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From Courtesan to Buddhist Teacher: One Woman's Response to Modernity in Korea

Fri, March 27, 8:30 to 10:30am, Chicago Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Floor: Lobby, Level 3, Parlor D


Yi Chŏng-Chun (1886-1955) was one of the first female disciples in Won-Buddhism, a 20th century Korean religious movement. Her early years were spent as a kisaeng (courtesan) but later she retaliated against Confucian patriarchy by entering a religious order. Her diaries reveal how entering the order was a “rebirth” and how the founder of Won-Buddhism, Sotaesan, was her “savior.” She was encouraged to receive an education, train as fiercely as her male counterpart, and advance to lead her own temple. Diary entries from fellow female disciples disclose the changes they witnessed in Yi Chŏng-Chun: her ability to break a long-term smoking habit and her capacity to overcome shyness when speaking in front of an audience. Yi's story shows modernity's impact on the psyche and social roles of Korean women and also exemplifies the progressive initiative of male teachers to advance the status of women in society. These men understood that the growth of religious movements relied on promoting gender equal relations. This paper examines how the promotion of gender equality by male figures of new Korean religious movements was carved by the agency of modernity. A range of data, including periodicals, letters, and newspaper articles enable us to understand the changing face of women during the process of modernization in Korea. This paper gives voice to the significant role of women in Won-Buddhism which is often ignored in scholarship. By highlighting their contributions, it becomes clear that the progressive thinking males who supported their efforts should be lauded as well.