If you enjoy watching sageuk Korean dramas, then you have probably already come across the concept of gisaeng, women entertainers from ancient Korea.
They are beautiful, dressed in gorgeous hanbok and with their hair coiled high around their heads. They were well educated in the arts (dance, music, poetry etc.) at a time when educating women was not considered important, and were also usually slaves.
I have come across gisaeng in many a Kdrama, but I was particularly struck by the way they were depicted in the Korean drama GU FAMILY BOOK, where a young girl of noble birth (the character Chungjo) was struck down and marked as a traitor to the crown, eventually forced to become a gisaeng.
Prior to watching Gu Family Book, I hd never thought much about how a woman in Joseon times might actually become a gisaeng, and I ended up doing a little reading around the subject, and then became fascinated enough that I wrote a whole book series about gisaeng (see my BOOKS page for blurbs on my PROMISE SERIES, three stand alone stories all starring gisaeng protagonists).
I am no expert, but here is some of the interesting information I found about gisaeng:
From the beginning, their low social status was closely tied to their “official duties” of providing entertainment for government officials and their guests: artistic performances as well as sexual services.
In the early Joseon Kingdom, the most famous gisaeng was Hwang Jini, from Gaeseong (or Songdo), the former capital of Goryeo, who was renowned for both her beauty and remarkably evocative poetry. Many of these poems survive to this day, and they speak powerfully to the perspectives and concerns shared probably by most gisaeng, including nature, sorrow, beauty, and of course romantic love.
The further institutionalization of the gisaeng courtesans’ roles as the hereditary providers of government “services” developed hand-in-hand with their growing significance as transmitters of Korean cultural forms in music, dance, and literature.
This somewhat strange and contradictory combination placed them in an odd social position, as women who readily interacted with the most powerful but who belonged to, and were usually treated as, those whose social status barely rose above that of slaves.
In fact, they were slaves, in the sense that they rarely could escape their low birth status. They were also sexual slaves, due to the solidification of their role as concubines for the nobility and other highly privileged males. Very few children of these sexual unions, with fathers belonging to the uppermost level of society and mothers to the lowermost, could escape this bondage, although probably many of them tried.
This perhaps was an originating element behind the most famous folk tale in Korea, the “Tale of Chunhyang.” This story is often accepted as a great representation of Korean traditional culture, but it also symbolizes the multiple, contradictory, and likely painful roles played by the gisaeng. In the story, Chunhyang is the daughter of a former county magistrate of the county of Namweon, Jeolla province, and of a local gisaeng.
There was nothing unusual about such a social standing, as there were likely many thousands of girls just like Chunhyang in real life. But in this story, the beautiful Chunhyang gets “married” to an aristocratic male and insists, in resisting the advances of another magistrate, that she is not a gisaeng, unlike most other daughters of such unions who, in real life, indeed became gisaeng themselves.
Indeed, the marriage union to an aristocrat was highly unlikely in real Joseon society, as was the tale’s happy ending.Kyung Moon Hwang – a wonderful and fascinating article in Korea times
Origins and End:
How gisaeng first came to be and when the practice was officially abolished:
The gisaeng were also known as “flowers that speak poetry.” They likely originated in the Goryeo Kingdom from 935 to 1394 and continued to exist in different regional variations through the Joseon era of 1394 through 1910.
Following the mass displacement that happened to start the Goryeo Kingdom—the fall of the Later Three Kingdoms—many nomadic tribes formed in early Korea, scarring the first king of Goryeo with their sheer number and the potential for civil war. As a result, Taejo, the first king, ordered that these traveling groups—called Baekje—be enslaved to work for the kingdom instead.
The term gisaeng was first mentioned in the 11th century, though, so it may have taken a while for scholars in the capital to begin reappropriating these slave-nomads as artisans and prostitutes. Still, many believe their first use was more for tradable skills like sewing, music, and medicine.
The last king of the Joseon Kingdom and first emperor of the newly established Empire of Korea, Gojong, abolished the social status of the gisaeng and slavery altogether when he took the throne as part of the Gabo Reform of 1895.Kallie Szczepanski – taken from her article: Gisaeng: Korea’s Geisha Women
A Famous Gisaeng:
Okay, I know Wikipedia isn’t the bestest of sites for reliable information, but here we go anyway:
Gisaeng were women from outcast or slave families who were trained to be courtesans, providing artistic entertainment and conversation to men of upper class.
First appearing in Goryeo, kisaeng were the government’s legal entertainers, required to perform various functions for the state. Many were employed at court, but they were also spread throughout the country.
They were carefully trained and frequently accomplished in the fine arts, poetry, and prose, and although they were of low social class, they were respected as educated artists.
Aside from entertainment, their roles included medical care and needlework. Kisaengs play an important role in Korean conceptions of the traditional culture of the Joseon. Some of Korea’s oldest and most popular stories, such as Chunhyangjeon, feature kisaeng as heroines.
Although the names of most real kisaeng have been forgotten, a few are remembered for an outstanding attribute, such as skill or loyalty. The most famous of these is the 16th-century Hwang Jini.Wikipedia
Hwang Jini or Hwang Jin-Yi (황진이; c. 1506 – c. 1560), also known by her gisaeng name Myeongwol (“bright moon”, 명월), was one of the most famous gisaeng of the Joseon Dynasty. She lived during the reign of King Jungjong.
She was noted for her exceptional beauty, charming quick wit, extraordinary intellect, and her assertive and independent nature. She has become an almost myth-like figure in modern Korea, inspiring novels, operas, films, and television series.
She was born to the daughter of a scribe called Jeon Hyun Geum and a politician’s son who went by the name Hwang. The story goes that her parents met while her mother was doing laundry, but the two could not get married and she became the illegitimate daughter of Hwang.
She was known for her beauty and her bold personality. As Hwang Jini grew older, many men wanted to marry her. According to legend, one day a coffin was passing in front of her house, but the coffin stopped and refused to move from her house just listening to her read her poetry. She then ran out and stripped off her outer skirt from her hanbok to cover the coffin, and only then did the coffin started to move again. The coffin was said to have carried the body of her lover who was born of a higher class, but due to her lower status the two could not wed and the man died of a broken heart. She then decides to become a gisaeng after losing her lover at the age of 15.
Women during the Joseon dynasty were restricted inside the houses and were considered property. They could not marry whoever they wanted and a daughter born out of wedlock was considered an untouchable. Hwang Jini chose to become a gisaeng in order to escape the strict rules that women had to follow during the Joseon Dynasty. Hwang Jini refused to follow strict social norms for women and chose the life of a gisaeng giving her the freedom to learn not only dance and music, but also art, literature, and poetry – topics that were not normally taught to young women during the time.Wikipedia
What to Watch to Learn More:
Here is a list of dramas and movies (some I have watched and others I have not) that may provide more insight into the role of the Korean gisaeng in Joseon:
(to be honest though, pick up any historical sageuk Kdrama and you should find at least one depiction of a gisaeng!)
- Gu Family Book – Kdrama
- Hwang Jini – 2006 Kdrama starring Ha Ji-won
- Hwang Jin Yi – 2007 Korean film starring Song Hye Kyo
Are you interested in gisaeng? I’d love to know!
Thank you for reading, please feel free to leave a comment below!
LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea. Discover Lee Evie’s historical fiction novels by clicking on the images below!