The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea (Review)

Posted January 8, 2009

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of Theodore Jun Yoo, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), pp. 316


It is the unusual academic book that begins with a double suicide. Playwright Kim U-jin  and singer Yun Sim-dok are the tragic lovers who open Theodore Jun Yoo’s new book on the politics of gender in colonial Korea by throwing themselves from a ferry in 1926. Yoo’s splendid book on the intersections of modernization and colonialization is populated with a number of vividly drawn characters. Kang Hyang-nan disguised herself as a man to study at an all-male training school. Kim Hwal-lan was an early feminist and president of the all-women’s Ewha College, but also the target of later denunciations as a collaborator with the Japanese. And there’s also the famous aviator Pak Kyong-won, who died in a crash at the age of 32 in 1933 and became the subject of renewed controversy for her ties with Japan when the Korean biopic Blue Swallow came out in 2005.


Many studies of the colonial period get mired in statistics or focus exclusively on top political or revolutionary figures. By looking at the dilemmas faced by real people in the colonial period, Yoo provides dramatic glimpses of how Korea achieved modernity through colonialism. “As women left their traditional spheres to occupy new spaces created by modernity in schools, factories, hospitals, and other sites,” he writes, “they increasingly confronted the pervasive control of the colonial state, which sought to mold them into pliant and industrious subjects.”


In some cases, Japanese women could not find ways to express their new modern identities. Suicide was one option for those who couldn’t fit in. Singer Yun Sim-dok had studied in Japan where she developed a taste for the Western musical repertory. Unable to recover from rumors that she had prostituted herself to acquire money for her brother’s education – prostitution and collaboration were mirror images across gender and nationalism – she chose simply to give up. Yoo also chronicles the double suicide in 1931 of two promising young women widely thought at the time of their deaths to be a lesbian couple. They, too, couldn’t create modern personas in colonial Korea and instead killed themselves in the thoroughly modern way of leaping in front of a train.


But Yoo’s book is not simply about those who collaborated or gave up the ghost. He tells several stories of women who fought back.


In 1931, Kang Chu-ryong led a group of 49 women in a walkout at a rubber factory to protest an announced wage cut. She was fired for her efforts. “Kang was moved to take her dramatic action in defense of some 2,300 rubber factory workers whose survival depended on their current wages,” Yoo writes. “At first she contemplated suicide but opted for public demonstration to reveal the injustices of the factory.”


The strike was a common method of resisting Japanese colonial policies. The modernization of the Korean economy under the colonial authorities brought Japanese conglomerates to the peninsula where they built factories and took advantage of cheap labor and abundant raw materials. The owners hired women fleeing the countryside in search of better living conditions. They were looking for compliant workers who could perform tasks similar to what they’d done at home: in food processing, textile production, and the chemical industry.


Not all the women were compliant. The horrifying working conditions, the low wages, and the high incidence of violence and sexual harassment: these all prompted women workers to resist. Absenteeism and desertion rates were high. Between 1920 and 1924, 22,750 workers participated in 280 protests. These numbers grew between 1925 and 1928.


In Kang Chu-ryong’s case, the strike achieved its goal. Faced with widespread resistance, the rubber factory owner agreed not to cut wages. But the factory never hired back Kang and her leading conspirators, who lived out their lives in desperate poverty.


As Yoo demonstrates, modernity offered Korean women many new opportunities – to study at university, to become teachers, to attain public status. But with these opportunities came risks, because women could only achieve these modern roles within a colonial society. “These limitations led women to perform their public gender roles meticulously while expressing dissent in more subtle ways,” he writes. “In moments of conflict, however, they sometimes discarded these performances and crossed boundaries (for instance, in strikes), actions fraught with severe consequences.”


Few books on Korean history bring to life the complexity as well as the vitality of their subject as does The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea. It should become an essential part of the Korean studies curriculum.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2009

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