Male Privilege at Korean Universities

Lee So-hee (이소희) and friends at Hanyang University (한양대학교) circa 1960s(Source: Michael Sean Gallagher; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Turning Boys Into Men? The Performance of Gender for South Korean Conscripts, Part 2

In Korean universities, the male students are usually two to three years older than the female students. In such a strict, age-based hierarchical society as Korea, that’s kind of a big deal.

They’re older because most Korean men do their military service while they’re students, then return to university to pick up where they left off. I never realized how that how that might impact their female classmates though, until late last year, when a colleague complained that all the women in his classes—and only the women—were missing crucial tests and exam prep. It turned out, they had to schlep across town to the other campus to act as meeters and greeters for visiting high-schoolers. Why only the women, I asked. Just convention, he guessed; after all, Korean “helpers”(doumi /도우미) are exclusively women. Also, they were performance and musical majors, and we later learned that those departments were responsible for providing the students, with certain quotas to be met by each class.

And in those classes, older students pulled rank on their juniors. Who just happened to be women.

These senior/junior relationships are common practice in Korean universities, although usually they operate between grades, and different majors and institutions vary widely in how rigidly their students adhere to them. Obviously, men are victims of the system too. But just as obviously, if students’ ages also matter, then it seems that finishing military service brings explicit male privilege for returning students.

Many would see that as fair compensation, and perhaps they have a point. But with some men feeling that they’re “owed,” there’s always the danger that they’ll take advantage of their juniors, who had nothing to do with their forced military service. I also think that for my colleague’s students, who weren’t happy about “volunteering” but seemed resigned to it, such experiences presage the gender roles and expectations of unpaid labor they’ll face when they enter the workforce, which is even more hierarchical. Either way, it’s a concrete example of how and why military service is a huge socialization agent in Korea, and one that’s often taken for granted. Which is what this series is all about.

What do you think? Whether as a professor, student, or parent, what has been your own experience of this age-based hierarchy at Korean universities? Please let me know in the comments!

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Ask Me Anything…Before Sunday!

I feel as if I'm one with the cactus(Source: unknown)

This Sunday, Sung Kim from the web magazine Vox Coreana will be coming down from Seoul to interview me about the blog, Korean feminism, K-pop, and so on. To help make it worth his while, please help me make it worth your while, by letting us know any questions you may have. Time permitting, I’ll do our best to answer them during the interview, and will make sure to answer them here if there’s any we can’t cover. Either way, I’ll post a link to the video once it’s available.

In the meantime, make sure to check out Sung Kim’s site also, which already has interviews of Chance Dorland and Travis Hull, of the KoreaFM podcast and the Only In Korea Facebook group respectively.

Please ask away! :)

REFRACTION: Performance and Discussion on Feminism and the Media. Changwon, Sat. April 2

Refraction poster finalI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

“Refraction” is a performance and discussion regarding feminism and media. All are welcome. Funds raised will be donated to Gyeongnam Women’s Association United. Tickets are ₩10,000 each and include a free beverage from Space Fun. Saturday April 2nd, 7-8:30pm #RFRCTNshow (Facebook event link.)

“굴절현상”은 한국과 전세계 페미니즘에 관한 토론과 예술적인 행사입니다.우리는 미디어에서의 여성에 대한 묘사를 더 깊게 살펴 볼 것이고 또한, 이가 개인과 사회에 어떻게 영향을 주는지 알아 볼 것 입니다. 누구든지 환영합니다.

창원시 사림동 46-9
스페이 스펀

I’d love to go, but unfortunately my wife works until 6 on Saturdays, which doesn’t give me enough time to get there from Busan. If anyone would like to do some babysitting for me on Saturday afternoon though, please let me know! ;)

Chinese Eunuchs Confuse Me

What role do Neo-Confucian notions of the “life force” (ki) play in buttressing modern Korean patriarchy?

Warm Nest(Warm Nest by Eugenia LoliCC BY-NC 2.0)

Many years ago,Taeyeon Kim’s “Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society” was my Communist Manifesto of Korean gender relations. It was short, to the point, and instantly melded everything I knew about the subject into a simple, coherent narrative. It didn’t galvanize me into taking up arms against the bourgeoisie exactly, but it did encourage me to study more, ultimately leading to this blog. Take these quick excerpts to see why:

First, from page 99 (references removed; italics in original):

“To understand the Neo-Confucian body, it is essential to understand the concept of ki. A material force which links the body and mind into one system, ki flows through all things, giving them form and vitality….There is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian men were encouraged to let go of ego and become selfless, that is to have no consciousness of an individual and separate self apart from others….Ki was passed from parent to child throughout the generations, acting as a material link between ancestors and descendants….The family composed a unified body through ki, and the identity of the family and self and family was continuous and undifferentiated.”

Then, from page 100 (ditto):

Neo-Confucian scholars considered women to have inferior ki to that of men. This notion continues to be held today. One study of a village in Korea found that women were believed to be inferior to men because they did not carry the life-giving force (ki) that men did. Women were believed to be passive receptacles of the life which men implanted in them; they played no active part in creating life. Such incubation was perhaps the most important role of a woman’s body in Korea. Her body was a vessel through which the male line and ki could be perpetuated. As such, the most important physical traits for a woman were features that revealed her potential to bear children—particularly boys. “During the Yi [Choson] Dynasty, the attribute valued above all others in a prospective bride was her potential capacity to bear sons. Compared to this, her beauty and wealth were secondary.”

Upon reading that, suddenly I saw a Matrix-like ki (기) pervading everything, providing the ideological bedrock to the many, blatantly patriarchal aspects of Korean society. For instance: Koreans’ preference for sons and consequent sex ratio problem (resolved, but with a legacy of an excess of increasingly misogynistic 20-something men); the hoju system (호주제), only abolished in 2008, under which only fathers or husbands could be heads and/or legal representatives of a family; the traditional (and still prevailing) custom of only having men perform jesa (제사), or ancestor worship rights, and usually only at the eldest son’s home; and Korea’s extremely low adoption rates, with 70% of those that are adopted domestically are girls. Indeed, as The Economist explains of that last:

Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons.

Korean Domestic Adoptions 70% girls(Source: Netizenbuzz)

Of course, ultimately I did realize that ki didn’t explain all that much actually. That, alas, Korean gender relations remained a messy subject, and that I still have a lifetime of learning about it ahead of me. But I hadn’t come across anything to challenge Taeyeon Kim’s characterization of the concept either, so I retained my lingering affection for it.

Then I listened to an episode about eunuchs on the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg. That week, it featured Michael Hoeckelmann talking about eunuchs in China, Karen Radner about them in the Assyrian Empire, and Shaun Tougher in the Roman one. Jumping ahead to the sections which made do a double-take (several, in fact, as I’m sure they will to you too):

11:20

Michael Hoeckelmann) Most eunuchs came from the lower strata of society. So, if not the eunuch himself had decided to undergo castration—there are some cases in Chinese history where some eunuchs are known to have castrated themselves—then the decision rested with the family. So families that could not afford the Confucian education that was necessary and required for [a career in officialdom], they would decide to have one of their sons castrated, and to send him into the palace, in the hope that once he rose to a considerable position of power he would help his own family, his own kin.

26:36

Karen Radner) [The eunuchs, unlike] all the other people in Assyria, did not identify themselves with reference to their father’s name. Everyone else was such and such son of such and such, they were not. That’s very important. Also, as we’ve already discussed, a key attraction [for the royal family] is that they cannot father children; that’s hugely important in a society where the existence of the family across generations is one of the key incentives of human life…you achieved eternal life by having children who would invoke your name in regular rituals. Obviously that couldn’t happen with a eunuch…the royal family instead took on that responsibility. One can describe the eunuchs almost as adopted children of the royal family.

Melvyn Bragg)But then what happened in China, as you began to say Michael, the eunuchs began to adopt children in order that these children would do exactly as Karen was saying—have prayers or whatever…ceremonies after their death to keep them alive as their ancestors.

Michael Hoeckelmann) Yes, indeed. And just as Karen was saying, like in ancient Assyria, kinship and family was all important in China…and when eunuchs were castrated they even kept what was formerly attached to their bodies in order to be buried with them (the so-called “Three Treasures”) kept in a jar because they had to show them to regulators at the imperial court. Anyway, so the eunuchs start to adopt children at a very early stage in order to bequeath their property and in order to continue the family line. Because what they had done, or what had been done to them—the castration—was actually a breach of filial piety; they were not able to continue the family line…at least not biologically.

I know what you’re thinking: Ancient China is not Korea. Also, if Taeyeon Kim’s definition of ki has substance to it (and, my youthful naivety aside, there’s still no reason to suppose otherwise), then it’s difficult to believe that it hasn’t very much provided an ideological buttress to various aspects of Korean patriarchy today. And probably in China also, where, among other things, boys command a price twice that of girls in the lucrative trade in kidnapped children.

But, if it turns out that in Korea too, jesa was and/or is more important than continuing ki—indeed, really quite separate and distinct from it—then I’m still left feeling a little chastised that I came to accept something so readily without examining it properly, simply because it provided a handy, scholarly confirmation of my pre-existing views.

But what you’ve also probably thinking is that Taeyeon Kim is just one source. And, although I’ve read more about Neo-Confucianism since then, most recently The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender edited by Li Chenyang (2000), I have to admit I’ve read nothing about ki specifically. So, on that note, let me end this post with not a revelation sorry, but a), if nothing else, a link to a very interesting podcast for you to take away from it; and b), my again posing the question provided in the introduction: what role, if any, do Neo-Confucian notions of ki play in modern Korean patriarchy?

Thanks in advance to any more learned readers than I who can provide any clarification, and/or suggest links or books for further reading. Also, please feel free to raise just about anything (Neo)-Confucianism-related in the comments, including any interesting stories about what your Korean family and/or friends do during Chuseok or Seolnal, and their attitudes towards the notion of women performing jesa. Thanks!

Related Posts:

“Women Are Voting With Their Vaginas”

A Tale of Legendary Libido (Source: HanCinema)

Just a quick quote of mine from Fabian Kretschmer’s article for the German Taz newspaper, about Seoul’s very cool, very inclusive, very female-friendly sex-toy shop Pleasure Lab.

Alas, I wasn’t actually referring to what I hope is (or will be) Pleasure Lab’s great popularity with Seoulites though. Rather, to successive Korea governments’ utter failure at raising the birthrate, primarily due to their ideological inability to regard educated, working women as a) people, and b) men’s equals. But, if you’d rather not be reminded that sex often leads to babies though, and would really, really like to visit Pleasure Lab for yourself, then head over to Taz to read more about it in German, and/or Maxine Builder’s article in English at The Establishment. Please let everyone know in the comments what it’s like too (of course, anonymously if you prefer).

What are you waiting for? There’s still many cold winter nights to go before spring, especially in Seoul! ;)

Update: Just for shits and giggles:

WikiPeaceWomen Celebrates Women’s Contribution to Peace

WikiPeaceWomenI’ve been asked to pass on the following:

WikiPeaceWomen, One Million PeaceWomen Project of PeaceWomen Across the Globe, Celebrates Women’s Contribution to Peace

HONGKONG, March 8, 2016 — For celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the project Thousand PeaceWomen for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005, the PeaceWomen Across the Globe Association (PWAG) based in Bern, Switzerland, launched the WikiPeaceWomen project in October last year. Its goal is to collect one million stories of women who are working for peace from all walks of life, acknowledging their invisible contribution to peace.

The PeaceWomen are working in all fields of human security, conflict resolution, ecological security, environmental justice, health, education, legislation, and others. While their work will be made visible and recognized, their expertise will also be disseminated outside their current spheres of influence, so as to contribute to different levels ranging from the communities to the global. The process of inviting stories of Million PeaceWomen to be written and translated, and of fostering connections, will be a process of re-activation of the interest and commitment of old and new coordinators from different regions of the world, and of connection and reconnection to the 1000 PeaceWomen as well as the thousands of volunteers who have related in various ways to the PWAG project in the last decade.

Women’s groups, educators, youth groups and others are all welcome to be part of this project. You can send your nominations of peacewomen’s stories for uploading to the website which is in multiple languages. For more details, please visit the Swiss website of Peace Women Across the Globe at http://www.1000peacewomen.org/ and the WikiPeaceWomen Website at http://wikipeacewomen.org. If you have any question about the project, please contact us at wiki.peace@gmail.com, or the East Asia secretariat of PWAG: Kwan Fong Cultural Research and Development Programme, Lingnan University.

Update

writing coffee pexels(Source: Pexels)

Just a quick note to say sorry for the unplanned blogging break everyone, and to let you know that it’s almost over. Mainly, it was just because I had a journal article to complete, which turned out to be much more work than expected. Truthfully though, I’ve also been feeling surprisingly angsty about turning 40 next week, not helped by a good friend just leaving Korea, and by a close colleague of mine suddenly dying over the vacation (she sat next to me actually—it’s been painful thinking about her empty desk). So, it’s been difficult to get in the mood for blogging.

But it felt good to make a fresh start with the new semester today. And the combination of splurging on a trip to Seoul to get drunk with said friend last weekend, and seeing my daughters being just plain adorable enjoying the unexpected blizzard, was already more than enough to break me out of my melancholy. Plus, OMG DID I MENTION ALL THE BOOKS I BOUGHT? SQUEEE~ #BOOKGASM #BESTSEOULTRIPEVER

Books, 27.02.16But seriously: I’m back, it feels great, and I’ll have some posts for you next week! :)