[KS] Query: soft-masculinity and cross-dressing in Korean context

Peter Schroepfer schroepfer at gmail.com
Thu Jul 30 18:00:38 EDT 2009

Probably not quite what you were looking for, but I think the most
prominent cross-dresser in Korean history would have to be three time
National Assembly member and 1992 presidential candidate Kim
Oksôn/Okseon. (Although if one considers only facial makeup, that
honor would have to go to André Kim.)

Born in 1934, Kim Oksôn was the youngest of three daughters and says
she started dressing like a man in the early fifties because her elder
brother had died fighting on behalf of the Japanese during the war and
she sensed her mother missed having a son. She may have been the first
unmarried woman in the National Assembly, but at any rate she was the
first person to have won a parliamentary seat after challenging the
vote results and winning a recount. One time she lost her seat after
calling Pak Chônghûi a dictator in comments to the main Assembly floor
in a 1975 (or so) incident referred to as the "Kim Oksôn P'adong." All
the while she has been an active Christian educator who has
established several schools, famously refusing to build a typical
large and imposing kyojangsil in one of them, and I think recently was
working on a court case to have the comments that got her in trouble
with PCH and were stricken from the parliamentary record restored. She
doesn't pretend to be a man; she just has lived the traditional life
of one and dresses like one with man's haircut, suit, necktie, and
shoes. Perhaps this has to be seen to be believed:

Aside from her interesting career and the fact she is an exceptionally
clean and principled politician (who as always critical of all Three
Kims), one of the things that I find to be fascinating and indeed a
very teachable case study in Korean society is the mere fact that,
despite all the many things that are often said about this society, no
big deal ever seems to have been made of the fact she is a
cross-dresser. She likes to give speeches and wrote a book about
oration in the early sixties and was first elected to the Assembly
representing Poryông (South Ch'ungch'ông) in 1967. Of course any story
specifically about her usually mentions that she is a "namjang
yôsong," but even that is usually mentioned so matter-of-fact-ly that
the first time around one would have to read it twice. In 1992, when
some foreign journalists asked me how it could be that a cross-dresser
running for president wasn't one of the biggest stories of the
campaign, the best answer I could give them was that Korea is very
accepting of highly unusual people who nevertheless make a name for
themselves and make positive contributions to society or the minjoke
despite their initial or surface weirdness (André Kim would have to be
included here, too), and that she had already been active in politics
long enough for the country to have grown accustomed to her. (In fact
these journalists only found out about her when they were with the Kim
Taejung campaign in a small village somewhere and had a long wait in
front of the usual lineup of official campaign wall posters. When they
started asking the Kim Taejung campaign about the minority party
candidates they noticed a candidate in one of the posters wearing a
tie but being referred to as a "she" in English. Here they were
covering a presidential campaign and they discovered this fact
entirely on accident. None of their handlers, stringers, and
interpreters even thought it worth mentioning.)

I suspect that there may have been some slight acceptance of at least
the idea of girls being raised as boys in traditional society, perhaps
not unlike how it was not too taboo to imagine and talk about a woman
of low class marrying a Yangban male, as in _Ch'unh'unhyangjôn_.
Either type of behavior would have been so rare that one might as well
guess that if it ever happened it was hidden, and indeed I don't know
of actual mention of either in Chosôn-era documents. But it was
clearly permissible to "imagine" both in widely circulated and
therefore by definition socially/officially "approved" written
literature, while one sees no example of either case in reverse in
written fiction. (And in the case of men cross-dressing as women - who
would actually want to choose a life of "bad p'alcha"?)

Women dressing as men is a major motif in pre-modern popular fiction,
especially the so-called "martial novels" (kundam sosôl) and "heroic
novels" (yôngung sosôl), with, for example, women dressed as (male,
obviously) changgun, "generals" or military leaders. Usually these
take place in China, always a good idea if you want to make an
unrealistic story more plausible with a distant and abstract setting.
There must be dozens of instances of this. In some the costume is a
temporary disguise, in others the woman was always pretending to be a
man but this is later revealed for dramatic effect, and in one case I
can think of the secret is kept. Two favorite examples just from
memory (check before quoting)...

In _Panghallimjôn_, a couple has but one girl, and very late in life
at that, so they won't be having more. The ultimate tomboy, this
daughter excels at all things boyish, including archery, so they give
up and raise her like a son. Eventually she is successful in the state
examination (hence the "hallim" in the title). When it comes time to
marry she reveals her identity to the woman she is to wed, only to
have the woman respond that she's quite relieved that she won't have
to keep herself pretty and put on a show all the time as a woman must
to be a proper lady in the presence of the husband she would've had to
serve. Their child enters the scene through supernatural means. It is
of course a same-sex marriage but not lesbianism.

In _Okjuhoyôn_ there are are two men (and their respective wives); at
around the same time one gives birth to three twin boys and and the
other to three twin girls. The girls just hate housework and domestic
chores so they decide to live like boys. Years later these six friends
fight under a general who eventually becomes emperor, and, sensing
three of them are women, has everyone go bathe together as part of
their victory party. Their secret now revealed, the emperor pairs them
up, officiates their joint wedding, and they all live happily ever
after. Which I guess would have to mean they were financially well-off
enough that the women didn't have to cook and do their husbands'

Too much information but fun to think about, I hope.

Peter Schroepfer.

On Thu, Jul 30, 2009 at 6:05 AM, Michael Pettid <mjpettid2000 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> For historic precedents, I would further suggest that you look into the namsadang (male troupes of itinerate entertainers).
> Michael Pettid
> --- On Thu, 7/30/09, Jina Kim <jinaekim at hotmail.com> wrote:
> > From: Jina Kim <jinaekim at hotmail.com>
> > Subject: Re: [KS] Query: soft-masculinity and cross-dressing in Korean context
> > To: "Korean Studies" <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
> > Date: Thursday, July 30, 2009, 12:56 PM
> >
> >
> >
> > #yiv1158656642 .hmmessage P
> > {
> > margin:0px;padding:0px;}
> > #yiv1158656642 {
> > font-size:10pt;font-family:Verdana;}
> >
> >
> >
> > Yun Mi,
> >
> >
> >
> > I would also look into the history of t'alch'um
> > (mask dance).
> >
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > To: koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> > Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 20:48:22 -0400
> > From: ifenkl at aol.com
> > Subject: Re: [KS] Query: soft-masculinity and
> > cross-dressing in Korean context
> >
> >
> > You can begin with the long and continuing tradition
> > of crossdressing (in both directions) in Korean shamanism.
> > Also look into
> > the traveling theatrical troupes (when I was growing up in
> > the 60s, they came to local theaters to perform historical
> > dramas/romances, and all the roles were acted by
> > women).
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: YM Clara Hwang <sumovmi at hotmail.com>
> > To: koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws
> > Sent: Wed, Jul 29, 2009 9:36 am
> > Subject: [KS] Query: soft-masculinity and cross-dressing in
> > Korean context
> >
> >
> >
> >
> > #yiv1158656642 .ExternalClass
> > #EC_AOLMsgPart_2_d0df5764-3689-406f-b2a9-eb266ef6727e
> > .EC_hmmessage P
> > {padding:0px;}
> > #yiv1158656642 .ExternalClass
> > #EC_AOLMsgPart_2_d0df5764-3689-406f-b2a9-eb266ef6727e
> > body.EC_hmmessage
> > {font-size:10pt;font-family:Verdana;}
> >
> > Dear members,
> >
> > My questions are two-fold. First, I'm interested in
> > reading more the rise of feminine or soft mascuilnity in
> > Korean context, portrayed in the popular media. It seems to
> > me the neither post-femininst mascuilinity or rise of new
> > men seen in the Western discourse nor the spread of Japanese
> > manga (yaoi and BL in particular) influencing the
> > construction of new type of masculinity in SK do not
> > sufficiently explain this phenonenon. Have you come across
> > any scholarship that provides sound Korean socio-political
> > context supported by theoretical framework?
> >
> > Second question, I was greatly intrigued by the
> > representation of cross-dressing in TV and films (King and
> > the Clown, The Painter of the Wind, Coffee Prince, etc),
> > which of course intersects with the my first question (and
> > gender and queer theory). As far as I'm aware of Korea
> > does not have defining cultural tradition of transvestite
> > theatres like Beijing opera or Japanese Noh theatre. Or am I
> > mis-informed? Is there any scholarship on the tradition of
> > cross-dressing in Korea?
> >
> > Thank you.
> >
> > Regards,
> > Yun Mi Hwang
> > PhD Candidate
> > University of St Andrews
> > ymh at st-andrews.ac.uk
> >
> >
> >
> >
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