In an effort to better understand the rise of discourse on women vis-à-vis the impact of the modern, this paper discusses issues of gender in the context of pre-twentieth-century reading practices in Korea. The usual trajectory of scholarship on pre-twentieth-century book culture first associates women with indigenous script (han’gŭl), then links them with the literary genre of the novel, and thus defines women as the main reader group for novels written in han’gŭl. However, low literacy rates and socio-cultural factors surrounding Chosŏn women challenge rather than support this association. Existing scholarship also does not provide a convincing picture of the changes in reading practices and the roles of women as readers and writers in the transition from pre-modern to modern Korea. In examining how reading materials circulated and re-assessing claims that novels in han’gŭl constituted a women’s genre, this article calls for a more sensitive, critical and nuanced understanding of gender categories as they are deployed in literary scholarship. Indeed, it sees the juncture of ‘women’, mun / munhak, and the role of women in Korean literature as a site for re-evaluating the intricate mechanics of gender relations in Korea.
DeuchlerMartinaKoDorothyKim HaboushJaHyunPiggottJoan R.‘Propagating female virtues in Chosŏn Korea’Women and Confucian cultures in premodern China, Korea, and Japan2003Berkeley, CAUniversity of California Press142169
WalravenBoudewijnIdemaWilt L.‘Reader’s etiquette, and other Aspects of book culture in Chosŏn Korea’Books in numbers: seventy-fifth anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library2007CambridgeHarvard-Yenching Library237265
Ibid., 69. The Chung’in (中人, ‘middle people’) were second from the top among the four categories in the class system of Chosŏn, one notch below yangban, the nobles. Professions such as interpreters, medical practitioners and low rank government officials were inherited by the people belonging to this class, and they formed an endogamous social status group. They were highly educated and often enjoyed financial wealth, which enabled them to become a major force behind cultural scenes in late-Chosŏn.
Ibid., 79. One example of this kind of generalization concerns the largest collection of pre-modern han’gŭl sosŏl (novels written in hangul), which is from the Naksŏnjae palace. Royal consorts were the main occupants of this building, and novels from this collection were known to be handcopied by, and circulated among, court ladies. There are still debates on the authorship and origins of these novels—whether they were originally Chinese but translated and possibly modified, or created by unknown Korean authors. However, the existence of this collection has been used as evidence of a female readership. One problem with this is that women in the palace led very different lives from any other women in Korea—they did not have a family to look after, nor did they have a domestic life in the usual sense—and are thus inappropriate as indicators of what pertained to women generally or even to yangban families more specifically. The connection of these materials to a highly specialized female readership rests, in turn, on a deeper set of unknowns: how did these books end up in this collection, who chose the titles, and where did they come from? And who actually used the collection: was it only the consorts, or could any visitor borrow a book and take it out of the palace? Did any male members of the palace visit and read novels? We have no answers to these questions, and this makes conjectures about the readership of han’gŭl novels based on this collection highly problematic.
Ōtani Morishige, ‘Chosŏn hugi ŭi sech’aek chaeron’, 37. Yi Yun-sŏk and Chŏng Myŏng-gi, ‘Sech’aek kososŏl yŏn’gu ŭi hyŏnhwang kwa kwaje’, 59.