By Alek Sigley.
In the last instalment on the novel Friend by Paek Nam Ryong we looked at how Ri Sŏk Ch’un, the lathe operator, met his wife, the singer, Ch’ae Sun Hŭi. The story is told through a flashback to the past. Now they are married, have a young son, and are seeking divorce through the local People’s Court judge Chŏng Jin U.
The narrative also contains a section where Chŏng Jin U recounts how he met his now-wife, Han Ŭn Ok. It provides many an insight into North Korean society, in particular, the outlook of North Korea’s educated class. In the section where Chŏng Jin U gives his thesis presentation, I have directly translated much of the text, rather than summarise it, as in the rest of the post. This is because it is a considerably unique look at North Korean historiography and social science, and therefore might be of academic interest to some out there.
It all started twenty years ago, in the autumn. Chŏng Jin U was presenting his thesis in the university lecture hall. It was in order for him to advance to fifth year in the law faculty.
The title of the thesis was “A Legal Study of Marriage in Human History”. It was a very broad topic to take on for an undergraduate thesis, but he did his best to write it according to the dialectical materialist perspective that the historians had pioneered in studying the history of marriage. He’d shown it to some of his comrades in the dormitory and they had said that it had academic value and was excellent for something written by a university student.
So he stood at the lectern, ready to give his presentation. The lecture theatre was full. There were students from the law faculty, and other departments too. Thesis presentations were listed in notices, and placed up on campus walls. Law student presentations were often able to cross disciplinary boundaries and thus draw wide interest from across the campus.
In the front row was Yun Hŭi, a student known amongst her peers in the law faculty as “Bee Sting”. She flashed Chŏng Jin U a somewhat contemptuous smile. It was clear that no matter how logical and well-written his thesis is, she’ll find some chink in its armour to attack it through.
Next to Yun Hŭi sat a young woman he didn’t recognise. She sent him a warm, soft look, in which he read curiosity and perhaps even admiration. The young woman’s tender gaze left a deep impression inside his heart. He glanced at her one more time before lowering his head to begin reading his thesis.
“During the days of humanity’s youth…”
He then described how the institution of marriage changed in form as society’s mode of production evolved, starting with hunter gatherer society, where early humans lived in tropical and sub-tropical forests, forming tribes that took shelter in caves. In such times, there was not yet any gender-based division of labour. This is a time long before even the Paleolithic era. Humans had just evolved from advanced animals and had begun walking upright, but had not yet discovered fire or learned to use sticks or stone axes as tools.
During this time the prevailing form of marriage was collective marriage. The people of the time faced ferocious beasts, the inestimable wildness of nature, and food shortages, and were thus forced into tight-knit communities. These people had a weak moral spirit. Barely distinguishing themselves from the wild they lived in, to follow their base instincts was “morality”. There was no need nor possibility for regulation of such a marital system.
As humans began to learn to use fire and basic wooden and stone implements, we entered the Paleolithic period. These led to the formation of matriarchal clans. The collective marriage of this time was that in which the children only knew their mothers, and thus lineage was calculated through the matrilineal line.
However, people began to feel the insult and shame of collective marriage, and it began to narrow its confines to a more progressed form limited to within individual households. Marriage between siblings was also made taboo. These matrilineal clans developed from the middle of the Paleolithic era to the end of the Neolithic.
As population density and economic productivity increased, spiritual development in these matrilineal clan societies was achieved. This led to conflict between the women who wanted to progress to a more dignified system of marriage, and the men who wouldn’t readily abandon the base pleasures of collective marriage. Finally, collective marriage gave way to a form of polygamous marriage where the children still belonged to the mother. This was a “legal” victory for women, despite containing the vestiges of collective marriage.
It wasn’t until the late-Neolithic and Bronze Age that monogamy, i.e. one husband one wife-style marriages appeared. This was a time when animal husbandry and agriculture were developed, and reshaped the structure of human society. Men became more dominant because they provided the muscle necessary for tilling the fields etc. They began to bring wife and children over to their side, and lineage and inheritance was traced through the paternal side.
This was followed by a shift to a patriarchal society, development of iron implements, further increases in productivity, division of labour, surplus product, private ownership, commercial goods, exchange, exploitation, and the formation of social classes…
The state, which was the product of class conflict, created the legal system as a means to protect the private ownership of the ruling classes and oppress the working class. Law, a weapon of state power which serves the interests of the exploiting class, is essentially no different to the customs, culture, and clan meetings-based decision making of primitive and clan society.
The legal code of ancient Sumer, and the 16th century BC Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which was its inheritor, delineates marriage law alongside criminal and civil law. These ancient legal codes proscribed prostitution and adultery not in order to promote a healthier morality, but for the purposes of consolidating private property.
This consolidation of private property led to the subjection of woman to the patriarchy, in the family and in broader society, making them economically, politically, and ideologically subservient. Entering feudal society, marital relations operated within coercion and submission under the influence of wealth, status, and power. This developed towards a situation where women’s subjectivity and human rights were trampled upon. In the case of legal codes such as the Koryŏ Era “Sangchŏngryemun”, or the Ri Dynasty “Kyŏngguktaejŏn“…
Upon reaching here, Chŏng Jin U took a drink of water and looked at the people in the lecture theatre. The haughtiness on the “Bee Sting’s” face had disappeared without a trace. Instead, he saw a look of surprise. She had not expected such an erudite presentation, having up until now dismissed Chŏng Jin U as dilettante who only did a little bit of study. However, the girl sitting next to her, who had at the beginning sent him a friendly look, now sat stone-faced and serious.
The listeners, who sat without focus as if enveloped in a white fog, were like witnesses who had borne testament to tens of thousands of years of marriage’s most difficult history. Not living witnesses, rather, they themselves were direct descendants of the ever-evolving forms of marriage.
After a round applause for his efforts, most left the lecture theatre. The two girls in the front row approached Chŏng Jin U. Yun Hŭi was effusive in her praise of his presentation, and uncharacteristically, could find no flaws to point out. She then introduces her friend as Han Ŭn Ok, a distance student in the biology faculty from faraway Yŏnsudŏk, adding that Ŭn Ok did have an opinion that she would like to express on Chŏng Jin U’s thesis. However, when Chŏng Jin U asks her to express her thoughts, she just blushes, praises his work and avoids saying anything. She then leaves with Yun Hŭi.
Find out what happens next in Part 3! What suggestions does Ŭn Ok have for Chŏng Jin U’s thesis? And will they get together? Well of course they will! I did mention it at the beginning of this post…