- Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period
Writing Women in Korea is a highly informative book about the works and backgrounds of women writers and translators in Korea in the early twentieth century, the period of Japanese colonialism (1910-45). As context, the book begins with a description of the gender and education system of the Chosôn period (1392-1910). During this period, the Korean vernacular writing system was created for women and servants who were denied access to the Chinese classical education system. The vernacular system was also used as a method of popular education, extending neo-Confucian [End Page 198] lessons to people outside the formal Chinese education system. Vernacular Korean was the medium that early twentieth-century Korean women writers and translators actively explored for their aesthetic and ideological writing activities.
The book goes on to describe the influences of writers on women's liberation from Europe, America, and India on Korean women writers and translators. Of particular significance were the works of male intellectuals that portrayed explicit ideas about women's liberation (e.g., Ibsen's A Doll's House) and the works of female intellectuals who were participants in their own national independence movements and/or socialist revolutions (e.g.,Sarojini Naidu's poem 'The Broken Wing' on the aspirations of India to independence from Britain, and Alexandra Kollontai's novel Red Love on the socialist revolution in Russia). Addressing the limited number of highly educated Korean women during the Japanese colonial period who were involved either in creative writing or translating foreign literature, the book focuses particularly on three Korean women writer/translators: Kim Myông-Sun, Pak Hwa-Sông, and Mo Yun-Suk.
The real merit of this book is its exploration of the worlds of these three women. Kim Myông-Sun, whose image resonates with that of Ibsen's Nora, was a highly educated liberal radical feminist, supporting free love and marriage outside the Confucian norm of family. She was one of the first three Korean women to receive a foreign education in Japan, and was the first to translate Edgar Allen Poe's work into Korean. Kim sought an expressionist/existentialist/Satanic style in her creative writing and her translations.
Pak Hwa-Sông, also educated in Japan, upheld Alexandra Kollontai's socialist feminist protagonist - a woman who overcomes the need for personal relationships in order to serve socialist class struggles - as an ideal image of women. By portraying comrade-like images of women in revolutionary activities, her work challenged the expectation that female writers should portray women as submissive and feminine.
Finally, Mo Yun-Suk, admiring and translating Naidu's poetry and political activities in the context of India's independence movement, composed many passionate poems about aspirations of Korean independence from Japanese colonialism. Spurred on by the literature program at Korea's top women's college (Ewha Woman's University), yet criticizing the dominant practice of the program where English was the exclusive language of text, she translated foreign pieces in the Korean colloquial style in an attempt to promote Korean literature.
It would have been more valuable if the author had expanded the discussion of these three women's backgrounds and provided more extensive analyses of their writing. A meticulous examination of each woman as a forerunner of liberal and/or socialist feminist writing would be invaluable. For example, as the author touches upon in the conclusion [End Page 199] of the last chapter, the genealogy of current Korean feminist writers and intellectuals could be traced by uncovering the heritage of each of these women. Such an analysis would contribute to an understanding of East Asian modernities through a comparison of their pioneering work to other contemporary East Asian pioneer feminists, such as Ding Ling, who is studied by Tani Barlow. [End Page 200]
Jesook Song, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto