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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways
  • Su Yun Kim
Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways by Hyaeweol Choi. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. $24.00 (paperback or e-book)

Scholars of critical gender studies have made important contributions to Korean Studies in recent years, perhaps most noticeably in works on the “new woman” and her education during the Japanese colonial era (1910–45). Hyaeweol Choi’s Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways represents an innovative addition to this vibrant locus of scholarship, shifting our attention from the 1920s and 1930s back to the turn of the century—and thereby enriching our understanding of the pre-colonial as well as colonial formation of new womanhood. Choi promises to explore and shed light on these formations, especially their extraordinarily complex “transcultural context” which featured three major historical agents: (1) American Protestant missionaries, (2) enlightenment-oriented Korean male intellectuals, and (3) Korean women (p. 8). Engaging a wealth of sources from both Korean and American missionary archives (containing numerous reports, journals, correspondence, personnel files, and even rare works of “missionary fiction”), Choi delivers on her promise.

Some of the most compelling observations in Gender and Missionary Encounters in Korea center on Choi’s analysis of “Christian modernity” in the Korean context. American women missionaries, who began arriving in Korea in 1885, played a critical role in establishing modern education for Korean women. This role was available to the former because of official neglect of women’s education in the late Chosŏn period. For their visible accomplishments in setting up educational institutions that remain household names even today (such as Ewha University), American women missionaries came to be known in both historiography and public memory as “pioneers who acted as catalysts for Korean modern womanhood” (p. x). At the core of her book is the complicated relationship between a particular brand of “Christian modernity” and more general notions of modernity. As Choi writes, “[i]t was in the mission field that largely conservative American women missionaries came to be regarded as ‘modern’ women by Koreans and by women missionaries themselves, who felt they held relatively greater freedom and independence than Korean women” (p. 181). [End Page 303]

“Christian modernity” served to constrain as well as to facilitate the development of Korean modern womanhood. The prevailing idea of “women’s work for women” in the foreign mission field provided American Protestant missionaries with exceptional opportunities to pursue a professional career as well as to discover and develop leadership skills (pp. 52, 56). Similar to other global mission fields, the majority of missionaries in Korea were women: 59 percent in the period between 1884 and 1910 and 63 percent by 1936 (p. 58). On the other hand, Christian womanhood introduced by American women missionaries was based on the (American) Victorian ideal—that is, the late nineteenth-century Protestant culture of “proper spheres.” The notion of separate spheres suited Korean women who were well accustomed to the Confucian idea of the “distinction between man and woman.” Despite the American missionaries’ views on the backward status of women in Korea on certain levels, Victorian ideals actually went hand-in-hand with existing Confucian prescriptions of womanhood. That this convenient inter-cultural meeting of conservative norms could serve evangelical goals also helps explain the reproduction of a male-centered hierarchy in the church and accommodation with late-Chosŏn Confucian norms in mission schools.

It follows that scrutinizing the unfolding of Christian modernity reveals much about the ways Korean male intellectuals understood “Western” conceptions of womanhood offered by American Protestant missionaries. Because nationalist thinkers saw gender equality as an indicator of “civilization and enlightenment” and therefore fundamental in the quest to build a modern nation-state, gender equality became a central trope of the Korean enlightenment movement as surely as it was for the Christian mission (pp. 43–44). Korean male intellectuals offered rhetorical support for gender equality, and American missionaries provided limited but nonetheless significant opportunities for Korean women to break the “inside-outside” boundary and enter the public sphere. Yet, even as Korean women entered schools and churches...


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