The New (Korean) Woman: From Many Lovers to Nun

Andrei Lankov has an article in the 7 January issue of The Korea Times on The Dawn of Modern Korea: The New Woman, in which he profiles the prominent pioneering Korean journalist and writer Kim Won-ju, better known under her Buddhist sobriquet of Kim Il-yop [Iryôp ‘One Leaf’].

She was born in 1896 in what is now North Korea. In spite of her later Buddhist career, she came from a Christian family–like almost all Korean women who received a modern education in the early 1900s. Kim Il-yop studied at a local missionary school and then continued her education at Ewha College–the predecessor of the present-day Ewha Womans University, and a place where a girl could receive the best education available in Korea.

Her parents had a happy marriage, but for years they were plagued by the absence of male heirs. In old Korea this was seen as a disaster. Only when Kim was 14 year old did her mother gave birth to a son. Tragically her mother died the following day, and her infant brother soon after. The death of beloved wife and a much-expected son inflicted a heavy blow on Kim’s father, and he also died soon afterwards.

All these tragedies made Kim sceptical about Christianity. She began to wonder whether Buddhism, with its conception of life as tragedy and suffering, was not closer to the ultimate truth. However, Kim was too young and ambitious to entertain these doubts for long.

After her graduation from Ewha, Kim moved to Japan to continue her education. Her stay in Japan was marked by a stormy love affair with a young Japanese, Oda Seijo. The lovers were going to marry, but both families strongly opposed the match. Neither Koreans nor Japanese looked favorably on mixed marriages (indeed, such unions were surprisingly few). Nonetheless, Kim had a child by Oda. Her son grew up apart and had little interaction with his mother. Eventually he became a famous painter and in his old age retired to a Buddhist monastery–like his mother few decades earlier.

In March 1920, Kim (by that time married) founded the first Korean women’s magazine. It had the telling title of Sinyoja–The New Woman. The year of 1920 was the year when modern Korean journalism was born. The mass uprising of 1919 made the Japanese authorities change their policy in the colony, they allowed the Koreans much more political and cultural freedom. One of the results was the boom in the number of periodicals.

The New Woman was not only the first Korean periodical for a female audience–even if this was revolutionary enough. It was also the first periodical to be edited and published almost exclusively by women. Kim was assisted by a number of early Korean feminists, collectively known as ‘new women.’ Her collaborators included the painter Na Hye-sok and the educator Pak In-dok. Mrs. Billings, an American missionary then residing in Seoul, handled the general management….

The New Woman gave voice to the rising group of Korean women who had a modern education and who did not want to abide by the age-old rules of life. They were rebelling against old conventions, and Kim was one of the most vocal members of this small but prominent group. She wrote a number of articles, poems, and novels in which she advocated women’s freedoms such as access to education and equality before the law. However, her forte was the freedom of love. Kim treated the topic with greater radicalism than most other ‘new women.’ The majority understood ‘free love’ as the right to choose one’s husband, while Kim’s understanding of the concept was much closer to the ideas of the 1960s’ sexual revolution.

Kim lived up to her declarations. The late 1920s were marked by a string of affairs with a number of her famous contemporaries. Among others, the list of Kim’s lovers included Yi Kwang-su, the founding father of modern Korean literature.

Even her interest in Buddhism was greatly stimulated by a love affair–this time with a devoted Buddhist. In the early 1930s, Kim was ordained as a nun and spent most of her long life (she died in 1971) behind the walls of a Buddhist temple.

For more (in English) on Kim Wônju, see Yung-Hee Kim, “A Critique on Traditional Korean Family Institutions: Kim Wônju’s ‘Death of a Girl’,” Korean Studies 23 (1999):24-42

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