The Filial Daughter of Kwaksan: Finger Severing, Confucian Virtues, and Envoy Poetry in Early Chosŏn

2012 “The Filial Daughter of Kwaksan- Finger Severing, Confucian Virtues, and Envoy Poetry in Early Chosŏn.” Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 25, no. 2 (December): 175–212.

Among the three cardinal human relations in Confucian morality, filiality stands out as the only one with the potential of being universally applicable. While chastity fell upon women and loyalty was meaningful for elite men, all human beings were children of some parents. This paper will investigate filiality in early Chosŏn Korea through one relatively obscure figure, Kim Sawŏl. Severing her finger and feeding it to her ailing mother, Kim’s remarkable act of filial devotion earned the recognition of the Chosŏn court. Though not the only finger severer in Chosŏn, a fact of geography propelled her to renown among the generations of Ming envoys who passed by her hometown, many of whom left poems in her honor. Both the Ming envoys and the Chosŏn court, however, had to grapple with the potentially heterodox implications of her cannibalistic filial act. Not only did finger severing have resonances with Buddhist notions, local religious traditions, and fringe medical lore, but it directly contradicted classical Confucian injunctions against “self-harm.” The resolution of this problem, in both the envoy poetry and the Chosŏn social context, involved reinterpretations and rewritings that converted a problematic category of behavior into symbols of a Confucian civilizing project by emphasizing the affective power of sincere filial emotion. This mechanism of conversion and accommodation may partly explain how local differences and alternative cosmologies persisted in the context of Confucian hegemony in Chosŏn Korea.


  • pg. 176, n3 "Ming distinguished between lie and jie"–> "between jie and lie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *