Sexism in the Korean Literary Establishment?

I’m currently somewhere in between working on pages for the Wikipedia Project and writing a review of the University of Hawai’i’s publication of Questioning Minds, a collection of female writers who span the entire modern history of Korean modern literature.

For the purposes of the Wikipedia Project I also have the Who’s Who in Korean Literature (published by the Korean Culture & Arts Foundation), a vast tome of some 55o pages, containing biographies of 181 writers. Published in 1996 the book says the the publisher’s mission (partly) is:

Contribution to the creation of cultural environment of the future society that is rich and abundant as well as to the international cultural exchange.

Which is why I found it odd that of the 10 authors represented in Questioning Minds, only two were in the Who’s Who. Park Wan-suh made the cut, and so did Ch’oe Yun. But of course these two were unavoidable.

Authors who did not make the cut include: Kim Myong-sun and Na Hye-sok, two artists whose lives were essentially destroyed for their lack of conventionality; Kim Won-ju, whose views on sexuality were so unpopular that she eventually retreated to a Buddhist temple; Han Mu-sook, who is famous in Korean and internationally; Kang Sin-jae, whose official involvement with the Korean literary establishment was vast (e.g. she won the Korea Republic Academy of Arts Award in 1988 and was a representative  of the Association of Korean Writers); Song Won-hui (just exactly repeat the qualifications I listed for Kang Sin-jae); Yi Sun (whose tragic early memory loss had the unfortunate effect of removing her from the public eye), and; Yi Sok-pong, who won the Korean PEN Literature Award in 1989).

That is a rather remarkable list of writers to have missed, both trailblazers and accomplished artists, all publicly recognized well before publication of the Who’s Who. More remarkably, out of those 181 important writers in the Who’s Who, only 15 are women (the writers are conveniently categorized as M or F on the header of each biography). This is an astoundingly low percentage (I pulled out all my maths skills^^ and calculated it as less than 10%), and leads me to suspiciously ask if there is a bias here.

Some notes of warning to myself  –

  • It is quite possible that there have been more male writers than female writers in the modern era, certainly the lives of Na and Kim Myong-sun would have scared off all but the hardiest potential writer.
  • The inclusion of poets in this list might also swing the balance towards men (I have no idea what the ratio of male to female poets might actually be)
  • The situation I am describing is also quite prevalent on the English side of literature

But still – it’s a remarkable list of omissions and a remarkable percentage of men in the final tally. I think it’s time to put out another one of these books and try to represent the actual, and increasing, diversity of Korean authors. In fact, of course it is time to do this.. I also note that Shin Kyung-sook (F) and Kim Young-ha (M) are not represented in the book.

Finally, kudos to LTI Korea and other translators, who have ALWAYS seemed to translate a higher percentage of female authors than the gatekeepers of the canon seem willing to admit.

8 thoughts on “Sexism in the Korean Literary Establishment?

  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader « The Grand Narrative

  2. I would still assume that your premise is correct.

    I assume that ROK is a society with real problems regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that are essentially ignored.

    See, for example: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/10/117_96613.html

    As such, I assume it is quite likely that Korean enterprises discriminate against all of these.

    Is there, for example, gay fiction in Korea?

    And the low visibility of romance suggests to me that women readers and writers are not well considered.

    It is interesting that Korea and its long-time rival — Japan — share the trait of profound xenophobia.

  3. Charles..

    On your first post.

    Yeah, Korea is an “old-fashioned” culture in the cultural sense, and it was no particular surprise to me that there was sexism in the canon, but the numbers were utterly staggering – particularly when tallied against the percentage of women who have been translated, particularly lately.

    There is no aboveground gay literature in Korea. Homosexuality is still normatively loathed or ignored. There are plenty of gays, or gay acts (I’m with Gore Vidal that simplifying people to gay or straight can leave out a lot of folks in the middle). Old men hang out at a certain park near Jongno where they can be serviced. Gay and transexual bars abound in Itaewon and to a lesser extent Hongdae (suprise! in the hip neighborhoods). I had a gay friend in Daejeon who just went to certain jjimjilbang and hung out til he was approached.

    But this is not reflected in literature.

    The last entertainer I know of who came out, Kim Ji-who, later killed himself, partly because:

    Following the announcement of his sexual orientation, Kim’s management agency did not renew his contract and many TV programs and fashion shows cancelled his appearances. His blog was bombarded with numerous messages denouncing his sexual orientation.
    http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2008/10/117_32358.html

    I think part of this is because being gay is so UN-Confucian and part of it is just old-fashioned discrimination.

    But, I wouldn’t be counting on any gay-lit surfacing in the mainstream of Korean literature for a while, and thus not in translation for even longer.

  4. A bit off topic but, do you think that the book you mentioned “Who’s who in Korean Literature” represents the canon of Korean literature?

  5. Absolutely not, chosen by gatekeepers who had an interest in a certain kind of artist. The under-representation of women, for one thing, is shocking.

    Still, it, along with the two books from LTI Korea (a book with short bios on authors, and a book on poets), and what is on the LTI Korea database, is the best unified source for Korean author information. The Korean wiki is good, but wiki rules forbid one language wiki being used as a source for another.

  6. Thank you for the reply!

    I’m finishing some research on Korean literature translated into English before 2000 and I thought I could use that book as a resource of how well represented the main canon of Korean literature was.

    I had noticed the selection was a bit biased. It referred only to novelists and poets and I had missed Hahn Moo-sook, Kang Kyung-ae, Moh Yoo-sook and Ko Won among others. I had noticed there were few authors from late 19th century but I wasn’t sure if it was just a question of space.

    So I guess I’ll have to approach the issue from a different perspective. Maybe I can find what is included in the Korean national curriculum…

    By the way, good work! Wikipedia begins to have a whole different look!

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