For new readers, Part 1 was an outline and discussion of the first part of the 2003 journal article “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society“ by Taeyon Kim. To quickly recap it, she argues that women weren’t really thought of as individuals in Joseon Dynasty Korea, as the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism considered them incapable of the spiritual transcendence that men were. Instead, the best they could aim for in life was continuing a husband’s “ki”, or spirit, through the production and upbringing of sons and the efficient management of his household. Hence Kim describes them as “subjectless bodies,” as not only were they not really individuals but their physical bodies were not really their own either, merely being vessels for and tenders of the more precious ki instead (source, right: jingdianmeinv)
In terms of the ideals for women’s appearance, this meant that the physical attributes required for those were prized more than beauty. On top of that, adornment and/or alteration of the body was not condoned for either sex, as the physical body was one’s inheritance of ancestors’ sacred ki. And herein lies the paradox, as on the one hand Neo-Confucianism still pervades all aspects of Korean life today (I’ll take readers knowing and agreeing with this as a given), but on the other hand, modern Korea appears to be in the midst of a decidedly non-traditional celebration of youth and the female form. What gives?
Neo-Confucian Consumption Motives
The short answer is that appearances can be deceptive. It is certainly true that modern media images of Korean women are not Neo-Confucian in the 19th Century sense described above, and it’s difficult to argue just by looking at them that advertisements, for instance, are any different to their counterparts in Western countries. Of course, systematic cross-country analyses of numbers and types do reveal significant and telling differences, and if readers are interested in those then I highly recommend reading the 2006 journal article entitled “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisments: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, downloadable here. But surveys like those do not chronicle average Korean and Western women’s reactions to them, and herein lies the essential differences between them.
As a rule, in Western countries most (although not all) advertisements for a product have to actively suppress and disguise the notion that people may feel compelled, influenced or forced into purchasing that product, whether by the ad, by peer pressure, or some other unwritten social rule. Instead, people are encouraged to conceive their purchase in terms of personal choice, individuality, empowerment, and — especially if the target consumer is young — maybe liberation and rebellion too. And of course, these advertising norms undoubtedly operate for a good proportion of advertisements in Korea too. But in the case of advertisements for products related to one’s appearance, be they cosmetics, clothes, or plastic surgery, it turns out that a great number of Korean women make purchases for precisely the opposite reasons. Indeed, not only is there no stigma in doing so, but they positively embrace the opportunity to conform to and harmonize with social norms through their consumption choices (source, right: Kiran Foster).
Lest that assertion sound like a typical exaggeration of a Caucasian male, surveys that Kim cites indicate that most Korean women explicitly justify their choices in those Neo-Confucian terms, and definitely not the individual empowerment, entitlement, and personal assertion of one’s individual choice that Western women tend to do in similar surveys. That is not to say that Western women (or men) can’t and don’t also passively follow fashions, and it’s not necessarily a negative or dehumanizing thing either. But very few Westerners would admit to it.
I see no reason to doubt the results of those surveys (which I can provide the details of if readers wish), and while my own female Korean friends for instance, are certainly as liberal and free-willed as any Westerner in their clothing and cosmetic choices — and lifestyles; indeed, that’s why we’re friends — they can’t counter the mass of empirical evidence Kim provides, and even the anecdotal evidence from the media and on the streets of Korea. If Neo-Confucianism is pervasive in modern Korean life then, and Korean women consume cosmetics, clothes, and undergo plastic surgery operations largely for the sake of Neo-Confucianist motives, then it’s time to call a spade a spade and argue that Korean society’s new emphasis on women’s appearances is (somehow) Neo-Confucianist too. Indeed, it would be strange if only this particular aspect of Korean life was so different.
Hence the second part of Kim’s article is about how this modern phenomenon is a warping of and adaptation of Neo-Confucian ideals of women’s roles to new capitalist and consumerist circumstances. But while I originally wanted to outline and discuss that in this post, I’ve moved that to Part 3, because first I wanted to place those circumstances in their historical context, which I think considerably adds to and strengthens Kim’s argument (source, right: Jacob Bøtter).
The Developmental Context of East Asian Consumption
I’ve already demonstrated that although Korean women and, say, American women, can both be labelled as “consumers,” they can and do both make radically different consumption choices; or, make the same choices, but for radically different reasons. Sure, this is obvious, but I’m as guilty as anyone in generalizing and using labels here, so it’s good to remind ourselves of it. But if we shift our attention to the differences between most Westerners and most Koreans (and East Asians) as a whole, the first fact of note is the fact that most Korean university students’ parents easily recall the days when possession of some must-have items like a fridge, radio, color TV and car were essential signifier that one’s family had made it into the then swelling ranks of the middle-class. On that basis, it may be fair to say that they still imbue their consumer goods with much more status and importance than most Westerners do. (Hell, many of the university students themselves too.) This explains Koreans’ love affair with big cars and SUVs for instance, and in one of the most oil-lacking, mountainous and densely-populated countries in the world.
On top of that, Korean governments since 1961 have explicitly and fervently extorted Koreans to consume these items, provided that they were made in Korea. It’s easy to simply attribute this to and write off as mere nationalism, only different in degree to, say, the “Buying Kiwi-Made” campaign in New Zealand, or Democratic presidential candidates in the US criticising NAFTA in election year. But this is quite wrong. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, to properly understand women’s fashions in Korea you need to understand a little of it’s well, political history first. No, really.
When Park Chung-hee/박정희 took power through a coup in 1961, while his military regime of course relied on the use of force, it would be naive to assume that it didn’t have a great deal of popular support. And so, originally at least, his military regime’s sole claim to legitimacy was its perceived ability and capacity to produce the economic development seen as necessary for national security after the chaotic years of the Syngman Rhee/이승만 presidency. While linking the economy and security this way may sound absurd in 2008, it’s important to be aware that North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea economically until the late-1960s, and in addition to this Park was (justifiably) deeply concerned about the US possibly withdrawing its security guarantees to South Korea in the wake of its foreseeable withdrawal from Vietnam. Hence the development of POSCO and the Korean steel industry for instance, which, far from being the carefully planned and coordinated developmental success story it is often touted as today (it is the third largest steel producer in the world), was pursued despite the advice of Korean economists at the time, let alone American ones. Instead, as Mark Clifford explains in chapter five of this must-have book, Park didn’t care about the economics of it; he simply wanted the ability to produce tanks and ships should the US no longer provide them.
This is why Korea is often known as a “Developmental State,” as too are Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which faced similarly dire circumstances in the Cold War and reacted in similar ways. Neo-liberal economists in particular are loath to admit that state-led development can be successful, and so they continue to critique the economic policies of these Developmental States decades later, but this excessive focus on economic minutiae has overshadowed the fact that they were and are primarily socio-political, not economic, phenomenons (right: Posco Center, Seoul, by Ian Muttoo).
Hence consumerism has links to national security in Developmental States, and all the choice government slogans like “Consumption is Virtuous” that I saw in old photographs of Korea from the ’70s in economic journals in the archives room of my university library. And while the corollary of Park’s developmentalism was authoritarianism, and average Koreans were expected to be content with and prolific buyers of Korean goods, imports being shut out by high tariffs in order to develop Korea’s own industries (which is why such a stigma remains on imports today), what I want you to take away from all the above is that:
Koreans are used to being told what to buy.
These choices have often been couched in terms of contributing to a higher purpose.
Those that didn’t subscribe to these higher purposes were given few alternatives, and the state was encouraged in stigmatizing them.
It is no great conceptual leap for Neo-Confucian women to go from being subservient to the higher purpose of ki, and their bodies to be imperfect versions of men’s, to furthering the higher purpose of improving the economy and maintaining national security by consuming Korean goods, and finding common identity in a turbulent century by following the new fashion industry’s edicts to improve their imperfect bodies by following their rules for fashion, cosmetics, and body shapes. Those will be the subject of Part 3.
(Update, April 2013: An important rejoinder to my fuzzy memories of reading in my university library is the book Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), which I describe here as:
…essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the 1990s in Korea, and in particular the frequent government and media campaigns against over-consumption (in practice aimed almost exclusively at women, these were important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” stereotypes of the 2000s)