Korean (Gender) Studies at ASPAC

In spite of the lovely Korean Studies Center which headquartered the conference, ASPAC 2007 didn’t have a lot of Korean content. In fact, with the exception of one paper on a mixed panel, I think I saw it all.

AAS President-Elect Robert Buswell gave the keynote address at the banquet on Saturday night, speaking on “Korean Buddhist Journeys to Lands Real and Imagined.” Though it was a bit long and specialized for an after-dinner discourse, I found it thought-provoking. I didn’t however, take notes, so you’ll have to wait for the paper (I’m sure there’s a paper in the works) to get the details. I was struck by a few thoughts, though.

  • Given the frequency of Korean Buddhist travel as far as India, and the ease with which they navigated China in particular, I think we need to reconsider travel in Asian history. It’s clearly more of a norm than an exception, at least for certain categories of people. That means a great deal more integration among elites, more awareness of neighboring (and even distant) cultures than our traditional national-limited cultural histories suggest. It also means that western travellers like Marco Polo need to be considered a very small part of a much larger travelling and writing public; yes, I’m reconsidering Marco Polo, somewhat, because narratives like the ones Buswell described put his journies into a much more plausible context.
  • The “imagined” travelogues to legendary and/or allegorical lands constitute a rich fantastical literature which ought to be considered in comparison with work like The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The next morning I went to the “History, Identity and Modernity in Korea” panel. Except for Jong Myung Kim’s chronicle of Buddhist Daily Ritual manuals1 all of the papers were about gender in Korean society, and the combination was quite substantial.

Chizuko Allen’s “Early Korean Women Seen in Royal Successions of Silla” was a classic feminist re-reading of genealogy, stripping away the patriarchal distortions of Silla history contained in the later Samguk sagi and Samguk Yusa chronicles. Rather than arguing for a matrilineal system, for which the evidence is weak, Allen was arguing for a cognatic system in which households, rather than lineages, controlled power and inheritance.2 That was supported by tomb evidence of co-rulership, as well as by the Japanese example of Himiko3, and the general rule, as Allen stated it, that women’s positions are better off the farther back you go. The Koguryo state had a stronger patrilineal system from earlier, and the rise of military affairs, iron/oxen rice agriculture and, of course, Chinese influence, produced a shift to patriliny in Silla as well.

Jee-Yeon Song’s “I am Mrs. Nobody: Korean Women’s Marriage Denial through Catholicism in the Early 19th Century” qualified as the most unfamiliar material for me, and would be a fantastic case study for history of gender or religion students, in addition to Asian history. The key conflict here (and I could really see a great movie coming out of this, too) was between the women who kept the Catholic faith and even proselytized after the Rites controversy and Jinsan prohibition (1791) and Korea’s neo-confucian society and family system which abhored spinsterhood. Apparently Korean Catholic women believed that virginity was a better state for Christian faith, and that marriage diluted devotion, so they used a variety of techniques — including coded pseudonyms, the source of the paper title — to convince people that they already were married or were widows. This went well beyond the neo-Confucian and Buddhist emphasis on chastity and sexual regulation because it effectively removed the women from the “three obediences” and the ancestral cult. Song described it as the first collective resistance by women to neo-Confucian social norms. Part of the problem was that the Catholic model of marriage was fundamentally different — no concubinage or ancestral rituals, but remarriage and spinsterhood were permitted — so that it would have been hard for these women to fit into the traditional family structure anyway. Starting in the 1850s, French missionaries began pressuring Korean Catholic marriage resisters to abandon their positions, threatening excommunication for women who refused to be married. There seem to be two things at work here: reclaiming the proselytizing initiative for the missionaries instead of the natives, and the lack of ability of the missionaries to protect the women from social pressures.4 Part of what made this topic interesting is the way in which the cloistered household arrangements in upper-class society made propogation of the faith in secret a possibility (and no, I don’t understand why the missionaries would give that up, except if they wanted more control).

Finally, Yunmi Won’s paper on “Changing Foodways of Korean Middle-class Women” talked about the “excessive and impulsive consumption” in the globalization process, and the growing gaps in consumption patterns by class, age, and gender. Western style foods — including westernized versions of “oriental” cuisines — are rapidly gaining popularity and market share in Korea, particularly among middle class women. This echoes rising interest in Western-style clothing and architecture/interior design among this group as well, both of which were used as tools for marketing the Western foods; children and “romance” were also key features of marketing to women.5 Whereas women’s consumption is trending towards western sophistication, men’s consumption emphasizes traditional “as mother used to make” food styles. I was also struck by her discussion of restaurants as a kind of “private sphere” for women, because they see the home as their locus of work, which is associated with a public sphere. Coffeehouses were particularly important in this social formation, and even Starbucks in Korea has shifted to a café model instead of a takeout model6 Women who abjure the modern line now have their own term: “bean paste girls.”
This divide has, predictably, sparked considerable anxiety in social commentaries, which is mixed up with discussions of South Korea’s rising rates of divorce and “never marrieds,” and declining birth rates.7

If you’re only going to have one panel on a country, you could do a lot worse than a panel which covers a thousand years of gender history.

  1. they’ve changed, both in sutra and mantra selection and procedure, and certain sects have been more influential than others. If there was a deeper thesis in there, I missed it, but it was Sunday morning  

  2. I started to doubt, during the presentation, that royal households are a good example of social norms: aristocracies tend to bend norms where necessary to preserve their power, and often show inconsistencies which are not echoed in “normal” society  

  3. co-ruler with her brother, followed by another co-ruler generation  

  4. I asked whether it was part of the social compromise the French Catholics might have made in order to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the patriarchal Korean ruling class, but Song didn’t seem to think that was a likely argument.  

  5. Won showed a video of an L-G Card commercial in which cuisine and couture were vividly blended, and a pizza commercial featuring a “secret garden” atmosphere with high-fashion clothes, and the immortal tag line “How do men live without pizza?”  

  6. I think it’s time for a full-bore multinational anthropological treatment of Starbucks along the lines of Golden Arches East, don’t you? Also of Pizza Hut, which I’m pretty sure is in the major Asian markets at this point.  

  7. all of these are predictable results of rising education levels and economic independence for women, especially if you know anything about the Japanese case. The anxiety and pointless public fulmination are also entirely predictable.  


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