Korea’s Cultural Renaissance, 1920s

At least for Korea’s middle-class intellectuals, the early 1920s marked a time of hope and renewed cultural and political activity…. Renaissance is an apt description of the outpouring of essays, commentary, literature, and political analyses that fueled the reemergence of a Korea press after 1920….

The magnitude of the 1920s publishing boom was enormous in relative terms. The Japanese had issued permits for only forty magazines and journals during the entire 1910–1920 period, but in 1920 alone, they granted permits to 409 different magazines and journals, not to mention the coveted “current events” (sisa) permits to two daily newspapers, the East Asia Daily and the Korea Daily (Chosŏn ilbo), and almost half a dozen politically oriented journals. In 1910 the combined circulation of Korean daily papers and important journals probably did not exceed 15,000; by 1929 the circulation of the two Korean newspapers alone had increased tenfold to 103,027. The sisa permit allowed discussion not only of current events, but also of political and social commentary. Moreover, no cumbersome change in the legal system that governed publishing had been necessary. Suddenly permits that for the most part had been denied Koreans for a decade were forthcoming. There was no lag between policy and practice, and given the youth and energy of the new publishers—the founder of the East Asia Daily, Kim Sŏngsu, was only thirty and his reporters were in their twenties—new publications hit the streets weekly in the early years of the 1920s.

In the early 1920s the new publications were poorly financed; there was plenty of patriotic enthusiasm but little business sense. With journals it did not matter; the goal was to get ideas and plans into the open for discussion. Many of the political journals were supported by donations, and they almost always lost money. The newspapers did not make money for several years, but they were sustained by investors’ patriotic fervor. By the mid-1920s, however, increasing advertising revenues (ironically from Japanese commercial sources) brought them into the black, and by the early 1930s each was publishing successful entertainment monthlies aimed at segmented audiences such as youth, women, sports fans, and children. Publishing was becoming a profitable business that competed with other enterprises for a share of the expanding market for entertainment. This called forth lamentations from political activists, who decried the commercialization of the press and the corresponding enervation of its political commitment….

Perhaps even more startling than the outpouring of publishing after the Cultural Policy thaw was the mushrooming of organizations of all types. In 1920 there 985 organizations of all types registered with the Colonial Police. These were local youth groups, religious organizations, educational and academic societies, and social clubs. Two years later this number had swelled to almost 6,000. These included occupational groups, tenant and labor associations, savings and purchasing cooperatives, temperance unions, health and recreational clubs, and groups clustered by Japanese statisticians into a vague category called “self-improvement.” The Cultural Policy clearly set loose an enormous pent-up demand for associational life in the colony. And while most groups restricted their activities to politically innocuous social, enlightenment, or self-help projects, even a cursory glance at their charters reveals that many linked their goals to national self-strengthening. There were, however, many groups who forsook nationalism altogether in order to promote social reform among Koreans themselves, most notably, early feminist groups and the movement to eliminate discrimination against the traditionally low-status paekchŏng [comparable to Japan’s outcaste burakumin]. In the short term the Japanese chose to ignore the potential for nationalist mischief that these organizations represented, but they were very keen to monitor and selectively suppress what they saw as class-based—and therefore more dangerous—tenant and labor organizations….

Another important feature of the organizational boom was the increasing participation of women in public life. Women’s clubs and educational associations had appeared on the heels of the Independence Club’s activities in the late 1890s. Thereafter aristocratic and middle-class women took the lead to establish schools for women and to reform oppressive customs such as child-marriages and the prohibition of widow remarriage (some of these customs had been outlawed already by the Kabo social legislation of 1894–1895). Before annexation, women in the Christian churches had formed groups around a number of social reform issues. Soon the number of patriotic women’s associations (aeguk puinhoe) burgeoned, and they played an important role in the largest private campaign mounted in Korea before annexation—the National Debt Repayment Movement. After March First [1919] the term “new woman” (sinyŏsŏng) became standard usage in the press to describe modern, educated women who had become a very visible part of public life. By the 1920s more radical demands for a true liberation of women emerged in Korea’s first avowedly feminist journals, Kim Wŏnju’s New Woman (Sin yŏsŏng) and Na Hyesŏk’s Women’s World (Yŏjagye). In these publications women’s issues were not justified by merging them with the agenda of national self-strengthening. Instead, for the first time, Na and Kim directly confronted the inequity and oppression of Korean patriarchy. Radical feminism, however, was ultimately marginalized, while the less confrontational agenda of Christian-dominated, reformist women’s groups found favor within the male-led nationalist movement.

SOURCE: Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History, by Michael E. Robinson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2007), pp. 56-61


Filed under Japan, Korea, publishing

2 responses to “Korea’s Cultural Renaissance, 1920s

  1. Pingback: Korea’s Easter Uprising: the March 1 Independence Movement

  2. John Park

    Excellent article!! I would like to learn more about Korean women in 1920’s and 1930’s particularly in the rural areas. j. park

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