Three Women Vol. 1

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byCho Sunhee
Three Women Vol. 1
Tr. Rachel Min Park
Chapter 1
“Do you , take thee, to be your wedded spouse and vow to reflect the struggle for the liberation of the proletariats in your daily lives?”
1920, Shanghai


She had left Seoul full of confidence, but became increasingly worried as the train approached Shanghai.

“Shanghai: The City of the Devil.”

When the clothes of the people passing through the train corridors fluttered in the wind, the smell of opium saturated the train. Or perhaps it was the sickeningly sweet smell of body odor . . . In any case, maybe it was just the smell of people’s sweat and not opium. To be perfectly honest, Jeong-suk had never smelled opium before. When Jeong-suk told her father that she wanted to study abroad, her father had advised her to go to America. As soon as his daughter mentioned that she preferred Shanghai, he leapt to his feet.

“Shanghai is too dangerous! It’s a place rampant with opium and prostitution, where human trafficking and murders are everyday occurrences!”

However, America was too far and outside of her interests. Her father had offered a compromise, but his tone was resolute.

“If you want to go to Tokyo, I’ll send you there. But never Shanghai.”

Passing through the turnstile at Shanghai Station, Jeong-suk paused in front of the waiting room mirror and was startled by her reflection. Standing before her was a confused and cowed-looking female student from the countryside, the image of someone who looked like she was heading into the city for the first time to visit an adult relative as an errand for her parents—a nineteen-year-old woman with a neat part in her braided hair, wearing a white jeogori and black full-length skirt, hunching her back and clutching her suitcase with two hands in case a thief would try to steal it. Jeong-suk placed her suitcase next to her, grabbed the ribbon at the end of her hair, and pulled, silently chastising herself:

“You must not have been in your right mind when you left home. What was going through your head when you picked out a cherry-pink ribbon from your wardrobe? Were you hoping that if you were stopped by the police for interrogation that they would be too enthralled by your appearance and let you go?”

Jeong-suk unraveled her braid, using her fingers to untangle the tresses of her hair and gathered them into a bundle. After shaking out her curls, she tied her hair up and set it with two hairpins. Gazing at her reflection with the new bun on her head, she felt a peculiar thrill.

Thus far, she had only ever traveled on a train with her father or with other members of associations she had joined. For the first time, alone and without any company (not even the familiar train for school!), she had taken a train to the North. Moreover, she had dismantled her traditional Korean hairstyle and re-styled it in a fashionable French twist. Jeong-suk puffed out her chest, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. It was only after that moment that she truly felt like an adult.

The public square at Shanghai Station was encircled by numerous three- and four-story tall stone buildings. The crowd was comprised of people with different skin colors and different attire, and it seemed like actual Chinese people made up less than half of the crowd’s composition. At the station guard post, a guard wearing a turban like an Indian stood sentry. Faced with the strangeness of this international city, Jeong-suk felt a wave of vertigo rush to her head and was momentarily struck dumb. Suddenly, she heard a shout from afar.

Turning around, she caught a glimpse of a young man wearing a shabby Zhongshan suit standing in the station’s corner, waving two fists and making a speech. Jeong-suk hesitatingly nudged her way into the crowd of spectators but, except for a few words of Chinese, couldn’t make out what the man was saying. Nevertheless, she took one of the flyers another young man was handing out and glanced over the classical Chinese characters written on it.

“Attain sovereignty from the outside and punish traitors from the inside!”

“We must not use Japanese products nor sell them!”

“Let us learn from the radicalized workers of the railways and mines!”

“May Fourth is the anniversary of Confucius’s death and the birth of a new China!”

The group was apparently called the “Shanghai China Youth Group,” but their mixture of both nationalist and Marxist slogans made it difficult for Jeong-suk to ascertain the group’s exact identity and purpose. Regardless of whether it was China or Korea, both countries’ circumstances were definitely the same. After all, hadn’t the May Fourth Revolution in China occurred just two months after Korea’s own March First Movement? Jeong-suk felt the special sympathy that was particular to sharing a certain misery. It felt as if this city, with this impressive first experience that confirmed its celebrated moniker of “political paradise,” was beckoning her. “I came to the right place,” murmured Jeong-suk as she walked across the square with a new spring in her step. Reaching the side of the street, she motioned for a passing rickshaw and gave the rickshaw driver Yi Donghwi’s address. Yi Donghwi was like a close older brother to her father, practically like Jeong-suk’s uncle, but if her father discovered that she had come to Shanghai and had gone to see him, he would not be pleased.

The rickshaw man was a scrawny old Chinese man with a sooty face tanned by the sun, but after signaling his departure with a whistle, set off like the wind with a speed that belied his physique.

According to the address she had, Yi Donghwi’s residence was in the Shanghai French Concession. Admittedly, she had copied down the address from the envelope of a letter her father had received three months ago, but surely he hadn’t moved since then?

When Jeong-suk first heard that the missionary that had converted her father to Christianity had become a Bolshevik, she could hardly believe her ears. She had met Yi Donghwi in Hamgyeong Province in 1910, the same year that Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire. By then, he had been released from prison, after having been jailed for participating in the Korean Righteous Army opposing King Kojong’s abdication. Even though she was very young when she’d met him, she still remembered him vividly because he had always seemed so different than the other adults in her vicinity. Wearing an old military uniform pinned with various badges displaying his army rank, he had an unforgettable handlebar mustache that was as sharp as a swallowtail. Later on, he was banished for participating in underground resistance activities and escaped to Northern Kando Province in Manchuria, moving on to Yeonhaeju in the southeastern end of Russia, all the while joining various struggles for independence. According to the most recent rumors, he had joined and fought with the Bolshevik Army in the final throes of the Russian Revolution and founded the Korean Socialist Party before finally coming to act as the prime minister of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai.

In 1920, whoever you met, all anyone could talk about was Shanghai and Moscow. The captivating rumors surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution circulated throughout the world, and at a certain point, Shanghai became known as the capital and refuge for political exiles in people’s imaginations. Although she had attended lectures and participated in the Women’s Rights Movement when she was eighteen, Jeong-suk and her ambitions sought something greater. Jeong-suk wanted to speak every language in the world, to anchor in every port the world had to offer: she wanted to know everything and become everything. But above all else, she yearned to discover some ideology or theory that would rescue her homeland and her people, currently trapped in the jaws of the savage beast of colonialism.

Yi Donghwi had finally finished getting ready to go out when a young woman abruptly opened the front door and entered. His mouth dropped open in shock and he was momentarily speechless.

As soon as Jeong-suk introduced herself, Yi Donghwi strode towards her with his arms wide open, took the bags from her arms and set them on the floor, and hugged her with all his strength. He carried himself with the manners and poise that he had learned while associating with foreign missionaries, but with a strength and energy that recalled his days as a former military officer. Instead of the shabby military uniform that Jeong-suk remembered, he wore a white traditional Korean overcoat, but his distinctive mustache was still the same.

By this time, her father had likely discovered that she had secretly left for Shanghai and the whole household was probably up in arms. Jeong-suk had written her father a letter. Titled “Letter to my Father,” it was an invoice for her school expenses. She left out the fact that she would be staying at Yi Donghwi’s residence.

Jeong-suk suddenly recalled the time she had held her father’s hand and boarded the Gwanbu Ferry Boat three years ago. As soon as Jeong-suk had graduated from Baehwa Girls High School, her father had taken her to Kobe and enrolled her at the Kwansei Theological Seminary. The seminary was technically a boarding school, but it was as strict and tightly regulated as a monastery. Her father had been displeased with his daughter, who spent all her time attending literature society meetings, going on picnics, eating at Chinese restaurants with the male students, and viewing flowers. The only activity that had even remotely captured her interest in the mundane routine of her new school was memorizing the entire New Testament by heart. Even so, the school had been tolerable until Jeong-suk went back home for summer vacation. In the summer of 1919, as she was walking around Seoul, she discovered that a truly unbelievable incident had occurred: the March First Movement. Jeong-suk had been completely left in the dark. Even the kisaengs at the call office had taken to the streets and cheered “Mansei!” But what had Jeong-suk been doing that March? She had been memorizing the Bible in Japanese and singing hymns. She was furious that the most exhilarating and electrifying event to occur in her nearly twenty years of life had come and gone without her. Moreover, she could not forgive her father for abandoning her in this absurd school.

Did my father really want me to become a female teacher at a missionary school? Or did he just want to mold me into the demure and quiet woman of men’s ideals so that he could marry me off?

Towards the end of summer vacation, Jeong-suk sat at the head of the breakfast table and said: “Heaven and Hell may exist in the afterlife, but the place our people are currently living is already Hell. No matter how deeply I search, the Bible does not offer any words to save them. I will not be returning to Japan.” Upon hearing her words, her father set down his spoon and chopsticks and slowly nodded his head. Her mouth firmly shut in defiant silence, Jeong-suk instead cried “Mansei!” to herself. This was the first time she had ever challenged her father, and it was clear that she had won this first round. Nineteen-nineteen marked the year of the March First Movement for Independence, but Jeong-suk’s defiance was also its own kind of protest. To shout “Mansei” among the comfort of the crowd in the streets was easier than crying it alone in one’s home.

Her decision to study in Shanghai was thus a kind of revenge for the time in Kobe. After expressing in her letter that Shanghai was just as diverse and thrilling as she had anticipated, she straightforwardly stated her point:

“Next year, I will be twenty. I fully realize that you, as my parents, are worried that I will have lost my chance at marriage. But no matter how presumptuous this may seem, this daughter believes that the task of finding life’s meaning is far more urgent than finding a husband. Please do not fault me for wanting to explore the vast world outside—for wanting to learn and perfect the languages of foreign lands. After learning English and Chinese at the Shanghai Foreign School, I will go to Nanjing and continue my studies at Geumneung University.”

Her father’s response was more worried than angry. Though his letter began with, “I said under no circumstances were you to go to Shanghai,” he continued with “Since it is Geumneung University, you will learn a lot and it is worth attending. Don’t stay out too late and wander the streets alone . . . Make sure you go and find Yi Donghwi or Kim Lip. They are my friends and will treat you like their own daughter.” At the end of the letter, he added a final request:

“Although we may be living in an age overflowing with new thoughts and new trends, it is my hope that you are not blinded and seduced by the new.”

Jeong-suk tilted her head in confusion. Her father had instructed her to not be seduced by new things, but then suggested she seek out Yi Donghwi and Kim Lip. Weren’t they both communists?

By the time Jeong-suk received her father’s letter, it had already been two months since she had begun her new life as an exchange student. At night, she fearlessly ran through the streets of Shanghai alone.

In the fall of 1920, a few days after Heo Jeong-suk’s arrival, another young girl from Korea, dressed in a full-skirt and jeogori, passed through the same station turnstile and entered Shanghai. It was an age when it was still rare for a young woman to travel and study abroad by herself. Carrying a large rucksack and looking around with a face lit by a mixture of nervousness and excitement, the young girl went to the waiting room and was happily greeted by a man.

“Hey, Se-juk—here!”

The man took her bag and spoke.

“I found a boarding house for you. First, let’s put down your things. Even if we meet your fellow students from Youngsaeng School tomorrow, it shouldn’t be too late.”

“Ah, yes—but first, I need to contact home. Do you know where the telegraph station is?”

Se-juk had stayed up all night packing her things and had left home just before daybreak. As she walked down the dim road, she managed to only see her mother’s right hand waving at her; the rest of her body was hidden behind the front gate in case anybody was watching them.

It was a gesture that meant “Hurry! Hurry, and go far away from this place!” Later that same day, maybe around sunset, the chief investigator from the Hamheung Police Station had probably gone to their house in order to check up on Se-juk’s activities. Although her mother had likely told him that Se-juk was at a church prayer service or had made up some other excuse, it had now already been several days since her departure and he must have been getting suspicious. The thought of that bastard interrogating her mother made Se-juk’s hair bristle with fear and it felt like somebody was clenching her heart.

Her telegram was brief:

“Arrived today. Good health.”

It would have been dangerous to all if anyone discovered she was in Shanghai. “Good health” meant that Se-juk had arrived safely and was doing well, but it was also her secret way of conveying her wishes for her mother’s “good” life and perpetual “health.” Se-juk could already vividly imagine the spots where the tears that would fall from her mother’s eyes would stain the telegraph.

Se-juk’s boarding house was in the Shanghai French Concessions. The fellow student that had met her at the station dropped her belongings off at the boarding house and then left right away. During their long walk from Shanghai Station to the boarding house, he had passionately shouted and rambled on about the current situation in Shanghai and the circumstances of the revolutionaries, but as soon as they entered the boarding house, he abruptly turned into a shy young man and avoided meeting her gaze, upholding the old Confucian practice that men and women should keep their distance. He didn’t even set foot into the room and immediately turned around and exited through the front gate.

It was a typical student boarding room, furnished with only a bed and a table. As soon as she lay on the bed, thoughts about the past ordeals at Hamheung and her future in Shanghai seemed to rise like smoke, filling the small box-like room and permeating the air.

If it hadn’t been for the March First Movement, Se-juk would likely still be back at home in Hamheung, attending classes at Youngsaeng High School and living a normal student life. With some luck, she probably could have even found a job as a teacher in a small school on the outskirts of Hamheung. Se-juk was born into a newly impoverished yangban family and after her father had passed away, her mother was forced to start farming in order to survive. Yet news of Se-juk’s beauty had been so widespread throughout Hamheung that Se-juk had no lack of suitors and could have had her pick of any of them, even those from distinguished families.

News of the March First Movement arrived in Hamheung one day after it had occurred. Teacher Lee Sun-gi had called a few students over to his home. To the young students that had been slapped by their Japanese teacher for their awkward Japanese, Lee Sun-gi had always comforted them by patting them on their backs and telling them, “Study hard so that we may restore our country. If we want to fight Japan, we have to learn Japanese.” Occasionally, and with great difficulty, he succeeded in procuring rare and precious texts such as The Record of Ahn Jung-Geun’s Trial and Park Eun-sik’s The History of Emperor Taejo in the Jin Dynasty and invited students over for special lectures. But on this particular day, he waited until every single student had arrived and then locked the front gate. He pulled out a sheet of paper from a cupboard, held it with his two hands, and began to read:

“We hereby declare that Korea is an independent state and that Koreans are a self-governing people . . .”

Teacher Lee Sun-gi’s tears overflowed from the bottom of his spectacles and Se-juk felt something powerful surge from the innermost depths of her heart as her eyes also began to well up with tears.

March 3, 1919 was market day in Hamheung. The students and teachers of Youngsaeng High School had decided to go to the marketplace at ten o’clock and shout “Mansei!” But on that day, for some reason, ten o’clock came and went and the bell signaling the end of classes never rang. Their national history teacher—that is, their teacher of Japanese history—entered the class wearing a katana sword at his side and began to lecture.

Filled with anxiety, Se-juk kept staring at the clock when suddenly, the harsh screeches of a whistle came streaming into the classroom from outside. Their history teacher (who of course, only taught Japanese history), had been going on about how Toyotomi Hideyoshi had risen from his status as the son from a lower-class peasant family and succeeded in the great work of unifying Japan. He unexpectedly stopped his lecture mid-sentence and turned to the window from where the whistle could be heard. “They don’t even know how lucky they are to be allowed to be a part of the Great Japanese Empire. Those idiots yelling ‘Mansei’ need to be whipped. They need to know their place.” Even without those remarks, the classroom was already like a tinderbox, but now it was as if he had thrown a match onto the whole thing. Se-juk rose to her feet and threw her Japanese history textbook onto the classroom floor. The teacher gaped at her in shock and sputtered, “You . . . you . . . you little shithead!” and proceeded to open the classroom door and leave. Se-juk had always been the model student of their class and the others proceeded to follow her example, carrying their bundles of things and heading to the marketplace. For her actions, Se-juk was jailed for one month and expelled from school. When it came to matters related to the March First Movement, even Ethel McCarren, the school principal, was powerless. Instead, she procured a job for Se-juk at Jehye Hospital, a general hospital in Hamgyeong Province originally jointly established with Youngsaeng School by the Canadian missionaries.

When Se-juk cried “Mansei” and exited the school gate, she had been driven by a great compulsion. Yet after living in the detention house for one month, she felt perpetually furious and quivered with anger. After she was released and returned home, the Japanese police began regularly conducting searches at her home, scouring every ceiling and every corner so thoroughly that the roof became worn out and the floorboards indented so that rain leaked in and the floor began to sink.

(Excerpt from pp. 17–27.)

Translated by Rachel Min Park and Hanbit Lee

Author's Profile

Cho Sunhee worked as a journalist at Yonhap News and Hankyoreh newspapers and served as editor-in-chief of the weekly Cine21 and as director of the Korean Film Archive. She has authored the novels Passion and Anxiety Vols. 1 & 2 and Three Women Vols. 1 & 2; the short story collection Days Radiating with Sunlight; and the essay collections Turning into a Hyena in the Jungle, Seven Lies About Her, and Classics Addiction.