- Creative Women of Korea: The Fifteenth through the Twentieth Centuries
This volume is the product of the Fifth Annual Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities held at George Washington University in October 1998. The volume, edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud, seeks to fill a "gap in available Western-language materials on Korean women's contributions to the humanities" (p. 3). The central questions addressed by the contributors concern agency by women in Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910), the historical and social contexts in which women achieved their triumphs, and the key characteristics of their creativity. These are indeed most compelling questions and worthy of scholarly examination.
Creative Women of Korea covers an impressive range of Korean history, and the contributors to the volume include some of the leading scholars in their respective fields. The introduction by Young-Key Kim-Renaud is followed by a chapter on the politics of the Naehun [Instructions for women] by John Duncan; Yi Sŏng-mi, who writes on the paintings of Sin Saimdang; Kichung Kim, who discusses Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn; Kevin O'Rouke on Hwang Chini; JaHyun Kim Haboush on the memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng; Sonja Häußler on kyubang kasa; Kumja Paik Kim writing on pojagi; Bonnie B. C. Oh discussing Kim Iryŏp; and Yung-Hee Kim on Hahn Moo-Sook.
Particularly satisfying for me was the diversity of this volume in both time period and approach to each research subject. The reader, while he or she might not have an interest in the full scope of the topics covered, will certainly gain an appreciation of the varied approaches Korean women have taken over the [End Page 129] centuries for creative expression. In this aspect, the volume fully meets its aim of demonstrating creativity by women in Korea's past.
The most interesting aspect of the volume is the focus on how each of the subjects found a space where she could display her creativity, regardless of social values that might seemingly disallow such activity. We often read of how women, particularly in the Chosŏn dynasty, were forced into subversive roles, helpless to free themselves from the heavy restrictions placed upon them by the dominant Confucian ideology. The lasting image of women in Chosŏn, then, is not of creative beings, but rather individuals heavily restricted by males and isolated from the outside world.
Yet, we know such an image is not correct: women in Chosŏn found agency in many spaces and carved out a great deal more freedoms than we are oftentimes led to believe. This volume helps bring such a view into sharp relief. For example, the reader is treated to discussions of women married into the royal family who were able to establish spaces where they could play important roles in the affairs of the state—this is particularly evident in John Duncan's examination of Queen Sohye. In this aspect, the chapters in this volume will help bring about a more balanced understanding of how women interacted with Confucian society in Chosŏn.
I also believe that this volume will prove to be an excellent resource for students in Korean literature, history, and civilization classes. Students are often at a loss as how to research or approach a premodern topic, especially if they lack command of written Korean. This work will open up many new topics and approaches and thus permit students to gain a much deeper understanding of how women lived in past times. In this aspect, I envision that Creative Women of Korea will be one of the very few works on premodern Korea that enjoys substantial demand among undergraduate students.
As with any work, the volume is not without shortcomings. Nonetheless, I have only one real complaint. In the Introduction, Young-Key Kim-Renaud writes, "that what literary and artistic works by women have survived are by noblewomen" (p. 4). While she is correct in some...