2019 Korean Literature Essay Contest winning essays

Contemporary Visions of the New Woman in Korean Literature

By Mikayla George, junior, Media

The concept of the “new woman” arose as a phenomenon in the early 20th century, emerging in Korea during the Japanese colonial period. This archetype was defined by a romanticism of the female as the most marginalized member of society, who could gain agency through modernization. In the Korean context, the new woman was associated with Westernization and modernity, and over time became ostracized and thought of as a negative consequence of modernity (Kim, 52). In contemporary Korean literature such as The Vegetarian by Han Kang, the colonial new woman archetype manifests in an individual whose disregard of traditional values leads to destructive consequences. Yeong-hye from The Vegetarian embodies the new woman through her subversion of traditional gender expectations and her struggle for bodily autonomy which culminates in a moment of transcendence of societal norms.

In The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye’s subversions of gender norms are simultaneously fetishized and criticized, which echoes the treatment of new women during the colonial period. During the pivotal family dinner scene in Part I of the novel, Yeong-hye’s father forces a piece of meat into her mouth after slapping her and yelling at her repeatedly (Han 48). This moment of violence embodies not only her family and father’s disapproval of her transgression, but also the specific disapproval of her actions from men, and thus patriarchal society as a whole. This is represented through her father telling Yeong-hye’s husband and brother to hold her still when he force feeds her (Han 46). The only man in the scene who doesn’t participate in this act of violence is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who carries her to the car after she slits her wrist (Han 48). Instead of enacting violence on her in this moment like the other men, he commits the act of fetishization of her transgression in Part 2 of the novel. His obsession with her Mongolian mark represents how he fixates on her difference as an object of arousal, illustrated through the scene where he masturbates to the thought of Yeong-hye in the shower, “...remembering how it felt to carry her on his back, her body pressed up against his and staining his clothes with her blood, the feel of her chest and buttocks, imagined himself pulling down her trousers just enough to reveal the blue brand of the Mongolian mark” (Han 73). The brother-in-law’s sexual attraction to Yeong-hye directly relates to the specific moment when Yeong-hye refused to comply with societal norms. This combined with another mark of her difference—her Mongolian mark—are what the brother-in-law is drawn to. Rather than genuinely seeing her as an individual searching for her own freedom from society’s constraints, he fetishizes how different she is from normal women in his life. He turns her attempt at self-discovery into his own sexual fantasy. Her embodiment of the new woman is not about her own feelings, but is attractive to him because he sees it as inherently perverse.

Yeong-hye’s decision to abandon the societal norm of eating meat also becomes synonymous with her abandonment of gender norms related to men’s expectation of women’s bodies. As she stopped eating meat, “She grew thinner by the day, so much so that her cheekbones had really become indecently prominent. Without makeup, her complexion resembled that of a hospital patient” (Han 23). For Yeong-hye, the focus on her body as a site of transgression is a product of how her identity is constantly constructed by outside forces. This identity construction is best represented in the scene of her husband speaking over her at the company dinner, making up a reason for her vegetarianism (Han 34). In this instance, he deprives Yeong-hye of her own vegetarian identity, and constructs a new one which is more acceptable to society broadly. This constant intrusion into Young-hye’s journey of self-discovery causes her to retreat to her physical form as a place to find control and agency over her own identity construction.

For Young-hye the embodiment of the new woman trope culminates in her eventual enlightenment and transcendence of societal norms and authority. This happens in Part 3 of the novel, when she begins to abandon her human form entirely and retreats into the primitive world of nature. Her desire to escape humanity and embody the energy of a plant is showcased when she says to In-hye, “I’m not an animal anymore, sister. I don’t need to eat, not now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight” (Han 159). Yeong-hye’s fervent obsession with discarding her humanity is conveyed through language that is ethereal and dreamlike, reflecting a spiritual transcendence. She explains one of her dreams to In-hye, saying, “...I was standing on my head...leaves were growing from my body, and roots sprouting from my hands...so I dug down into the earth. On and on...I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, so I spread my legs; I spread them wide...” (Han 154). Rather than transcending society’s constraints by answering to a divine force, Yeong-hye wishes to abandon society by transcending humanity by regressing to the primal state of a plant. Yeong-hye’s journey of self-discovery ends ambiguously, with the reader left to assume that she has died. The last paragraph of the novel illustrates this, narrating In-hye’s actions: “Quietly, she breathes in. The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage. In-hye stares fiercely at the trees. As if waiting for an answer. As if protesting against something. The look in her eyes is dark and insistent,” (Han 188). In-hye seems to protest against the world that destroyed her sister with its rules of conformity. The comparison of the trees to animals hints that Yeong-hye reached that point of assimilation with nature in the end. Yeong-hye’s rebirth must come in the form of her earthly body’s death, and her spirit’s melding with nature. For her, the journey of becoming a new woman must end with her complete autonomy over her body, even if it means destroying it.

Examination of Young-hye’s character reveals that the price of subverting societal norms—especially those related to gender—is the complete annihilation of oneself. Yeong-hye’s autonomy was under such attack that she had to revert to something pre-human in order to obtain agency over herself. Through her character, the struggle of the new woman’s journey to assert herself in a patriarchal society is illustrated. Comparing the colonial archetype of the new woman with a contemporary incarnation reveals that the modern Korean woman’s path to personal freedom has perhaps become even more complicated and fraught with violence; a violence that is less explicit but just as corrosive and destructive as the violence the new woman experienced in the colonial period.

Works Cited

Han, Kang. The Vegetarian. Translated by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Yung-Hee, Kim. “Analysis of Kyonghui.”Questioning Minds: Short Stories by Modern Korean

Women Writers. Ed. Yung-Hee, Kim. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010. 51-54. Project MUSE

The Power of Dehumanization

By Veronica Coffey, sophomore, East Asian Languages and Cultures and International Studies

Dehumanization is a complex and common phenomenon used in literature as a means of justifying prejudice and abuse towards another human being. Furthermore, this literary device is used to enforce injustices onto a group of people that usually represent a particular gender, race, or sexual orientation in an unfavorable light by portraying them as inferior and sub-human.

While this mechanism primarily operates to cast negative characteristics and stereotypes onto those viewed as wild and savage, Han Kang flips the narrative by describing the heroine, a woman who transforms from a human to a mere being of nature, as peaceful and natural, while the humans are depicted as callous and barbaric. Historically, women have been dehumanized by men in patriarchal societies for them to be portrayed as sexual objects, which leads to sexual abuse and oppression among women. However, in Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, she critiques this trope by using dehumanization as an instrument for which the protagonist, Yeong-hye, can achieve complete liberation from social constraints and expectations in a male-dominated society by abandoning her man-made world for one created by her and nature.

Kang emphasizes that humans, particularly men, constantly prioritize themselves and have a widely held belief that they are superior, therefore allowing them to do as they please to women and other animals. Yeong-hye begins to recognize the faults within this patriarchal system and identifies with the natural world that lacks this pretentious societal classification and oppression. Young-Hye recognizes that, as a woman in a patriarchal society, she is being treated as second-rate and inhuman. She learns to recognize that the human race, particularly men, have no more significance in this world than plants and animals. She chooses to become vegetarian primarily because she realizes that animals are just as essential and complex as humans, and she no longer needs to identify as a human. The only way for her to escape from being domesticated and controlled by the men in her life is to disassociate herself from society and transform into a wild part of the natural world where she can be free of those societal constraints.

Yeong-hye’s first rejection of human norms occurred at the family gathering at the beginning of the novel. After becoming shocked and outraged at her daughter’s defiance by refusing to consume meat, her father angrily forced pork down her throat. Kang writes that “a moaning sound came from Yeong-hye’s tightly closed mouth... Though In-hye sprang at (their father) and held him by the waist, in the instant that the force of the slap had knocked Yeong- hye’s mouth open he’d managed to jam the pork in. As soon as the strength in her arms was visibly exhausted, she growled and spat out the meat. An animal cry of distress burst from her lips ” (Kang, 47-48). Kang uses this dynamic scene to portray the people as carnal and savage beasts with no respect for the rights of others. Kang also uses specific animalistic imagery such as “moan,” “growl,” and “cry” to portray Yeong-hye as a wild animal. Here, the most “humane” being was, in fact, Yeong-hye, even though the imagery allowed her to be dehumanized as an innocent helpless animal. While her family begins the process of dehumanizing her by treating her like a domesticated pet, Yeong-hye takes this opportunity to become her own being, someone who is wild and cannot be controlled. Her agency reclaimed the authority and agency from the men in her life and forced them to recognize her sly strength and determination to become her own being.

Her wild nature continues to manifest throughout the story, allowing her to transform herself from a passive woman to a resilient individual. Yeong-hye, tired of being domesticated by the men and women in her life, has chosen to disassociate herself from the realm of humans and begins her earthly transformation during this scene. In society, women are not allowed to be savage, as they are typically not associated with the savage acts humans commit, such as war and rape. When Yeong-hye wildly growls at her parents, she rejects the feminine and elegant characteristics she should have embodied as a woman. However, the world has been manipulating Yeong-hye her whole life, and until her decision to become a vegetarian, she had been living for others as a domesticated housewife. By choosing to reconnect with nature, no one could be her owner, and no one could domesticate her again.

Not only Yeong-hye, but her brother-in-law, the artist, came to view her as an unearthly power and masterpiece. While before her transformation, he simply objectified her body, he truly came to believe she had transformed into an almost celestial being. “Whether human, animal, or plant, she could not be called a ‘person,’ but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either- more like a mysterious being with qualities of both” (Kang, 95). Kang uses an outsider’s voice to reassert and emphasize that Yeong-hye’s transformation is not simply a delusion, but visible to others as well. Through the use of natural imagery, he discovers her newfound strength in her primitive identity, as she draws her power from nature. The artist also notes that “she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary” (Kang, 71). His references to her fortitude and energy derived from nature proves Yeong-hye’s body has evolved into a beauty and mystique of nature.

After Yeong-hye is hospitalized and seriously ill, her sister, In-hye, recalls Yeong-hye and her husbands’ bodies when she caught them cheating. “She recalls the sight of those two naked bodies, twined together like jungle creepers... covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movement of the bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human” (Kang, 184). This further reasserts that her sister also notices the metamorphosis occurring and Young-hye's increasing lack of human qualities. While she dehumanizes her sister, she is still oddly illustrating Yeong-hye in an affirming way. Later at the hospital, Yeong-hye claims she only needs sunlight to live and completes her transformation when she becomes apart of nature and can no longer speak. For the readers, many can assume she became lost, but in reality, she has achieved what she desired; she has attained true peace by joining the natural world, a place in which her oppression cannot exist. To Yeong-hye, she has detached the human identity from herself and reclaimed her agency by determining her own identity.

Han Kang critiques human, and men’s, superiority complex in which they have the widely held belief they are more complex and moral beings compared to the other savage animals. The author highlights the savage nature of human beings through the subject of sexism in which the protagonist deals with sexual oppression throughout her life. Through the abusive experiences with her husband, Mr. Cheong, and her family, Yeong-hye begins to see the fraudulence in this universal human belief that humans are above animals and inherently more pure and merciful. She begins to perceive humans as more savage and relies on her bond with nature to protect her. By creating a new identity influenced by her natural environment, she was able to stray away from the confines of the inhumanity of humanity. She views becoming a non- human as a beautiful concept, one in which gender is irrelevant, and only nature, not men, is in charge.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian as a Confucian Critique

By Toby Huter, sophomore, East Asian Languages and Cultures and International Studies

Confucianism has been an integral piece of Korean culture for centuries. It has been seen as a facet of governing systems of multiple eras, but particularly came to power during the Joseon period. Even as South Korea has developed and become more visible in the international system, Confucian principles are still evident in Korean society. Through the Joseon governing system, Japanese colonization, and the Korean War, Confucianism has long been an ever-present - though fading - part of Korean identity.

Modern Confucianism highlights a collective society, the need for conformity, and an unwavering sense of loyalty to one’s family. However, with the rise of globalization, younger generations of Koreans are beginning to struggle with the philosophy and have developed more individualistic views. However, even with new ideas, acting against a system that has been in place for hundreds - if not thousands - of years has proven to have negative societal repercussions. In some ways, it can be argued Korean society is not yet prepared to be a nation of individualists and has chosen instead to continue as a collective-based society. In Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, the protagonist’s dilemma can be seen as a struggle against Confucian ideology. Each character group provides an example of how different realms of Korean culture would react to such a revolution, eventually making the argument that the country is not yet ready for a social reform.

Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, is meant to capture the Korean attitude towards those who try to break free of traditional social conventions and go against the collective group. The first chapter of the book is told through the eyes of the protagonist’s husband, Mr. Cheong. With the first person narrative, the author shows Mr. Cheong’s thoughts to be condescending towards his wife, Yeonghye. His tone of belittlement shows his own insecurities and lack of interest in his marriage. Yeonghye is never good enough for him, and everything she does either embarrasses or infuriates him. It is evident he has no real affection for her, and she serves only to keep him fed and cared for. In Confucian society, the wife is obligated to look after her husband and ensure his needs are met while expecting nothing in return. Her refusal to heed his words on the day she decides to not eat meat infuriates him, and is her first sign of resistance to the system. She stubbornly insists on cooking only vegetables, but continues to feed her husband. Even though he is kept well fed, since it is not the kind of food he asked for, Mr. Cheong is furious that he cannot control his wife’s actions. This anger can be interpreted as fear as Yeonghye gains strength in her voice and holds true to her decision. In Korean society, Mr. Cheong represents traditionalists who believe anyone who is outside what has always been done, such as the role of the obedient wife, is outside societal bounds and needs to be brought under control. This group refuses to accept change and oppresses those who embrace different ideas.

Yeonghye’s family represents a traditional Korean family. In Confucian society, the familial unit is the central element, and absolute loyalty is expected. Parents never stop seeing their offspring as children, and treat them as such, no matter what age they reach. The family is representative in taking care of their children in how they promise Mr. Cheong they will handle the behavior of their grown daughter. They speak about Yeonghye as if she is a petulant child, and not someone who should be taken seriously. The father’s attempt to force Yeonghye to eat meat symbolizes societal forces, particularly the patriarchy, physically compelling her to conform and swear loyalty to her family and husband. Spitting the meat out is symbolic of her refusal and her attempt to take her life by slicing her wrist shows her disconnect with the Confucian ideology by literally cutting herself off from her bloodline. The physical way Kang describes Yeonghye’s blood allows for it to embody the symbol of ‘family’ or ‘bloodline.’ Its spilling or separation from Yeonghye’s body shows the shedding of her family ties or connection to a Confucian familial structure.

In modern Korean society, there are groups who notice those who struggle against the patriarchal rule of Confucian ideology, find it interesting, and look at it though a patronizing lense. This group is represented by Yeonghye’s brother-in-law. His attraction to Yeonghye’s Mongolian Mark can show his insistence on seeing her as a child, or as someone not to be taken seriously. He also heavily objectifies her as a piece of art, emphasizing his view of the movement as something beautiful and interesting but not to be considered in earnest. Even the way he captures this art, showing her body through a moving camera but never having her speak, shows him capturing only the visuals of her resistance. Taking what is physically beautiful shows a ‘seen but not heard’ mindset, and delegitimizes the cause. Only viewing her appearance while disregarding what her actions might be caused by proves an interest from this group only in the aesthetic of the phenomenon not in the actual revolution. This group rejects the movement by discrediting the cause and objectifying those who fight for it.

The only person who really seems to understand Yeonghye’s intentions is her sister, Inhye. Inhye represents the parties oppressed through Confucianism, particularly women, who sympathize with the separation from society, but do not see themselves being personally able to break out of the mold. In the beginning of the novel, the audience is led to believe that Inhye sees Yeonghye as ill and misinformed, but as the story progresses, it is revealed that Inhye also considered breaking free through taking her own life. Inhye is Kang’s way of showing the true role of Korean women. No matter how much they may notice the faults of the system, they are stuck in a cruel Sisyphean cycle. Even Inhye’s rebellion of ending her marriage causes her tremendous social and personal suffering, and adds to her severe depression. The sisters’ struggle can show the helplessness oppressed parties feel and the extremes to which they are bound to the rigidly set regulations implemented by a Confucian society.

Yeonghye’s spiral to insanity and eventual death shows the Confucian social structure of Korea is too solidly implemented to be resisted and proves its ability to crush those who attempt to go against it. Han Kang is arguing that the bonds holding the patriarchy and other Confucian principles to Korea are too strong to be broken, and anyone who moves otherwise will be destroyed in the attempt. Each character demonstrates this point from Yeonghye’s husband’s patronizing orders, her family’s force fed loyalty, her brother-in-law’s belittling gaze, to finally her sister’s sympathy. The dominant forces at play in Korean society are disproportionate to the resistance in a way that squashes and delegitimizes any attempt for freedom.

Veganism over Humanity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and the Flaws in Our Society

By Ria Talukder, sophomore, International Business

When I initially set out to purchase The Vegetarian, I believed I had the entirety of its story figured out before I even read one word. I envisioned a novella making a thinly veiled argument for animal rights shielded underneath the story of a young woman choosing to forgo meat in her daily diet. Paragraphs about the beauty of the natural earth, monologues about reverence for animals, perhaps even a scene where she sheds her humanity and ‘gives in’ to the more intrinsic animal side of her (for the sake of symbolism, of course); these were all things I expected before reading Han Kang’s debut English novel. Now, 188 pages later, I can say that The Vegetarian has very little to do with not eating meat; rather, I think the novel makes a poignant argument on the treatment of women in our society, using Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism as a vehicle of her choosing to reject the flaws of humanity and finally owning her personal truth.

Prior to her switch to vegetarianism, Han Kang briefly provides us with the context of Yeong-Hye through her husband’s eyes. “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable,” he says, remarking how her placid nature and service to him defines her entire usefulness. As she decides to not eat meat and continues to assert her values, the novel then slips into her brother in law’s point of view. Here we see a different perspective, privy to her brother in law’s darkest desires like how his “skin [grew] heated every time he called to mind her absentminded expression... her half-naked legs, her disheveled hair”. When she finally succumbs to her health issues and moves to the hospital, Kang finally provides us with her sister In-Hye’s objective. In-Hye too, like the others, cannot understand, wondering if Yeong-hye knows “what [is she] doing? [does she] want to die. [does] she really want to die?” All three of these gazes feel like viewing Yeong-Hye at an exhibit, completely victim to the self-serving opinions of everyone around her. Her husband’s view turns her into little more than an object. Her brother in law’s view elevates her to the measly pedestal of a sex toy to please himself. Even through her sister’s view, she is little more than a body pitifully tortured to behave the way everyone expects her to. Yeong-Hye is only given a chance to fully explain herself through her dreams, the singular instance in which we see the world through the main character’s point of view. This choice effectively emphasizes just how misunderstood and demanding people are towards a woman and her body- three different people dictate three different purposes for the same woman, Yeong-Hye. None of them consider what she truly desires, that her vegetarianism serves one purpose only- to fulfill herself. Kang shows us this complete disregard for Yeong- Hye’s own desires in a particularly cruel scene where her father forces meat into her mouth while the rest of her family watches in silence, and she slashes her wrist with a knife. Rather than face the pain they have caused her, Kang instead shows us instances of her husband overcome with “an intense feeling of disgust” towards Yeong-Hye for having the audacity to have such intense emotion. Weaving through these alternative gazes, therefore, shows us the variety of ways Yeong-Hye’s body and mind were treated with violence and disrespect.

My interpretation, therefore, lead me to view Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism as a rejection of humanity’s affinity for a lifestyle that was inherently violent. If it was simply about ‘saving the animals,’ Kang would have had Yeong-hye’s choices end at zero-consumption of meat. This is not the case- as time goes on, Yeong-hye becomes more and more plant like, choosing to not waste her words, meditating to imitate the form of a tree, consuming little to no food. Becoming vegan, losing weight, rejecting basic human needs, Yeong-hye defies her original role expected of most women whose sole purpose is to provide for their husband. But these actions go beyond her simply ‘sticking it to the patriarchy’- I don’t believe Kang intended Yeong-hye to intentionally commit all these acts as a performative piece for feminism. Her actions go beyond this notion. Sitting by the fountain and baring her breasts to the sun, being overcome with arousal only when her body is painted with flowers, meditating amongst the trees as if she is one of them, and refusing to eat as if she could somehow replicate photosynthesis; Yeong-Hye isn’t rejecting simple gender norms. Yeong-Hye is rejecting the violence of humanity. Her brother in laws reaction to her naked body perfectly shows this, as he notes how her body was ‘conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated... what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.” Her choice to be plant-like finally allows her to define her body in her own terms. Now, it is not a sexual object as society would view it. She had ‘renounced’ that very life. Perfectly encapsulated in her gory dreams filled with bloodshed and human greed, Yeong-Hye views humans as selfish, indulgent, murderous and evil, and meat simply symbolizes how much pain humanity is willing to cause just to serve themselves. Early on, her husband seemed to have treated her as barely anything more than a plant. By choosing to actually become more plant like herself, Yeong-Hye stands up for herself and against the society she denies that men like her husband subscribe to.

Overall, I completed this novel and left feeling reflective. Yeong-Hye’s journey towards seemingly ‘nirvana’ had been violent, painful, and often times hopeless. She herself seemed to becoming nothing more than a shell, with her poor and unbalanced diet; yet it seemed that I hadn’t followed her through a story of destruction, but rather one of self actualization. Yeong Hye sheds her societal expectations, finally allowing her true thoughts to surface, her, “intolerable loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing [she’s] always tried to mask with affection. But now the mask is coming off.” Kang’s shifting gazes and graphic transformation from human to ‘plant’ told me a necessary story about the suffering women, specifically us Asian women, face at the hand of our societies, and how we can take back what humanity robs us of: by letting the mask come off, and shedding our compliance.