Who’s Son Are You? (or, Why do parents obsess over sons in sageuk storylines?)

Have you ever noticed how some families in Korean TV dramas fuss over sons, be it wanting to have one, or raising one, or the lack of one?

Photo from the SBS TV drama “Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love”

Take “Jang Ok-Jung: Live in Love”, for example. Each character seems to know what’s at stake with having a son. The King wants one as an heir. Jang Ok-Jung wants to give birth to one to secure the King’s love and her position in the palace. The Queen is forlorn at her inability to produce one, as it seems to be her primary responsibility. The Queen Mother wants a pure, royal blooded, untainted-by-any-“low-class wench” (the Queen Mother’s words in the drama, not mine, hehe!). Whereas the Queen Dowager doesn’t mind one from Jang Ok-Jung’s womb, as long as the womb is affiliated with her faction (you know how intrigue-filled palace life in any saguek is!).

But one movie truly characterizes this preoccupation with having a son, in my opinion. No doubt readers of this blog (this writer included) might have been too young when the movie 씨받이 (The Surrogate Womb) was shown in 1987. Some readers of this blog might not even have been be born yet.

Recently, though, while on a student exchange program in Seoul, our history class was made to watch this movie, and what stood out for me was how the movie revolved around producing a son.

The film is a classic period masterpiece by renowned Korean director Im Kwon Taek, which was presented at the 44th Venice International Film Festival and won the Best Actress Prize for Kang Soo-yeon.

The film tells the story of yangban couple Sang-Kyu and his wife, who have been married for 12 years already but are still childless. The family has no heir to facilitate ancestral rites. This becomes unsettling for the family. So they come up with a plan to hire a 씨받이, or surrogate womb, in secret. They finally choose Oak-Nye, played by actress Kang Soo-yeon, as surrogate womb. Oak-Nye was forced to undergo various physiological and sexual indignities to ensure the birth of a son, such as holding her breath til near-death on the night of a full moon, drinking a concoction made from the grinded nose of Buddha’s statue, and bathing on almost-burning water, to name a few. Eventually, Sang-Kyu and Oak-Nye eventually fall in love. The family finds out about the affair and tries to separate them, but to no avail. Oak-Nye eventually gives birth to a boy. The family keeps the child. Oak-Nye and her mother, with heavy hearts, leave the house with their “prize” – 10 patches of land.

Photo credit: Wallcoo.net

So why this impassioned preoccupation with producing a son during the Joseon period? At this day and age, and being a foreigner at that, this is quite a puzzle for me.

According to my readings, this strong preference for a son is rooted in Confucianism. First and foremost, a male heir is needed to conduct ancestor worship. Ancestor worship can only be done by the head of the male lineage (the father/husband) as ritual master. In their minds, a daughter cannot carry out ancestral rites nor continue family lineage.

In the absence of a male heir, the ritual of honoring a family’s forefathers is in danger of coming to a halt. And in Confucian culture, this is a no-no. That’s why the clan gives so much importance to paternal lineage.

That’s also why, if you watch the movie, you’ll notice that the production of a male heir is like a family affair. Everyone is concerned about it, from the grandma of the family down to the distant relatives.

There is a great emphasis on keeping the family lineage alive since social and political status depended heavily on birth and lineage.

The film also depicts the extreme pressure on yangban women to produce an heir, which is their most important duty. She must assure the continuation of the husband’s line by bearing a son. A son is also needed to pass down the family fortune after parents’ death. Failure to produce a male heir was considered a sin, according to the “seven sins” for wives in The Great Ming Code. Moreover, women with only daughters were treated as if they were criminals. So if a yangban woman has no son, the family would either hire a surrogate mother, like in this particular movie, or adopt a son.

Screenshot from the SBS drama “Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love”.
Photo credit: allkpop.com

In “Jang Ok-Jung: Live in Love”, the Queen Mother and Queen In-Hyeon thought they could use Ok-Jung’s womb as some sort of surrogate womb, after which they’d steal away the baby. But, as you may well know from the drama, the King had other plans: Through sly maneuverings, he demoted Queen In-Hyeon and appointed Ok-Jung as queen in order to secure his son’s position as successor.

Screenshot from the SBS drama “Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love”

Such is the trouble and intrigue behind the production of a male heir. But does this ring true in the present time?

The answer is, not so much. I couldn’t believe it myself at first, since Korea is known to be a patriarchal society. But, when one of my Korean professors shared with us the results of his study, I began to believe that Korean society may indeed be moving towards gender equality.

Basically, our professor said that although strong son preference still exists in Korea, especially among older generations, there is a drastic decline in son preference among females and younger generations. This is the conclusion that he arrived at after analyzing survey data from the East Asian Social Survey in 2006.

He says that this may be because of Korea’s democratization and the women’s movement, minds are slowly but surely changing. Moreover, he also says that family life in Korea has shifted from paternal to bi-lateral, that’s why son preference has weakened noticeably among females and youngsters.

There are a lot of other articles that point to this interesting trend. This article from Korea JoongAng Daily points to the changing perceptions of parents towards raising children, which is from the function of having a child (i.e., this kid will do this-and-that for the family in the future) to the pure pleasure of raising a child.

This New York Times article, meanwhile, even hails Korea as a trendsetter in Asia for successfully reversing the high sex imbalance in the population. It also says that daughters are more preferred now since they are seen to be more caring than sons towards their parents, especially in old age.

So the next time you see a sageuk with characters clamoring for son in the family, smile, savor the nostalgia, and say, “It’s becoming Korea’s past.”


1) Women’s Life During the Choson Dynasty (Han Hee-Sook)

2) Korea – Traditional Korean Families

3) Son Preference or Daughter Preference? A Comparative Study (Eun Ki-Soo)

4) Gender equality slightly improved last year: gov’t report (Korea Herald)


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