Just a pretty face? The long, little known history of Korean flower boys
Image above: The cast of popular 2013 drama Flower Boy Next Door
If you are into Korean dramas or Korean pop music, you have probably heard the term ‘flower boy’ (kkotminam 꽃미남) being used to refer to delicate, slightly feminine-looking boys. In dramas the ‘flower boy’ is the cute, generous boy next door who is kind and caring toward our heroine the moment she comes stumbling into the store where he works, or into the apartment complex he happens to live in. In the drama You’re Beautiful the protagonist’s name is a wordplay on this particular word nominalised as Go Mi Nam with Go Mi Nyeo (nyeo 녀 meaning ‘girl’) as the female equivalent. But what is the origin of this word that has found its way into the vocabulary of those captivated by the Hallyu Wave?
It can be traced back to the ancient Shilla Kingdom, one of the three that occupied the Korean Peninsula from 57 BC to 935 AD. This kingdom had a highly developed artistic and intellectual culture which flourished under figures such as Queen Seondeok, whose life is portrayed in the drama of the same name. This culture was expressed primarily in the cultural and military elite known as the hwarang(花郞) , the characters to which literally mean ‘flower boy’. Chinese sources refer only to the physical beauty of these flower boys, which perhaps has had some bearing on how the term is used today.
Trained from an early age in the arts of poetry and warfare, these flower boys were essentially the idols of their era. Their sole dedication was to protect the country from invaders, and from being swallowed by the much larger Koguryo kingdom, which posed a perpetual threat from the north. Often when faced with a hostile army, a mere two boys would be sent out simply for the honour of dying on the battlefield.
From the twelfth century, however, when general Wang Keon from Shilla unified the Korean peninsula under his rule, the term fell out of favour as a way of referring to a cultural and military elite. Instead, it would be used as a derogatory word for those whose lifestyles were considered too decadent, a prejudice which was rooted in the hwarang’s use of make-up to enhance their features. Growing up extremely isolated with little to no exposure to women other than their family, it is not strange to imagine that homosexual relations developed among the ranks of these young men. Thus, the term was applied to those men who displayed behaviour that was considered ‘feminine’, including the use of make-up and displays of intimate affection toward other men.
Up until the era of Japanese colonisation (1910-1945), few people knew that the hwarang had ever existed; only a handful of scholars from society’s yangban , or nobility, had access to possible sources that detailed the lives of these ‘flower boys’. During the Japanese colonisation era, however , the hwarang emerged as symbols of Korean resistance, with a status comparable to that of Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years’ War. The long-forgotten warriors became idols once again.
So how did the images that the term ‘flower boy’ evokes nowadays come to be? One possible explanation is that everyone can read Chinese characters. In Korea, learning hanja is compulsory from primary-age education, and Chinese and Japanese are offered as elective subjects in middle school. This education renders many Chinese texts describing the hwarang legible for millions of readers – texts that emphasize the flower-like beauty of these men rather than their military prowess. Another factor is the boys presented in Japanese comics targeted at girls (shoujo). In these comics young men are often portrayed as large-eyed, fair-skinned and impeccably stylish. They are generally considerate and sweet regarding the heroine, acting as their best friend and confidant, eventually developing into a love interest. These men, known as bishounen, can also be cold and cruel, in which case it is a major plot point for the heroine to win him over . The ‘flower boy’ as we know the term today is, in essence, a real-life embodiment of the boys from girls’ comics, at least in terms of their appearance.
The ‘flower boy’ as applied to a young man’s personality traits can be partly considered in the light of the Japanese Bentou Danshi, or ‘’lunch box boy.’’Before the 1950s no man set foot in the kitchen except as a professional chef. From 1950, however, men who cooked at home for their families crept into Japanese gastronomic novels, and in 1980 a gourmet boom took place with a growth in the number of men making their own bentou, or lunch boxes. This can be seen as a ‘feminisation’ of young men (danshi translates as ‘boy’), also because danshi gohan (cooking for men) contrasted wildly with otoko ryori (lit. Men’s cooking), the latter of which was considered more adventurous. This ‘adventurousness’ was considered a typical men’s prerogative, but with the rising popularity of danshi gohan among men, the adventurous cooking made way for healthy, cheap, and carefully prepared meals. Given the normalisation of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan in 1965, it could very well be that this trend expanded to Korea, which consequently experienced a significant portion of the growth and development of this phenomenon.
One issue that arises within the frame of this ‘feminisation’ is that men to whom the term ‘flower boy’ is applied may be considered not masculine enough. As I mentioned earlier, a flower boy might develop into a love interest throughout the course of a drama. However, this flower boy rarely ever gets the girl. Instead, the ‘real man’, defined by his tortured past and/or loveless family, is presented as the ideal candidate for our heroine to start a romantic relationship with. This is quite problematic, as the latter’s background serves in most cases as a justification for (nearly) abusive behaviour toward the female lead. This instills the idea that only these kinds of men are worth pursuing, and that as long as a woman understands that not the man himself but another factor entirely is to blame, she must endure his abuse. The flower boy’s personality traits are too similar to those typically ascribed to women; he might as well be a female character. This stems from the ages-old paradigm that women are somehow inferior to men. If a man is too ‘feminine’, he can not, by default, be a serious love interest.
Over the course of history, flowers boys went from being noble warriors giving their lives for their country to stock characters in dramas who are not taken seriously but nevertheless provide a love-triangle element in the storyline. Flower boy has become a stereotype which quickly draws associations of a boy not being masculine enough for adapting traits traditionally attributed to women. As long as gender inequality exists in South Korea, I sadly do not see a return to the noble roots of the flower boys anytime soon.