Women on the Margin of Chosǒn Korea: Differences, Hierarchy, and Paradoxes

Visiting Scholar Talks

Nov 15, 2023 | 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


JUNG Ji Young | Professor, Women’s Studies, Ewha Womans University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2023-24


Karen Thornber | Harry Tuchman Levin Professor, Literature; Professor, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

Co-sponsored with the Korea Institute

This talk sheds light on the colorful traces of widows (寡婦), concubines (妾), single women (獨女), and Buddhist nuns (女僧) who crossed normative boundaries in Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910). Since the 1960s, two opposing perceptions of Chosǒn women have emerged during the modernization period. On the one hand, some scholars and popular media established the stereotypical image of the passive “Chosǒn woman(李朝女人),” depicting them as “victims” of Confucian oppression. On the other hand, a counter-narrative arose that portrayed these women as “active subjects.” Despite their contrasting positions, both arguments ultimately share the same problem in that they hold a monolithic view of Chosŏn women. Departing from these previous approaches, I offer multilayered readings of the heterogeneous Chosǒn women. I explore how these women were included, excluded, and hierarchized within the dominant discourses of their time, exposing the inherent paradoxes. I raise the following questions: Who are we referring to when we speak of Chosǒn women? In other words, who are encompassed within the category of Chosǒn women? When and why was the image of the specific “Chosǒn woman” invented, and how was it utilized in the process of modernization? By addressing these questions, I aim to deconstruct the entangled gender politics of the developmental state of Korea, which employed the image of the “Chosǒn woman,” and to dismantle the fantasy of female normality that still operates in contemporary perceptions.

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