Na Hye-sok

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Na Hyeseok (Korean : 나혜석; Hanja : 羅蕙錫, 28 April 1896 – 10 December 1948) was a Korean feminist, poet, writer, painter, educator, and journalist. [1] Her pen name was Jeongwol (Hangul: 정월, 晶月). [2] She was a pioneering Korean feminist writer and painter. She was the first female professional painter and the first feminist writer in Korea. [3] She created some of the earliest Western-style paintings in Korea, and published feminist novels and short stories. [4] [5] She became well known as a feminist because of her criticism of the marital institution in the early 20th century.


Early life

Na Hye-Sok was born in 1896 in Suwon as the fourth child of a wealthy family. She was called Agi (Hangul : 아기 ) and Myeongsun (Hangul : 명순 ) in her childhood. Hye-sok is the name given to her when she started attending Jin Myeong Girl's High School. Na demonstrated her artistic talent from an early age and graduated at the top of her class at Jin Myeong Girl's High School in 1913. [6]


As a young woman, Na was known for her high spirits and outspokenness, making it clear she wanted to be a painter and an intellectual, rejecting the traditional "good wife, good mother" archetype. [7] Her major written work, Kyonghui (Korean : 경희), published in 1918, concerns a woman's self-discovery and her subsequent search for meaning in life as a "new woman;" it is the first feminist short story in Korean literature. [5] [8]

Marriage of Na Hye-sok and Kim Woo-young (1920) Married of Na Hye-sok.jpg
Marriage of Na Hye-sok and Kim Woo-young (1920)

After her graduation from Jinmyeong Girls' High School in 1913, Na majored in Western oil painting at Tokyo Arts College. [9] As a student, Na wrote several essays critiquing the standard "good wife, good mother" Korean archetype, saying she wanted a career as an artist. [10] In April 1915, Na became the main organizer of the Association of Korean Women Students in Japan. It was around this time that she fell in love with Ch'oe Sung-gu, a student at Keio University and the then editor and publisher of the magazine Hakchigwang. The relationship between Na and Ch'oe was highly publicized among Korean students in Japan, as was Na's close literary and personal association with Yi Kwang-su. In the spring of 1915, Na's father summoned her back home and pressured her to accept a marriage proposal from a well-established family. Na was able to escape this by accepting a teaching position in a primary school, according to her later account. After a year of teaching and saving money for tuition, Na returned to Tokyo toward the end of 1915 to resume her studies. In April 1916, however, Ch'oe Sung-gu died of tuberculosis, and Na had to temporarily stop her studies while recovering from a mental breakdown. [8]

In a monastery on Inwangsan Mountain (1944) Na Hye-seok, in Monastery Inwangsan Mt.jpg
In a monastery on Inwangsan Mountain (1944)

In 1919, she participated in the March 1st Movement against Japanese rule. She was jailed for this, and the lawyer hired by her family to represent her soon became her husband. [11]

In 1920, Na Hye-sok, along with Kim Iryeop and ten men, established the literary magazine P-yeho. [12] Early in the 1920s, both Kim and Na contributed a series of articles to the first magazine for Korean women, called Sinyoja, or "New Woman", on the subject of improving Korean women's clothing. They argued for a more functional and practical outfit for Korean women to help improve their hygiene, health, and self-image, and denounced traditional Korean dresses which were designed with no consideration for women's physical comfort, protection, and convenience. [9]

On April 10, 1920, she was married to Kim Woo-young, in Jeongdong wedding hall, Seoul. Theirs was a love marriage, rare at the time in Korea. On 18 March 1921, Na had her first exhibition of paintings and the first exhibition by a Korean woman painter ever in Seoul. [13] In 1923, Na attracted much attention for her essay "Thoughts on becoming a mother," in which she lashed out against her husband for leaving child-rearing entirely up to her. [10]

In 1927 Na Hye-sok and her husband went on a three-year tour of Europe sponsored by the Japanese government, making her the first Korean woman to travel to Europe and America. Traveling around Europe, Na’s paintings were carefully created from her observances of European culture from examining customs, arts, family life, as well as exploring how women portrayed themselves. [14] Following her return from abroad, Na continued to curate her art, holding an exhibition in her home town of Suwon in which she displayed both the art that completed in Europe as well as prints she had acquired throughout her travels.

Na studied painting in France while Kim had become a Japanese diplomat. [10] While in Paris, with her husband away, she is said to have engaged in an affair with Cheondo-gyo leader Choi Rin, which became fodder for gossip columnists. Na Hye-sok's husband divorced her on grounds of infidelity in 1931. [4] [9] It is not known whether she truly was unfaithful; her diary shows that up to her late 30s she tried hard to remain loyal to traditional Korean wifely and maternal roles in spite of the many humiliations and frustrations of her unhappy marriage. In any case, she came to be thought of and stigmatized as a woman who used her artistic pretensions as an excuse for sexual abandon. In 1931, Na sued Choi in a French court for "defamation of a woman's reputation" after he published a salacious article recounting their affair. [15]

Despite the divorce and disgraceful reputation, Na continued painting and won a special prize at the 10th Joseon Art Exhibition in 1931. She also published a piece called “A Divorce Confession” in the Samcheolli magazine in 1934, raising issues with gender inequality endorsed by Korean morality and tradition. She challenged the patriarchal social system and male-oriented mentality of Korean society at the time. In "A Divorce Confession", Na criticized the repression of female sexuality; stated that her ex-husband had been unable to satisfy her sexually and refused to discuss the issue; and finally she advocated "test marriages" where a couple would live together before marrying to avoid a repeat of her unhappy marriage. [16] It was "A Divorce Confession" that ruined Na's career as her views were regarded as scandalous and shocking as in traditional Korean Confucian culture premarital sex was regarded as taboo and women were not to speak frankly of their sexuality. [15] Unable to sell her paintings, essays or stories, Na was reduced to destitution and spent her last years living on the charity of Buddhist monasteries. [15] One consequence of this neglect has been that it is difficult today to verify what paintings are hers, and now Na is regarded as one of Korea's great painters, whose works sell for millions of won, a number of fakes have appeared on the market. [15]

She died on December 10, 1948 at a charity hospital. Having had no one to care for her in the later days, the location of her grave is still unknown. [17] Her fate was often used to scold young Korean women who had literary or artistic ambitions; "Do you want to become another Na Hye-sok?" was a frequent reprimand to daughters and younger sisters. [4] [18] However, she has recently been acknowledged in Korea for her artistic and literary accomplishments. For example, Seoul Arts Center opened a retrospective exhibition of her works in 2000. [4]

Works in literature

Appreciation of Works

Works in literature

Na Hye-Seok has also published novels and poems containing a new sense of the times. Her novel, 「Kyung-hee(Hangul: 경희)」, which she wrote in 1918, is regarded as a work that shows her distinct femininity. Her novel work was a confession novel. It was also the trend of the novels of the 1920s-1930s. The novels of confession by writers such as Yeom Sang-Seop, Kim Dong-In, Na Hye-Seok, Kim Iryeop, and Kim Myeong-sun challenged the sexual taboo based on the traditional patriarchal family system. [19]

Works in translation

Na Hye-seok
nahyeseog-Na Hye-seok.jpg
Born(1896-04-28)28 April 1896
Suwon, Joseon
Died10 December 1948(1948-12-10) (aged 52)
Seoul, South Korea
OccupationPoet, journalist, writer, painter
GenrePoetry, novel, art, paint, essay, drama
Korean name
Revised Romanization Na Hyeseok
McCune–Reischauer Na Hye-sŏk


A Google Doodle on 28 April 2019 commemorated Na Hye-sok’s 123rd birth anniversary. [20]

See also

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  2. The bright moon
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  19. Hyeong Chan, Kim (2000-02-02). "[화제의 책]'신여성들은 무엇을 꿈꾸었는가'" [[Best book] 'What did the new women dream of']. 동아닷컴.
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