Naebang Kasa, Songs of the Inner Chamber, is a literary genre that takes its name from the strict separation of male and female in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). Men could go as they pleased and occupied the outer realm while women were confined to the inner chambers.
This separation affected primarily women from the higher classes and women from the court. The level of literacy in Korea at the beginning of the Joseon era was very low. Only intellectuals and wealthy men from the court had access to this kind of education. Until mid 15th century all official communication and texts used Hanja or Chinese characters that were complicated and difficult to use. This system continued to be used parallel to the Korean alphabet that we know now.
The Korean alphabet or Hangul (한글) was created in1443 by King Sejong the Great. Women were early adopters and greatly responsible for the rapid spread of the new system. Intellectuals and elite men opposed the new system mainly on account of its simplicity and accessibility. The stigma of the new writing would persist until the beginning of the 20th century.
Another crucial element in the origin of the Naebang kasa (or Kyubang Kasa) poetry was the confinement of women to specific chambers within the house. This was an exclusive practice to the families that had the space and the wealth to afford it.
Underprivileged women worked side by side to children and men in the fields, or in alternative professions considered less respectable such as prostitution or entertainment (which often went together). Most poor families needed the extra income to make ends meet.
This would change with the opening of Korea to the Western world in the 19th century. Christian missionaries did a lot of good establishing schools for women and they actually fought for women’s rights. If there’s something good that came from imperialism was shaming the East Asian countries into educating women. Unfortunately they also introduced the concept of the perfect mother and wife, which resonated with the ideas of the New Confucianism. In that way West and East have the same issue now, as the ideal wife has evolved into the super woman that can balance her career with her devotion to her family.
But let’s get back to the beginning of the Joseon Dinasty. At this point Buddhism that had been propagated by women and it was more inclusive was substituted by a new wave of Confucianism that was tougher than before on gender dynamics.
Women were banned from having property, they would get punished for adultery (including rape), and their lives depended on their devotion to the men in their life: father, husband and then son(s). A few legal protections were given to women during this period, mainly preventing their husbands to divorce them for money (take their inheritance away and marry someone else).
The creation of the Hangul democratized literacy starting by the wealthier women. Some of these women went from the inner chambers of their parents’ home to those of their in-laws. From imposed restrain and a rich inner life, the power of poetry and literacy helped women express their grievances.
The Kasa genre was not exclusive to women, but they were either the writers of the public. The topics were hardly controversial and mostly domestic, nonetheless it allowed for a channel of communication were silence was the rule of law.
Songs of the Inner Chamber was a great title for my project in Korea for many reasons. The most important perhaps is the empowerment of women through the arts and through activity and behavior that was designed to be submissive but was intelligently subverted.
The poems are a trace of the oppression of women throughout Korea’s history. In it’s name and in its own existence it carries the weight of subjugation and inequality.
I wanted to honor the resilience of women by loosely using the idea of poetry and arts as a form of creation. Better said, I wanted to create my images in the way a poem is written. I wanted the public to enjoy the images in the same way a poem is read. Bewilderment, beauty, intrigue and confrontation, all coexisting in one image.
Make-up, styling, photography by Damian Siqueiros. Images have not been retouched.
Gender in Modern East Asia, Barbara Molony, Janet Theiss, Hyaeweol Choi, Westview Press, 2016.
"Korean Feminism reins the collective power of the internet", SINGH, Emily. January, 2016.
"Modern and Contemporary Korean Poets". Edited by Ae Hee Lee and Emily Jungmin Yoon. The Missing Slate. August, 2016