Essay / Portrayals of Women’s Mental Illness in Korean Literature: Relations to Korean Society and Gendered Expectations for Women

by Abigail Brewer

edited by Sasha Staggs

Mental health and mental illness have become hot topics in recent years in the United States. Young people are at the forefront of the movement to de-stigmatize mental illness and prioritize mental health in the face of the fast-moving and results-oriented American capitalist culture. This increased focus on mental health has led to better education on the subject and better treatments for mental health in general. 

Despite the different cultural context, I have noticed that mental health, and more specifically mental illness, is a topic described overtly, or present as an undercurrent, in many of the short stories written by and about women in South Korea in the 1970s. I believe that fiction written by women has the ability to provide a nuanced, emotional, and somewhat dramatized view of the way various sociocultural, historical, and economic circumstances intersect in a person’s life. In particular, the ability of women’s fiction to provide a differentiated, personalized, and female-oriented portrayal of mental illness in South Korean society, in the 1970s, is valuable. This is because it is not only layered and emotive, but it also provides a view of circumstances and notions that textbooks and male-authored sources may overlook. This is insightful, because rather than simply having hard facts and figures, or a male-dominated understanding of the subject, the reader can comprehend it in a more complete and intersectional manner, further improving their understanding of the treatment of mental health and mental illness in both historical and contemporary Korean society. 

Thus, in this paper I will be using the lenses of cultural analysis and new criticism to examine the text “Evening Game” (1979) by O Chonghui and asking: How can one understand the portrayal of mental illness in South Korean literature in the 1970s, and its private and societal treatment? What is the relationship between these short stories’ portrayals of mental illness and gendered expectations of women, and what does this relationship say about Korean society’s relationship with mental illness in the late 1970s?

I. Background on the History and Treatment of Mental Illness in Korea and South Korea

In pre-modern Korea, mental illness was often treated by shamans, as people thought that a person with a mental illness was possessed by an evil spirit. Accordingly, shamans were hired to perform exorcisms, with the most common treatment being, “a blind sorcerer beating the patient with a peach club while chanting a spell to expel the evil spirits” (Sung-Kil et al. 81). Shamans were usually female. One other way that mental illness was treated was through traditional medicine, especially drug-based treatments (Sung-Kil et al. 81). Doctors thought that if someone had too much of any of the seven emotions, which were governed by one’s spirit, the spirit would be affected and various connected internal organs would be damaged (Sung-Kil et al. 81). Drugs were used to treat the illnesses because mental and physical symptoms were seen as the same, thus making drugs effective.

During the colonial period, the police were put in charge of mental health issues and viewed people with mental illnesses as a cause of social unrest (Sung-Kil et al. 82). Patients were mainly cared for by their families but were sent to one of two special colonial-founded institutions if they became unable to recognize their loved ones (Sung-Kil et al. 82). The idea of people with mental illnesses as dangerous to society and needing to be confined was colonially imported (Sung-Kil et al. 83). Meanwhile, in Christian missionary hospitals, doctors believed that patients with mental illnesses were being persecuted, by the government and society, and required separate wards in hospitals (Sung-Kil et al. 83).

However, the medical system was destroyed during the Korean War which left Koreans with widespread psychological trauma (Sung-Kil et al. 84). During the war, some Korean doctors trained in the USA, and by the 1970s, economic development saw increases in both hospital beds and doctors. Drug therapy and psychotropic drugs were released at the beginning of the 1970s and again in the mid-1980s (Sung-Kil et al. 84). However, with the advancements in treatment came increases in medical costs, leading to families bringing patients to “less expensive, illegal asylums and ask[ing the asylums] to hold the [patients] as long as possible” (Sung-Kil et al. 85). These asylums were places where the “Period of Grand Confinement” occurred, and patients were held without receiving proper medical care. In the early 1980s, documentaries about these illegal asylums emerged, resulting in more government funding for mental health (Sung-Kil et al. 85).

Today, mental illness in South Korea is highly stigmatized, and the country has high rates of suicide, alcoholism, smoking, and bullying in schools which are considered a substantial issue (Sung-Kil et al. 86). These problems are intertwined with unrelenting competitive mentalities and high-income inequalities present in Korean society. Koreans are also diagnosed with culturally specific types of mental illness, such as hwa-byung, which is an anger syndrome that results from repressed and accumulated feelings of anger, trauma, and unfairness, often summarized as Haan (Sung-Kil et al. 89). These feelings are frequently connected by doctors to the hardships faced by people during the colonial period, Korean War, and democratization movements (Sung-Kil et al. 89). 

In modern Korean society, Western medicine, medical care, and treatment by shamans are often combined (Connor, Linda, et al. 29). As previously mentioned, shamans were often called to perform exorcisms in pre-modern times, and people still rely on shamans for blessings, exorcisms, and other practices in contemporary contexts.

In addition to its broader history and various methods of treatment, mental illness in South Korea is highly gendered. Hwa-byung, mentioned above, is associated the most with middle-aged women, particularly in rural areas (Choi 594). In Korean society, women are held to Confucian standards, which “emphasize emotional and behavioral control to cultivate harmonious hierarchical interpersonal relationships” (Choi 596). This makes women more likely to suppress their negative emotions such as anger, compared to men, leading to higher rates of hwa-byung in women. This suppression also comes from the expectation that women are supposed to express affirmative or positive emotions and to have strict personal standards of behavior. This repressive standard leads to depression, resentment, guilt, anxiety, dependency, low self-esteem, and passive aggressiveness (Choi 595, 597). The anger itself comes from “feeling ignored, having ideas discounted, feeling disrespected by too many interruptions, or being treated unfairly” (Choi 595).

Finally, beyond the gendered aspect of mental illness, Korean society views disability and mental illness as connected to “the imaginary of the colonial Korean body politic during Japanese rule” (Kim 3). There is a focus on the need to cure mental illnesses, meaning a desire “to remedy, rectify, or remove (an evil of any kind),” showing the moral judgment implicit in the meaning of the word “cure”, as well as its connections to shamanism (Kim 6). Korean society places a focus on “curative time,” where an individual should wait for a cure rather than living their life (Kim 8). In this way, people with mental illnesses are often sent away to institutions, where they will either be cured of their illnesses, and return to society, or live out their lives in isolation. These cures also often carry risks of pain, violence, and even death; e.g., electric shock therapy (Kim 13). Violence is frequently justified in the name of curing someone, invalidating their current state of existence, and saying that their life is not worth living unless they fit in with “normal society” (Kim 14). This need for a cure can be seen, especially in literature, as representative of the need to find a cure for the damaged (often female-coded) nation, not simply the individual, often through the process of “curative violence” in order to return to a normal (i.e. masculine, patriarchal, healthy, monoracial) state. (Kim 32). 

In this paper, this background on mental illness in South Korea will be used to analyze the selected short story in the specific cultural context of South Korea in the 1970s. I will pay close attention to the connections with the historical treatment of mental health in Korea, both Western and shamanistic, as well as the gendered and female-specific experiences of mental illness, and the overall perception of mental illness as something to be cured in Korean society. 

II. Analysis of the Portrayal of Mental Illness in “Evening Game”

a. The Mother’s Life

In “Evening Game,” written in 1979 by O Chonghui, the narrator, presumed to be a middle-aged woman, lives with her aging father. It is revealed throughout the story that her older brother has left the family and that her mother, afflicted with a mental illness for much of the narrator’s life, died at an unspecified time in a mental institution, which she was taken to after killing the narrator’s baby brother. In the present time in the story, the narrator and her father play hwatu, a fortune telling card game, in which the cards are so worn that it is easy to tell which one is which. The card game serves as a kind of ritual for the father and daughter. 

O portrays the treatment of mental illness through pseudo-shamanistic rituals in “Evening Game.” It is mentioned that the narrator’s mother, who suffered from an unidentified mental illness, was treated by someone in an attempt to exorcize her of the presumed evil spirit causing the illness. The narrator reminisces, “he wasn’t a preacher and he wasn’t a shaman, but he sure knew how to whip her with peach branches” (O 193). The mentions of a preacher and a shaman as potential people who could cure the mother are references to both traditional methods of treatment by shamans as well as more recent Western-imported Christianity. Interestingly, treatment by either a shaman or a priest would have involved some kind of exorcism, showing the pervasive connection of mental illness with evil spirits and curses. By having the narrator’s mother whipped with peach branches to try and cure her, it shows that the narrator’s father was willing to let his wife be hurt due to the damaging societal norm of curative violence, in an attempt to make her become “normal”. Additionally, O’s choice of having the mother treated by a man is interesting, as shamans were usually female. By having a man perform the shamanistic ritual, O creates a dichotomy between traditionally patriarchal Korean family society and matriarchal shamanistic practices. This contrast has a strong narrative effect, as it shows the inability of the narrator’s household to afford better and more reliable treatment for the mother, as well as the father’s desperation to see her cured despite the pseudo-practitioner’s obvious lack of legitimacy and the violent nature of the treatment. In this way, O portrays the mother as a victim of societal norms, where she is hurt in an attempt to be healed and return to normal, despite a lack of verifiable traditional or religious treatment available to her. 

O illustrates how the mother’s mental illness eventually culminates in outright repudiation of her role within her family and society, leading to her exile from it and eventual death. In “Evening Game,” when the narrator is in elementary school, she returns home from school to find that her baby brother has disappeared. Her mother reassures her by saying, “Don’t worry–I’ll buy a doll for you” (O 193). This piece of dialogue reveals the severity of the mother’s illness, potentially exacerbated by postpartum depression, where she has killed her own child and believes that he is replaceable with a doll. By saying that her child’s brother can be replaced by a doll, the mother demonstrates the lack of connection she had with her son: his ability to breathe, sleep, cry, and grow up is seemingly unimportant to her. This shows her complete rejection of her role as a mother, taking away life instead of creating it. 

Furthermore, the mother has embraced her illness and is using it as an escape from gendered expectations in contrast to her husband’s “unrestrained lifestyle” (O 193). There is a contradiction in the roles of the narrator’s mother and father: while the mother is expected to give birth to, raise, and care for her children as well as work as a kindergarten teacher, the father is carefree and without responsibilities. The mother is performing very traditionally feminine roles, such as being a wife and mother, as well as the male role of provider by working as a teacher, further juxtaposing her with her husband. In this way, by repudiating the expectations to care for her children and be a dutiful wife, mother, and member of society, her character can be read as both influenced by her mental illness, in that she acts outside of societal norms because of it, but also embracing it, because she is able to escape the expectations placed upon her. 

After the murder takes place, the narrator’s mother is taken to a mental hospital, physically and emotionally separating her from her family and Korean society thereafter, as she cannot be returned to society until she either is cured of her illness or dies. The narrator receives letters from her mother, saying, “Sweetie, take me home! It’s scary here. I’m lonely,” to which the narrator replies, “I know, but it’s the same everywhere” (O 195). This dialogue effectively displays the state of mental health care in South Korea in the late 1970s, where the only affordable treatment was given by illegally-run private institutions which provided deplorable levels of alleged care for patients. The mother and daughter’s exchange exemplifies the situations many patients and families found themselves in, where people received inadequate care, but were unable to leave because their families could not take them back as they were deemed dangerous to society. 

O illustrates the stigma surrounding women’s mental health through the motif of flowers. At an unspecified point after the mother’s institutionalization, the narrator and her father go to the hospital to get her mother’s body. It isn’t revealed how she died. The narrator remembers, “the smell of flowers from Mother, who had started turning putrid, was acrid, rather like smoke” (O 200). In the short story, flowers are seen in the hwatu cards, the mother’s perfume and hair, etc. In Korean culture, women only wear flowers in their hair if they’re children or madwomen. By using this motif, especially when talking about or around the subject of the mother (e.g. in the card game), O weaves in this infantilizing belief, effectively supporting the narrative that the mother struggles with her mental health, especially by placing her in contrast with other healthy, adult women who are not associated with flowers. As previously mentioned, the mother rejects her role of wife and mother by embracing the symptoms of her illness and killing her child. By doing this, she not only embraces her illness but also its connection to childhood. In this way, the connection between mental illness and girlhood becomes more relevant, and raises the question: Why do Korean women with mental illness have these illnesses? How much of their mental states are a product of their circumstances, under constant pressure in private and public spheres to fulfill gendered expectations in the home and in the workplace? Therefore, by having the scent of flowers linger on the mother even in death, O demonstrates the mother’s continued desire to return to her childhood and escape the societal pressure surrounding her. Furthermore, by having this scent turn acrid when she dies, O shows how the mother has been consumed by her illness from the inside out, and how now, in this state of death and decay, there is still a continuous barrier between her and other people. This barrier is a product of the Korean attitude towards mental illness. The mother’s suffering in the mental institution is one example of the othering and negative effects of this cultural attitude. 

The motif of flowers and the lasting presence of their scent on the mother demonstrate the pervasiveness of the gendered expectations present in Korean society’s perception of female mental illness, and how women cannot escape feminine expectations (even through mental illness). This emphasizes the mother’s inability to survive in or connect with Korean society. O displays how the mother has been overtaken by the expectations surrounding her behavior, even in death, and how her illness is not able to give her a full escape from it. Likewise, the continued presence of the scent of flowers after the mother’s death shows how the stigma of the mother’s illness remains for her family posthumously, demonstrating how rumors and people’s reputations are affected by the stigma around mental illness. 

b. The Narrator’s Life

The narrator’s life is deeply impacted by her mother’s illness. O portrays how her life is affected, from a lack of marriage prospects to the worn-out card game she plays. The title of the story, “Evening Game,” comes from the fortune-telling card game, hwatu, that the narrator plays with her father every night. While playing, the narrator comments, “the backs of the cards told me what they were” (O 189). The cards range in type from plum blossom to peony to paulownia, and their point values vary. In the story, the game is a kind of ritual for the family, where they play and replay it with the same cards until they are worn out and easily identifiable, taking one of the main challenges of the game away, yet they don’t get a new deck of cards. The game is a metaphor for their father and daughter relationship: they know each other very well, but can’t get rid of or exchange each other despite built-up resentment, so they find themselves interacting in a circular fashion, holding their cards to their chests literally and figuratively, and never truly addressing the topics that matter, such as the treatment of the narrator’s mother, her brother’s abandonment of the family, or the main character’s dissatisfaction with her life. 

In the game, like in her life, the daughter is taking care of her father, who responds to her care with orders or “a childish, slack-jawed grin” (O 190). She concedes to his whims, eating extra slowly so that she doesn’t leave him eating alone, due to his health issues, and letting him win their games so that he can feel satisfied with himself. Their relationship is both parent-child and patient-caretaker, where in either scenario she is constantly the filial daughter, putting aside her own life to take care of him in the Confucian fashion, where children are meant to place their parents’ needs above their own. The daughter’s resentment of her father is never discussed with him, and many things go unsaid. Due to her mother’s illness and actions, her entire family carries the resulting stigma, and this discriminatory reputation has ensured that the narrator has been unable to marry, something that she resents. Additionally, at this point in her life (she is implied to be middle-aged), according to Korean societal norms, she should be living her own life, with her parents left to care for each other. However, due to her mother’s illness and death, she has to fulfill the empty role as the woman of the house, leaving her and her father to, “[perform] an endless play from a tattered, worn-out script” (O 191). Instead of discussing her mother’s illness, they dance around the subject, playing hwatu with its flower cards and indirectly showing how the narrator’s mother is still present in their lives despite her death. Like her marriage, the topics of her mother and her mental illness are left undiscussed, leaving the two of them to continue reading from their script, avoiding direct communication, and ignoring the genuine problems that require solving both in their relationship and in their lives. The repetitive gameplay and carefully worded conversations are a metaphor for Korean society’s relationship with mental health, and indeed the society as a whole in the late 1970s. Everyone is tired, beaten down, and suffering in some way, but they all refuse to talk about what matters, preferring to keep up the status quo despite the misery it brings them. In particular, mental illness is highly stigmatized, with patients taken away from society to suffer in isolation and their families left behind, separated from them but still affected in numerous ways by their illnesses. 

Due to her family circumstances, the narrator, like many middle-aged women in Korea, experiences mental health issues of her own. As previously mentioned, she does not voice her resentment towards her father or her dissatisfaction with her own life. She also has dreams where she talks with a mysterious young man and can discuss her trauma.

The narrator of the story is unable to express her emotions, at best saying things to her father like, “well, you could have taken better care of [my mother].” (O 193). Even when she is able to articulate her feelings, she often keeps them trapped inside, resulting in the fragmented flashbacks present in the short story, mimicking the symptoms of hwa-byung, where emotions and trauma are suppressed, occasionally building up enough to jump out unexpectedly. Additionally, the narrator’s dreams are indicative of her mental state and her feelings. As she is confined by the gendered expectations to be a filial healthy daughter, placed upon her by her father and society, she is only free to do otherwise in her dreams. In a recurring dream, she interacts with a mysterious young man, saying to him, “Yes, I guess I’m too old to be tying my hair with a red ribbon. Only a crazy woman or a prostitute would do that” (O 194). This is significant because throughout the story her mother is associated with flowers, showing the pervasive presence of her mental illness and her desire to return to girlhood. Likewise, the main character mirrors this by wearing bright colors in her hair. In her recurring dream, the main character is able to acknowledge the topic of mental illness and the behaviors associated with it. Interestingly, while her dreams are a kind of safe space for her to act as she wishes, outside of her daughterly duties, we also see her placing the same kind of judgment on herself that her mother faced from her father. This leads to her condemning her own actions of exploring her past and desire for her girlhood while still doing them. Furthermore, this exploration occurring only in her dreams is significant because dreams are short-lived and temporary. The narrator cannot stay too long within them without going mad like her mother, hence why she self-censures. This shows the pervasiveness of the public and private pressures that the main character faces, where even in her subconscious, she is not fully free. In this way, we see her portrayed as a woman suppressing her own desires to fulfill both public and private gendered expectations, whose life is deeply affected by her mother’s mental illness and whose buried trauma is causing her own mental health issues and desire to be free of her burdens. O effectively shows the myriad of ways that the narrator’s life has been affected, displaying the effects of the stigma surrounding mental illness in Korean society in the 1970s.

The narrator’s dreams are not only a place for her to be free from the constraints of her life, they are also a place for her to work through her trauma. In her dream, she declares, “‘I’m going to catch some butterflies.’ […] ‘Your mother looked like a butterfly,’ Father had said” (O 194). When she says this, it is both sad and informative: she is looking for her mother in her dreams, because she cannot find her or even talk about her in reality. Her dreams are a place for her to express her emotions towards and about her mother and attempt to work through them. They are a place for her to try to understand her mother, such as by wearing the ribbon in her hair and trying to live freely at least in her dreams. However, even in her private life she is unable to convey her unacceptable emotions about her mother’s actions and illness as well as her father’s treatment of her mother, as the Confucian societal expectations are exacerbated by both her strained familial relationships and the negative attitude towards mental illness in South Korea. Thus, her use of dreams to explore her emotions and acknowledge the traumatic events she has faced is made even more striking. In this way, O portrays mental illness in South Korean society as both intensely private and highly stigmatized, with multiple consequences on one’s life. 

In conclusion, as seen through the lenses of new criticism and cultural analysis in the short story “Evening Game” (1979) by O Chonghui, O explores the topic of mental illness through the characters of the mother and the daughter. O employs pseudo-shamanistic rituals and curative violence, the repudiation of gender and familial roles, and the motif of flowers to examine the character of the mother, portraying her illness as an affliction she suffers from as well as an escape to girlhood from her duties as a wife and mother, where her illness is ever-present in her life. The daughter’s character is examined primarily through the effects her mother’s illness has on her life, where she faces private and societal expectations to fulfill her role as a filial daughter and take care of her father in her mother’s absence. O portrays the father and daughter’s relationship as a microcosm of Korean society, where standards of behavior and attitudes towards mental illness compound in the two characters’ ritualistic nightly game of hwatu, where the effects of these norms and attitudes, including curative violence, remain undiscussed. O also displays the narrator’s resulting hwa-byung disorder, where she has buried her resentment towards her father and trauma about her mother’s illness so deeply that she can only fully express these emotions, along with her desire for freedom from her daughterly duties, in her dreams. By showing how the narrator’s dreams are a place of escape and expression for her, O demonstrates the harsh effects that trauma and gendered expectations placed upon her have produced. She ultimately uses the story to depict the negative and highly stigmatized treatment of mental illness in South Korean society in the 1970s, showing how for women especially, their societal roles and mental health were intimately connected, and that they faced challenges both privately and publicly. 

Abigail Brewer is a U2 Honors East Asian Studies major with minors in English Literature and Hispanic Studies. She comes from the United States, and is interested in literature, learning languages, and popular culture. After her BA at McGill, she hopes to explore a career that combines her passion for languages, reading, writing, and travel. 


Choi, Yun-Jung. “The Impact of Gender, Culture, and Society on Korean Women’s Mental Health.” Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, vol. 43, no. 4, 2015, pp. 593–600.,

Connor, Linda, et al.. “The Cultural Politics of ‘Superstition’ in the Korean Shaman World: Modernity Constructs Its Other.” Healing Powers and Modernity: Traditional Medicine, Shamanism, and Science in Asian Societies, Bergin; Garvey, Westport, CT, 2001, pp. 25–37. 

Kim, Eunjung. “Introduction: Time and the Presence of Disability.” Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Korea, Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 1–41. 

O, Chonghui. “Evening Game.” Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers, Seal Press, 1989, pp. 181-201. 

Sung-kil, Min, and Yeo In-sok. “Mental Health in Korea: Past and Present.” International and Cultural Psychology, 2017, pp. 79–92., Accessed 9 Nov. 2021. 

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