“NO COUNTRY FOR THE NEW WOMAN”: RETHINKING GENDER AND CULTURAL NATIONALISM IN COLONIAL KOREA THROUGH KIM MY？NGSUN
- Author: RHEE JOOYEON
- Publish: Acta Koreana Volume 17, Issue1, p399~427, June 2014
Kim Myŏngsun (1896–1951) experienced a difficult life despite her career, which seemed alluring to the eyes of aspiring young women in colonial Korea: she was a novelist, a poet, a translator, an actress, and a journalist during a time when only a handful of women could have professions in the cultural sector. Kim’s personal and public life was filled with numerous challenges; she constantly faced criticism for her “vanity,” “licentiousness,” and “lack of literary talent,” attributes that were often associated with New Women like Kim. Criticism put forward by male writers and literary critics was especially harsh, and their fictional and journalistic accounts of Kim largely contributed to the creation of her negative image: she was branded as a “fallen woman” for she was neither a “good mother” nor a “chaste woman.” Male writers’ malicious attacks on the New Women were a manifestation of masculinity that was rearranged in the process of colonialism: the hierarchy between the colony and the metropole was renegotiated in the cultural domain where male social elites reclaimed their patriarchy at the expense of female subjectivity. This article attempts to uncover how gender, sexuality, and nationhood were mutually constituted in the New Woman discourse in colonial Korea by examining essays and columns in a magazine,
Sin yŏsŏng(The New Woman), and juxtaposing literary representation and self-representation of the New Woman. It analyzes fictional narratives by Kim Myŏngsun and Kim Tongin (1900–1951), examining conflicting views on the New Woman wherein the politics of gender and sexuality intersect with cultural nationalism and colonialism.
patriarchy , cultural nationalism , colonialism , Sin y？s？ng , the New Woman , Kim My？ngsun , Kim Tongin
From the early twentieth century, the figure of
kisaeng(female entertainers) has appeared frequently in literature: its association with Korea’s feudal past made it an emblem of the old world, which ought to be thrown out for Korea to move towards becoming a civilized nation. In Yi Kwangsu’s Mujŏng(The heartless), for example, the juxtaposition of a Christian woman and a kisaengfunctioned as an epistemological border between the new and the old: kisaeng, in short, became an antithesis of modernity in this novel. Kisaeng, however, did not disappear; their luring beauty was commodified in the colonial capitalist system, and they were aestheticized as Japan’s “pristine” state of the colony, devoid of history, in visual media such as photographs and postcards.2 At the same time, however, social prejudice against kisaengwas prominent in everyday life. This prejudice derived not only from the sex work kisaengengaged in but also from the notion that they were not qualified to be mothers in respectable families. Although Kim Myŏngsun (1896–1951) lost her mother shortly after she was born, and despite the fact that she did not have to take up her mother’s occupation as kisaengwomen did in Chosŏn,3 her mother’s social status cast a deep shadow over her life. Overcoming the stigma was a difficult task for Kim. As a New Woman, and as a woman who had received much attention from the public, she was often represented as vain, licentious, and hysterical in public media and literary works, attributes that seriously undermined her standing as a writer and a feminist.
In the quotation that opens this section, the gender hierarchy and inequality is expressed on the axis of nation: Kim makes a parallel between her disadvantaged social position and her nation’s position in the Japanese empire. She resorts to the idea of “studying” as “the only way” to overcome her and her nation’s dis-advantaged positions. Overcoming the gender and national binaries, however, was extremely challenging for Korean New Women. Despite her continuing efforts to educate herself and produce intellectual works, Kim’s “promiscuous” image was continuously reproduced in media. The public’s reception of her remained negative until she died in Japan in 1951.
Kim’s case lends us an insight into how the male-centered construction of female sexuality naturalized gender hierarchy through the aid of modern media; and how women were eliminated from the discussions of gender equality and nation-building, two issues which were not separate from each other in the colonial situation. Although cultural nationalist writers such as Yi Kwangsu rejected the use of father figures in their literary works as a symbolic departure from old Korea, they nevertheless reconstructed this idea in a new patriarchal figure—that is, older brothers to younger sisters, who assumed a patriarchal responsibility for women in the absence of fathers.4 In the patriarchal literary world, the image of chaste, educated, self-sacrificing women would be firmly established as the ideal for national growth. The discrimination against New Women in the literary world eventually deprived Kim of the space to publish her works, giving her no choice but to leave the country.5
While some feminist scholars would argue that Kim Myŏngsun is a supreme example of the New Woman who failed to make the connection between her personal life and objective reality, others locate the source of the New Woman’s negative image in a political situation where women were “doubly colonized” by colonial forces and patriarchy.6 The problems confronting women in the colonized world have often been discussed in terms of the psychological effects of colonialism on native men, who may become more “tyrannical at home” because they have been “increasingly disenfranchised and excluded from the public sphere.”7 This observation partly explains the misogynistic view of women in the colonized world, as well as the suppression of their freedom and rights, intended to reaffirm the patriarchal order at home. Yet it doesn’t explain why this behavior was also evident in a non-colonized environment such as Japan, where women received similar treatment from male elites.
When examining the suppression of women in colonial Korea, it is essential to pay attention to the process by which patriarchal dominance was reaffirmed in the new economic structure; and how women faced extreme difficulty in ob-taining economic means, a crucial condition for becoming independent. For example, the Korean New Woman became increasingly anxious about not being able to achieve economic independence and success despite her level of edu-cation: she had “nowhere to go” except “home,” by becoming a wife.8 And even if she was fortunate enough to have a job, she would be forced to provide “erotic service”
(erot’ik sŏbisŭ)9 to her male employers.10 In addition, as most public media were owned and controlled by male social elites, Korean feminists and female writers had very little room to defend their feminist stance. Kim Myŏngsun was not an exception to this, as she also had a hard time finding stable jobs to support herself despite her high education level.11 Kim worked as a film actress and a model for painters in order to survive. However, these jobs only intensified her “promiscuous” image.12 Media representations of women who “failed” to stay at home were highly sexualized and scandalized through the kind of voyeuristic journalism found in magazines such as Sin yŏsŏng(The New Woman). While this magazine encouraged women to become “consumers,” it continuously reproduced images of “modern women” whose demand for sexual freedom was linked with “moral corruption.”
This article seeks to comprehend the relationship between gender and nationalism in colonial Korea by focusing on the New Woman phenomenon. It explains the historical circumstance in which the Korean New Woman emerged and was received in the 1920s; and how New Women challenged patriarchy through their act of writing. Essays and columns in a cultural magazine,
Sin yŏsŏng(The New Woman), that specifically address the ideas of free love (chayu yŏnae),13 motherhood, and nation, will be used throughout. Then I will analyze portraits of the New Woman in two literary works, one written by a male writer, Kim Tongin, and the other by a female writer, Kim Myŏngsun. These two writers represent the New Woman in drastically different ways: the former is a fictional treatment of the “scandalous” writer Kim Myŏngsun, while the latter is a short story written by Kim Myŏngsun herself in a confessional manner. While Kim Tongin’s pseudo-biographical work is based on a set of stereotypes about the New Woman that were formed in the midst of the cultural nationalist movement, Kim Myŏngsun’s work gives us access to the space where women’s representations of themselves emerge as a challenge to the male-dominated cultural nationalist movement, which failed to recognize the close relationship between the personal and the political embedded in female writers’ works.
1Kim Myŏngsun in Na nŭn saranghanda (I love), a collection of Kim’s literary works and other works—essays, and short stories—published by different writers and edited by Kim Sangbae (Seoul: Sol moe, 1981), 194. 2Hyungil Pai, “Staging ‘Korea’ for the Tourist Gaze: Imperialist Nostalgia and the Circulation of Picture Postcards,” History of Photography 37, no. 3 (August 2013): 303–309. 3John Lie, “The Transformation of Sexual Work in 20th-Century Korea,” Gender and Society 9, no. 3 (June 1995): 310–315. 4Yi Kyŏnghun, Oppa ŭi t’ansaeng (The birth of older brother) (Seoul: Munhak kwa chisŏngsa, 2003). 5A feminist scholar of literature, Sŏ Chŏngja, for example, argues that Kim was “forced into exile” due to the male writers’ misogynistic attacks on her through the use of media. “Ch’ukch’ul, Paeje ŭi kori wa taehang sŏsa (The chain of expulsion and marginalization and counter narratives),” Segye han’gugŏ munhak 4 (October 2010): 13–19. 6Ch’oe Myŏngp’yo, “Somun ŭro kusŏng toen Kim Myŏngsun ŭi sam kwa munhak (The life and works of Kim Myŏngsun, which has been constructed by rumors),” Hyŏndae munhak iron yŏn’gu 30 (April 2007): 224–228. 7Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 2001), 157–168. 8So Ch’un, Sin yŏsŏng [hereafter SYS], March 1924, 32. 9The interviewee didn’t specify what kinds of “erotic service” she had to provide; however, it may refer to a range of sexual harassment in workplaces. 10“A Roundtable Discussion on the Problem of Professional Women,” SYS, April 1933, 28–33. 11In 1931, the unemployment rate was 15 percent and 26.7 percent of Koreans lived below the poverty line. This period saw a massive migration of Koreans to Manchuria and Japan due to the impoverished economic state. Yi Sangŭi, Ilche ha Chosŏn ŭi nodong chŏngch’aek yŏn’gu (A study of labour policies in colonial Korea) (Seoul: Hyean, 2006), 33 12Kim Myŏngsun’s decision to become a film actress has been analyzed as a self-defeating act, accepting the public image of herself as a sexualized object rather than fighting against it. Ch’oe Hyesil,Sin yŏsŏng tŭl ŭn muŏt ŭl kkumkkuŏnnŭn’kka (What did the New Woman dream of?) (Seoul: Saenggak ŭi namu, 2000), 349. However, considering the fact that Kim was having financial difficulties at that time, this view might well be revised as Kim’s prioritization of the practical over the ideal. 13Free love advocates believed that romantic relationships had to be free from state regulations and customs. Free love was associated with the anarchist movement in Japan, promoted by Noe Itō (1895–1923) and her partner, Sakae Ōsugi (1885–1925), but the movement was generally understood as a manifestation of individuality in Korea where young men and women refused to follow the widely practiced custom of arranged marriage.
The Japanese feminist movement influenced the feminist movement in Korea. The emergence of
atarashii onna(the New Woman) in the Taishō period in particular vitalized young Korean women’s interest in advancing women’s social positions. Japanese New Women generally engaged in writing as a means to spread their feminist thought and advance their literary careers, and they would produce fiction works, poems, and translations of Western literature—as did, for example, the Seitōgroup, who established a literary magazine, Seitō(Bluestocking, 1911–1916). However, compared to the degree of public attention given to the Japanese New Women’s social activities and private lives, their literary works were largely overlooked by their male colleagues. One of the rationales behind the prejudice against female writers was these writers’ perceived lack of seriousness; unlike male writers, who chose their career as a means to survive, women did not have to earn a living with their writing. From the end of the Meiji period on, talented young men’s pursuit of literature was generally viewed as a “sacrifice,” since such men were expected to seek practical careers.14 Thus, choosing a career in writing was considered a serious matter and the notion of literature as a “men’s profession” took a firm hold.15
While male writers produced their works through affiliations with various peer support groups, the same kind of mutual support did not exist for female writers outside
Seitō. After its inception, Seitō’s emphasis moved quickly from one genre to another, eventually shifting the main focus to women’s social and economic issues.16 Despite a lack of emotional support from their male colleagues, educated women in Seitōsought self-cultivation through both literary and journalistic writing,17 expressing their dissatisfaction with the current social and cultural conditions and their demands for equality at work and at home. Although most hold that Seitōwas not successful in producing professional writers,18 the success or failure of feminist literature cannot be measured by the standards of the male-dominated publishing industry. As the pattern of Seitōmembers’ literary activities shows, the sense of urgency they felt led them to delineate real-life issues that women faced, which were not seriously explored in the mainstream literary world. The emergence of the image of the New Woman projected by Seitōwas a sig-nificant step towards an active discourse over the liberation of women who had been, in the words of Hiratsuka Raichō, “ignored and enslaved because of men’s selfishness.”19 Indeed, Seitō’s activities were closely observed by Korean female students in Japan, who, upon their return to Korea, became prominent journalists, writers, and teachers from the early 1920s onward.20
While the term “New Woman” in Japan roughly referred to the group of women gathered around
Seitōduring the 1910s,21 Korean scholars’ definition of the New Woman in Korea has varied. Some have taken features from two Japanese terms, New Woman and Modern Girl, to define the Korean New Woman; this designates a small number of women who demanded liberation and equal rights, and were inclined towards consumer-oriented life styles, in the 1920s and ’30s.22 Others expand the term to include female high school students, educators, artists, and writers for their education and specialized professions.23 Just as definitions of the New Woman differ from one scholar to another in contemporary Korean scholarship, it seems to have been equally unclear for people in the 1920s, who had a hard time deciding exactly who this New Woman was. In an “opinion” section in Sin yŏsŏngin May 1925, Wŏlchŏng saeng(a student named Wŏlchŏng) wrote,
This ambiguity indicates that the dual image of the 1920s Japanese New Women—as both self-motivated young female intellectuals and consumption-driven urban middle-class women—also complicated the discussion of the New Women in Korea. High heels, short hair, and raised hemlines, together with the possession of “modern knowledge,” were understood as indicators of “New Women.” Some used “New Woman” interchangeably with the term “Modern Girl,” without mentioning the consumer-oriented life style. One writer, Kim Kijin, for example, focused on “intelligence” as an important feature of the “Modern Girl.” Kim wrote, “Certainly, those women deserve to be called ‘modern girls.’ They obtained a certain level of liberal arts education… I mean by ‘modern girls’ those who received a modern education in the cities... They are lively and active. But, most of all, they possess intelligence and a strong will.”25
While the identity of the New Woman was fairly clear in 1910s Japan, the Modern Girl of the 1920s was rather a symbol of consumerism, mass culture, and the elusive possibility of transgressing the traditional notion of the “feminine.” The term referred to self-motivated housewives and professional working women who were the visible and potential consumers of mass culture—cinema, cafés, Western dress, jazz bars, dance halls, and so on—in urban areas.26 Commercial images of young women in high heels, Western garments, and Western hairstyles were mass-produced from the Taishō to the early Shōwa period, representing Modern Girls as an emblem of an urban and current way of life.
Whereas consumerism and mass culture in Japan were becoming increasingly visible due to the economic growth of the 1920s, the cultural landscape of Korea was significantly different. The Korean New Woman, who was also a Modern Girl, seems to have been more an imaginary figure than a concrete phenomenon. The number of middle-class housewives and professional women who had purchasing power was extremely small in Korea.27 Further, the mushrooming of women’s journals, magazines, and newspapers in Japan, an indication of the country’s fast-growing consumerism, was not seen in Korea; it was only after the March First Movement that a small number of women’s magazines began to be published. However, what seems to have been a common trend in both Japan and Korea during the 1920s was the widely spread idea of self-cultivation among middle-class women.28
As Barbara Sato’s research shows, women’s desire for self-cultivation and self-development was expressed in their reading materials—books and magazines—in Japan: a consumption that identified “women’s desire for freedom.”29 In Korea, Kim Iryŏp established an all-women’s journal,
Sin yŏja(The New Woman, 1920), aimed at promoting equal rights and the freedom of women by encouraging self-cultivation. In an article, “What we, New Women, claim and call for,” Kim Iryŏp defined “New Women” as those who “enjoy equal rights and responsibilities and continuously seek ways to actualize self-improvement,”30 emphasizing the importance of education. Although this first modern Korean feminist movement found many followers, the public reception of Sin yŏjawas similar to that of Seitōand the “New Woman” in Japan. Kim Iryŏp’s promotion of reading and writing was not recognized as a serious social act, and contributors to the magazine were attacked for their “scandalous” private lives—mostly their love affairs and marriages. Kim Iryŏp’s expression of romantic relationships, in particular, was severely criticized by Korean male intellectuals as a manifestation of a “deviant morality” that endangered the nation-building process.
It is not a coincidence that the term
sin yŏsŏngreplaced sin yŏjastarting from around 1923 in Korea; while the former signifies the process of commodifying and nationalizing female bodies, the latter is affiliated with a specific agenda—that is, liberation from patriarchy and demands for equal rights and opportunities. The term Sin yŏsŏngbegan to gain currency soon after a magazine bearing it as its title was launched in 1923. The nature of the magazine is as ambiguous as the term itself. Established by one of the major nationalist publishing houses, Kaebyŏksa(The opening press), Sin yŏsŏngaimed to mobilize Korean political consciousness, yet its primarily commercial nature is evident both in its advertisements for various products and its use of scandalous reports to increase its sales. This was in contrast to other magazines such as Kaebyŏk(The opening), which mostly featured debates and discussions on current politics and social issues.
It is noteworthy that while topics on the New Woman did not appear in
Kaebyŏk’s(1920–1926) columns, where writings related to women were concentrated on education, the introduction of Western feminist movements, the legalization of prostitution, and so on, scandalous reports on female students were featured in a separate section called “Ŭnp’ari”(A silver fly) in the same magazine between 1920 and 1923. “A silver fly” would soon be relocated to Sin yŏsŏngin 1923, where it continued to feature voyeuristic reports on female students, writers, singers, and actresses from a “fly’s perspective.” Although Sin yŏsŏngcertainly advanced women’s self-cultivating processes through its introduction of current world affairs, Western feminist thought, modern science, and con-temporary literature, it also contributed to the creation of the imaginary New Woman of the 1920s, who was represented either as a “patriotic sister” or a “decadent bourgeois.”31 In short, the New Woman was in a vulnerable position, exposed to the public through the dual forces of commercialism and nationalism.
14The pre-existing mentor-student relationship, which emotionally and financially supported a few prominent female writers, was disappearing by the end of the Meiji period. This pattern was almost entirely absent in the Naturalist School circle, where writing was conceived of as a “deeply personal and lonely endeavor.” In this literary climate, women were marginalized even further from the bundan (elite literary circle). Tanaka Yukiko, Women Writers of Meiji and Taishō Japan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2000), 112. 15This view was widely held by male writers around 1905, and the notion of writing as men’s privilege was also supported by the male readership at that time. Seki Reiko, “Bun ni okeru jendaa tōsō” (Gender conflicts in literature), in Seitō to iu jō (The ground that is called Seitō), ed. Iida Yūko (Tokyo: Moribanashisha, 2002), 15. 16Tanaka, Women Writers, 143. 17It is generally thought that participation in self-cultivating acts, such as reading, writing, and meditating, are what characterize the New Woman in 1910s Japan. Barbara H. Sato, The New Japanese Woman: Modernity, Media and Women in Interwar Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 14. 18Tanaka, Women Writers, 143. 19Hiratsuka Raichō, cited in Iida Yūko, Seitō to iu Jō, 116. 20Korean students studying in Japan were exposed to the relatively liberal mood of the Taishō democracy. Since, economically speaking, they were better positioned than most Koreans living in the peninsula, they had more access to various cultural activities. Those who were interested in literature began to form literary circles in which they exchanged their ideas and published their works through their own journals. Socializing with fellow Korean students was also essential for those young students who were given many opportunities to mix with the opposite sex at literary functions. And yet, there was a general tendency for female students to rely on male students’ financial and intellectual support to run their journals, and their relationships with fellow female students were also heavily affected by male authority. This power hierarchy would become even more salient once they returned to Korea. 21While some scholars use “New Woman” interchangeably with “Modern Girl” in Japan, I follow Miriam Silverberg’s understanding of the Japanese term “New Woman” as demonstrating a political consciousness lacking in the “Modern Girl.” Miriam Silverberg, “After the Grand Tour,” in The Modern Girl Around the World, ed. Tani E. Barlow et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 358–359. 22Kim Kyŏngil, Yŏsŏng ŭi kŭndae, kŭndae ŭi yŏsŏng (Women’s modernity, modernity’s women) (Seoul: P’urŭn yŏksa, 2004), 19–28. 23Some Korean scholars use “New Women” to refer to educated women (high school graduates), while some use it to refer to a small number of prominent women who were leaders in female education, art, and literature. Yi Paeyong, “Ilche sigi sin yŏsŏng ŭi yŏksajŏk sŏngkkyŏk (The historical significance of ‘New Women’ in colonial Korea),” in Mun Okp’yo et al., Sin yŏsŏng (New Women) (Seoul: 2003), 21. 24SYS, May 1925, 12–15. 25SYS, June 1925, 38–39. 26Barbara Sato argued that “Modern Girls” can be best understood as a “phantasm” rather than as a social reality, since they were represented as a symbol of consumer culture. In The New Japanese Women, Sato analyzed three types of urban women—“modern girls, self-motivated housewives, and extroverted professional working women”—in wartime Japan as a way of situating the “feminine” in social and cultural perspectives. See also her article, “Contesting Consumerisms in Mass Women’s Magazines,” for her analysis of media strategies to appeal to a broader readership. In The Modern Girl Around the World, ed. Tani E. Barlow et al. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 263–287. 27This condition continued well into the late 1930s. Hyaeweol Choi, New Women in Colonial Korea: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2013), 11. 28Barbara Sato, “Commodifying and Engendering Morality,” in Gendering Modern Japanese History, ed. Barbara Molony and Kathleen Uno (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 100. 29Ibid., 120–121. 30Kim Iryŏp, “What we, New Women, claim and call for,” Sin yŏja, April 1920, reprinted in Yun Yŏngok, “1920–30 nyŏndae yŏsŏng chapchi e nat’anan sin yŏsŏng kaenyŏm ŭi ŭimi pyŏnhwa wa sahoe munhwajŏk ŭiŭi (The changing concept of ‘New Woman’ reflected in women’s magazines in the 1920s and 30s and its socio-cultural significance),” Kugŏ munhak, 40 (2005): 207. 31As the magazine became more commercial in the 1930s, the number of advertisements and the amount of information it provided about commercial products increased. However, the general view of the “New Woman” and the “Modern Girl” was still that of a consumption-driven figure who lacked historical agency. Suyu + Nŏmŏ (Suyu and beyond), Maech’e ro pon kŭndae yŏsŏng p’ungsoksa: Sin yŏsŏng (Modern Korean women reflected in media) (Seoul: Han’gyŏre sinmunsa, 2005), 101.
Since the majority of the Korean population was illiterate in the early 1920s,32 the small number of women who had obtained their education overseas received much attention from the public. Their distinctive appearance, characterized by bobbed hair, shortened skirts, and high heels, was seen as a challenge to the general expectations of femininity. In fact, these women’s demands for freedom and equal rights created as much controversy as did their hairstyle and fashion choices, since their bold assertions of gender equality and expressions of sexuality posed a clear threat to existing gender relations. First and foremost, they challenged the idea that women should be “wise mothers and good wives,” arguing that it promoted unrealistic expectations that failed to accommodate actual socio-economic conditions.33
The lively discussion of gender roles, centered on the concept of the New Woman, was partially incited by the sudden growth of print media right after the March First Movement, which drastically changed the Korean cultural landscape. This mass-scale movement alarmed the Governor General of Korea, who shifted the emphasis of colonial policy from military to cultural affairs, relaxing a series of restrictions and regulations concerning the media.34 As a consequence, Korean-language newspapers and magazines began to sprout from 1920; and these print media became a channel for nationalist groups to disseminate a set of programs—educational, national consciousness-raising, capitalist, and social revolutionary35—with the goal of achieving Korean independence. Mainly led by cultural nationalists, numerous organizations were formed: in 1920, 985 organ-izations—youth and religious groups, academic societies, and so forth—were established. By 1922, this number had increased to 5,728 and included 56 women’s organizations.36 As Michael Robinson observes, the overall agenda of in-dependence was carried out with a consensus that various programs had to be utilized “in the service of remodeling Korean society,”37 which more or less meant Western-style “modernization.”
Korean intellectuals frequently referred to Western European and American societies as ideal models for social development. They also stressed education as the determining factor in bringing about women’s liberation, arguing that “unlike those women in Europe and America, Korean women are not intellectually mature enough to understand the idea of women’s liberation fully. First and foremost, they must grow intellectually through obtaining knowledge in order to put their goal into practice.”38 Overall, there was a broad consensus among Korean social ideologues that the “intellectual gap” between the West and Korea was the cause of the underdeveloped state of Korean society and its marginalization of women. The prioritization of Western knowledge as a way to close the gap, however, would bring a paradoxical gender asymmetry: women’s voices were often pushed to the periphery of the cultural sphere by educated men who justified their paternalistic attitude towards women through exhibitions of their intellectual authority.
The return of educated young Koreans from their studies in Japan gave a forceful push to the nationalist movement. Writers, in particular, were one of the most active groups; they formed political organizations and published their fiction works, poems, and essays in major newspapers and magazines. Yi Kwangsu’s novel,
Mujŏng, which portrays a young generation’s romantic relationships in the context of the nation, was a precursor to many subsequent discussions of young people’s mixed emotional responses to romantic relationships and the nationalistic cause. This seemingly separate set of problems in private and public life, in fact, speaks of a social reality where educated males came to embrace contradictory attitudes towards women’s social roles.
The introduction of Ibsen’s
A Doll’s Houseto Korea, for example, crystallizes the problem of love and marital relations being bound together with cultural nationalism. The reaction to the Korean translation of the play, which appeared in The Daily Newsin January 1921, engaged both male and female intellectuals and students in a discussion of women’s liberation from patriarchy. Women en-couraged their peers to acknowledge their existence as independent human beings and criticized Korean men for their authoritative attitudes at home,39 while male writers such as Sim Hun felt that the heroine, Nora, represented colonized people, and paralleled her liberation with the liberation of the nation.40 On the other hand, Yi Kwangsu, as an influential writer and cultural nationalist, urged “Korean Noras” to go back to their homes and fulfill their “duty” of raising their children for the future of the society. The New Women’s divorce in real life was thus perceived as a selfish act, and these women were then labeled “Korean Noras” in the media—as was the writer Pak Indŏk during her scandalous divorce.41 Nonetheless, throughout the colonial period, Yi maintained that women’s education should prepare them to be “good mothers,” arguing: “It takes years of practice and effort to be a good tennis player or pianist, for example. Mothers have a duty to raise children, who will become sacred citizens in the future. It requires years of education to prepare women to become good mothers.”42 He added that women must cultivate their artistic sense, exercise to improve their physical condition, pay attention to hygiene, and, most of all, provide “spiritual support” for their husbands.
Although some male writers were critical of their own expectations that educated women should become “good wives” who were “modest, pretty and charming,”43 their criticism, in the absence of a counter-argument that challenged institutional practices and social systems, rather confirmed the expectation. Further, Yi’s more traditional position on women’s roles was not seriously challenged until the early 1930s when Ko Chŏngsuk criticized him as a “pretentious hero” who was “completely ignorant” of the social reality women faced.44 In short, male intellectuals in the 1920s tried to shift the focus of the “Nora discourse” from women’s liberation and equal rights to motherhood in a national context.
In the mainstream media such as the magazine
Sin yŏsŏng, women’s demands for gender equality were frequently discussed in the nationalist context, and their demand for sexual equality was constrained by the same ideological framework. The ideas of chayu yŏnae(free love) and marriage, in particular, were two of the most commonly raised subjects in the print media; almost every issue of Sin yŏsŏng, for example, deals with these topics. It was not uncommon to see in the media how educated women’s interest in free love was treated as an expression of moral decadence, and a cause of “unhealthy” social acts such as suicide and divorce. The rhetoric of Confucian female virtue was also brought into the free love discourse, blurring the idea of equality in conjugal relationships by underscoring the im-portance of female chastity. For example, in Kaebyŏk’spublications, chastity was viewed as “the supreme female virtue” that represents the “greatness” of Korean tradition45—a quality more important than women’s lives themselves.46
Overall, both men and women agreed that marriage must be founded upon love, but in reality it was difficult for the New Women to find ideal partners. By the time these women completed their higher education, most men their age with comparable education would already be married, since the custom of early marriage was still widely practiced even among educated males. Neither could New Women avoid criticism if they married men who had already had a wife and children; married men who were involved in romantic relationships with the New Woman almost always escaped social criticism, while the “scandals” in women’s private lives were focused on to the extent that it endangered their professional lives. Kim Iryŏp’s love life, for example, was publicly mocked by her male colleagues. Kim Kijin wrote in an “open letter”47 that he was “disgusted” because Kim Iryŏp, who had divorced her husband a while before, had started living with another man. He went on to suggest that her “artistic life” was, perhaps, a beautifying strategy to cover up her moral flaws.48 He attacked Kim Iryŏp’s bold expression of female sexuality as a distorted view of individualism, whose frank-ness rather proved her ignorance.
A similar pattern can be seen in
Sin yŏsŏng’spublications from the 1920s; in them, the value of free marriage and free love was idealized, and yet when women actually engaged in such relationships they were often labeled as “promiscuous and dissolute.” This asymmetrical moral judgment, and the rigidly paternalistic attitude it reflects, had much to do with the editorial direction of the magazine, which was largely determined by male editors and writers.49 The cost of their failure to compromise with, or conform to, social norms was heavy for some women—as Kim Myŏngsun’s case demonstrates—and many male writers saw the heavy costs of these women’s actions as their natural consequences.
32The illiteracy rate was around 93 percent by 1920. Theodore Jun Yoo, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health 1910–1945 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 71. 33Ibid., 81. 34The Governor General of Korea tolerated “moderate publications,” though any publication of anything that threatened the public order, such as socialist ideas, became the object of strict censorship. Michael E. Robinson, “Colonial Publication Policy and the Korean Nationalist Movement,” in the Japanese Colonial Empire 1895–1945, ed. Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 342. 35There were generally two factions in the nationalist movement. The moderate nationalist group concentrated on education, national consciousness-raising, and capitalist development as a way of obtaining independence on a gradual basis. Conversely, the radical group called for immediate action by stressing social revolutionary thought. Michael E. Robinson, Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea, 1920–1925 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 5. 36Ibid., 49–50. 37Ibid., 58. 38“Chosŏn yŏja haebang kwan,” Kaebyŏk 4, April 1920, 33. 39S.P. Saeng, “Inhyŏng ŭi ka wa Hae puin” (A Doll’s House and The Lady of the Ocean), in SYS, May 1924, 73–79. 40Yi Sŭnghŭi, “Pŏnyŏk ŭi sŏng chŏngch’ihak kwa naesyŏnallit’i (The politics of sex in translation and nationality),” in Chedorosŏ ŭi Han’guk kŭndae munhak kwa t’alsingminsŏng (Korean modern literature as a system and post-coloniality), ed. Ha Chŏngil (Seoul: Somyŏng, 2004), 220. 41For a detailed analysis of the reception of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Korea, see Hyaeweol Choi’s “Debating the Korean New Woman: Imagining Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Nora’ in Colonial Era Korea,” Asian Studies Review 36 (March 2012): 59–77. 42Yi Kwangsu, SYS, January 1925, 19–20. 43One of the notable differences between female and male writers’ views on gender equality was that specific problems, such as school curriculum, legal issues on marriage, and divorce, were only raised by female writers while remaining absent from male writers’ discussions. Ki Chŏn, SYS, April 1926, 101–104. 44SYS, November 1932, 30–31. 45Kim Mirisa, Kaebyŏk, The five-year anniversary edition, 1925, 36–37. 46Mun T’aesŏn, Kaebyŏk 20, February 1922. 47The “Open Letter” section in Sin yŏsŏng featured male writers commenting on well-known “New Women,” passing on scandalous gossip and adding personal opinions without providing concrete evidence or discussing those women’s professional lives. 48Kim Kijin, SYS, November 1924, 51–54. 49Yun, “1920–30 nyŏndae yŏsŏng chapchi,” 213.
Kim Myŏngsun is thought of as the first modern female Korean writer.50 Her earliest short story, “A Mysterious Girl,” was published in the literary magazine
Ch’ŏngch’un(Youth) in 1917. Born to a wealthy businessman and a former kisaeng, she studied literature and sociology in Korea and Japan. She published a number of poems, short stories, and novellas, translated Western literature, and worked as a film actress and then as a journalist for The Daily Newsin the mid-1920s. Despite her many intellectual activities, she became one of the most underrepresented (and misrepresented) New Women, her love affairs and tragic life publicly derided by a number of male writers who used her as a model for their works. Among others, Kim Tongin’s novella, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn( The Story of Kim Yŏnsil, 1939),51 portrays a New Woman—a thinly veiled depiction of Kim Myǒngsun—by focus-ing on the protagonist’s vanity and dissoluteness as the cause of her unfortunate fate. Although published in the late 1930s, Kim’s novella embodies a series of perspectives on the New Woman that were commonly found in Sin yŏsŏngduring the mid-1920s, and its historicization of the New Woman resonates with interpretations of the New Woman in contemporary Korean scholarship
Biographical details about Kim are scarce,52 although it seems fair to assume that she lost her mother at a young age and lived with her stepmother and her half-siblings until she left for Japan to study in her mid-twenties. It is said that Kim’s relationship with her stepfamily was a difficult one, and she wrote about her mistreatment at its hands in numerous works. Kim’s father, in turn, left all his wealth to the stepfamily, leaving her penniless. Financial difficulty weighed heavily on her throughout her life, and her fellow writers’ contemptuous attitudes towards her caused her mental health to deteriorate.53 It is not clear whether this series of hardships contributed to her mental breakdown, but by the time
Kim Yŏnsil chŏnwas published, the poverty-stricken Kim Myŏngsun had been hospitalized at the Aoyama psychiatry clinic in Japan. It is said that she died at the hospital in 1951. While baseless rumors about Kim Myŏngsun had been continuously circulating in Korea, Kim Tongin’s publication of the novella reinforced her poor image. In the epilogue to his novella, Kim Tongin explained his motivation to write it as follows:
Although Kim Tongin seems to suggest that he tried to depict the challenging spirit of the New Woman as a leader of the Korean feminist movement, his story completely lacks a historical perspective; instead, he focuses on the protagonist’s self-degradation due to her obsession with fulfilling her sexual desires.
Kim Yŏnsil chŏnbegins by describing Yŏnsil’s family background: she was born in P’yŏngyang to a wealthy landowner and a former female entertainer ( kisaeng). Her father was the son of a low-level civil servant who didn’t have “a decent family background”—which more or less meant a yangbanbackground—to show off; thus he was bullied by his colleagues despite his wealth. Her biological mother, the former kisaeng, died shortly after Yŏnsil was born, so she grew up with her father and stepmother. Although this description of Yŏnsil’s family background closely resembles Kim Myŏngsun’s, the portrayal of Yŏnsil’s father and stepmother is very negative, focusing on their “ignorance” and “lowly back-ground” that cannot be nullified by their wealth alone. Even within the family, she is bullied by her siblings and stepmother for having an even “lower” origin than theirs. Yŏnsil, however, never displays a longing for her deceased kisaengmother; instead, she blames her for the “prostitution”55 that has made her existence shameful.
Yŏnsil enters a girl’s school, Chinmyŏng yŏhakkyo, which is the real name of a girls’ school that was founded by Ŏm Chunwŏn in 1906. Kim Tongin gives lengthy explanations as to why Yŏnsil decides to go to the school: it is a refuge where she can “escape” from her family’s mistreatment, rather than a place to learn.56 The school is portrayed as a place for daughters from “humble and low”-class families who were not “adequately educated at home.”57 Thus the school is labeled as a “
kisaengschool,” since sending daughters outside the home was still considered to be deviant behavior, not appropriate for families with good backgrounds. It is at this school that Yŏnsil develops her “rebellious spirit” due to the influence of chayu sasang(liberal thought). Kim Tongin suggests in the epilogue that chayu sasangwas “too quickly adopted” by Yŏnsil and her peers. As a result, they ignore pre-existing traditions and customs, which in turn results in these students having a disrespectful attitude toward their parents. By paralleling their behavior with that of kisaeng, Kim Tongin stresses the ill effects of chayu sasang, which, in his thinking, degraded feminine virtue.
Kim Tongin was born to a wealthy and powerful family, and he often incorporated his observations of real-life events into his works.58 Although he was involved in romantic relationships with a number of
kisaengwhile married, his reputation was hardly damaged by these “romantic escapades,” due to his holding a leading position in the literary world and his wealth—which he used to found a literary magazine, Creation (Ch’angjo), in 1919.59 Creationwas a membership-based magazine that became one of the most influential literary venues for writers at that time, and yet its editorial direction was mostly controlled by a few male writers whose personal relationships with their fellow writers was a determining factor in recruiting and supporting them. This editorial dynamic affected female writers’ literary lives, reducing the chance for them to voice their opinions. For example, Kim Myŏngsun, who had been invited to publish her work there, lost her membership shortly after one of her former lovers, Kim Yubang (a close friend of Kim Tongin), joined the magazine as a chief illustrator and pressured the editorial team to end their relationship with Kim Myŏngsun. It is said that Kim Yubang had raped Kim Myŏngsun a few years before he joined Creation,60 and that the editorial team’s decision to relieve Kim Myŏngsun of her member-ship was made to prevent possible friction between the two. Regardless of the true nature of the relationship between Kim Yubang and Kim Myŏngsun, a close “male bonding” seems to have been a key factor that made female writers’ positions in the literary world so vulnerable.
In the colonial and postcolonial Korean literary world,
Kim Yŏnsil chŏnis interpreted as a social criticism of the “too sudden” adoption of Western feminist thought in Korea, which didn’t allow it time to establish a solid foundation.61 This “failure,” according to contemporary literary critic Kwŏn Yŏngmin’s analysis of the novella, can be seen in the “moral corruption” of the work’s New Woman, who sought to free herself from home but instead plunged into a state of self-destruction due to an absence of self-reflexive thinking.62 However, this view fails to capture the male-dominant perspective embedded in the discourse, which concentrates on the New Woman’s sexual behavior as a reference point for her “moral flaws.”63 Kwŏn dismisses the feminist movement as a short-lived trend, paralleling the unfortunate lives of a small number of women who shared the fate of the movement and, to a larger extent, the modernization project itself.
Apart from the problem of connecting the feminist movement with an “unsuccessful” modernizing process,
Kim Yŏnsil chŏnalso seriously undermines women’s involvement in literature. In the work, Yŏnsil is motivated to further her study when one of her classmates goes to Japan,64 so she steals money from her stepmother and follows her friend. Through the help of her Japanese roommate, she starts reading novels, and begins to realize that literature is theanswer to “enlighten ignorant Korean women”;65 she finds it valuable for its handling of romantic relationships between men and women ( yŏnae), which, in her thinking, will lead women to find “true selfhood.” She defines the novel as an “exciting” love story, while poetry is the “praise of love” written in “limited words.”66 In order to put her “learning” into practice, Yŏnsil dates and seduces a number of men because she believes that yŏnaecomes to completion with sex. Although she soon becomes known among Korean students in Tokyo as a “loose woman,” she feels content, since her reputation is a proof of people’s recognition of her as a “leader who is qualified to talk about the idea of free love (chayu yŏnae).”67
This passage echoes the negative reception of the New Woman’s reading and writing patterns during the 1920s, castigating women’s efforts as no more than expressions of sexual desire—which, in Kim Tongin’s mind, is also characteristic of their reading patterns. A literary critic, Kim Kijin, also argued that Kim Myŏngsun’s works were like “cosmetic powder” meant to cover “desolated, dry, and corrupted skin.”68 Even though Kim Kijin claimed to know little of Kim Myŏngsun’s family background, he made it clear that she was the daughter of a
kisaeng. Furthermore, although he admitted that he “hadn’t read” her work closely, nonetheless he was confident enough to argue that it demonstrated “vulgar taste” and “mundane ideas,” and was unworthy of meaningful criticism. Thus the purpose of Kim Kijin’s “open letter” (konggaetchang)in Sin yŏsŏng69 is quite ambiguous. Under the title “a critique on sin yŏsŏng,” he not only wrote about women writers’ works—Kim Myŏngsun and Kim Iryŏp in particular—but also problematized their personal lives. In his opinion, the source of Kim Myŏngsun’s “hysterical mental state,” as shown in her works, had to do with her “excessive experience of free love.” Kim Kijin did not specify exactly what literary elements could be interpreted as “hysterical,” but added that her behavior might prove that she had inherited a certain quality from her mother that was being circulated in her “blood.”
It seems that women responded to Kim’s “open letter” in the next issue, but the content is missing in the issue’s reprint; only the title suggests that the erased content might have been a response to Kim Kijin’s letter.70 There is no way of knowing whether the reason for the redaction was colonial government censorship. Regardless, Kim Kijin’s “critique” of Kim Myŏngsun’s works as “melancholic, decadent, and hysteric” represents the general way that women writers’ works were received by the male-dominated literary world. The formation and development of modern literature in Korea paralleled the process of modernization, both movements considering intellectual labor as distinctly masculine and superior. While this phenomenon can also be found in other modern societies, what makes it different in colonial Korea is the intensity of the criticism directed at women who invested their talent in “men’s professions,” especially when they dealt with private matters such as romantic relationships. More often than not, they couldn’t avoid being attacked for being apathetic about social issues.
In Kim Tongin’s novella, for example, Yŏnsil’s literary career is given as an example of the individualistic lifestyle that the New Women pursued while distancing themselves from national problems. Yŏnsil hears about the March First Movement while staying in Japan; yet, not only does she demonstrate an in-different attitude towards the event, she feels that it has “nothing to do with literature.”71 When she returns to Korea, she tries to affiliate with a group of writers through her friend, Myŏngae (i.e., Kim Iryŏp), but only as a means to socialize. These two women writers cannot even understand how the two most representative literary groups of the time,
Ch’angjo(Creation) and P’yehŏ(Ruin),72 differ from one another. Although they fail to understand the “sophisticated” literary language of these male writers, they sense that their discussions “seem to” include the “utilization of knowledge for social causes.”73
Much as Kim Myŏngsun is the model for the main character in Kim Tongin’s novella, several of the supporting characters are also based on well-known female writers whose love affairs and marital relations were much publicized at that time. In the story, all of these characters show a basic indifference towards social reality. The reason why female writers didn’t receive respect, Kim Tongin seems to suggest, is their “ignorance,” derived from a narrow understanding of literature and indifference to public issues. Moreover, given the urgency of nurturing “mothers of nation, society, and nationhood
(minjok),”74 these women’s engross-ment in romantic affairs was construed as learned women giving a “bad example” and neglecting the lives of women of all classes. Their obsession with romance, some argued, was an indication of a “childish” mentality that even provoked them to commit suicide for love, further proving their selfishness and emotional vulnerability; had they been conscious of their responsibility to serve the nation as “Korean women,” the argument went, they wouldn’t have chosen to kill them-selves.75
Just as Kim Kijin blames Kim Myŏngsun’s “blood” for her intellectual underdevelopment, the moral flaws of Kim Tongin’s heroine are ascribed to her “lowly” origin. Here, Kim Kijin’s attitude shows the contradictions underlying the proletarian movement’s promotion of class equality as the primary condition for actualizing Korea’s independence.76 He was one of the core members of the Korean proletarian writers group, and his criticism of the “decadent bourgeois female” was harsh; however, he points to Kim Myŏngsun’s class background as an innate cause for her inability to transcend her own “ignorance,” a demonstration of her inferior intelligence.77 Along the same vein, in his novella, Kim Tongin is critical of the heroine’s negligence of motherly duty: Yŏnsil gives birth to a son in Japan, whose biological father could be any of the numerous men she was associated with at the same time. Because she prioritizes her social life as a feminist leader, she worries her own child will be a burden. So, showing her lack of “motherly love,” she abandons the child and returns to Korea alone. The novella ends when Yŏnsil becomes completely isolated from the literary circle and meets another possible patron, whose low social status “matches perfectly” with hers.
The publisher of
Sin yŏsŏng, Kaebyŏk, was founded by a Korean religious group, Ch’ŏndogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), which originated in the Tonghak (Eastern Learning) movement. After the March First Movement, Kaebyŏkbecame one of the major vehicles in the promotion of independence, encouraging intellectuals to promote “the reconstruction of national life, social equality, economic development, and education, in the service of remodeling Korean society.”78 As a consequence, the New Woman movement was analyzed within this ideological framework of “national life,” which resulted in the criticism of the New Woman’s focus on personal expression as selfish. Kim Myŏngsun, it seems, was well aware of the male-dominant writing public’s sensitive reaction to women’s expressions of emancipation. Her work “T’ansiri wa Chuyŏngi” (T’ansil and Chuyŏng),79 for example, unfolds the complex relationship between national liberation and gender equality through its portrait of an educated heroine’s struggle to locate a place for herself, expressed in a confessional manner.
50Some scholars suggest that Na Hyesŏk’s short story, “Pubu” (A married couple), was published two months prior to Kim’s in the inaugural issue of Yŏjagye. However, the first issue of Yŏjagye has not been discovered yet. Sŏ Chŏngja, Han’guk kŭndae yŏsŏng sosŏl yŏn’gu (A study of novels written by Korean modern female writers) (Seoul: Kukhak Charyowŏn, 1999), 19. 51It was published in a literary magazine, Munjang, in 1939 and 1941, but I use a reprint from Na nŭn sarang handa, a collection of Kim’s literary works and other works—essays and short stories—published by different writers and edited by Kim Sangbae (Seoul: Sol moe, 1981), 39–109. 52It has been pointed out that South Korean scholars have largely relied on biographical information provided by a few leading male writers of the time such as Kim Tongin, Chŏn Yŏngta’ek, and O Sangsun, who dealt with Kim’s life in their fiction works and talked about their memories of her. Ch’oe Myŏngp’yo, “Somun ŭro kusŏng toen Kim Myŏngsun,” 231. 53This information in particular was largely gathered from Chŏn Yŏngta’ek’s memoir, “Kim T’ansil kwa kŭ adŭl (Kim T’ansil and her son),” in Na nŭn sarang handa, ed. Kim Sangbae (Seoul: Moe, 1981), 110–125. 54Kim Tongin, “On Kim Yŏnsil chŏn,” in Na nŭn sarang handa, 108. 55Kim Tongin, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn, 43. 56Ibid., 41–44. 57Ibid., 45. 58Kim Yunsik, Kim Tongin yŏn’gu (A study of Kim Tongin) (Seoul: Minŭmsa, 1987), 279. 59Creation’s members included prominent writers such as Yi Kwangsu and Chu Yohan. It is generally known as part of the “Romantic” school of modern Korean literature, whose members were producing works that embodied the aesthetics of Realism. Most Creation members were deeply concerned about expressing political consciousness, and they became a core group of the cultural nationalist movement. 60Ch’oe Myŏngp’yo, “Somun ŭro kusŏng toen Kim Myŏngsun,” 233. 61Kwŏn Yŏngmin, “Kim Yŏnsil chŏn ŭi myŏtkkaji munjechŏm (A few problems with Kim Yŏnsil chŏn),” in Kim Tongin yŏn’gu, ed. Paek Ch’ŏl (Seoul: Saemunsa, 1981), 56–58. 62Ibid., 57. 63SYS, July 1926, 35. 64The classmate’s character was modeled on Kim Iryŏp. 65Kim Tongin, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn, 63. 66Ibid. 67Ibid., 67. 68Kim Kijin, SYS, November, 1924, 46. 69Ibid., 56–60. 70Kim Kijin’s use of an “open letter” appears in no other issue; however, rumors and gossip about well-known New Women were continuously produced in different sections of Sin yŏsŏng until the mid-1930s. 71Kim Tongin, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn, 82. 72Founded in 1920, its main members were Kim Ŏk, Yŏm Sangsŏp, O Sangsun, etc., whose works are known as romantic and decadent. 73Kim Tongin, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn, 86. 74Yi Sǒnghwan, SYS, January 1924, 7. 75Stories of New Women’s love suicides appeared frequently in the 1920s and 1930s, and the general response to these events was concentrated on the “meaningless death of women” who failed to contribute their lives to society. SYS, June 1926, October 1926, and April 1931. See also Chŏn Ponggwan’s Kyŏngsŏng chasal k’ŭllŏp (The Seoul suicide club) for media representation of women’s love suicides during the period (Seoul: Sallim, 2008). 76The Korean proletarian writers and artists organized a socialist group, the KAPF (Korean Artists Proletarian Federation), aiming to produce works that reflected the social reality faced by industrial and agricultural laborers. It lasted until 1935 when socialists’ activities were suppressed by the colonial government. 77Although an investigation of socialist women writers’ exploration of class issues is beyond the scope of this paper, the right- and left-wing divisions among writers and cultural critiques form an important dimension that shows the ideological tension between male and female socialist writers—and among female writers themselves—on the problems of women and class. For a detailed discussion of socialist women’s handling of class issues, with an emphasis on Kang Kyŏngae, see Sunyoung Park, “Rethinking Feminism in Colonial Korea: Kang Kyongae and 1930s Socialist Women’s Literature,” positions: east asia cultures critique 21, no. 4 (2013): 947–985. 78Robinson, Cultural Nationalism, 49–58. 79It was first published in the Chosŏn ilbo (Chosŏn daily) from June 14 to July 15, 1924. Reprinted in Na nŭn sarang handa, 164–200.
The first part of “T’ansiri wa Chuyŏngi” largely consists of a conversation between T’ansil’s stepbrother and his two guests, who are writers. They talk about a recently published novel which deals with a story of a woman, Chuyŏng. Little is said about the content of this novel; rather, their conversation concentrates on the heroine’s strong will to learn, and her subsequent fall from grace when she loses her virginity to a Japanese soldier. The guests parallel Chuyŏng’s situation with that of T’ansil: like the heroine in the novel, T’ansil also has a dark past which has caused her irrevocable psychological damage.80 According to her stepbrother, T’ansil had difficulty regaining her reputation after that “unfortunate” event, which left her a very “introverted person.” In contrast to how Kim Tongin portrayed Kim Myŏngsun as a “loose woman” in
Kim Yŏnsil chŏn, the stepbrother’s lengthy description of the “unfortunate incident” and its effects on his sister seems intended to prove her “innocence.”
The difference between the novel’s heroine and his sister, the stepbrother argues, is that the novel reflects a Japanese writer’s “sympathetic gaze” for a Korean woman mistreated by the Japanese, while his sister is treated badly by her own people.81 The discussion moves from a personal to a collective level and vice versa; the two writers feel that the Japanese author, by having the heroine lose her chastity to a Japanese man in the novel, meant to “insult all Koreans,” who would be humiliated by knowing that one of their “own women” was defiled by the colonizer. Women’s chastity is connected to national pride on a symbolic level, yet at the same time their conversation shows how the male-centered view of female sexuality discriminates against women like T’ansil. Here, Kim Myŏngsun views the ideology of the “nationalization of women” as the source of an oblique attempt to control female sexuality, indirectly blaming it for making women docile and introverted like T’ansil. This is evident when three male characters come to praise the “courage” of the heroine, Chuyŏng, who actively seeks a way to take revenge on the Japanese. The reason why Korea cannot produce a woman like Chuyŏng, they continue, is because Koreans are busy “cursing each other.”82
In the 1920s, the traditional notion of female chastity was being revised—by both male and female intellectuals—to become a sign of “pre-modern” social practice, the antithesis of freedom and equality. This liberal attitude towards the problem of chastity continued in the early 1930s, when it was discussed from a variety of perspectives: legal, social, scientific, and biological, as shown in
Sin yŏsŏng.83 This discussion was a radical development, since it opened the subject of chastity to the public sphere, something thoroughly avoided in the 1910s. Overall, sexual relationships before marriage, at least in public discussion, were not considered “inappropriate,” but rather entirely “natural” for young people as long as they were in love.84 However, the discourse on female sexuality sustained this “liberal” mood only when it was addressed to women in general. When it was associated with specific women, this permissiveness could vanish quickly, as shown in the cases of Kim Myŏngsun and Kim Iryŏp.
Kim Iryŏp, in her essay “
Na ŭi chŏngjogwan” (My view on chastity),85 argues that absolute fidelity is important only when a couple is in love, and must not be treated as a precondition of marriage. Although she speaks to both male and female readers, she emphasizes that women must not feel ashamed for any sexual relationships prior to marriage; being truthful with their current partners, she argues, is a proof of chastity. Kim Iryŏp’s view, however, remained as an ideal; in reality, women were expected to be chaste even after their husbands’ deaths. Especially when a specific individual like Kim caught the eyes of critics, the tension between theory and practice grew further. Not only was her morality questioned, but her appearance also became the basis of moral judgment. The voyeuristic gaze critics directed at the New Woman’s physical appearance and sexual behavior, in part, can be seen as a manifestation of male sexual fantasy, which intensified that female image of being “dangerously erotic.” Kim Myŏngsun was sexualized in media partly because of her appearance in movies, however, her kisaengbackground was perhaps another contributing factor to the sexualization of her image and the discrediting of her literary ability. In Kim Myŏngsun’s short story, the narrator reveals the anxiety her mother’s occupation has caused her, which has led to much suffering in her life. In a confessional manner, T’ansil states that she “never hated her mother, but she hated it when people called her the daughter of a kisaeng, the daughter of a concubine,” and hoped that her mother would go to a church with her so that she “wouldn’t go to hell after death.”86
T’ansil’s mother, however, refuses to be considered a victim and protests against those churchgoers who try to force her to “confess” her sins in order to be “saved by God.” “I became a
kisaengbecause of my unfortunate family situation,” she fires back. “I supported my mother with my job… You ask me to confess my sin, but is there anyone who doesn’t commit sins in this world?”87 T’ansil becomes sympathetic to her mother after this event. Here, T’ansil reveals her feeling about her origins, which, in fact, made her suffer throughout her life. She doesn’t deny that her mother’s occupation is “not respectable,”88 but places it within a social reality that provides few options for women to be economically independent.
The protagonists in Kim Myŏngsun’s stories seem to claim that the difficulty facing women who desire to live as free individuals is caused by the economic structure of their society. In her earlier work, “Ch’ŏnyŏ ŭi kanŭn kil” (A path she chose),89 a young female student from a poor family agonizes over an arranged marriage: she is reluctant to accept the marriage proposal, which will give her family financial relief, because she is in love with someone else. In the end, she leaves her home, determined to go her “own way” into the deepening darkness. This young woman has the courage to live according to her own faith, but her future is still not known at the end of the story.
There were a number of New Women who wrote stories of young women trapped between ideals and reality. These stories usually focused on the struggle to deny patriarchal authority and the economic impoverishment that this denial brought about. As I have pointed out earlier, the denial of one’s father was one of the most prominent characteristics in modern Korean literature during the colonial period: from Yi Kwangsu’s emphasis of his “orphan mentality”90 to Ch’oe Namsŏn’s stress on “young men’s duty to lead the nation,”91 colonial reality was perceived as resulting from the failure of their forefathers, those who had lost their authority in the past. T’ansil’s indifference to and disappointment with her father can perhaps be understood from this perspective; however, her strong affiliation with her mother bears an importance that goes beyond the symbolic denial of patriarchal authority.
Female writers paid great attention in their works to the relationship between mothers and daughters as a location of generational conflicts throughout the colonial period. As T’ansil tries to show, the conflicts were deeply rooted in the pervasive gender norms that continuously forced women to conform to social expectations. Fathers and their authority were still firm and threatening in real life: not only did they control their children and wives’ lives at home, but they also limited their choices in their public lives. In this regard, female writers’ handling of the generational conflicts between women can be interpreted as a reaction against the pervasiveness of patriarchy.92 T’ansil’s mother, rather than being effaced as an “unfortunate” woman of the past, is revived in T’ansil’s memory, mirroring how certain social practices—concubinage and the
kisaengsystem, in this case—affected the lives of women.
80Here, Kim Myŏngsun may have been referring to the rumour that she had been raped by Kim Yubang. 81Kim Myŏngsun, “T’ansiri wa Chuyŏngi,” 171. 82Ibid., 171. 83SYS, March 1932, 24–32. 84The discussion of sexuality, including female chastity, developed in a much more liberated fashion in the early 1930s when men even argued for male fidelity to one’s wife. SYS, March 1932, 28. 85Chosŏn ilbo, January 8, 1927. 86Kim Myŏngsun, “T’ansiri wa Chuyŏngi,” 178–181. 87Ibid., 178. 88Ibid. 89Kim Myŏngsun, in Na nŭn sarang handa, 135–140. 90Kim Yunsik, Yi Kwangsu wa kŭ ŭi sidae I (Yi Kwangsu and his era I) (Seoul: Sol, 1999), 566. 91Yi Kyŏnghun, Oppa ŭi t’ansaeng, 47. 92A brief list of works by female writers that deal with this theme includes: Kim Myŏngsun’s “Ch’ŏnyŏ ŭi kanŭn kil” (1920), Kim Iryŏp’s “My mother’s grave” (1920), Na Hyesŏk’s “Kyŏnghŭi” (1918), and Kang Kyŏngae’s (1906–1944) “A mother and her daughter” (1931).
When Kim Myŏngsun was isolated by society, she lamented that her “nation” had deserted her,93 but in her works, she idealized her heroines, whose drive to cultivate themselves is fully recognized by male figures.94 These contrasting perspectives reveal the dilemma that a New Woman had to confront in colonial Korea: she desired to be “accepted” and “understood” as a free individual in a society where the meaning of individuality was defined by patriarchal power that manifested itself in nationalism.
Kim Myŏngsun made no attempt to explore the meaning of the New Woman in her short story. Rather, she tried to convey the dilemma faced by isolated women who couldn’t exercise their economic and political power, despite their desire for self-improvement. Her work—which focuses on her heroine’s family relations, her friendships, and a detailed description of her school life—is written in a confessional fashion, which is prevalent in works written by other female writers during the 1920s.95 This pattern seems to be found in various parts of the world, where the number of autobiographical works, such as diaries, journals, and notebooks, written by women tends to surpass that written by men.96 Although this pattern may be derived from the influence of Western literary traditions, it also points to the fact that gendered public space functions as a determining factor for the “private-ness” dominant in women’s writing. The heroine’s interest in romantic relationships, her longing for close family ties, and her descriptions of her church community in “T’ansil and Chuyŏng” afford a microscopic view of women’s lives as they were shaped by existing gender relations. The protagonist’s longing for love was not confined to romantic relations only; rather, we can see it in her attempt to identify her selfhood by seeking connections between herself and others.
The public image of the “New Woman” as a “decadent, apathetic middle-class person” was largely shaped by nationalist critics and media in the 1920s. New Women were not a homogeneous group: their class background, their education, and their level of professional accomplishment all varied. Some critics, in fact, problematized the homogenized view of the New Woman, which, in their mind, was manipulated by mainstream media such as
Sin yŏsŏng.97 However, these voices were buried under the dominant representation. Even feminist leaders such as Kim Mirisa adopted this prevailing view, criticizing schoolgirls for their display of “vanity”—which, in her mind, led to their failure to conform to general ex-pectations and become good housekeepers.98
I have tried to stay away from the broader definition of the Korean New Women by focusing on their writing activity as a form of resistance. The value of Kim Tongin’s work, in part, is its historicization of the New Woman as a “failed feminist,” a perspective that remains deeply embedded in Korean scholarship to this date. At the same time, his work indicates that he recognized New Women’s existence as reading/writing subjects, rather than seeing them as nothing more than consumers. This is important when investigating the New Woman phe-nomenon in the 1920s. It directs our focus to the process of manifesting subjectivity that is reflected in the New Women’s reading and writing, a form of active engagement with their social reality.
93Kim Myŏngsun’s poem, Yuŏn (My will), in Na nŭn sarang handa, 308. 94Kim Myŏngsun’s short story, “Na nŭn sarang handa,” in Na nŭn sarang handa, 251–260. 95Autobiographical elements can also be found in the works of writers such as Kim Iryŏp and Paek Sinae. Kim Mihyŏn, Han’guk yŏsŏng sosŏl kwa p’eminijŭm (Women’s fictions and feminism in Korea) (Seoul: Sin’gu munhwasa, 1996), 166–180. Although their works are often referred to as being “autobiographical,” it must be noted that the characters in their works cannot be assumed to be portraits of their real lives. Rather, the autobiographical feature can be understood as a mode of writing that enabled women to express their gender consciousness, and it was also intended to create a feeling of empathy in their readers. 96While women generally focused on their personal lives, male writers tended to focus on their professional lives in confessional works. This pattern has been consistent since the pre-modern period. Estelle C. Jelinek, “Women’s Autobiography and the Male Tradition,” in Women’s Autobiography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 19. 97Kim Ŏk, SYS, October 1923, 29; Yi Sŏnghwan, SYS, January 1925, 5. 98Kim Mirisa, SYS, June 1925, 43.