Hyaeweol Choi


Australian National University

In Search of Knowledge and Selfhood: Korean Women Studying Overseas in Colonial Korea

Girl students (yŏhaksaeng) took center stage in the discourse on modern womanhood in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Korea. They symbolized modernity, representing the new era of culture and society. The public was especially fascinated by a small group of women who ventured into Japan, China, Europe, and the United States for advanced study; at the same time, these young women caused great anxiety about the new and the modern. The paper explores the dynamic flow of ideas and images of Korean women students overseas that constituted an important part of gender politics at the intersection of modernity, nationalism, and colonialism. It examines first the institutional mechanisms that enabled students to go overseas; second, the sociocultural content of the encounters abroad; and finally, the interpretation and appropriation of the foreign modern that these students undertook in putting forward a new vision for modern woman within the particular historical context of Korea. Drawing on the life stories of individual women and the multifaceted ideas and images of women as students and travelers that were presented in the popular print media, the article argues that women's transnational encounters complicated the sensational portrayal of New Woman (sin yŏsŏng), which had been led by male-dominated print media. It further argues that the discourse of those women with transnational experiences served to challenge and sometimes reinforce the patriarchal gender relations in modern Korea.