To Understand Modern Korean Misogyny, Look to the Modern Girls of the 1930s

(Revealing the Korean Body Politic, Part 9)
1930s Korean New Girl Modern Girl Stereotypes Criticism(Source, edited: 살구나무 아랫집)

Wasting money on frivolous Western things, gaining financial independence, following their hearts instead of the wishes of their families, and not making enough babies.

All these criticisms of Korean “modern girls” in the 1930s sound eerily like those of “beanpaste girls” today. In so doing, they have much to teach us about the origins of modern Korean misogyny, and why their stories resonate so deeply with its victims over 80 years later.

Take 강심바 for instance, who begins describing the caricatures above as:

“Fucking asshole men’s traditional misogyny. A cartoon from The Chosun Ilbo in the 1930s…”

And then:

“Even back then, stereotypes like the ones in this cartoon were controversial. Wow, there were even labels like today’s “beanpaste girl.” It was prophetic.”

But what does it say exactly? Not recognizing some of the hanja characters, I consulted 예쁜 여자 만들기 (Making Pretty Women) by Lee Yeong-ah (2011). From left to right, the legs read:

Ahn Seok-yeong “If the Age of Woman Comes (2)”, The Chosun Ilbo, January 12, 1930.

1) Any guy is okay for me if he buys me a piano.

2) Any guy is okay for me if he builds me a house. Even a 70-year old.

3) I’m still single.

4) I want to marry a man who has been overseas to study.

5) I love chocolate. Only that one box.

6) I didn’t pay my rent. Please help me.

7) I am a virgin. [But] I like anyone who has lots of money.

8) I am hysterical. You have to understand this.

(p. 242)

Naturally, Lee finds the criticisms unfair, arguing that the cartoon says just as much about the cartoonist and the men who laugh at it as it does about the women so caricatured:

안석영의 이 만문만화는 “물질을 매개로 한 자유연애와 자유결혼의 속내를 ‘선전propaganda’이라는 상상의 장치를 통해 드러낸 작품이다. 만화 속 여성들은 자신의 몸을 내걸고 남성들에게 돈, 선물, 집, 사치품 등을 요구한다. 안석영은 이 만문만화에서 아마도 당시의 상품화한 연애와 결혼을 돈만 밝히는 허영심 강한 여성들의 책임으로 돌리고자 한 듯하다. 그러나 남성들은 어떤가? 위의 그림에서 여성은 다리만으로 표현되어 있다. 프레임 안은 남성들의 시선이 머문 지점이다. 즉 남성들은 여성들의 영혼이나 지성이 아니라 몸과 다리만을 보고 있었던 것이다. 그런 점에서 남성들 역시 왜곡된 연애나 결혼에서 ‘결백’을 주장하기 어려울 듯하다.

(p. 243)

In this cartoon, Ahn Seok-yeong uses an imaginary device called “propaganda” to criticize modern girls by showing their real, very materialistic feelings and motivations behind their embrace of free love and free marriage. The women in this cartoon are asking for money, gifts, presents, luxury items, and so on by using their bodies. It seems that Ahn criticizes the women for being greedy, blaming them for self-objectifying themselves for love and marriage. But what about the men? In the cartoon, the women are faceless. It only shows their legs, as the objects of the male gaze. In other words, men are only looking at women’s bodies, and are unconcerned with their personality and intelligence. In that regard, surely men are equally culpable for a distorted, perverted view of love and marriage?

Lee goes onto describe that, spearheaded by modern girls, the 1920s and 1930s were very much the period when Korea’s modern notions of free love, sexuality, and marriage were first formulated. (As well as the tendencies to judge women in terms of their appearance, and men in terms in their earning power.) Much closer to American flappers than their relatively conservative, usually less financially-independent Japanese counterparts, such notions were especially radical in Korea, where arranged marriages were the norm—and, alas, continued to be for many decades thereafter.

But Lee writes in Korean. For an excellent English source on that instead, see “Sensational Politics of Desire and Trivial Pursuits: Public Censure of New Women in Private Lives in early 1930s Korea“ by Park Bongsoo, who explains:

In the early 20th century, “love” and “love marriage” were new concepts in Korea. When arranged marriage—determined by one’s inherited class and financial status—was the only legitimate way to form a heterosexual union, women’s sexuality were confined in heterosexual relationships for procreation only, and love had no place in it. People of a lower class, who usually freely mingled with each other more than those in the upper class freely mingled with each other, no doubt fell in love and got married; however, middle and upper-class women had no right to assert their will in a matrimonial process. Therefore, the goal of new women’s contestation was not only to change the customary practice of marriage but also to bring a fundamental shift in people’s way of thinking about heterosexual unions. The women of the 1920s sought to overcome the prescriptive definition of women’s sexuality through writing publicly about their personal lives. Without a doubt, their demands were heavily criticized as immoral by elite male. Even today’s scholars criticize their demands as “too individualistic and extreme” and their approach to women’s liberation as “bourgeois feminism” that were said to turn blind eyes to class oppression operating within a gender structure.

(p. 2)

What fascinate though, are the uncanny parallels between the subsequent backlash and modern misogyny. For more on those specifically, see “How Women Are Represented within the Patriarchal Nationalism in (neo) Colonial Times” by Yewon Lee, who describes how critiques of modern girls first arose as a result of the increasing militarization of Korea’s Japanese colonizer:

Western thoughts such as the concept of natural rights of the individual and equality among man and woman were denied in the ’30s, and the so called “Old women” that stands in the opposite of the “New women” [신여성] that used to be criticized as old fashion, submissive, and dependent were reevaluated as those who retain the virtue of the past tradition. On the other hand, the “modern girls” who voiced their subjectivity on issues such as sexuality were blamed to be ‘selfish’ and ‘morally  corrupted.’ This is not irrelevant with the fact that the Japanese colony was conducting a war that goes beyond their capacity and needed all the resources it can pull, thus, needed the women to become the ‘strong  mothers’ to give birth and raise the ‘strong soldiers’ and be ideologically loyal enough to send their son’s willingly to war. This is the well known explanation of why the discourse of “New women” suddenly shifted to a conservative one in the 1930’s.

(pp. 9-10)

In particular, she argues that Korean men made them the scapegoats for forces over which neither sex had any control:

…not only did the discourse change due to the need of the Japanese colonialism but also it reflects the frustration of the colonized. Many of the Korean men were forced to join the army against their will. There was not much they can do when their mothers, sisters, wives, and lovers were harassed and mobilized as comfort women during the war. The sense of helplessness and powerless the colonized men had to put up with as the rule of the colonization harshens, made them in needs of a object, the women of the nation, to be kept under their control and for times to take out their anger. Thus, the women were safe from reproach as long as they were labeled as the ‘mother’ that gives birth and raise the child of the nation; however, once they insist on their rights as a woman they become an object of criticism. Thus discussions about women’s subjectivity on sexuality and gender equality almost disappear in the public scene by this time.

(pp. 10-11.)

And with that criticism, came a host of body and/or lifestyle labels and ideals for women to aspire to, and/or stereotypes to be criticized for. For an instance of the latter, take the “stick girl” at the top left of the left image below, so-called because her much older partner uses her body as a walking cane. Whether she’s with him for love or money, I imagine that the cartoonist’s real issue is less with the age disparity than with the woman’s brazen freedom and sexual agency. Because would he have criticized a similar marital union arranged between two families of the same class, with the woman getting pregnant shortly thereafter?

Korean and Japanese Modern Girls(Left: “The various types of ‘girls’ in the 1920s to 1930s”; scan, 예쁜 여자 만들기, p. 245. Right: Actor Hideko Takamine, Japanese White Powder Foundation advertisement, 1930s; via The Flapper Girl.)

Either way, the parallels continue, for this label-making has been a strong trend in the last decade too. Also, whereas those feelings of helplessness and powerless are now because of “Hell Joseon” rather than colonial rule, nevertheless they still get channeled by the media into anger against young women, supposedly for taking over “men’s jobs” while the men suffer their mandatory military service. Writing in 2007 though, well before some important developments in Korea’s demographics (an excess of teenage boys turning into men) and labor market (more young women doing irregular and part-time work), instead Yewon Lee stresses the strong anti-American components to the misogyny she witnessed. Her paper is worth reading for that alone, and I’d be very interested in hearing readers’ opinions on how important that component remains nearly ten years later.

So, I encourage readers to check out both papers (actually conference presentations), which deserve to be much better known. Unfortunately PDFS are no longer available online, so please contact me if you’d like me to email them.

What are you waiting for? ;)

The Revealing the Korean Body Politic Series:

Update: A must read is “Sweet Dream” at Gusts of Popular Feeling, about the strong critique of modern girls in the form of—sigh—Korea’s oldest surviving movie.

Calling all Korean-Western Couples!

A Mixed Relationship(Source, edited: ufunk)

I’ve been asked to pass on the following by Dr. Daniel Nehring, a British sociology lecturer:

My project looks at the experiences of Korean-Western couples currently living in Korea, of any sexual orientation. It involves conversational interviews of approximately one hour, covering various aspects of everyday life in a transnational relationship; I interview the Western participants in English, while my Korean (female) colleague interviews the Korean participants in Korean. I work according to the code of ethical conduct of the British Sociological Association, so participation is confidential and anonymous, which includes not divulging one partner’s responses to the other(!). I am looking for participants aged 25 to 45 who are settled in Korea and currently live in a long-term transnational relationships. I could meet participants in a place of their choice; alternatively, the interview(s) could take place on Skype. I would be happy to answer any further questions about my research; my e-mail address is

I’d add that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Daniel several times, and that he has conducted similar projects in Mexico and China; see here for one of his journal articles on the latter, which is still ongoing, while the Mexican interviews ultimately became part of a book.

Korean Sociological Image #89: On Getting Knocked up in South Korea

Korean Births Out of WedlockAs in, how many Korean women are pregnant when they walk down the aisle? How many get married after giving birth? How many mothers don’t get married at all? And how have public attitudes to all those groups changed over time?

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to find out. It’s been surprisingly difficult, apropos of a subject many couples would prefer to keep under wraps.

It all started with this Arirang news report, thanks to the interesting way it framed Korea’s low birthrate problem:

An aging population and low birthrate — two problems that Korea and Japan have in common and are trying to solve.

And since having children out of wedlock is considered socially unacceptable in either country, the focus is on encouraging people to get married.

So the countries share similar problems, but do the people of Korea and Japan share similar views on marriage?

A report by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs says NO…

(Arirang, December 4, 2014; my emphasis)

My first thought was that a focus on marriage made a lot of sense. From that chart alone, you can guess that there is considerable prejudice against single mothers and their children in South Korea, to the extent that Korea was (and is) notorious for overseas adoption. In 2008, Seoul National University Professor Eun Ki-Soo saw a direct relationship between such attitudes and Korea’s low birthrate problem:

According to the International Social Survey Program (2002) and Korean General Social Survey (2006), Korea “had one of the highest number of respondents who believed ‘people who want children ought to get married.’ The only countries that scored higher than Korea were the Philippines and the United States, but the differences in the scores were not statistically significant….In the face of such strong social norms regarding marriage and reproduction, young people who are unable to marry also may not feel like they can have children. Such a phenomenon is manifested in contemporary Korean society in the form of a low fertility rate”

(Eun, pp 154 & 155; see bibliography)

Likewise, two weeks ago the Park Geun-hye Administration pinpointed the cause of Korea’s low birthrate “to be the social tendency to marry late”, and announced that it aimed “to buck that trend by rectifying the high-cost marriage culture in Korea, increasing the supply of rental housing for newlyweds and expanding medical insurance benefits for couples with fertility problems.” (Note that the number of marriages in 2014 was estimated to be a record low, with 50% of 30-somethings seeing marriage as “dispensable”.) Last week, Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs researcher Cho Sung-ho reaffirmed that “it is necessary to support young people so they can experience dating, marriage and childbirth without too many difficulties”, and that “In order to do that, creating quality jobs and support programs for job seekers must be introduced as part of measures to tackle the country’s low fertility rate” (source, below: The Hankyoreh).Please Have More Babies

Yet in saying young people need support, surely Cho is is just reiterating Korea’s — and other developed economies’ — biggest social problem of the 2010s (and likely 2020s)? And what use is there in making it easier for young Koreans to get married, when married couples aren’t having enough children in the first place?

Simply put, Park Geun-hye’s announcement feels disingenuous, distracting from the difficult reforms of Korea’s patriarchal work-culture needed.

But my second thought was on the Korean women that do get knocked up. Specifically, those that do so before or without ever getting married, the only two groups I’ve ever heard the term used for (quick question: does anyone use it for married women, except in a humorous sense?). First, because that 2.1% rate of out of wedlock births is actually the highest it’s been in decades, albeit by no means because attitudes have softened over time:

Available statistics [Korea Statistical Yearbook #55, 2008] indicate 6,141 illegitimate child births in 1990 and 8,411 in 2007, representing, respectively, 0.66% and 1.69% of the total child births; a percentage rise that seems mainly due to the general fall in child births from 1990 to 2007 (931,602 in 1990, and 497,188 in 2007).

(Payen p. 72, my emphasis; see bibliography)

(For comparison’s sake, there were 403,500 childbirths in the first 11 months of 2014, while a February 4 estimate put the yearly figure at 430,000. Update: a February 26 report put it at 435,300, the second lowest level ever.)

Second, because despite everything I’ve written above, I was surprised that the the rate wasn’t higher still. Why? Partially, because of personal experience, one of my wife’s cousins having a child before getting married, but no-one in her village treating that as unusual or something to be embarrassed about (she later married and had a second child). And mainly, because that lack of a reaction was already explained by the following comment left by @oranckay on my 2008 post, “Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea.” While the post itself has long since been completely rewritten, and the comments deleted (sorry!) because that meant they no longer made sense, you’ll soon see why I decided to save his one:

(Note that it was written in reaction to my surprise and confusion at public outrage at Korean female celebrities kwon sang woo son tae-young pregnancy marriagerevealed to be having premarital sex — how times have changed!(?) — but the lack of any negative reaction to regular announcements of celebrity pregnancies before marriage, one example mentioned in the post being Kwon Sang-woo’s and Sohn Tae-young’s that September {Source, right: Dramabeans}.)

…I think one needs to take into account that not all pre-marital sex is the same. There is a difference between just having sex and having sex with someone you are going to, or intend to, marry, and traditional/Joseon and even 20th Korea saw this as a big difference. Having sex on the premise of, and as consummation of, commitment, was the normal, socially acceptable way to have pre-marital sex. So valued was a woman’s virginity that a decent man could only sleep with her if he was ready to “take responsibility for her,” as the saying would go, and so on, because that’s what sleeping with her was supposed to imply. Fiction and non-fiction narratives (many known to me personally) are full of this kind of thinking. I know couples that decided not to have sex because they weren’t sure they were getting married, that didn’t have sex because he was going to the military and he wanted to be sure he’d come back alive before permanently “making her his,” as that would be too traumatic for her, and of couples that lived together (and obviously were having sex) before being married and it was acceptable because they were going to marry, had family approval, but couldn’t marry because maybe the girl’s elder sister wasn’t married off yet or they were both still in college but both sets of parents wanted to get them married after graduation, or one of those odd reasons. Maybe no money; whatever.

Anyway, the best example I can think of all this is classical Korean prose fiction (since that’s all I ever think about). There is plenty of premarital sex in traditional Korean prose fiction (“novels”), graphic in only a few exceptions I’m afraid, but we are at least told that it is happening. The reason this fiction wasn’t thrown into the flames at Confucian book burning parties (and there were Joseon poets who did indeed call for novels to be burned for their bad influence) was because whenever there is pre-marital sex the parties always end up married. In fact you know they’re going to marry before you get to the end because they slept together. The most readily available example would be “the most classic, all time” story Chunhyang Jeon. The most “대표적” Korean story of all time and it involves “happily ever after” pre-marital sex. So it’s one thing for a celebrity to have a bulging waistline at her wedding and another for a video to surface of her having a romp with one of her producers, for example, or even to shoot a fully nude bed scene in a feature film.

Update: Via KLawGuru, comes news that there used to be a law that was very much in the same vein, and which was only very recently repealed:

In 2009, a crime called “Sexual Intercourse under Pretense of Marriage” was ruled “unconstitutional.” It used to be a crime for a man to have sex with a woman by deliberately deceiving her into believing that he would later marry her. To learn more, click here.

But to reiterate, just how common are those bulging waistlines at weddings? And (how) have people’s attitudes changed over time? After seven years, it was high time to do a proper follow-up on oranckay’s comment. I hit the books.

Chung-hyan Versions(Sources: left, 나는 수풀 우거진 산에 갔더니; right, Opeloverz)

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much at all about premarital pregnancy and childbirth specifically. Instead, I spent much of the next two weeks collecting and typing up a lot of fascinating, related information about attitudes towards virginity, premarital sex, sexual experience, cohabitation, and contraceptive use, forced as I was to deconstruct and think about all aspects of the phenomenon (read: desperately search for any related topics whatsoever in indexes). Then I realized that I was going about things entirely the wrong way, and should: a) devote a separate post to those next month; and b) rely on someone who’s already done all the hard work for me instead. Sure enough, just a couple of pages of the right book would literally speak volumes:

…In the mid-1980s, cohabitation was not rare. [Yoon Hyungsook, pp. 18-24] writes that three out of ten marriages concerned cohabitating couples, and that all these couples even had children at the time of their wedding. Although these couples were not officially married, it was “only” legally, not in the eyes of the villagers. The important point to mention is the fact that all these cohabitations were approved by both spouses’ in-laws, with the wife fulfilling her role of daughter-in-law as if she was legally married. When the wedding ceremony comes later, delayed because of financial difficulties, it confirms a relationship, ascertains the position of the woman in her husband’s family, and makes the couple fully adults in the eyes of society.

So, cohabitation did exist, was not rare, and was often a living arrangement used by people of poorer classes for whom marrying meant heavy expenses. Kendall (p. 123) writes that “by the 1970s cohabitation before marriage was common among village children who worked off the land and among rural migrants to the cities. It remains a common practice among urban workers.”

Spencer and Kim Eun-shil also delve on cohabitation in their studies about female migrant factory workers. But, while for women of Spencer’s research, this living arrangement was not the norm, it was most common in Kim’s research; a difference possibly related to the 20 years that have passed between the two studies and changes of attitudes and practices in relation to marriage and cohabitation (1970-1990).

(Payen, pp. 87-88. Kendall and Spencer books mentioned are below; see bibliography for Kim.)
Getting Married in Korea Cover Yogong Factory Girl Cover(Source, left: Google Books; right, Amazon)

Of course, I acknowledge that the above is just a indirect confirmation of oranckay’s comment really (although that is still valuable), and I can’t possibly do justice to Payen’s thesis on cohabitation in Korea here, nor on how and why it’s actually become less common since the 1990s. In the comments section below though, Gomushin Girl provides a good summary of one of the most important factors behind that shift:

[One] important aspect here is the socioeconomics of it all . . . earlier research like Kendall’s and Spencer is looking at a Korea that was either still relatively poor or just emerging as a major economy. They’re already reporting a very class-based variance in attitudes towards premarital sex and pregnancy [and cohabitation—James], with higher socioeconomic status associated with lower acceptance. I’m not surprised to see that as Korean wealth increased, people increasingly adopted attitudes associated with wealth.

Also, we shouldn’t be left with an overly sanguine, no nonsense image of attitudes to premarital pregnancy in the past either, as the opening to a Korea Herald article about adoption linked earlier attests:

In 1976, a 17-year-old Korean girl gave birth to her first child. A few months before the delivery, she had been forced to marry the man who raped and impregnated her.

“That was the norm at the time,” Noh Geum-ju told The Korea Herald.

“When you get pregnant as an unmarried woman, you have to marry the father of your baby. Other options were unthinkable.”

(The Korea Herald, 28 January, 2014)

Update: Here’s another example from a celebrity couple, currently involved in a domestic violence case:

Seo Jung-hee [a former model and actress] said her husband [comedian-turned-clergyman Seo Se-won] sexually assaulted her at the age of 19, so she had to marry him, and she had been his virtual prisoner for 32 years. She said she was too afraid of him to seek a divorce and had to endure because of the children.

(The Chosun Ilbo, 13 March 2015)

I also read that, traditionally, if a suitor was spurned by his intended bride, he could consider raping her to secure her family’s consent. Mostly, due to the shame involved, but of course the imperative was all the greater if she became pregnant. I can’t remember the exact reference sorry (I will add it if I do), but I did find the following:

…The “proper” women must remain chaste, and the requirements of being chaste are utterly crazy. As a rule, a traditional Korean woman carried a small silver knife. The knife is for self-defense, but not the kind of self-defense that you are thinking. The knife is there to kill yourself with if you are about to be “disgraced”. Realistically, “disgraced” means “raped”. However, technically “disgraced” meant any man other than your husband touching you.

One story during the Joseon Dynasty speaks of a virtuous woman who, because a boatman held her hand while helping her into the boat, either jumped out of the boat and drowned herself or cut off her own hand, depending on the version. It is unlikely that this story is true, but this was the moral code to which traditional Korean women were supposed to aspire. In a similar horrifying vein, rape-marriages – forced marriage to a man who raped you – happened regularly until late 1970s, since living with the rapist as a proper woman is better than living as a fallen woman.

(Ask a Korean!, December 3, 2008)

But we were talking about attitudes towards and rates of premarital pregnancy in the 2010s. Which, to conclude this post, naturally I would end up learning more about from the following Korea Times article than from my entire 20-year collection of Korean books(!). Some excerpts (my emphasis):

…premarital pregnancy is now humdrum, even among people who are not stars.

In a survey that consultancy Duo Wed conducted between June 1 and June 14, one-third of 374 newlyweds questioned said the bride was pregnant when they married.

Of these couples, 92.1 percent said their babies were unexpected…

Beautiful D-line…Changing perceptions on premarital pregnancy are also affecting other related industries: wedding dress rentals and tourism businesses.

A wedding dress shop director says she has recently noticed more pregnant brides-to-be.

“They look for dresses depending on the number of months they are pregnant,” says Seo Jung-wook, director of Pertelei, in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul.

“Women who are three to five months pregnant fit well into a bell-line dress, while those further into their pregnancy often look good in an empire-lined dress.”

Other dress shops have their own selections of “D-line dresses” in stock because of increased demand [which no longer have to be custom made and bought].

Sigh. I’d always assumed that D-lines were just a joke sideline (no pun intended) to Korea’s body-labeling and shaming craze. I should have known better.


…The tourism industry is also catching up with the trend. Instead of honeymoons, travel operators promote “babymoon” programs for pregnant newlyweds.

These programs avoid placing any burden or stress on the baby or the mother.

Kim Jin-hak, representative director of Honey Island, a tourism agency specializing in services for newlyweds, says the agency’s “babymoon” program is popular with brides…

(The Korea Times, July 23, 2013. Source, above: WStar News)
Babymoon(Source: Lotte Tour)

As always, this is just a start. For many follow-up posts, I plan to look at journal articles (which will probably be more fruitful), Korean-language sources, plus blogs about or often covering marriage and pregnancy in Korea, such as the sadly now defunct On Becoming a Good Korean (Feminist) Wife. Plus, of course, any readers’ suggestions (for books also!), which will be much appreciated.

Please pass them on, and/or tell me in the comments about any of your own experiences and observations about premarital pregnancy (and so on) in Korea. Do you personally know any women who were pregnant at their weddings? (Or were you or your partner yourself/herself? By all means, please feel free to comment or email me anonymously!) What were their family’s and friends’ feelings and reactions? Was the couple effectively forced to get married, in a case of “사고 쳐서 결혼” (lit., “marriage by accident,” or a shotgun wedding)? How about those of you with Korean partners? Did your foreignness make a difference? Thanks!

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here.)


— Ki-soo, Eun “Family values changing—but still conservative”. In Social Change in Korea, edited by Kim Kyong-dong and The Korea Herald, 146-156. Korea: Jimoondang, 2008.

— Kim, Eun-shil “The Making of the Modern Female Gender: the Politics of Gender in Reproductive Practices in Korea”, (PhD dissertation, University of California, 1993) [Referenced by Payen]

— Payen, Bruno “Cohabitation and Social Pressure in Urban Korea: Examining Korean Cohabitants’ Behavior from a Comparative Perspective with France” (MA thesis, The Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, 2009).

Book Giveaway: Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei (2014)

Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei(Source: Tuttle)

Sorry that I haven’t posted for so long everyone. I was very busy with offline work for two weeks, then I caught a terrible cold which lasted another two weeks…which means now I’m busier than ever. But, I would like to get writing here again, and I can think of no better way to start than by offering a book giveaway!

For this first one, I’ve selected Labyrinth of the Past by Zhang Yiwei. It’s a good book, but frankly it was a frustrating read for me personally, because the publisher’s website gave me the wrong impression of what to expect. Know what it’s really about though, and you’ll enjoy it from the get-go.

Here’s the offending description, which has two big problems:

Labyrinth of the Past is a collection of short stories that explore the lives of young women raised by single mothers in China, a country that is unforgiving to unmarried women and their children.

A dark, yet engrossing look at the lives of these girls, each story examines their personal struggles with family and the greater world around them. Coping with the stigma of being the daughter of a single mother, most of these women can’t seem to form anything but dysfunctional relationships, from mothers to friends to lovers.

While often frank and terribly bleak, these stories provide a vivid and real view of the women who struggle against a history they can’t change, in a culture that has difficulty accepting them.

That stigma surrounding unwed mothers is very real in Korea, so I partially chose the book to gain some insights into what it was like living with it. You can imagine my surprise and disappointment then, when it never even came up. Primarily, because none of the mothers are “unmarried” in the sense of never having married, but are all divorcees or widows instead. Which, given China’s skyrocketing divorce rates since Deng’s reforms, probably doesn’t carry any stigma at all:

The number of divorces has risen steadily in the new millennium, with one in five marriages now ending in separation. In 2006, the divorce rate was about 1.4 per one thousand people—twice what it was in 1990, and more than three times what it was in 1982….The number of divorces in the first three months of 2011 increased 17.1% year-on-year….Beijing leads the country with nearly 40 per cent of marriages ending in divorce, followed closely by Shanghai.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 59

I’m happy to be corrected by any readers raised by female divorcees or widows, and/or with more knowledge of China, who may be able to read between the lines and see the influence of a stigma on the characters where I can’t. But if so, it’s still a very peripheral theme at best, and should really be removed from the description on the website (fortunately, it’s not mentioned on the back cover, which I wish I’d read instead).

Chinese Woman in Shanghai(Source: Matthijs Koster. CC BY 2.0)

The second problem is that the book is about the lives of young women, yet two of the seven stories—”Scab Addiction” and “No Choosing Today”—are entirely about the characters’ childhoods. In particular, in the former the character-narrator is revealed to be still in high school, making it a terrible choice for an opening story. Had I picked up the book in a store, expecting it to delve straight into the lives of adult Chinese women, I would have rejected it on the spot.

Again, this is not a criticism of the book per se, and of course all the remaining stories are indeed from women’s perspectives, with “A Good Year”, “Love,” and “Summer Days” all covering dating, marriage, and/or sex. “I Really Don’t Want to Come” too, covering the narrator’s increasing disdain for kowtowing to ancestors as she grows older, and frustration with what the ceremony means for her split family, is something many Koreans (and their foreign partners) will surely relate to. (“Memory is the Slowest” though, I just found confusing—I’m still not really sure what it’s about). But it’s also a real pity, because, once I got over the disappointment of reading something very different to what I’d been sold, and was able to take a fresh look at the book, ironically I came to find Zhang Yiwei’s depictions of childhood to be one of its biggest strengths. Her ability to evoke its timelessness, the sense of children’s whole worlds confined to just a few streets and fields, and our fuzzy, malleable memories of that phase of our lives is really quite remarkable (frankly, it immediately reminded me of the magic realism of 100 Years of Solitude), and that should be highlighted in its marketing.

Another strong point is showing how profoundly the issue of housing impacts ordinary Chinese citizens’ lives. That may sound rather boring at first, but it looms large in a country with such breakneck development, huge internal migration, and consequent vast urban/rural and home-owning/renting divides, and accordingly it’s a constant concern for many of the characters in the book, some of whom are stuck in limbo because their property is in an absentee husband or father’s name. Indeed, as if to rub that in, recently the government manipulated the ownership laws in a bid to thwart the divorce rate, taking a great leap backward for women’s rights in the process:

…the Chinese government has expressed alarm at the soaring number of divorces and its threat to the traditional Chinese family. In 2011, China took controversial steps to discourage divorce, reinterpreting the marriage law so that residential property is no longer regarded as jointly owned and divided equally after a divorce. Instead, it will belong exclusively to the spouse who bought it or whose name is on the deed, which is usually the husband, even if the wife helped pay for the property. This means that upon divorce many women might find themselves homeless.

At a time of soaring property prices, real estate is often a couple’s most valuable possession, and the revised law has caused many women to consider more carefully whether they really want to get married. Chinese media reported that marriage registrants plummeted as much as 30 percent in some cities weeks after the revised law was announced in 2011.

Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, Richard Burger (2012), p. 61

Update, August 2015: For more details, I highly recommend listening to this Office Hours podcast interview of journalist Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (2014).

Chinese Housing(Source: Anita. CC BY 2.0)

The verdict? I can’t lie—despite its strengths, the cover price of $13.95 is a little steep for such a slim book (160 pages), especially with some of the stories being so frustratingly short. But it’s definitely worth the $10-ish or even cheaper on various websites it’s selling for at the moment, especially if you know what you’re in for.

But first, remember I have two free copies to give away! Please just leave a comment below, and a week from now I’ll pretend to select two of you at random to receive them (make sure your email address is correct!). Really though, if you’d like to get to the head of the queue, please do bribe me with interesting comments about single mothers and/or something China-related!

What are you waiting for? ;)

Korean Sociological Image #87: Normalizing Interracial Relationships

(Update: Sorry for the lack of English subtitles. Since writing this post, one of the show participants/actors in the commercial left Korea in disgrace due to a sex-scandal, and the original video was made private. You can still find a good English translation and explanation here though).

An extended commercial for Yoplait ‘Yopa’ yogurt, featuring five quick, humorous stories of foreign men in relationships with Korean women.

It’s unremarkable in itself, and frankly not all that funny, although I did love hearing the “Do you want to eat noodles at my place and go?” line again at 1:10. But that’s precisely the point: by making no big deal of the men’s ethnicities, and showing Korean women dating, living with, and even—heaven forbid—explicitly wanting to have sex with them, the commercial helps to normalize such relationships among the Korean public. Whereas just last year, one Korean television station effectively portrayed entering into a relationship with a foreign man as a sex crime—adding to the Korean media’s long history of depicting them as sexual deviants and rapists, from whom weak and gullible Korean women need protecting.

Starring five men from the Abnormal Summit show, who form part of “a panel of eleven non-Korean men, living in Korea, who debate [in Korean] on various topics and Korean culture, through the eyes of a foreigner,” this marks just the third commercial in the last ten years that has positively presented such relationships (that I’m aware of; see Korean Sociological Image #47 and #65 for the other two). In contrast, there have been numerous ones with positive depictions of Korean men in relationships with foreign women, especially during and after the Misuda show of 2006-2010 (in many ways a female equivalent of Abnormal Summit), although there’s also been a strong tendency to portray the women as sexual conquests (especially in K-pop).

Do any readers know of any more examples, whatever the sexes? Do you think we’ll have to wait another four years for another commercial like this one?

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

Korean Sociological Image #85: Just One 10 Minutes…to Improve Your Spouse’s Specs

Korea Gender Roles Marriage Specs(Source: Jinvas, left, right; edited)

Two notebook covers, found by reader Stephanie Rosier at her local Kyobo bookstore. As she explains on the blog’s Facebook page, the left reads, “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] wife’s face will change,” and the right, “If I study for ten more minutes, my [future] husband’s job will change.”

Of course they’re just notebooks, and just for fun (although I do hope it’s adults they’re aimed at!). But they’re also a reflection of how deeply “specs” (스펙) like certain jobs and physical standards dominate matchmaking discussions among Koreans these days. Whereas back in the 1980s, it was older family members or family friends that would size up children’s potential spouses for arranged 선 (seon) matches like this, nowadays hard economic times mean that young people can be just as pragmatic and calculating as their grandparents were.

Meanwhile, what’s “Just One 10 Minutes?” you ask? :D

Related Posts:

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Image Series, see here)

I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.