Uinyeo (literally "medicine women") were female physicians who specialized in the treatment of women during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) of Korea. The uinyeo were established as a solution to social taboos against women receiving treatment from male physicians. The uinyeo system first appeared in 1406 after King Taejong ordered its establishment in the Jesaengwon (濟生院 health care centers for commoners).
The proposal for establishing uinyeo originated with Heo Do (許道), a government officer who held the title of Jijesaengwonsa (知濟生院事). He suggested to the king that a number of intelligent young women should receive medical training to treat women. Although the uinyeo system started to practise medicine, it was deeply related to a Korean traditional custom at the time. The Joseon Dynasty was a strict Confucian state that strengthened the distinction between the sexes which was called naeoe (內外; sex segregation). Therefore, there were many cases in which female patients died without receiving proper treatment because they felt ashamed of being examined by a male doctor.
On the other hand, jungin (middle-class people) and sangmin (commoners) did not want to become uinyeo, so young women who belonged to stores and offices in the palace as slaves were trained in medicine for this purpose.
Medical training and practice
In July 1434, the 16th year of Sejong the Great's reign, the government gave uninyeo of Jesaengwon a stipend of rice twice a year as an incentive, based upon precedents of payments to female slaves. In February 1498, the 9th year of the King Seongjong, Yejo (Ministry of Rites) revised six clauses of law to codify a system that divided uinyeo into the three grades: naeuinyeo (inner uineyo), ganbyeong uinyeo (nursing uinyeo), and chohak uinyeo (beginner uinyeo) according to their education grade.
According to records of the Sokdaejeon (續大典, "Supplement to the Nation code") uinyeo were generally divided into two types: naeguk yeoui (內局女醫, female physicians at naeuiwon or called naeuinyeo) and hyeminseo yeoui (惠民署女醫, female physicians at hyeminseo). The distinction was made to encourage uinyeo since King Yeongjo's reign and had lasted until the end of the Joseon Dynasty. While naeuinyeo worked in the palace, the other group of uinyeo worked for hyeminseo, the state-sponsored health clinics in certain areas.
Mobilization as entertainers
In the end of King Seongjong's reign, while uinyeo were sent to attend parties and feasts held for official and private occasions, they were not invited along with gisaeng (female entertainers). King Yeonsangun, however, was a tyrant ruler known for enjoying parties changed this practice. In June 1502, the king's 8th year, uinyeo were sent to families who were holding a wedding to investigate marriage presents on the day that the family sent the dowry. The rationale for the investigation was that the rich people wasted money for luxurious wedding items. From that time onward, whenever a feast was held, uinyeo participated openly together with gisaeng, sitting on stone steps to the present of the king. They began to learn music in addition to medicine.
When the successor King Jungjong ascended to the throne, uinyeo served as uigi (medical entertainer) at court officers' parties. After 1510, the fifth year of the King's reign, the government prohibited uinyeo from attending parties by law several times and forced them to go back to their original mission in medicine. In spite of this effort, the once strict morality was not rectified, and uinyeo still attended parties. At feasts, uinyeo who worked at naeuiwon (royal health clinic) wore a garima (a crown) made with black silk, while gisaeng wore a black po on their head. As uinyeo who belonged to hyeminseo (clinics for the public) were called "yakbang gisaeng" (entertainers of the medicine room) they were regarded the first rated entertainers over other female official entertainers assigned to government offices.
Due to their lowborn origin, uinyeo did not gain the same social status as male doctors and barely retained their existence as a group of the lowest class of society.
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