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  • Tales of Seduction:Factory Girls in Korean Proletarian Literature
  • Ruth Barraclough (bio)

In the 1920s, when authors of proletarian literature were becoming some of Korea's leading literary avant-gardes, people working in factories, ports, and mines were mounting campaigns to alleviate some of the worst abuses of colonial industrialization. Women, as well as men, formed unions, called strikes, and wrote in to newspapers and magazines to draw public attention to conditions in the new industries. Two of the most prominent strike demands by blue-collar women in the 1920s and early 1930s were for higher wages and an end to sexual violence in the factories.1 Women workers on occasion downed tools in an attempt to halt sexual violence in factories, such as the 140 workers at the Chikp'o Linen Factory in Mokp'o who in 1926 stopped work to make a single demand: that assault by factory foremen should cease.2 Newspaper reporters also warned women of the dealers in "human traffic" who masqueraded as factory recruiters. According to [End Page 345] reports from the Tonga Ilbo (one of the colony's leading daily newspapers) from 1926 to 1927, these dealers picked up unsuspecting country girls at the labor exchange markets held at all the big provincial railway stations and shipped them to far away brothels, sometimes as far away as Japan.3 And in the 1920s and 1930s some women wrote to newspapers and magazines to warn readers of the dangers of the new factory economy and the sexual predators they encountered on their factory shift.4 These concerns would influence the new authors of proletarian literature, who wrote sexual violence in the factories at the center of the experiences of their working-class heroines.

This article examines how Korean authors of proletarian literature depicted factory girls as the sexual victims of capitalism, in a searing critique of the costs of Japan's colonial industrializing project. Some may question my use of the term factory girls to connote a collection of individuals whose maturity ranged from childhood to middle age. They might point out the high proportion of married females who sought factory work in the colonial period (1910–45), an era when, as Lee Hyo-chae has shown, early marriage was the custom and 72 percent of females over the age of fifteen were married.5 They might also note the incongruity of an infantilizing term for those engaged in arduous labor, and point out the paternalistic overtones of this address. In reply I assert that it is precisely because of its "bitterness to modern ears" that I use the antiquated English term.6 The term factory girl draws attention to the very contradictions that working-class women seemed to embody, laboring in factories where so many lost their youth.

By the late 1920s young Korean women were entering factories in significant numbers. Korean women laboring in the cotton spinning factories and other key light manufacturing industries would help generate the colony's industrialization, eventually making up 81 percent of the workforce in the textile industry.7 During the Great Depression the labor movement attained its peak, as did the proletarian literature movement, until it foundered following the police raids of 1931 and 1934. As the avant-gardes of literature and politics met in the proletarian literature movement, a number of left-wing authors would critique their society through tales of the lives of factory girls.

The Korean proletarian literature movement, which converged around [End Page 346] the organization KAPF (Korea Artista Proletaria Federacio, 1925–35), drew artists, poets, intellectuals, and novelists together as part of a movement for the cultural enfranchisement of the working class, and fashioned workers as the central subject of art and politics. In proletarian literature, working-class heroines are sexually harassed or raped by men from the managerial or capitalist class, images that reinforced the mandate of the male-dominated labor movement to exert themselves on factory girls' behalf.8 But even as writers of proletarian literature addressed sexual violence in the factories and showed how factory managers attempted complete control over the lives of female employees, male authors often displayed women as the erotic object of this violence. I...


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