“Women and Korean Literature” Short Article by Helen Koh

A nice short article (in PDF form) by Helen Koh, discussing the development of the female writer in Korea. As KTLIT discussed here, in reference to Bruce Fulton female writers have recently been given a taxonomy all their own (yoryu chakka and yoryu sosolga for writers and novelists respectively). Koh notes (unfortunately not sourced, because I’d love to have it) that in the 1990s there were so many yoryu sosolga that conservative male critics were complaining about their number!

Koh notes the Confucian history of Korea which historically excluded women from the public sphere including education and economic participation. Women were taught, at least to read, but this was so they could learn from homiletic biographies and books of proper conduct. At that time, female writing was more or less restricted to poetry and observations, which women shared primarily among themselves. The poems were kyubang kasa (lyrical verse of the inner room). Kisaeng (something like courtesans) were also literate, but this was purely in the service of entertaining men.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there were rare examples of female writers, but they were so rare as to be remarkable. Lady Hyegyong, who  recorded the sad events of her royal life, was one of these notable female writers. Although she did not write fiction per se, her writings were chosen and molded to transmit Confucian moral principles (LOL – so, perhaps in one way they were fictional).

The Chosun dynasty began to collapse under its own weight at the end of the 19th century, and this opened up more opportunities, including some for women. The “New Woman” appeared and her education, if nothing else, marked her as distinct from females of the previous eras. Koh notes that the fictional “New Woman” was of much more interest to Korean society than actual examples, and the first three “New Women” were treated rather poorly by society. Koh does not mention it, but Na Hyesok, Kim Wonju, and Kim Myongsun were all coincidentally born in 1896 and were all also  at least partially educated in Japan. What Koh does do is clearly and briefly trace the tragic endings of all  three of these writers. Kim Myongsun was initially a success, she was befriended and then abandoned by Yi Kwangsu, who seems to have made a habit of this kind of betrayal (noted here and here) – she died broke in a mental institution. Na Hyesok, made the mistake of being a public advocate  of free love (in words and deeds) and was divorced by her husband – she died broke in a charity ward. Kim Wonju, at least, found a better escape, becoming a Buddhist nun after her career also came apart  under the twin stresses of her fiction and her scandalous personal life.

Interesting, but not surprising, that even in the era of the “New Woman” the essentially Confucian Korean society easily brought these three pioneers to their knees.

Koh concludes with a brief canvas of two of the indispensable writers of what she calls “the industrial age.” These are Pak Kyong-ni (Land – Toji) and Pak Wanso (in another of her Romanized disguises).  The latter section is interesting enough, but it is Koh’s discussion of the “New Women” in such concise form that makes this article one worth reading for fans of Korean fiction as well as fans of the history of female writers.