Ideology, Culture, Han, and the Female Writer in Korea

Han from Life Magazine

Too Hot to "Han"dle?

Lee Younghee’s, Ideology, Culture and Han, a brief but quite interesting analysis of women writers in the Joseon and early Modern periods. It’s fun-filled enough that I’m going to have to take it on two chapters at a time. The first two chapters have to do with gender and institutionalized anger.

Lee focuses particularly on the concept of han – a concept that does not translate exactly into English, by may be taken to mean a lifestyle that includes resentment (and the possibility of overcoming it) based on historical and social realities that combine to something like, “lament, hatred, resentment and regret,” with, perhaps, a little longing thrown in for good measure. Signally, han generally generates from external realities – that is to say, no particular Korean individual or individuals can be pointed to; it can come from a social system, or it can come from Japanese depredation, but is is seen as, whether it is true or not, external and sometime unalterable. Toss in the collective nature of Korean society, in which individual desires are often sacrificed to the greater good of the whole, and you have a system maximized to create han.

Koreans insist that this is uniquely Korean. Of course it is not, one need only look to Jews, Serbs and Croatians to see other forms of this concept, but it is fair to say that Korean history particularly lends itself to this feeling, given its history of expansion and contraction by growth and invasion (China, Japan, the Mongols, etc). Lee goes on the point out that even within this greater social context, Korean women were particularly well suited to feel han. In fact, I’d recommend the first chapter of this book for anyone confused about han, where it comes from, and how it affects women, completely apart from the rest of Lee’s focus on literature.

Briefly outlined, Korean women went from a pre-Confucian society in which they had full rights, to a Joseon society in which they had no rights at all and were essentially no better than chattel. In Shamanistic Korea there is strong evidence of women wielding considerable social power and during the Silla period there were three queens. Also, during the Silla period, men and women could interact freely and Buddhism gave women relatively equal opportunity with men. This all changed with the Joseon dynasty, which was founded on Confucian principles all of which were state-centered, patriarchal, and filial in nature. Confucianism determined how society would run, while Buddhism and Shamanism were reduced to outlets for excess steam, steam that needed to be run off for Confucianism to succeed. Buddhism, which had become somewhat corrupt by the time of the Joseon dynasty, was run out of the cities and under the influence of Confucianism, sharply reduced the power of women within its own domains.

Lee takes her reader on a survey of the women’s literature of the Joseon period, in three different arenas: naebang gasa, the instructional songs of women (of the inner court and written by aristocratic women); minyo (popular folk songs), and; gisaeng sijo (the poetry of courtesans). Further, she examines the ideological effects of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shamanism, and Catholocism on the development of female han.

First Lee deals with the impact of Confucianism and Lee is great at explaining how even the translated works clearly demonstrate han developed from Confucian practice. On the occasion of a daughter leaving for marriage (almost always a one-way journey away from her family and into something that resembled slavery) a naebang gasa laments:

Listen my child,
tomorrow is your day of leaving home
saying good-bye to us
and entering your in-laws house
What can I say?
my heart my thoughts become lost

I am about to let you go
how many warnings there are to give you

Hinting even to the uninitiated, that marriage was a chore in Joseon society. The gasa were a mix of lamentation and instruction for what was to come.

Minyo, being less formal and aristocratic, could also be more amusing:

People say that chili paste is hot
but it is not as hot as
living with my inlaws


They say tigers are so ferocious
but are they any more ferocious
than my father-in-law?

This han, Kim Yongsuk says, results from five aspects of neo-confucian society: superiority of men over women and the samjong way; inequal education; emphasis on virtue in women, and prohibition of remarriage; concubines, and; the gisaeng system.

Another way of taxonomizing these social standards is: namjeon-yobi (preference of men over women); samjong (thrice following), and; chilgeo (the seven grounds for dismissal).

Samjong meant there were three stages to a woman’s life; first she followed her father; then she followed her husband; finally she followed her son. Chilgeo included seven behaviors which were prohibited a woman:

1) Disobedience
2) Barreness (particularly inability to have a male child)
3) Salciousnes
4) Jealousy
5) incurable disease
6) Talkativeness
7) Stealing
The resulting culture of oppression, which develops into han, is deeply embedded in the literature of Korean women during the Joseon dynasty.
With respect to Shamanism and Buddhism (during the Joseon), Lee argues that they served as culturally acceptable release valves which, by giving women places to vent, actually helped keep women more docile overall by releasing ‘local’ han. In some ways this is like Mardi Gras for those forced to live in a nearly eternal Lent, if that isn’t too stupid a comparison.
Christianity, introduced much later, also had this venting function as it focused on both forgiveness and an afterlife (Confucianism was silent on this), which would reward a woman for good behavior in this one But Christianity also had a far more liberating effect, for several reasons. First. Christianity, which was a coed practice  helped to break down barriers by forcing men and women to worship together and stressed the equality of men and women before God. But most importantly, Christianity, Catholocism particularly, encourage social change, and this more than anything else, helped women break down the barriers that held them from social involvement, including full involvement in literature.. This is important, as we shall soon see, because beyond the Joseon period, as the barriers began to weaken, a whole new wave of han-based women’s fiction emerged

With this historical basis for han established, and the particularly han-filled role to which women were assigned, Lee ends her second chapter, before going on to look at the literature more closely.

LOL – but that discussion will have to wait for tomorrow.

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