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Women's economic capability and household maintaining ability: saenghwallyŏk
Women across the spectrum of social groups and classes in Korea partake in formal and informal employment or generate non-wage income by money management and investment, and bring in often crucial proportion of the family income. Despite of the overall frequency of women's work and earning, women's economic capability, business savvy and ability to contribute financially to the maintenance and reproduction of the family are often associated with women in shopkeeping and other kind of self-employment. This kind of economic capability is often conceptualized as saenghwallyŏk, which literally means "life energy", and is defined in the online Standard Korean Dictionary as "capability needed to maintain social life, used especially of economic capability."
Saenghwallyŏk is used in a gendered manner. In the case of men, the lack of it is conceptualized, as if men's economic capability is a given, but the lack of it not unthinkable. For women, capability in economic terms makes a context for the use of the term, and it is usually applied to women who are major or sole contributors to the household support and maintenance. Behind the incapability and lack of "life energy" of men is the notion that in such a case the capability is expected of women. Similarly, woman's saenghwallyŏk implies that the husband is either absent or unable to contribute and give enough support for the family livelihood. A consequence of men's lack of saenghwallyŏk is that it is required of women should the family be properly provided and reproduced – thinking only of for example school and extracurricular tutoring expenses.
Nancy Abelmann (2003: 86-88) pays attention to the notion of incapability or munŭnghada, most often applied to men unable to support themselves and the family, as conveyed by the women who are the subject of her recent study on women's talk on social change, class and social mobility in Korea. The incapability of men is defined largely as lack of saenghwallyŏk and inability or unwillingness to catch on or accommodate to the changing times.
Women's earning power as conceptualized as saenghwallyŏk doesn't presuppose husband's incapability (munŭngham), as the cases of the three women in this chapter and their husbands show. Nevertheless, in the case of hairdressing shop keepers the issue of woman's earning power and economic capability compared to the husband's ability to provide for the family is often relevant, and easily evokes the notion of saenghwallyŏk. (Compared to the level of education and the economical potential of the prospective marriage partners of hairdressers, the woman a higher chance than most of their peers to earn more than their husbands.)
Categories at del.icio.us/hunjang: academic ∙ anthropology ∙ Koreanstudies ∙ women-men