that shared a Confucian judicial system.  

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better/easier than you expected it would?

There are currently more than five hundred women’s petitions that are extant from the Chosŏn period. However, only about 150 original petitions are intact, and these are mostly county-level petitions. It is difficult to find original petitions that were submitted to capital courts or the king. Those submitted at the capital level exist as a summary in official documents. Although it was difficult to draw a complete picture of the petitioning process—county -> province -> capital -> king—it was possible to analyze petitioning strategy, gendered narrative, and the sentiment of injustice that played a critical role in performing justice.       

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

One of the funniest stories I encountered was that a female petitioner, who petitioned on behalf of her imprisoned husband, addressed to the king regarding her hardship. She explained how her husband was innocent and how she struggled at home due to his absence. Further, she stated that her mother-in-law, who was in her seventies, refused to eat because she was so worried about her son and now she was on her deathbed. When the Board of Punishment investigated her husband’s case, they found out that the petitioner’s mother-in-law was in her fifties and she was doing fine. The petitioner was punished for lying to the king. It was interesting to see how this female petitioner constructed her narrative of pity to seek pardon from the king.

Another interesting female petitioner I found was that she was bold enough to strike a gong in front of the entrance where a civil service examination was taking place. She was aware of the fact that the king was present and struck the gong to draw his attention so that he could listen to her grievance.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you would recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I was inspired by Daniel Smail’s The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264-1423 (Cornell University Press, 2003).

What are you working on now?

My current book-length project is tentatively titled Crime of Violence: Forensic Medicine, Dead Bodies, and Legal Culture in Early Modern Korea. This book will explore the theme of criminal justice and examine the intersection of law and medicine. During the reign of Sejong (r. 1418−50) in 1435, the manual Newly Annotated Coroner’s Guide for the Elimination of Grievances (Sinju muwŏllok 新註無冤錄) was published based on the text originally written by Wang Yü (1261−1346) from Yuan China (1271−1368). Although Song China’s The Washing Away of Wrongs had become the most reliable reference on forensic medicine in China, Koreans imported Wang Yü’s text, which was used as a guideline for post-mortem examination. In examining this legal text, I am interested in exploring a broader issue of the transmission of legal knowledge in East Asia and the process of exporting and importing legal texts. Based on Korean practices of forensic medicine that relied on the Chinese text of the coroner’s manual, the state published Amplified and Corrected Coroner’s Guide for the Elimination of Grievances (Chŭngsu muwŏllok 增修無冤錄) in the eighteenth century. This text was also translated into vernacular Korean to aid easier reading for those executing justice at a local level. This study investigates the development of medico-legal knowledge by comparing different versions of forensic texts produced from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. In doing so, it aims to demonstrate the process of indigenizing the knowledge of forensic medicine in early modern Korea.