Faculty Author Q&A: Ksenia Chizhova on "Kinship Novels of Early Modern Korea: Between Genealogical Time and the Domestic Everyday”

July 11, 2022

Ksenia Chizhova is Assistant Professor of Korean Literature at Princeton University.  Her first book Kinship Novels of Early Modern Korea: Between Genealogical Time and the Domestic Everyday looks into the rise and fall of the lineage novel (kamun sosŏl), a genre that was coeval with Korean patrilineal kinship practice, and that narrated the kinship conflicts between the 17th and early 20th centuries.

How did you get the idea for this project?

My first encounter with the lineage novels (kamun sosŏl 家門小說), which circulated in Korea between the late 17th and the early 20th century, was through reading The Pledge at the Banquet of Moon-Gazing Pavilion (Wanwŏlhoe maengyŏn), a massive text that comprises twelve volumes in its modern imprint. This novel tells the story of trials and tribulations centered on So Kyowan, a charismatic and able woman who finds herself in the unfortunate situation of being married to a widower, whose adopted son from the first marriage is set to inherit all the lineage privileges. So Kyowan commences a series of bloody assaults on her stepson’s family in order to make her own first-born son the lineage’s head. Unflinching in her rage, resourceful, and cruel, Madame So is also an extremely complex protagonist, with deep, nuanced introspection that adumbrates her person and her behavior. The sophisticated characterization, the depiction of unruly passions, and the fact that novels like this circulated among elite women in vernacular Korean script stood out against the landscape of premodern Korean historiography, dominated by the narratives of Confucian culture derived from male literati writings in literary Chinese. It was immediately apparent to me, after encountering this first text, that lineage novels allow a fresh vantage point upon the kinship society, women’s life and cultural practice in Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910).

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

Our modern-day, western understanding of subjectivity is based on the post-enlightenment vision of a socially exfoliated, self-authoring monadic subject. While writing this book, I came to appreciate the complexity and intensity of another version of the self and ways of being in the world: the genealogical subject—an emotional self socialized within the structure of prescriptive kinship. By looking at lineage novels and other genres of kinship writing that dominated the literary stage of Chosŏn Korea, I was amazed to see the weight of kinship organization not only in the already known areas of status system, economic and political structure, but at the very intimate level, which configures sexuality, self-perception, and everyday behavior. Not so much a change in the original direction of my research, the writing process allowed me to create a narrative arc that links the enduring macro-structure of Korean lineage kinship, with its most intimate, mundane dimension, constituted through gesture, touch, and conversation.

What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?

The exquisitely transcribed manuscripts of lineage novels prompted me to look into the meaning of vernacular Korean calligraphy in elite women’s lives. The conclusion I make is that vernacular Korean calligraphy constituted a sort of aestheticized corporeal discipline, which was coextensive with the wider range of domestic womanly work as gendered labor prescribed within the structure of patrilineal kinship. Vernacular Korean calligraphy is now at the heart of my next book project, Women in the Media History of the Korean Script: 1600/2000, which traces the techno-aesthetic genealogy of the Korean script, from the 17th-century calligraphy to contemporary design, and uncovers the gender politics of graphic media in longue-durée perspective.

Why should people read this book?

For those interested in the history of early modern Korea, this book paints a vivid picture of the interior dimension of kinship, in which eruptions of unruly feelings mark the most problematic junctures of kinship life. Readers with an eye for literary history and gender studies will encounter a unique genre that inaugurated the validity of emotions in early modern Korea, and which became the domain of women’s cultural creativity, which hitherto remained hidden in the predominantly male-authored historical archive.