The Politics and Portrayals of Voluntary Death in China and Korea – From Imperium to the Internet Age

Conference: AAS-in-Asia2020 (AAS-in-Asia2020)
Title: The Politics and Portrayals of Voluntary Death in China and Korea – From Imperium to the Internet Age
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Yvon Wang, University of Toronto, Canada (organizer,presenter)
Peter Carroll, Northwestern University, United States (presenter)
Wesley Chaney, Bates College, United States (presenter)
Keren He, Dickinson College, United States (presenter)
Sun-Chul Kim, Independent Scholar, South Korea (presenter)
Janet Theiss, University of Utah, United States (discussant)
Changlin Liu, Shanghai University, China (chair)


This panel surveys the practice and representations of suicide in China and Korea, 19th century to the present. We discuss the definition and analysis of self-murder by legal authorities, intellectuals, trauma survivors, and those who attempted and, in some cases, successfully completed it to interrogate suicide as a collision between individual agency and larger structures of political and cultural power. Wesley Chaney extricates the significance of heretofore overlooked ethnic and religious differences in suicides relating to property disputes in Gansu province to highlight social fissures along the Qing empire’s borderlands. Keren He and Peter Carroll address assessments of self-murder as a response to the perceived bleakness of the dawning twentieth century. Examining the Buddhist writer and translator Su Manshu’s reworking of Hugo’s Les Misérables, He discusses Su’s contention that suicide was compelled by grim social realities. Carroll, in turn, considers intellectuals’ critiques of a purported suicide epidemic as the result of the rapid material and ideological transformations of modernity. Yvon Wang accentuates the political resonance of changes and continuities in the treatment of self-killing by official media during the Maoist period. Sun-Chul Kim then shifts our discussion to examine how South Korean self-immolations have been practiced by non-activists as well as political protesters, pointing to deeper cultural meanings behind this dramatic act. In sum, we distill changing assessments of the nature and influence of sociocultural factors in determining the calculus of suicide.