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Free love, chastity and nationalism in Han Yongun’s novel “Death”

Brief notes from the recent talk at SOAS, which probably involve getting hold of the wrong end of several sticks…

Han YongunHan Yongun was the most renowned Buddhist nationalist poet of the colonial period. He was jailed for his involvement in the March 1st movement, and composed his famous poetry cycle “Silence of my love” while in prison. His novel “Death” was written in 1924 after his release from prison.

At its centre is the concept of Free Love (Yeonae, where, among other things, a woman can choose the man she marries) – a notion new to colonial Korea of the 1920s.

The plot involves a love triangle: Yŏngok, a female student; Chongch’ŏl, an educated intellectual; and Sŏngyŏl, a rich married man. Sŏngyŏl’s objective is to get Yŏngok to be his concubine. He speaks in “New Woman” clichés, using phrases such as “Flame of Love” (the title of a contemporary book about the “New Woman”) and “chastity is fluid” (chastity being something that can start afresh with each new relationship): his view is that “love transcends all” – particularly the fact that he is married.

But Han Yongun criticises this viewpoint as being decadent and sees the “student concubine” (Yŏhaksaeng ch’ŏp) as a shallow, self-indulgent figure who is chasing money.

Han Yongun, a Buddhist, seems to reinvent the Confucian concept of female chastity, in which the view of Love is something that is given by men and received by women. The unchaste woman is seen as unreliable (the unchaste woman in the novel has a loose tongue and ends up betraying the network of patriots); and will end life in misery because of her lack of chastity. Instead, love for love’s sake should become love for the sake of the nation – a more Confucian concept – in which the loving relationship is intended to nurture the future heroes of the nation.

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