Gabriel Sylvian answers some questions on Korean LGBT Literature #1

Chasing down a question from long-time commenter Charles (not me^^) and some interesting information about Yi Kwang-su, I came across some interesting work by Gabriel Sylvian at The Three Wise Monkeys.

Part two is here, and part three here.

I emailed him some questions and the answers were interesting (and lengthy!) enough that I decided to run them individually, with some comments they evoke from me.

Gabriel, a grad student in Korean Literature at Seoul National University, founded The Korea Gay Literature Project  in 2004. In any case, my first question was for background:

Q: Is there any historical tradition of gay/lesbian literature in Korea? My internet research turns up a couple of gay historical figures, but when looking for literature other than a suggestive, “in the oral tradition of Korean folklore, there are many stories about anal intercourse between men,” not all that much.

A: Because of the intellectual culture under Neo-Confucian ideology that eschewed graphic descriptions of sex, there is no grand literary tradition surrounding same-sex love in Korea. The elites were the only ones who could write. The literate (elite) class that dominated the brush was discouraged from reading and writing fiction, as the genre was seen as superfluous. They could not treat content related to even cross-sex sex, still less same-sex sex, which was a vulgar topic unworthy of public expression. So it remained undiscursivized in elite writings. The researcher of elite discourses is left with a handful of criminal cases in the Veritable Annals, such as charges against a palace woman who thieved, lied and engaged in same-sex relations with her female attendant, an incident recently fictionalized in Gim Byeol-a’s novel Chaehong. The paucity of such records in the Annals suggests that affectionate and sexual relations went on among palace women without any problem, as they did in China; and that such same-sex relations smoothed jealousies among the women who had to share the same man, an arrangement highlighted fictionally in Guunmong (Dream of the Nine Clouds). As for gender transgressions, the Annals include anecdotal cases of male shamans caught impersonating women, and a hermaphrodite male who was branded “inhuman” and sent into exile. Women disguised as men (namjang yeoseong) is a legitimate trope in Joseon period tales, but not men dressed as women. There is a late Joseon period tale Banghallimjeon in which two women characters dress and live as men. But generally in the literature of the elite culture, you have a tradition of silence.

So except for one or two ambiguous sijo poems, there’s no surviving literary tradition describing same-sex sex as a virtue, a cultural feature differentiating Korea from China and Japan. But fortunately, some Shilhak reformist scholars began taking an active interest in peasant culture in the latter half of the Joseon period and against the background of that trend some began researching peasant knowledges; for example, recording “vulgar” sayings, as you mentioned. In these same-sex themes emerge. Some jokes are recorded in the Gogeum sochong, for example. The jokes are disparaging of same-sex sex. Korean proverbs do not praise the love of boys at all, like the chigo are praised as objects of male desire in Japanese proverbs, although one proverb was collected by a folklorist several years ago which goes, “A woman is best; a man, second best; and alone, third best.” Boy love does appear, however, in the humor of pansori novels such as those recorded (presumably) and embellished by Shin Jae-hyo. So, viewed through the lens of the elite class, the peasant class is the cultural source for our modern-day encounter same-sex sex culture in the Joseon period. One can’t help but wonder, though, had the wandering namsadangpae bands been literate, would they have produced same-sex writings on boy love, which was a central feature of their culture? Probably so. The Confucian elite looked askance at the sadangpaegeoli as nuisances to society, but their tradition cultivated many of the folk arts Korean nationalists boast about today. It’s just that no written data exists in the Korean case. But in my own view, the sadangpae’s puppet tradition bears the stamp of their same-sex culture.

When looking at pre-Joseon Korea, we find glimpses of a grand tradition only seen darkly through centuries of Confucian interventions in its transmission to the present. By which I mean to say one can look at how Silla hwarang culture was discursivized by the Confucian elite and productively draw inferences from it. My feeling is that the same-sex content in the Hwarang Segi document, even if it is a forgery, adds fuel to the claim that the hwarang culture was based in boy worship and constituted some form of same-sex culture like the latter-day namsadangpae, whom I theorize as their latter-day descendants. A genealogy exists, you see. Conjecture among scholars about the possibility of hwarang being a same-sex culture has been floating around for a while, but no one has tried weaving the scattered details into a history. Hints are found in the nature of the hwarangs’ Mireuk boy worship, Silla period inscriptions, local histories, details in the Confucian Samguk Sagi and the Buddhist Samguk Yusa, and acts that can be seen as anti-hwarang and not simply anti-Buddhist, such as the selective destruction of hwarang material culture. At least one Joseon scholar condemned hwarang for their adulation of beautiful boys, using the term male-male love (namsaek), which to the Joseon elite was an insult. Twentieth century conditions of colonialism and nationalism served to further obscure such details, especially in response to colonial Japanese scholars, to mold the hwarang into what is useful for modern nation state-building. From a queer studies perspective, looking at cultural silences and hostilities in addition to explicit references is a route to reconstructing/ recovering lost tradition and creating a usable past for LGBTs.

To this excellent analysis I would add that there wasn’t really that great a tradition of love (or “WUV” as we tend to think of it in the West^^) in Korea at all, prior to the 20th century. Pre-modern Korean literature was heavily influenced by Confucian values of harmony.

This created a highly codified culture in which, about which Ann Choi Wan notes, “because this is happening within an accepted system the personal voice is also an expression of Confucian humanism: harmony, reciprocity, affectivity.” The latter meaning a deep feeling that expressed in commitment to one’s people, starting with the king, then filial piety, friendship toward friends and order in terms of respecting your elders. In other words, emotive content was generally funneled into social relations and not personal ones.

Again, following Ann Choi Wan, pre-modern literary themes included reverence for nature, praise of virtue, reflections in retirement,  and the sorrow of departure, which last notion is found in some love poetry even though, “I must add here that the tradition of romantic love even though there were love poems written … it was not a Confucian value but it existed at the margins of official culture. That is a Confucian gentleman did not fall in love with a courtesan. They were there as an official marginalized carriers of romantic love. They were objects of longing. And they themselves were of course very well trained … they were a different class of women from …  the virtuous women known as the faithful wives.”

The poems that faithful wives wrote  were sanctioned by tradition and basically only had one topic – poems of longing for husbands, which fits quite nicely into Confucian norms of filial piety, patriarchy, and the importance of the family unit.

Choi Wan also notes that on some occasions, men take on women’s voices to speak of love, but that love is rarely interpersonal. Instead, the love is normally for some figure of a social superior who has cast an u fortunate soul out, often  a banished subject who falls out of favor with the king and is exiled. In exile the poet writes poems addressing the king and the king becomes the beloved and the poet frequently takes on a feminine mask to do so. But romantic love itself was not part of this tradition.

It all adds up to an environment in which love was not socially valued, and thus did not exist in the literature of the time.


8 thoughts on “Gabriel Sylvian answers some questions on Korean LGBT Literature #1

  1. Pingback: More with Gabriel Sylvian: Korean GLBT Literature #2

  2. Very interesting and useful!

    I would welcome learning about any modern LGBT literature in ROK. There surely must be some. If so, what type? Is it all literary fiction, or are there genre fictions as well that are LGBT?

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