How feminist book ‘Kim Ji-young’ became million-seller



“Kim Ji-young Born in 1982,” a novel describing the life of an ordinary Korean housewife on a career break, has sold 1 million copies as of Nov. 27, just over two years after its release in October 2016. This is the first Korean novel to have sold over 1 million copies in nearly a decade, following Kim Hoon’s “The Song of the Sword” in 2007 and Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look after Mom” in 2009. The success of “Kim Ji-young Born in 1982,” authored by Cho Nam-ju, isn’t surprising, looking at the global #MeToo movement and increased awareness of women’s rights.


Kim is the most common family name in Korea and Ji-young is also a very common woman’s name. Cho chronicles the life of a woman born in the early 1980s, claiming all kinds of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment the average Korean woman would face in every stage of life, through this ordinary ― almost anonymous ― name.  The novel was not critically acclaimed because the writer rather drily enumerates such events, backed with statistics and news articles, but it succeeded to resonate with readers who found themselves engaged in the story of the seemingly tedious life of Kim Ji-young. Kwon Kim Hyun-young, a women’s studies scholar, said “Kim Ji-young” ignited the popularization of feminism in Korea. “The novel captured common and universal experiences of women living in Korea in the 21st century,” Kwon Kim said. Sales of “Kim Ji-young” increased whenever gender equality issues were raised in Korea.


Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker Keum Tae-sub gifted the book to 300 fellow National Assembly members in order to make them pay attention to women’s quality of life in Korea. These were given on March 8, 2017, which was International Women’s Day. The late lawmaker Roh Hoe-chan, former floor leader of the Justice Party, presented the book to President Moon Jae-in in May 2017, asking the President to “embrace all the Kim Ji-youngs born in 1982.” Rep. Kim Su-min of the minor, center-right Barun Party dubbed her amendment to the gender equality law as the “Kim Ji-young Law” last year. Prosecutor Seo Ji-hyun, who kindled the #MeToo Movement in Korea, borrowed the style and quoted lines from the novel when she disclosed her experiences with sexual harassment in the prosecution in January.

However, the book faced a backlash for its connection with the feminist movement. K-pop group Red Velvet’s Irene said she read “Kim Ji-young” during a fan meeting in March and some of her male fans reacted by burning photos of her.  Actress Jung Yu-mi, who will play the titular role in the upcoming film adaptation of the novel, received malicious comments on social media after the casting was announced. Publisher Minumsa released a commentary edition of the novel this week, including five critiques and an interview with the author, in celebration of the book joining the list of million-selling books. “I wrote this novel to reflect the universal woes of women in their 30s in Korea. They were born in the 1980s, when selective abortion of females was rampant, and grew up watching the harsh labor market for minorities. They are highly educated, but quit their jobs to become full-time housewives after getting married and giving birth,” Cho said in the interview. “What Kim Ji-young experienced does not come from financial hardships or regional limits, but because she is a woman ― a common and ordinary woman.”


Cho did not portray Kim as a passionate fighter against the irrationalities of society because most women in reality cannot fight either. The author hopes the book will grow with the changes of the times. “The life of Kim Ji-young born in 1982 is mediocre. But the lives of Kim Ji-youngs born in 2002, 2012 and 2022 will be different. The world is changing and the next generation will live a better life than us. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place to live,” Cho said. The book also received significant attention overseas, selling publication rights to 16 countries. According to the publisher, the novel was sold to France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Japan. It became the best-selling e-book in Taiwan upon its publication in May.


By Kwon Mee-yoo

(Korea Times)

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