I briefly visited Ehwa Womans University, the first educational institution in Korea to accept female students, later the first officially recognized university, and the currently the largest educational institution in the world which only accepts female students.
Ehwa has some medieval-European style buildings which are rarely seen in East Asia (it was founded by an American Christian missionary, Mary F. Scranton) but the really striking building is a structure in a hill which goes down six stories with an outdoor staircase cut into it.
My main reason to visit Ehwa, however, was to visit the Ehwa Womans University Museum.
In the basement of the museum is a permanent exhibition dedicated to the lives of women of the Joseon era, both upper and lower class. According to the museum, in the early Joseon era women had a wider ranges of rights, sometimes equal or nearly equal to the rights of men, and had a greater freedom of movement. As the Joseon dynasty became increasingly Neo-Confucian, women lost rights, their movements became more restricted, and separation between men and women became more strictly enforced. However, even with the loss of rights and freedom, women continued to play an essential role in Joseon society.
The top two floors were dedicated to Korean artwork from the first half of the 20th century. It starts with artwork from the end of the Great Han Empire (Very Late Joseon), and then shows art by Koreans from when Korea was a Japanese colony. Some Korean artists from this era were very conservative, trying to preserve what they considered to be the essence of Korean culture, while other Korean artists studied in Japan and embraced ‘Western’ art styles. The museum indicates a continuity among these artists, a distinctly Korean spirit which manifests itself in all of these works.
Ehwa Womans University itself had fostered some of these early 20th century artists, as an institution which had tried to preserve and develop Korean culture during the Japanese colonial era.
When I was in the gallery showing paintings by artists who had studied ‘Western’ styles, a docent-led group was also moving through the gallery, commenting on the works in Korean.
There was also a gallery featuring clothing from the Joseon era which I liked.
I can’t say that Ehwa is a must-visit, but it is a worthwhile visit for anyone who has time. I haven’t seen anything like that semi-underground building, and the museum is a good place to learn about Korean art and culture.