Cultural Production of Gender in Colonial Korea


A review of Between Words and Images: Gender and Cultural Productions in Colonial Korea, by Jooyeon Rhee.

The scholarship on nationalism, modernity, and the Japanese colonial expansion starting in the late 19th century and Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 has shifted from political and social studies centered on Japanese colonial oppression and Korean resistance to cultural studies focusing on the meaning of the everyday life of Korean people. This scholarship has focused in particular on the production, dissemination, and consumption of cultural products. Jooyeon Rhee’s dissertation reflects this new phase of the cultural studies of gender and sexuality, since it deals with the conflicting discourses on and representations of women by examining cultural products from the mid-1900s to the 1930s. The texts examined by Rhee include written and visual genres, such as the New Novel, translations of the Japanese domestic novel, the modern novel, autobiographical writing, films, and photography. The dissertation especially highlights women’s voices and their attempt to articulate an image of women opposed to the nationalist discourses and their definition of the ideal womanhood. With vivid illuminations of the political, social, and cultural background from which various cultural products emerged at the time, and a comparison between Japan and Korea, the dissertation sheds light on women’s active involvement in the creation of their own images in the cultural medium.

Chapter 1 looks at the fictional representation of women in the emerging genre of the New Novel (sinsosŏl), in order to examine how Korean women are called upon to be patriotic citizens. In particular, Rhee analyzes Chang Chiyŏn’s Aeguk puinjŏn (The Story of a Patriotic Lady, 1906) and Yi Injik’s Hyŏl ŭi nu (Tears of Blood, 1906). Rhee observes that in Aeguk puinjŏn Chang Chiyŏn projects the figure of an ideal heroine who sacrifices her life for the nation, by equating the national crisis of Korea under Japanese colonial expansion with the situation of France in its conflict with England. Rhee notes that the moral character of the figure of Joan of Arc is a realization of the Confucian concept of virtuous women as “filial daughters, chaste and loyal wives, and wise mothers” (p. 69). In this sense, Chang Chiyŏn emphasizes the Korean cultural heritage within the nationalist movement. On the other hand, Yi Injik’s text, Hyŏl ŭi nu, depicts the main character of Ongnyŏn, who was separated from her family during the Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Rhee contends that Ongnyŏn’s search for civilization and enlightenment through an education severed from its Korean roots and supported by the Japanese tradition displays Yi Injik’s view of Japan as a more advanced and civilized nation and as a model of modernity, which partially explains his subsequent involvement with Japan’s annexation of Korea.

Chapter 2 advances a comparative analysis of the Japanese domestic novel Ozaki Koyo’s Konjiki yasha (The Gold Demon, 1897–1903) and one of its Korean “translations and adaptations” (p.22), Changhanmong (A Dream of Long Suffering, 1913) by Cho Chunghwan. The chapter highlights translation as not only a unilateral cultural flow from the metropolis to the colony, but as the active appropriation and alteration of the theme into a Korean context. Both the Japanese original version and the appropriated Korean version present female characters who decide upon marriage based on material desire over love but still vacillate between their former lovers and their husbands with an overriding sense of guilt. However, Rhee meticulously reveals the meaning of the revision in Cho Chunghwan’s text by revealing how the woman’s pursuit for material desire is rectified as a way of reaffirming “the gender hierarchy in the family” (p.119), and its resolution converges into nationalism through the reunion of the main characters, the former lovers.

Chapter 3 investigates male writer Kim Tongin’s Kim Yŏnsil chŏn (The Story of Kim Yŏnsil, 1939), and female writer Kim Myŏngsun’s “T’ansiri wa Chuyongi” (T’ansil and Chuyŏng, 1924), which display conflicting representations of the New Woman. Rhee observes that Kim Tongin’s fictional writing, based on a scandalous rumor in Kim Myŏngsun’s life, depicts the heroine Yŏnsil as lacking a social consciousness and as a self-indulgent character who unconditionally believes that her engagement in free love and promiscuous life is the proof of her modern cultivation. On the other hand, Kim Myŏngsun’s autobiographical writing is an attempt to represent herself as a New Woman opposing the prejudice of the public. Rhee elaborates how Kim Myŏngsun examines the kind of womanhood that she seeks as a self-cultivated person in relation to family, education, love, and the social reality of Korea, in which she is ostracized by the public.

Chapter 4 examines the renowned filmmaker and actor Na Un’gyu’s (1901–1936) silent films, Arirang (1926) and Imja ŏmnun narutbae (Ferryboat without the Master, 1932). Rhee pays close attention to the way in which the national consciousness is expressed through the symbolic meanings of urban and rural areas, rape, and madness and the related attempts to evade Japanese colonial surveillance. In this chapter, urban areas are depicted as places fraught with corruption and exploitation where the main character in Arirang (1926) is traumatized, and where the main character in Imja ŏmnun narutbae (1932) becomes disillusioned. However, the tragedy is set in a rural area where the virginity of the younger sister and daughter is threatened by a collection agent and a railway worker, who are the proxy for the entity causing the deprivation of people in a rural village. Rhee contends that the madness of the hero that led to the violent killing of the potential rapist can be interpreted as a masculinized resistance to Japanese colonial rule. Rhee cleverly pinpoints how the bodies of female characters are equated with the rural landscape to symbolize Korean origins and identity. Japanese colonial rule is seen as a crisis of masculinity, and national discourse is masculinized by positing the female body as the object of protection while neglecting female subjectivity.

Chapter 5 is devoted to analysis of the visual representation of the Kisaeng (female entertainer) produced during Japanese colonial rule. The dissertation intriguingly contrasts the representation of the Kisaeng by the colonizer, in the postcards produced by Japanese photographers, with the self-representation of the Kisaeng in the journal Changhan (A Long Suffering, 1927), published by a group of intellectual Kisaeng themselves. Through a detailed elaboration of the socio-historical background of the production, dissemination, and consumption of the visual image of the Kisaeng (female entertainer), Rhee illuminates these contrasting representations. Whereas the photograph in the postcard produced by the Japanese photographer equates the sexual image of Kisaeng with Korea as an exotic colony, the photograph in Changhan (A Long Suffering, 1927) shows the active engagement of the Kisaeng in self-representation as intellectual subjects seriously engaged in reading and writing, portrayed in the photographs with opened books and an insightful gaze. In addition, Rhee also points out that the erotic image of the Kisaeng is the outcome of their own self-representation in an attempt to attain the economic means to be independent.

Rhee’s dissertation is a valuable addition to cultural studies on gender and sexuality in general and to the literature on the representation and self-representation of Korean women during Korea’s turbulent transformation under Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945). Korean women were called to participate in a discursive arena in which various discourses of nationalism and colonialism, modernity and tradition, patriarchy and modern womanhood were contested through the production, dissemination, and consumption of cultural products. With numerous merits that cannot all be mentioned here, the dissertation draws on various genres and successfully displays not only how Korean women were represented in cultural products, but also how they were actively engaged in shaping their own representation.

Min Koo Choi
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
Georgetown University

Primary Sources
Cho Chunghwan, Changhanmong
Kim Tongin, Kim Yŏnsil chŏn
Na Un’gyu, Arirang
Ozaki Koyo, Konjiki yasha
Yi Injik, Hyŏl ŭi nu 

Dissertation Information
York University, Toronto. 2011. 297 pp. Primary Advisor: Theresa Hyun.

Image: Korean women on an outing, ca 1904. Wiki Commons.

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