When consumption was a bad thingKorea’s remarkable rags-to-riches story in the decades after the Korean War was the result of a national work ethic and spirit of endurance, deeply rooted in Confucian ideals. However, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, when everyday Koreans were starting to enjoy some of their newly-acquired wealth, the government set out on a moral counter-campaign called kwasobi ch’ubang, or “eliminate overconsumption.”
In “Measured Excess,” Laura Nelson investigates the gendered foundations of the kwasobi movement, arguing that the Korean government cast the “excessive desires” of women in particular as a threat to the economic success and identity of the nation.
Although she fails to demonstrate that the government intentionally castigated women, Nelson does make it clear that a heavy burden of sacrifice falls to women in Korean society when posterity is at stake.
In a society where wives are still referred to by husbands as jip saram (literally “house person”), it is also widely acknowledged that the women control the purse strings. Therefore, the argument goes, women in Korea ― because they’re the main household consumers ― are in a unique position to transform economic value into moral and social relationships with their families. And so they have a responsibility to the nation to embody the Confucian ideal of self-restraint.
Nelson’s account offers some fascinating historical snippets, including a revealing analysis of the key money system in real estate, travel restrictions imposed to curb consumerist “indulgence” and a government policy that banned the consumption of bottled water by Korean nationals ― a trend perceived by the government, at the time, as a threat to citizens’ faith in the public water supply. A compelling aspect of Nelson’s ethnography, about a nation constructing (and protecting) its identity amid rapid change, is that instead of using history to define the present, it addresses Korean notions of the country’s future ― specifically, its future as a homogenous body of patriots.
Nelson’s analysis of the kwasobi campaign is that it aimed “to ensure that South Koreans identified not with what was, but with what would be.” The oft-criticized image of homogeneity among Koreans plays heavily in the theory-based discussions toward the end, raising the question: Is it an ideal, a fiction or both?
by Laura C. Nelson
Columbia University Press; $20.50
by Kirsten Jerch