How Artist Na Hye-sok Became a Threat to a Sexist Korean Society
She believed that for Korea to experience true liberation, women had to be freed first
In 1918, 22-year-old Na Hye-sok published Korea’s first feminist short story, Kyonghui. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece about a woman who returns home from Japanese university to be confronted by family members and neighbors who doubt the worthiness of educating girls. In Kyonghui, Na processes her own feelings about being an educated Korean woman and her frustration with the rigid gender roles in her home country:
“I’m a woman, and I am a Korean woman — a woman shackled by Korean society’s family conventions. If a woman tries to stand on her own, she will feel pressure from all quarters, and if she aspires to accomplish something, she will be criticized from all sides.”
Kyonghui would prove unfortunately prescient for Na Hye-sok.
Na was the daughter of a wealthy Korean family and graduated from Tokyo Women’s College of Arts in 1918 as the first Korean woman to receive a Bachelor of Arts in Western painting. A year after she published Kyonghui, when she was back in Korea, Na joined four other women, Kim Won-ju, Pak In-dok, Sin Chul-lyo, and Kim Hwal-lan, as they gathered in secret to launch the first issue of a new magazine called Sinyoja, or New Woman, which was dedicated to examining women’s roles in Korea. The five women had assembled at the intersection of two concurrent social movements: the 1919 Korean independence movement and first-wave feminism.
During Japanese colonization, from 1910 to 1945, the Korean people were nominally subjects of the Japanese emperor but lacked any elected political representation. The Japanese sought to wipe out thousands of years of Korean culture by forbidding the use of the Korean language even in private homes and by forcing Koreans to assume Japanese names. Korean rights of speech and representation were also nonexistent; it was illegal to assemble or form organizations or to publish periodicals for political purposes.
Upon her release in 1919, Na connected with the other women of Sinyoja over the idea to start a magazine by and for new women, inspired by the radical politics of the moment.
The Korean independence movement started on March 1, 1919, with the signing of a declaration of independence and peaceful protests in Seoul and Pyongyang that quickly turned bloody. Protesters who weren’t killed were jailed and tortured. Na was part of this group of protesters, and she was imprisoned for six months. In 1923, she wrote that she’d figured out how to write messages using her fingernail on bits of torn fabric and that the experience taught her that nothing is impossible.
Upon her release in 1919, Na connected with the other women of Sinyoja over the idea to start a magazine by and for new women, inspired by the radical politics of the moment and with the express goal of interrogating women’s traditional roles in Korea’s extremely patriarchal society. The five women were from elite, wealthy families and had been afforded the rare opportunity to go to college, where they were exposed to these radical politics. They believed the work of liberating the Korean nation was inextricably linked with liberating women from the Confucian gender roles perhaps best encapsulated by the aphorism hyeonmoyangcheo, or “wise mother, good wife.” This was the primary goal that girls and women were to aspire to in order to keep society and their families functioning.
The Korean feminist literary and political work that Na pioneered was inspired by the Western first-wave feminisms of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Harriot Beecher Stowe. Early Japanese feminists adopted the moniker “bluestockings” to describe their progressive organizing, and that name spread to Korea, taking on a nationalist flavor once it crossed into the colonized peninsula.
With Sinyoja, Na aspired to foster a Korean feminist literary tradition that would be well-known worldwide; this is clear from an early essay published in the magazine called “What We Face Now”:
“Korean newspapers and magazines are created and managed by men, and there are only two or three created by women. But none of them is wholly penned by women. Out of such need and to fill this lack, the first issue of Sinyoja was published last month, and its purpose is to help show the praiseworthy work by Bluestockings, and at the same time, to bring buried talents to light.”
Japanese authorities shut down Sinyoja after only four issues, but by the time that happened, Na was a media darling in Korea, especially among intellectuals and politically radicals. Her art career took off too — in 1926, one of her paintings won the highest award at the Chosun Exhibition, a prestigious show. She began traveling on a world tour showing her work. She married a wealthy man named Kim Woo-young, had four children, and continued painting and writing.
Her whirlwind success began to flag in the 1930s. Critics fell out of love with her work, and they began panning her art shows in reviews, comparing her paintings to “withering flowers” that lose “light and fragrance.” Then, in 1931, her husband accused her of having an affair with a religious leader and divorced her. In 1934, she published an article in response to rumors about her personal life in Samcheolli magazine called “A Divorce Confession.” In it, she admitted to the affair and also wrote that her husband had failed to satisfy her sexually.
Though Na had worked tirelessly to change Korean culture’s treatment of women, the laws remained rigid in regard to divorced women.
The article was intended as self-defense, but the jury of Korean society was not generous. Though Na had worked tirelessly to change Korean culture’s treatment of women, the laws remained rigid in regard to divorced women. They lost everything: their children, their money, and their status. By writing honestly about her sexual desires — and by casting the blame of her infidelity on her husband — she gave Korean society even more reason to disown her. She had violated the gender norms she had worked her whole life to help dismantle. Na lost everything and became a pariah. Her art commissions dried up, and her birth family rejected her.
To this day, we don’t know much about the final 14 years of Na’s life. We know that she traveled the country and stayed with friends when she could, but there was little pity for a woman accused of cheating on her husband. In 1931, she wrote a goodbye letter to her children: “Your mother, as a pioneer of social transformation, is victimized by destiny.” We also know that she died alone in a charity hospital in 1948, three years after Korea was finally liberated from Japan at the end of World War II. The location of her grave is still unknown.
Despite her outsized influence on Korean feminist art, politics, and literature, Na’s name was recognizable mostly as a cautionary tale to women who didn’t adhere to the expectations of womanly duty, women who weren’t “wise mothers” or “good wives;” the question “do you want to become another Na Hye-sok?” joined hyeonmoyangcheo as a warning to ambitious young women. Her work as a writer and artist was excluded from history books and museums for years until decades after her death.
In the early 1970s, a young journalist named Yi Ku-yol happened upon her writings in the newspapers Donga Ilbo and Maeil Sinbo while working on an archiving project. He became fascinated with her and in 1974 wrote a series of articles about her for Yosong Donga, a Korean women’s magazine. He also published a book called Emi nun Songakja Yonnunira, or Mother Was a Pioneer, which contained selections and excerpts of Na’s essays, poems, fiction, and art.
Yu Dong-jun was another admirer of Na’s. He had grown up in the same town as her, Suwon, and had been shocked at how few people knew her name. In 1995, he founded the Na Hye-sok Memorial Foundation and began organizing events to educate the public on her contributions. Buoyed by the strong positive reactions from Korean people and from the media, the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism designated her a cultural figure in 2000.
Interest in Na’s life and work has resurged as a result of this reeducation campaign. In 2000, the Seoul Art Center held a retrospective of her art, displaying several paintings, photographs, and illustrations. A novel about her life was published in 1978, and that same year, a movie about her life came out called Hwajo, or Fire Bird. And in 2019, Google commemorated Na’s 123rd birthday with a Google doodle depicting her artwork.
In her lifetime, Na pushed beyond the boundaries of acceptable feminine behavior to model a life as a Korean woman that aligned with her beliefs and desires. Korea is still a deeply patriarchal country, though feminists continue organizing to evolve the culture toward equity. Her aspiration to “bring buried talents to light” did not die when she did: It lives on in the artistic and political work of generations of Korean women who came after her.