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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways
  • Lee-Ellen Strawn, Ph.D
Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways. By Hyaeweol Choi, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, xv + 280p.

Through her book, Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways, Hyaeweol Choi has contributed substantially to the complex academic discourse on mission history and modernization in Korean society at the turn of the twentieth century. With the assumption that historical truth is never simplistic, Choi lets the facts speak for themselves to illustrate a cross-cultural women’s history of this time period that is multifaceted and new to many readers. She challenges the prevailing notion that Protestant western women missionaries to Korea were the molders of the emerging new Korean womanhood. Moreover, with much textual evidence, Choi explains how Korean women were caught in the vortex of a Korean nationalist sentiment and patriarchal Confucian and Protestant cultural contexts, yet forged paths to modern selfhood. However, neither does Choi dismiss women missionaries as merely agents of western imperialism; rather, she carefully points to the development of self-hood among the women missionaries themselves. Thus, the reader is given a layered picture of the lives of Korean women and women missionaries that depicts mutual transformation through meaningful mutual encounters.

By highlighting the “transcultural context” of western missionary work with women in Korea, and by asserting that this context became the “contact zone” for the meeting of ideas concerning modern womanhood, Choi’s work does for the Korean situation what Jane Hunter’s The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China did for the Chinese. Thus, in line with broader research trends, Choi’s work is somewhat of a revisionist mission history that also breaks ground in highlighting the voices and historical agency of both Korean women and western women missionaries. Choi does this by focusing on different issues concerning gender formation in modern Korean society.

After explaining modern gender formation as one of the key agendas for Korean society at the turn of the twentieth century, Chapter 2 takes up gender equality as “a new moral order” that propelled both the Korean nationalist agenda of building a new sovereign society and the missionary agenda of evangelizing the Protestant gospel message. Yet, for both the nationalists and the [End Page 163] missionaries, gender equality was subservient to these larger goals and was not seen as valuable in and of itself. Thus, Choi ably demonstrates the tension and contradictions between the ideal of gender equality and its practical implementation in both the Korean nationalist and missionary agendas. Chapter 3 explores the private and public spheres as spaces in which both Korean women and western women missionaries negotiated their efficacy with and against the male agendas of nation-building and Protestant Christendom-building. Chapter 4 illustrates how modern educational institutions for Korean women, many of which were started by women missionaries, became the cradle for an emerging modern Korean womanhood fired in part by tensions with women missionaries themselves, whose Victorian notions of gender fit well with the prevailing Confucian gender ideology. Chapter 5 gives greater insight into missionary thinking, both that of women and men missionaries, by analyzing fiction authored by missionaries in Korea during the time of modernity formation. Choi shows that the western missionary sentiment frequently echoed the traditional Confucian gender and family ideology. Therefore, the Korean New Women (Sin Yŏsŏng) of the 1920s and 1930s, whose contributions are discussed in Chapter 6, often acted independently and against missionary and Korean nationalist elements at the time. This awarded these New Women the disapproval of both their missionary mentors and the Korean nationalist movement as they were shifting from an emphasis on a “collective identity in pursuit of an individual self ” (176).

The resulting picture that emerges from Choi’s skillful and sound interpretations is that neither the missionary scene nor the Korean one was monolithic. Women missionaries often felt contradictions between the traditional gender norms they espoused for the Korean women they assisted, the patriarchal theology and practice of their mission boards, and the actual trajectory of their own lives, which was a...


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