Gilsang Lee


Academy of Korean Studies

The Entanglement of Nationalism, Colonialism, and Modernity in School Textbooks: The Case of Home Economics Reader by Lee Man-gyu

This study examined a home economics textbook written by Lee Man-gyu, an educator of the colonial period, highly respected in both South and North Korea and occupying a prominent place in the history of Korean education. This study focused on how nationalism and progressiveness, the two main qualities that make up his reputation, express themselves in a school textbook written for girls. The examination of the textbook showed that his views were not always nationalist or progressive. I argued that the reasons for such ambivalence are his partial acceptance of values promoted by the colonial power or compromise with colonialism, on the one hand, and his rigid and reactionary views on gender roles, on the other.

As was the case with his larger premise "what undermines Joseon families undermines Joseon society," it was difficult to see in what way the vision on education Lee expressed in this book differed from the colonial education policy under the so-called policy of assimilation. Exceedingly rare were examples in this book, which may be considered instances of meaningful criticism of or challenge to colonial education. The book is completely silent about colonial oppression or the Korean people's struggle against it, as the discussion is wholly about knowledge and skills needed for a woman to become a good manager of a household. Surprisingly, this book, written by someone who has long been regarded as a progressive figure who never ceased to challenge the colonial rule of Korea by Japan, contains more than mere traces of reconciliation or compromises with colonialism.

The goal of education for women proposed in the education edict by the colonial administration, for example, was to help girls "develop virtues," which basically meant nurturing the traditionally valued submissive qualities of women. But, the ideal of a woman according to Lee, as expressed in Gajeong dokbon, was hardly different from the latter. Lee's views are in agreement with the colonial education policy, in all essential aspects; for both of them, the home is where a woman should be, and household work is the kind of activities that fit women by virtue of their nature. Just as Lee believed that a social existence or professional career was unsuitable for women, the colonial education policy for women did not consider it necessary. The multi-level othernization of women in colonial society by colonial education is a mechanism also present in the educational views that Lee articulates in this book. Meanwhile, the deference to the West, respect for order, and male-centeredness that are pervasive in this book act to further intensify the othernization of women in colonial society.

These findings once again bring to light the limitations in existing ways of understanding the colonial history of Korea, dominated by binary thinking, whether it is imperialist oppression vs. resistance, colonial exploitation vs. economic growth on Korean people's autonomous initiatives or imported foreign culture vs. traditional native culture. On the other hand, they also point to the validity of new approaches proposed in recent years, such as multiple modernities, varieties of modernity, or modernity as a change. There is no way to paint a portrait of colonial Korea--a period during which colonialism, modernity, nationalism, Western influence and traditionalism came together, at times clashing, at other times, intermingling with one another--in black and white. Lee Man-gyu's Gajeong dokbon is precisely a book born out of such a dynamically evolving period, torn between manifold impulses and influences. It follows, finally, that there is no single yardstick that can be used to measure the overall significance of this textbook.