Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012

Expanded Spaces and New Relations:
The Evolution of New Women in East Asia

Karen J. Leong

  1. As scholars have demonstrated, the New Woman and her more consumer-minded counterpart, the Modern Girl, were global yet specific phenomena who emerged from the height of industrialisation, mass production, and communication technologies. A rich body of scholarship demonstrates that the 'New Woman' constituted a response to existing social hierarchies of class, patriarchy and the accompanying ideologies of 'public space' as gendered space—these ideologies themselves informed by local economies and cultures. As a result, some women enjoyed opportunities beyond the traditional feminine borders of home and beyond the traditional male-centred enterprises of politics and business. The impacts of these new spaces of sociality were not uniform however, neither across national borders nor for all women; rather, each woman experienced differential effects based on her social location and the national ideologies and cultural contexts she confronted. The three essays here focus on how modernisation in Japan and Korea—marked by growing industrialisation, increased foreign influence and investment as a result of imperial ambitions and the larger processes of globalisation, and a shift in social relations within the economies of empire, colonisation, and neo-colonisation—contributed to the emergence of the compelling figure of the 'New Woman.'[1]
  2. Jan Bardsley, Ruth Barraclough and Hyaeweol Choi explore how women in Korea and Japan gained greater public access as consumption and the production of new wealth rendered permeable certain social spaces: women of certain classes sought wage labour and the emergent middle classes sent daughters to college—and re-configured existing domains of women in sex labour, such as the kisaeng in colonial Korea. The Bluestockings crossed borders that existed between educated yet working women like the geisha; the kisaeng boldly sought to assert their rights as women and as workers in their attempts to participate in patriotic endeavours and their pro-labour activism; and transnational women students crossed national borders in order to achieve education. As the three scholars demonstrate, these women's explorations of what exactly had changed for their particular locations constituted surplus labour in defining new spaces of sociality and the limits of those spaces. This surplus labour, moreover, was recognised by some of these women both as significant for the nation's modern development as well as for their own self-identification and development.
  3. Jan Bardsley's exploration of the Bluestockings' visit to the Yoshiwara in 1912 and the multiple representations of this event is a generative move toward understanding how college-educated young women sought to transgress social hierarchies of class and gender, even while reproducing those very hierarchies. Bardsley's access and use of the voices of some of the Bluestockings and Geishas themselves allow greater insights into the workings of gender and power, space and representation. The media posit the Bluestocking as not the traditional affluent Japanese lady, but a type of educated 'new woman' who was neither fully westernised nor fully Japanese, neither a sexualised geisha nor a modest lady. The Bluestockings were condemned for being too public and open about their appetites for pleasure. These were hybrid female beings who embodied the contradictions of a modernising society facing European and western influence even while Japan had emerged as a global and colonial power in its own right. We see this in the subsequent internal divisions among the Bluestockings in the wake of the Yoshiwara visit.
  4. Because women's status is shaped by their social relations, their socialising with the Geisha destabilises both the Bluestockings' and the Geisha's positions as a result. The anachronistic cage that separates them from each other, both objects of each other's gaze interestingly, demonstrates the social borders of class and power that separate them as women, even as the artist labours to demonstrate the differences between them as gendered, and the Bluestockings as abnormally masculine. I really appreciate Bardsley's point here, that this communication between women, in public, devoid of a male presence, represents a radical possibility of intervening in patriarchal structures. Queer theory especially has destabilised understandings of gender, sexuality and the body proper, suggesting that masculinity is so naturalised as to be seen as stable; femininity on the other hand is not perceived as natural and is thus inherently unstable, unpredictable.[2] Were the Bluestockings queering Yoshiwara by entering as women into what had become known as an eroticised female space, and demonstrating that the space could be homosocial? Did they not only shatter the normalisation of female desire on the part of respectable women, but also the figure of the geisha?
  5. This modern dilemma of representing—rendered possible with the technologies of mass communication— reproduces itself, creating contradictions with the circulation of meanings attached to this 'scandalous' event. Bardsley notes that the Bluestockings ultimately constructed a different border, but a border nonetheless, of geisha's representing the woman in public of the past, serving the needs of men; and the woman in public of the present and future—the educated, assertive young woman who would enter the public through a career of the mind and not the body. There is thus in this chronology implicit values of sexuality as serving the woman's own pleasure as modern and progressive. Despite these assertions, the press argued that women who wrote (an activity of the mind) ultimately were selling themselves and their femininity. Again we see a triangulation of gender and power—between the respectable women, men and the geisha, that men attempted to control to maintain their own positions of authority and power.
  6. But there are clear slippages, as Bardsley points out. The poignancy that the courtesan who the Bluestockings visited was a former classmate from their same social strata is striking—the narratives hide this, because it underlines the role of chance and risk for all women. Even an educated, elite young woman might find herself labouring in some form due to the instability of new wealth, a loss of status to the family in a new and unpredictable economy. Perhaps this is why some of the Bluestockings sought to distance themselves from the geisha in terms of the geisha being old-fashioned in contrast to their own modern ways, because the reality of losing status was always present. Also telling is Ishii Miyo's observation that modern teahouses would soon cater to women as well—she was more aware of the changing social contexts because in order to survive she had to be. Miyo understood that women like the Bluestockings might want sites of sociality as much as men—it is probable that she also understood what little divided her from upper class women was the complicity of upper class women in the privileges of patriarchy, and that the geisha was engaging in conscious performativity as opposed to respectable women who were performing in just as labour-intensive ways to assert their authenticity and legitimacy as a public presence. Thus, the fact that geishas paraded in the streets to celebrate the 1915 enthronement of the emperor, is truly delightful. These women who laboured in public defied the rejection of proper women leaders; they staked their own claim to civil society understanding that the public sphere was indeed that of performance.[3]
  7. Resonating with the role of the geishas in Imperial Japan, Ruth Barraclough's essay explores the figure of the kisaeng as produced and circulated in a Korean society colonised by Japan. Her analysis provides insight on many issues, including the ways in which 'bonded labour and the technologies of modern capitalism were integral to the crafting of women as commodities.' She presents a complex interplay of how a specific industry of female sex labour negotiated the overlapping, sometimes contradictory and sometimes reinforcing systems of Korean patriarchy, Japanese colonisation, and resulting hybrid forms of male domination and power. Locating the kisaeng as a specific form of women's work provides insights on the shifting economies and destabilised social hierarchies in colonised Korea.
  8. Cultural theorists have suggested that consumerism relies upon the labour of consumers, who collaborate in their own way to reproduce a product's value to others; this labour however is hidden by the very product which is perceived as produced for consumption.[4] Barraclough's analysis demonstrates that the kisaeng were quite aware of themselves as commodities: how did they appeal to consumers—whether active clientele or mere spectators—to collaborate in the production of a hybrid modern femininity? What kind of consumer labour did kisaeng inspire in this colonial site, on the part of which consumers, and for what, likely contradictory, purposes? Barraclough's discussion of the role of a collaboration economy producing modern femininity via the kisaeng is tremendously significant as the kisaeng, in negotiating new market forces resulting from colonisation, may also have been a product of other forms of collaboration.
  9. I would be interested for Barraclough to address whether a hybrid masculinity emerged from this particular sociopolitical context as well, whether the kisaeng had to negotiate multiple demands upon them by the agents of Japanese empire and by the young romantic Korean males—some of who were nationalists seeking to throw off the yoke of colonisation. Was the image of the kisaeng both a means through which the colonised Korean male and the colonising Japanese soldier or official were able to find a common masculine identity? Or did the sites serve specific clientele based on their political identity? Were the kisaeng multi-tasking as an object of sexual desire on the part of young male literati, and as a metaphor for the emasculation of Korean nationalism at hands of the Japanese empire? And were the kisaeng, servicing as they were the Japanese empire, also a means through which Korean males and females could claim a political and virtuous stance in opposition to colonial modernity? These kinds of configurations of hidden collaboration that reproduced certain gendered and social hierarchies also suggest how some kisaeng and perhaps the industry itself were able to parlay the kisaeng's very public role as high culture female companions into a source of power—where they at times were able to insert their voice into the political discourse and have it matter.[5] For example, was the 'caged body' displayed on Chang Han's cover a metaphor for Korea itself? And if so, was the appeal to 'comrades' more than simply a call for labour unity but a call for nationalist self-determination for a colonised Korea?
  10. In contrast, Hyaeweol Choi's paper explores the nationalist expectations of Korean female students studying abroad in 'the west' as well as in imperial Japan. Choi's focus on Korean women who would not be expected to interact with the kisaeng reveals the differential role of modernity in shaping particular forms of womanhood. These female students—part of affluent families and expected to maintain their reproductive roles as virtuous mothers and wives—were lauded by some Koreans and westerners as future leaders of the nation; yet their role, just like that of the kisaeng, also traversed expectations and borders of gender, nation and identification and resulted in these women negotiating the circumstances of being out of sync with their society. The role of women's journals also served as cultural sites mapped out by women of different classes in which they could voice their views on labour, the nation and empire. The kisaeng and educated women in Korea, and the Bluestockings in Japan, to varying degrees published journals. What is significant is that women of such diverse backgrounds at this particular moment looked to publications as a means of simultaneously negotiating and articulating their stakes in their national community as workers in social and cultural reproduction.
  11. Choi significantly undermines any monolithic notion of 'the west' by highlighting how different European nations were perceived by these Korean female transnational students. Denmark and Germany are significant exemplars of agrarian societies in transformation, even in contrast to educated Koreans who did not value agrarian pursuits. Choi documents how Korean male intellectuals were divided amongst themselves about the meanings of modernity, the role of women, and the role of western knowledge for a modernising Korea. The western missionaries, who at once encouraged women to travel to Japan, the US, Germany and Denmark while also insisting upon women's reproductive roles in society and the home, provide another example of how Choi continually challenges neat categories of analysis in her article. She shows how the modern—a convergence of what changed, and what did not change, in relations of production, industry, empire, gender and class—produced greater complexity in social relations, and even more so perhaps for women who experienced multiple cultures. While these women shared this 'borderland' experience in common, those who studied in China, Japan, the US, Denmark or Germany also were differentiated by the specific content of their experiences.
  12. The caution and resistance exhibited by several of these students against a specifically United States model of modernisation and shifting women's participation in the modern state are significant to note: not all New Women sought liberation via consumerism; indeed, many noted Korea's primarily agrarian economy, and looked instead to the more austere transformations exhibited by women in Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Choi insightfully questions whether this distancing was a proactive response to their compatriots' prejudice against the West, or whether it was a public performance of female nationalism. These women were very conscious of their opportunities, privileges and responsibilities as Koreans, as women, as educated scholars and as individuals within their specific communities. This level of awareness —that there was more than one way to embody a modern womanhood, and certain ways were more relevant to their nation's needs than others—especially reveals the complex demands these women negotiated as New Women. The level of industrialisation and wealth of each host nation thus also factored into the ways different Korean women from different backgrounds experienced the opportunities and pitfalls of modernity abroad.
  13. These analyses of new women in Korea and Japan also gesture to the overwhelming demands that men also faced during this era. Patriarchy's assumption of a stable masculinity is challenged by these analyses' demonstration that masculinity is not monolithic either across or within national borders. The focus on the 'New Woman' raises questions about a 'New Man' emerging during this time and what it meant for him to perform masculinity under the political and economic conditions of empire, nationalism and consumerism. Equally significant is that these authors push beyond the coloniser-colonised, East-West binary to reveal more nuanced and much more complex relationships shaped by ideologies that are not limited to geopolitical, gendered or class binaries. Their research and analyses present a spectrum of potential configurations of gender, nation and power made possible as a result of modernisation.
  14. Together, these papers assert that new technologies and globalising economic and political institutions created new spaces for women's participation. These new spaces brought women from different classes together and sometimes together with men. Some in society sought to contain these new women who transgressed traditional borders through the continued eroticisation of women in public spaces, such as streets, schools and salons. Expanded spaces of interaction also resulted in greater specificity for women as they defined themselves in relation to other women and men in different ways—as fellow intellectuals, nationalists, workers, consumers; or as entertainers or reproducers better prepared to serve the interests and needs of their male counterparts. Modernity forged the potential of new alliances as well—between men and women who had a stake in maintaining the status quo of gender and class relations; between conservative patriarchal missionaries and conservative males who sought to limit the roles of educated women who returned from abroad; between colonising and colonised males who sought the pleasures of geisha and kisaeng; between kisaeng and educated women as Korean nationalists; and between geisha and Bluestockings who were equally vulnerable to the unpredictability of modern markets. Bardsley, Barraclough and Choi's nuanced analyses provide additional directions for scholars to explore the limitations and possibilities of these social relations and the processes by which structures of power, including patriarchy, reconfigured themselves in response.


    [1] My thanks to Hyaweol Choi for organising this provocative panel and the Northeast Asia Council, whose sponsorship allowed me to participate.

    [2] Judith Halberstam develops this point nicely in Female Masculinity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    [3] Mary P. Ryan was one of the first to develop a significant cultural analysis of the ways in which women in public reveal the power dynamics of gender and public space. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825–1880, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

    [4] Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, theorises specifically about the surplus value that queer audiences of colour contribute to United States cultural productions. Dallas W. Smythe posited that 'audience power is literally a commodity' in discussing the role of audiences in their own consumption of mass media in 'On the audience commodity and its work,' in Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981, pp. 22–51.

    [5] The kisaeng profession evokes much of the feminist analysis about the sexual and feminine labour Asian prostitutes perform for the US military in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by scholars such as Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000; and Ji-Yeon Yuh, Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America, New York: New York University Press, 2004.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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