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Creative Women of Korea. The Fifteenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Armonk & London: M.E. Sharpe, 2004. iv, 250 pp. (illus., references, glossary, index) ISBN 0-7656-1188-0 (paper)

Sem Vermeersch
Keimyung University

[This review first appeared in Acta Koreana, 8.1 (January 2005): 191-196. Acta Koreana is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

Just as women were literally all but hidden from view during the Chosŏn period, traditional Korean historians seem to have done their utmost to obliterate them from the record as well. For many aspects of Korea’s pre-modern society, even the briefest outline of facts is often hard to get. In the absence of any explicit sources detailing women’s role in society, their daily life and aspirations, reconstructing their history is a painstaking process of teasing out information implicit in the sources. Some headway has been made in the study of women’s social position and ritual role in pre-modern Korea, but by and large such works still treat them as abstract social entities. This volume breaks new ground by assessing our knowledge of women as individuals through the creative work they left behind. It contains eight chapters first presented as papers at the Fifth Annual Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities held at George Washington University in 1998, as well as one additional chapter not based on a conference paper. The chapters are very ably summarized and put into context by the editor, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, in the introductory chapter.

Chapter Two (“The Naehun and the Politics of Gender in Fifteenth-Century Korea”), by John Duncan, deals with the Naehun (Instructions for women), compiled by Queen Sohye (1437–1504) in 1475. This work, though one of the very few pre-modern Korean works authored by a woman, has received very little attention, perhaps because it is seen as advocating the subjugation of women in conformity with the Neo-Confucian social engineering project that was being implemented in her time. However, Duncan shows that the work merits attention because, while paying lip service to the Confucian virtues expected of women, it also seeks to carve out a place for women in society, a field where they could act as agents of their own destiny. Queen Sohye saw women’s roles as being very different from men’s, and largely supportive of the men in their family, but nowhere does she describe that role as inferior. While setting out the proper rules and virtues women should conform to and the domestic tasks they should perform, she did not see them as passive objects but as active agents in advising their husbands and educating children. Therefore, she emphasizes the need for educating women; indeed, written in hanmun (classical Chinese), the work shows that women of her time could still take part in literate discourse, a tradition continued at least into the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, however, scholars such as Yi Ik (1682–1764) had succeeded in making reading and learning the exclusive domain of men (see p. 144). Thus Duncan’s careful analysis of this work and the context in which it was written shows that women were not mere subjects in the Confucianization of society but that they also tried to carve out their own roles in a changing society.

Yi Sŏng-mi’s article “Sin Saimdang: the Foremost Woman Painter of the Chosŏn Dynasty” takes a closer look at the works attributed to Sin Saimdang (1504–1551), famous in Korea not just as the mother of the Neo-Confucian scholar Yulgok (Yi I, 1536–1584) but also as a painter. However, while we all know Sin Saimdang as a painter of genre scenes, especially a specific arrangement known as birds-and-flowers and grass-and-insects paintings, Yi Sŏng-mi shows that the attribution of these paintings to Sin Saimdang is problematic. In fact, she was also a painter of ink monochrome paintings in the literati tradition, and the attribution of some of these paintings to her is more secure than that of the genre paintings. Presumably at least some of the genre paintings were also made by her, but there is such a variety in technique and style in the genre paintings attributed to her that they c annot all have been by the same hand. The author suggests that an embroidered screen now in the Tong’a University Museum, Pusan, may have been done by her, because of the originality of the composition and because she was known to have excelled in embroidery. As for the tradition of ascribing a variety of genre paintings to Sin Saimdang, the author puts forward the interesting theory that this may go back to Song Si-yŏl (1607–1689). As the member of a political faction tracing its origins to Yulgok, he was instrumental in elevating Yulgok and creating the myth of an exceptional woman worthy of being his mother. Although I found this an excellent article, unfortunately the accompanying illustrations are of very poor quality, making it difficult to verify the author’s analysis of these paintings. Also, the author apparently only discussed a small portion of works attributed to Sin Saimdang, so hopefully this is just the prelude to a fuller treatment of Sin Saimdang’s oeuvre in English.

Like the women discussed in the previous two chapters, Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn (1563–1589), whose poetic oeuvre is the subject of Kichung Kim’s “Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn and Shakespeare’s Sister,” was born into an eminent literati family, a family, moreover, in which the scholarly milieu was conducive to the education of women—not entirely the exception in sixteenth-century Korea (see Duncan’s article, pp. 49–50, for more cases). Thanks in part to the instruction of her elder brother Hŏ Pong, she was fully conversant in hanmun, and left behind more than two hundred hanmun poems. These poems have contributed to creating the myth of Nansŏrhŏn as a poet of grief, whose tragic life is reflected in her poems, which are either escapes to an imaginary Taoist world or descriptions of the tragic fate of women. Kichung Kim rightly cautions against equating the contents of her poems with her real life experiences, as “the poetic persona of her poems may as often be generic as they are personal” (p. 87). Yet in this case, all the external evidence seems to corroborate what we read in the poems, including the death of her children and her husband’s neglect. The author notes the striking resemblance between the life of Nansŏrhŏn and what Virginia Woolf wrote about “Shakespeare’s sister,” an imaginary sixteenth-century woman, whose poetic gifts would have been thwarted by society and her own “contrary instinct.” Yet in contrast to Shakespeare’s sister, Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn was a real person, whose poems did establish her reputation. Therefore, I would have liked this article to pay closer attention to the actual historical and social context of sixteenth-century Korea: enough is known by now to eschew such generalizations for a more nuanced critique.

Kevin O’Rourke’s chapter on “Demythologizing Hwang Chini” does a much better job at pricking through the mythical accretions around a sixteenth-century female poet. In contrast to Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, Hwang Chini belonged not to the yangban class but was a member of the class of female entertainers known as kisaeng. That is probably why we know absolutely nothing for certain about her, not even when exactly she lived. Six sijo poems and eight hansi poems are traditionally ascribed to Hwang Chini, and the author translates and analyzes all of these. O’Rourke notes first of all that previous discussions of these poems failed to distinguish between the myth and the interpretation of the poems. In the absence of any firm external evidence, he therefore decided to focus entirely on the poems. Neither sijo nor hansi poetry had any distinguished exponents in Hwang Chini’s time, and in both genres she stood out. O’Rourke focuses especially on her sijo poems, concluding that there is a distinct unity of voice in these poems: “what is constant … is a speaker who knows her own mind. She is aware of love’s delights and inconsistencies, and of her own foolishness in the grip of her emotions. … Thus, far from being a tragic heroine, she sees humor in her romantic situation, and makes fun of herself and others; all this was new in sijo poetry.” (p. 113) In sum, this is simply the definitive piece on Hwang Chini’s poetry.

In Chapter Six, “Private Memory and Public History,” Jahyun Kim Haboush turns again to the ‘Memoirs’ of Lady Hyegyŏng (1735–1815), which she translated into English in a previous book. The ‘Memoirs’ actually consist of four separate works, written between 1795 and 1805, documenting the tragic execution of her husband, Prince Sado. Here, Kim Haboush focuses especially on the genre of these four memoirs, their relationship to the “testimonial literature,” the only accepted genre in the day to address personal grievances and injustices, and the interplay between this official genre, written in hanmun, and the more personal writings in han’gŭl. In the end, the four memoirs are very different in genre, only the first one being autobiographic, as it discusses Lady Hyegyŏng’s childhood. While the first one was addressed to her nephew, the last three were addressed to her grandson King Sunjo, and seek to explain events that had happened nearly four decades earlier. The author notes that the memoir of 1801 (the second one), “privatizes a mode of writing that had been reserved exclusively for public discourse.” (p. 133) In the final analysis, however, “As she transforms pain and sorrow into writing, the boundaries between autobiography and historiography, a discrete sense of self and a relational sense of self are almost completely blurred.” (p. 140)

In “Kyubang Kasa—Women’s Writings from the Late Chosŏn,” Sonja Häußler introduces the genre of kyubang kasa. Kasa were long poems in the vernacular, following a fixed rhythmic pattern but with no stanzaic division and an indefinite number of verses. Kyubang kasa literally means “songs from the inner rooms,” indicating that they were written by women (although a few examples discussed in the article were evidently by men). Kyubang kasa probably originated in the seventeenth century, but are especially associated with families belonging to the Southerner faction (Namin): excluded from the central government, they lived in relative isolation in the Yŏngnam area. Most kyubang kasa are didactic in nature, for example, giving advice to daughters about to be married into a new family. However, as time went on, the thematic variety deepened, and in the last part the author discusses other themes that developed mostly in the nineteenth century. Most of these songs were written down on long scrolls and were passed on from generation to generation, and are thus likely not the work of any single woman. In this chapter, the author gives a very comprehensive introduction to this genre, based mainly on secondary literature in Korean, as well as a few translations.

Chapter Eight, “A Celebration of Life: Patchwork and Embroidered Pojagi by Unknown Korean Women,” by Kumja Paik Kim, also discusses anonymous works of art. Like the previous chapter, it is largely of an introductory nature, discussing the main types and designs of pojagi, Korean wrapping cloths. The author focuses especially on the chogak po, or patchwork wrapping cloths, because “…they most accurately reflect the world of Korean women of the Chosŏn dynasty.” (p. 166) The article is accompanied by four inserted pages of color reproductions, begging the question why the same could not have been done for the illustrations of Sin Saimdang’s works.

The last two chapters of this book bring us into the twentieth century. First, Bonnie B. C. Oh discusses the legacy of Kim Iryŏp (1896–1971) in “Kim Iryŏp’s Conflicting Worlds.” The title refers to the two distinct stages in her life: the first as a feminist writer, the second as a Buddhist nun. In contrast to women of the Chosŏn dynasty, Kim Iryŏp’s life is well documented, and in this chapter the author focuses on the central contradiction in Kim’s life, her transition from libertine feminist to austere Buddhist nun. While her decision to enter the Buddhist order in 1928 is usually interpreted as an escape from failed marriages, disappointment in love and a life in which all her close relatives had died, the author notes the continuities in her life, notably her didactic mindset and wish to reform society, which were simply continued in a different guise. Having written about Kim Iryŏp’s pre-Buddhist life elsewhere, the author here decided to write about her life and career as a nun. However, the article falls short of its target. Information about Kim Iryŏp’s career as a nun was apparently culled from a single (albeit very long) interview with her disciple, Ven. Wŏlsŏng. Thus the conclusion literally quotes Wŏlsŏng as saying that Kim Iryŏp’s greatest achievements were that she popularized Buddhist teaching, brought respect to Buddhism, and enhanced the position of Buddhism (pp. 187–188), but these achievements are not substantiated in the article. The article only deals with some of Kim Iryŏp’s writings, most of which seem to have been published posthumously, so that it remains unclear how she popularized Buddhism in practice. Also, the article is marred by numerous awkward or wrong romanizations (e.g. Yi Ch’a Don i.s.o. Ich’adon, p. 188), and betrays a general lack of awareness about Buddhism.

The last chapter in this book, Yung-Hee Kim’s “Dialectics of Life: Hahn Moo-Sook and Her Literary World,” traces the main themes in Hahn Moo-Sook’s oeuvre through two representative short stories and a novel. While Hahn Moo-Sook (1918–1993) is noted for her detailed descriptions of orthodox Korean high culture (p. 210), Kim emphasizes in her analysis that Hahn embraced life in all its complexity: “Ultimately, Hahn projects the idea that the ideal of human life lies in overcoming the rigid duality of good and evil, purity and defilement, … and other such strict dichotomizations or compartmentalizations of reality…” (p. 196) Perhaps it is easier to write about a well-known and celebrated modern author, but Kim still manages to add a fresh perspective through a reading of some lesser-known works, and presents her analysis in a highly readable form.

These short summaries of the book’s chapters should suffice to illustrate that it expands our knowledge about the creative contributions of Korean women over the past five centuries. Especially, they help to re-appraise these contributions by focusing on the works themselves, dispensing with tenacious myths that have so long hovered over them. Some chapters could have been a bit more substantial, as they seem more like conference papers than full-blown articles. But this is a minor cavil for what is on the whole an interesting collection that can also serve as a textbook for classes on gender issues or the social history of Korea.

Vermeersch, Sem 2007
Review of Creative Women of Korea. The Fifteenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud (2004)
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 9
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-09.htm

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