Women in Korean Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender

  • onJune 19, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byKim Na-young

Gender is a social construct, not tied to biological sex, with its defining characteristics fluid and ever-changing. It materializes in all cases of social discrimination, each instance deeply rooted in our history and institutions. The recent series of sexual violence allegations being leveled across Korean society has brought the issues of sex and gender into the literary world’s spotlight. The traditional approach to discussing this topic in literature has been through accusation, the act of testifying to the violence and deception of patriarchy and the ideology of the “normal” family through literature. Korean society has always set specific standards for what constitutes a family, publicly scorning all noncompliance—a tendency that led to the aggravation of gender inequality in Korean society. So what better time than now to examine literary works that focus on womanhood within the patriarchal system?

Ko Jung-hee, a poet who shed light on women’s issues in South Korea in the 1980s, invokes two women from Korean history in her poem “Saimdang to HeoNanseolheon.” Sin Saimdang and HeoNanseolheon are both revered as idealized female figures in Korea’s patriarchal Confucian society, but they could not be more dissimilar. Saimdang is remembered for her role as the patient wife and mother while Nanseolheon was a writer who railed against the gender role that had been forced upon her. That the poem is a hypothetical message from one ideal woman in Korean history to another makes this poem particularly fascinating, and it is especially meaningful that this is a story of women told in the voice of women. It is a daring act of reclamation that takes history back from the grasp of a chauvinistic patriarchy that demanded undue sacrifices from women and where sexism was rooted deep in words such as il-bu-il-cheo-je (“monogamy,” literally translated as “system of one wife to one man,” which implied the ownership of a woman) and jeongsil-buin(“official wife,” which implied the existence of non-official wives or concubines).

Kim Seung-hee once again offers keen insights into the structural problems and generational conflicts that plague Korean society with “Love 5 (Wedding Love),” a chilling depiction of the institution of marriage. Kim comes close to casting the topic as equivalent to imperialism, where the powerful permit normally unthinkable acts of madness in order to exert their political and economic will over other nations or peoples. The poem contains the brief but powerful message that marriage robs a woman of her agency, that it is the act of allowing herself to be subsumed by society, and which defines a “good” wife as a woman who obeys her husband without question. The final line—“Is there not?”—is a striking call to reflection, drawing the reader into the poem itself. Times have changed and society marches forward, but the final question of “Love 5 (Wedding Love)” will continue to be relevant into the future.

Kim Haengsook’s poetic style brings multiple, discrete voices into one poem, elevating her work beyond isolated images and testimonies into a mélange of perspectives where individual stories cannot be separated from the whole. The style is a reminder that literature is not necessarily a record of universal histories, but a recounting of personal tales. “At the Age of Thirty” utilizes an unusual storytelling device, bringing together the stories of two women (mothers). The narrator of the poem, lost in thought about her mother, crashes her car into a tree and reverses (almost as she would wind back time). This flashback overlaps with the younger woman, who has seemingly let go of her stroller on purpose, encapsulating the history of womanhood in one profound scene.

Kim Ae-ran made waves with her bold new approach to the grammar of gender in literature when she made her literary debut. Her unapologetic and imaginative short story “Run, Dad!” reveals that traditional Korean approaches to the denial of the father figure ironically served to reinforce tradition. At the same time, it challenges the patriarchal standards that have long permeated Korean society and literature. The father in the story is constantly running, as if fleeing from the reality that he has brought upon himself. He comesacross as an almost comical figure, even a pitiful one from the perspective of his grown daughter. “Run, Dad!” is a reminder that the hierarchy imposed upon parent-child, father-daughter relationships is grounded on empty ideals.

Jeong Yi Hyun has actively criticized gender issues entrenched in South Korean society since making her debut with “Romantic Love and Society.” Her characters are often women in their mid-to-late twenties (what is considered prime marrying age in South Korean society). Many of Jeong’s stories discuss the disconnect between society’s idea of the perfect spouse and the individual’s idea of a desirable companion. It is important to note that Jeong’s characters understand the inherent hypocrisy of attempting to combine the two ideals into one. “The Loneliness of Others” is unusual in that it features a male narrator, but even this story is driven by the voice of his mother who is urging her son to remarry. Jeong’s depiction of modern matchmaking companies and the attitude of the man’s mother, who metaphorically weighs different daughter-in-law candidates, is a snapshot of South Korea’s cultural landscape and its social problems, a discussion of uniquely Korean forms of gender discrimination.

Park Min-Jung takes a more complicated stance in her criticism of gender issues. She depicts not only problems stemming from the strict definitions of the male-female dichotomy in South Korean society, but also the pain and discrimination that arises from unaddressed historical issues. In her short story “Seshiru, Juhee,” the character Juhee finds herself unable to confide in anyone about a sexually demeaning experience she has had in another country. Seshiru is a foreign worker whom Juhee helps to learn Korean. During the story, Juhee learns that Seshiru’s great-grandmother took her own life when she was a part of the Himeyuri Corps, a group of Japanese students and teachers mobilized as nurses during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Park goes on to fully display the lives of women sacrificed for the cause of imperialism. The women were forced to give up everything while also being urged to maintain their chastity. This history becomes a burden passed down from a girl born during that time period to her daughter, then to the daughter’s daughter. This vestige of history—the othering of women and women’s lives—and its latent hostility still remain today, too great to be written off as a side effect of war.

The lives of women as depicted in Korean literature—forced to choose between personal accomplishment and the well-being of their progeny—remain unchanged from Sin Saimdang and HeoNanseolheon in the past to present-day figures like Juhee and Seshiru. Marriage as an institution was an injustice that demanded that a woman surrender her agency and sacrifice her identity, applying the labels of “mother” and “daughter” to women and making their surrender of individuality out to be an act of virtue. This process and the gender issues that resulted in society are painstakingly detailed in many works of Korean literature. 


by Kim Na-young
Literary Critic


Art ⓒ Cho Jang Eun, Lingering Attachments_Painting on Jangji Paper_108.5x126cm_2009