The New Woman in Colonial Korea


A review of Voices of the New Woman in Colonial Korea: Generic and Linguistic Interplay in the Construction of Self-Narratives, by Min Koo Choi.

Studies of the phenomenon of Korean New Women have gained great attention from scholars in South Korea and North America, especially in the last decade. The scholarship focuses on political, social, and cultural meanings of New Women in 1920s and 1930s colonial Korea, a time during which female social elites’ public demand for gender equality and sexual freedom set a new stage for feminist movements in modern Korean history. What sets Min Koo Choi’s dissertation apart from the previous scholarship is its examination of the linguistic construction of the New Women’s social identity by analyzing the use of language in women’s self-narratives.

In this theoretically rigorous and analytically rich dissertation, Choi investigates four pieces of self-narration written by both female and male writers. Choi pays special attention to the relationship between addressees and characters in these narratives, drawing on pronouns, addressee terms, sentence enders, relevant words, phrases, clauses, speech act types, and modality elements in order to delineate how the narratives can be read as a social action. Choi explores a range of issues that are embedded in the narratives, such as free love, chastity, and motherhood, by incorporating genre theory, language studies on gender and sexuality, and postmodern discourse on language. The dissertation considers language user’s subject position—i.e., their class, gender, and sexuality—as an important condition for us to identify the competing and conflicting gender discourses put forward by male and female writers at the time. Female voices in self-narratives, Choi argues, are a linguistic performance that reveals the discursive construction of gender and sexuality.

In chapter 1, Choi first provides a theoretical framework that explains the linguistic and social significance of the self-narrative. Bakhtin’s “heteroglossia” and Labov’s theorization of narrative are two pillars of Choi’s theoretical grounding of the self-narrative, which he uses as a way to identify the multiplicity of voices embedded in the genre and analyze the genre systematically. In chapter 2, Choi uses a theoretical model for language analysis in exploring the ideational, textual, and interpersonal function of language in the Korean context. Choi argues that language is not simply a “conventional marker of the user’s social identity” (p. 19) but a social practice.

Chapter 3 provides the context in which New Women and women writers emerged in the 1920s and introduces political tension that existed between male and female elites due to their different stances on the ideas of love and marriage. This chapter sets the tone for chapter 4, which is a close analysis of Na Hyesǒk’s “Confession of a Divorce.” The “Confession” is a non-fictional self-narrative that expresses Na’s personal experience of education, love, marriage, and divorce. Choi’s analysis of the text shows the dialogic nature of Na’s voice in this work, in which she demonstrates the ideological collision between the patriarchal marriage institution and women’s pursuit of the cultivation of their individuality. The focal point of this chapter is the mixture of genres Na incorporated into her text; part confessional and part autobiographical, her writing blurs the specificity of the addressee—that is, her former husband and the public. Choi shows how Na, by mixing genres and addresses, effectively displays her willingness to engage with the public in criticizing patriarchal practice in marriage and divorce.

Chapter 5 consists of analyses of the self-narratives written not by professional writers but by two female public readers of modern women’s magazines. Categorizing these women’s self-narratives into three—women’s views of romantic love and marriage, readers’ experiences with romantic relationships, and women’s critiques of the “wise mother and good wife” ideology—Choi analyzes two self-narratives that concern love and marriage. Again, Choi’s special attention here is given to the mixture of genres in these writings—autobiography, epistle, narrative, and the argument in particular—that deliver the female writers’ intentions.

Chapter 6 analyzes a woman’s self-narrative, “Night in Seclusion” (Cheya), written by a male writer, Yǒm Sangsǒp. The configuration of multiple genres in this narrative is analyzed in depth, thus shedding light on “the oppositional discourses of tradition and modernity, of free love and arranged marriage, and of radical feminism and modern patriarchy” (p. 222). Choi adopts Bakhtin’s theorization of dialogic voices, which presents the conflicting and contradictory voices of the female narrator. Choi shows us how the female narrator’s radical feminist stance on love and marriage, however, is tarnished when she confesses how she tried to fulfill her material and sexual desires in the name of free love. This progression of the narrative, Choi argues, is the sign of modern patriarchy, which downgrades women’s expressions of free love and sexual desire as morally deviant. Choi successfully demonstrates that the shifting voice of the female narrator signifies the male writer’s patriarchal prejudice against the New Women.

Min Koo Choi’s dissertation is a valuable addition to the study of New Women, as well as critical language studies in general, for its innovative approach to analyzing New Women’s self-narratives. It illuminates how a linguistic analysis of these self-narratives can lend us an insight into the complex nature of the gender politics of the 1920s and 30s and its intersections with colonial capitalism and nationalism. As Choi argues, “critical language studies can provide the connection between the linguistic performance of the individual and the socio-historical construction of gender” (p. 18), and this dissertation proves to be exemplary of critical language studies, which not only helps us understand the relationship between language and gender but also presents an innovative way to investigate social meanings of the Korean New Women.

Jooyeon Rhee
Department of Asian Studies
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Primary Sources

Chǒng Kukja, Midǔmi kajǒ on sǒrum
Li Soa, Nanǔn irǒhan isǒng ǔl wǒnhamnida
Na Hyesǒk, Ihon kobaechang, Ihon kobaeksǒ
Yǒm Sangsǒp, Cheya

Dissertation Information

University of Hawaii at Manoa. 2011. 358 pp. Primary Advisor: Ho Min Sohn.

Image: Self-portrait drawn by Na Hye-sok, with permission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like