This paper aims to reveal the socio-historical meanings of ponch’ŏdŭl, or original wives, as a symptom of kyunyŏl (crack) in the conjugal discourse of the 1930s colonial Korea. One of the central sources of examination is the serialized ‘Questions and Answers’ (Q&A) column in the Korean-language newspapers that document the pleas made by ponch’ŏdŭl and the advice given to them by reporters and celebrities of the era. The ponch’ŏ, or an original wife, is a reflection of the polygamy that was widely in practice at the time, which differentiates her from concubine(s). Similar to the way in which tabloids invade into the privacy of “celebrities” in contemporary era, the papers in the 1930s published Q&A columns making interventions particularly into the romantic quarters of readers’ lives, by listening to their problems and offering advice. This paper seeks to uncover and historicize the significance of the Q&A column as a source that generated public opinion, perhaps even consensus, among interested readers, which in turn informs the “grand narratives” of history.
Free love and marriage have been regarded as an essential criterion for establishing the modern gender order and family ethics. If pre-modern practice of marriage was defined by the selection of partner made by the patriarch, it collided with the modern marriage that prioritized the “free will” of the concerned individuals. In essence, this collision meant the clash between the old and new in terms of values and order. As was the case in most western traditions, free love and marriage meant progressive and positive movements signaling the liberation of emotions in Korea. In the Korean context, however, free love and marriage generated delicate and complicated conflicts that went beyond the collision between the pre-modern and modern values. Those who pursued for free love and marriage sometimes brought violence and oppression on to others, namely the original wife in colonial Korea.
Although free love and marriage were upheld by young intellectuals as indispensable modern values, the pre-modern convention of early marriage flourished in colonial Korea. Male students were generally forced by their fathers to get married to uneducated traditional women at the age of 12-13 while most female students had to delay marriage until graduation. For female students, combining studying and running a household in the patriarchic family structure was unrealistic; also, school rules restricted female students from marriage. This led to a widely spread trend in colonial Korea in which married male students deserted their ponch’ŏdŭl and partnered with educated “new women” in their pursuit of indulgent free love. If an educated young man and his partner, a “new woman” were to get married, the man had to divorce his ponch’ŏ first. That is to say, in order to transition from free love to free marriage, one had to obtain the right of free divorce.
To achieve this right of free divorce, however, a married men had to overcome the obstacles of gaining agreements of stubborn ponch’ŏdŭl, not to mention the imposing authority of their fathers’ order to remain faithful to their ponch’ŏdŭl. But the ponch’ŏdŭl, who were still immersed in the pre-modern virtue of condoning concubines, would reject their husbands’ demand for divorce. Therefore, for those who sought free love against the wishes of their patriarchs, ponch’ŏdŭl were the first round of obstruction representing the oppression of monstrous feudal conventions. On the other hand, ponch’ŏdŭl themselves were the weakest in the face of pressing old virtues that highlighted obedience to their husbands and in-laws; this is not to mention that these women were uneducated and economically incompetent. In other words, ponch’ŏdŭl were at once the biggest obstacles to the modern value of free love but at the same time the most disempowered individuals w