Kisaeng in Premodern Korean History

Jun 6, 2018
folder_opencategory: History

The history of Kisaeng represents the historical period from the Goryeo dynasty to the modern history of Korea. Having emerged during the rule of the Goryeo dynasty, they were famous till 1876. Their stories date back to the Chinese hegemony on the Korean territories. Korea does not tell much about Kisaeng. It is a part of the history filled with legends and myths. There is little information in official sources about this social phenomenon. It is hard to tell what role exactly they played in the society and why the Korean history is silent about the issue. Despite the silence of official sources, millions of Korean books and novels tell the world about its existence. From sparse information that can be found in primary sources, it is known that introduction of Kisaeng in Korea had political reasons. The Kisaeng’s main task was to entertain guests, heads of famous dynasties, and high political officials. However, there exist examples of Kisaengs that held positions in the juridical and cultural fields.

Traditional Meaning of Kisaeng

Kisaeng is the Korean name for an ancient profession spread in the Oriental world. According to historians, Korea used to be “the most Confucian-oriented country in the world” (De Mente, 2009, 65). Kisaeng represented a special social category in premodern Korea. They were distributed in different regions, cities, and palaces. Many of them worked at the Royal Court or in governmental structures and hotels. They helped artists at big festivals, provided services in hotels, and organized governmental meetings and tea ceremonies. According to Hwang (2010), in the Korean History, “the Kisaeng courtisans carried out both sexual and artistic functions” (p. 94). Michael Seth wrote in his historical research that “the Kisaeng were carefully trained female entertainers, similar to the Chinese singsong girls and the Japanese geisha” (Seth, 2006, p. 34). In fact, the word ‘Kisaeng’ means ‘a person of art’ or ‘a skilled in various arts person’.

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Kisaengs played a very important role in the Korean history and were presented in all fields of country life, including social, political, economic, and cultural domains. The official history of Korea conceals facts related to Kisaeng. References to them are found occasionally in official documents. Even now, the official history of Korea hardly tells stories about Kisaeng. However, millions of Korean novels written centuries ago tell about existence of so-called Kisaengs and open secrets of their profession. According to Jenifer Kim (2005), Kisaeng remains the unique nexus between ancient and modern Korean history because the tradition has been preserved till today. A famous song of the Korean literature about Kisaeng is called ‘The Song of Chun-hyang’. Park (2008) has collected the most precious works from the premodern Korean history. The story tells about the main functions of Kisaeng and reveals a beautiful romance between Chunghyang and Yi Mong-nyong. According to this Asian version of a story about Romeo and Juliette, “The young couple was forced to say a tearful goodbye at the Magpie Bridge” (Ha, 1967) because Chunhyang was the daughter of a Kisaeng, and there could not be any official marriage with her. These words were written in the 1800s and show the attitude to Kisaengs in the Korean premodern society.

According to historical sources, the first words about Kisaeng in Korea appeared in the beginning of the 11th century. The tradition came from China. At the beginning of the 11th century, Kisaengs played musical instruments, practiced medicine, and made clothes. The entertainment role in palaces was performed by ladies. According to historical documents, during the Chinese hegemony over the Korean peninsula, Chinese bureaucrats and officials requested “a large number of Korean girls to the Court annually to satisfy the sexual needs of court officials and visiting male dignitaries” (De Mente, 2009, p. 64). Kisaeng was a Korean version of the phenomenon, which was widely spread throughout the East. The tradition born in China moved to Japan and was called Geisha there. Then, it was borrowed by Koreans.

Social Meaning of Kisaeng

In accordance with ancient traditions of noble families, women in Korea had to conduct a secluded life. They were rarely able to leave the house and it was strictly forbidden for them to meet with visiting guests if they were not their close relatives. A female part of a noble house was closed for outsiders. Therefore, all meetings and interviews in Korean homes were exclusively organized in the male company. However, exclusively men's company had not only advantages but also disadvantages. Rich and notable Koreans liked sometimes to spend time not in disputes over the Confucian philosophy or fiscal policy, but in a more relaxed and frivolous atmosphere. Women's presence was needed. However, women from good families were not allowed to pass time in a company of strangers. It was considered as a violation of the Confucian morality. So, in ancient times, men found an official way to entertain guests in China. Over time, such profession was introduced in other countries, including Korea. Unlike the vast majority of Korean women, such females were well-educated, spoke not only their native Korean but also classical Chinese, which was the language of the Korean science and culture until the end of the last century. Moreover, they wrote poetry and played musical instruments.

According to Hwang (2010), “Like the Japanese geisha, Kisaeng courtesans carried out both sexual and artistic functions” (p. 94). Like the palace ladies, they were attached to the government. Hwang (2010) described the life of courtesans in the middle of the 16th century. They were highly literate women that preliminary became famous due to their skills to write stories. The status of Kisaengs was socially preconditioned as there was social and gender stratification. Kisaengs were professional courtesans. However, despite Oirans, their function was to entertain. Although Kisaeng could spend the night with her vendour or a guest ready to pay well for the pleasure, the basis of her work was to read verses and novels. They were not only girls sold by poor families, but also girls from noble families. The more talented the girl was, the higher social status she had. Thus, the main function of Kisaeng was organization of meetings, and their main advantage was the ability to support small talk, play music, sing, and write poetry.

According to Boye Lafayette De Mente (2009), “kept as virtual sex slaves for use by Court officials and government guests, these young women from the commoner class often had it better than other girls in a country because they were educated in a variety of skills” (p. 63). The author underlines that their work put them at the same level with slaves. It made them more attractive to clients. In comparison with Kisaeng, Geisha had a fairly high social status among women. At the same time, Kisaengs were totally powerless. They had a status equal with slaves and executioners. Theoretically, a daughter of a Kisaeng had to become a Kisaeng. It became a central idea of numerous plots of famous works of the Korean classical literature. According to the narrative literature, a sacred dream of many Kisaengs was to escape the gilded cage if not for themselves, then at least for the sake of their children. In fact, social status of Kisaeng was hereditary. The only hope of release was to become a wife of a nobleman or a rich merchant. It was not so easy because most Kisaengs were formally considered as property of the state or, less commonly, as slaves. Those who wanted to take a Kisaeng as a wife had to pay for her a great amount of money. Kisaengs were dealing with the elite in Korea. Other people could not have any contact with them because they simply could not afford their company. They were admired by the most educated and brilliant people in old Korea.

Education to Become Kisaeng

Due to the nature of their activities, Kisaengs were among the most educated people of that time. Kisaeng began to study at the age of eight. She received education at the Academy. She studied traditional Korean styles of music, singing, and dancing. The main focus was given to poetry, literature, and the ability to support a secular talk. The most famous institution for Kisaeng was once located in Pyongyang. Today, Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea and these women are subject to extreme disapproval.

Like Geishas, Kisaengs were trained in special houses and studied various forms of art. They were playing musical instruments and studied traditional singing, traditional dance, the art of the tea ceremony, the art of flower arrangements, Ikebana, poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Initially, girls simply served to geishas and learned from live examples. It is known that people are not able to be good in everything. Kisaengs and Geishas were talented in everything and had some kind of specialization. Some of them sang or danced better than others, while others were better in the conduction of tea ceremonies.

Kisaengs left a noticeable mark in the Korean literature both as heroines of works, as well as their sponsors. Kisaengs in Pyongyang were considered to be the most skilled and beautiful women. The Pyongyang school of Kisaeng was considered one of the best in the country and continued to work almost to the end of the period of the Japanese colonial rule.

Profession of Kisaeng

The Chinese tradition in Korea played a significant role. First appearing during the Goryeo Dynasty, Kisaengs were actually state servants. They used to work in entertainment houses and even in barber shops at the times of the Dynasty, but they rendered not only haircut services. Their professional activity was preceded by serious training. The career of most Kisaengs was very short. The peak was at 16-17 years of age. At the age of thirty, it ended. The best Kisaengs became beloved women of wealthy aristocrats, but very few men of that time dared to do so; therefore, most Kisaengs became tailoresses or workers. During the late Joseon Dynasty, the system of three levels was developed with respect to this profession. The highest rank was called ‘Hensu’. Its members could dance, sing, and entertain members of the nobility. The middle class was called ‘Isu’. Women who belonged to this class were not forbidden to have intimate connections with guests. Kisaengs of the lower rank called ‘Samsa’ were forbidden to perform songs and dances and were occupied in sexual services. This system lasted until the end of the 19th century. According to Everett Taylor Atkins (2010), “under the Japanese rule women generically called Kisaeng Played variegated roles as transmitters of the Korean musical and dance traditions, as celebrity performers of premodern (Western and Japanese) entertainment on stage” (p. 176).

Kisaengs have played an important role in the Korean society. During the war, besides their direct duties, they also provided medical assistance to the wounded and took care of sick soldiers. Many Kisaengs lived in army garrisons, especially in the dangerous regions. They performed domestic work relating to cooking, sewing clothes, as well as carrying out entertainment and sexual functions. During military conflicts, Kisaengs were deployed as secret agents. They used to worm out necessary information. Usually, Kisaengs could not leave the house they served because their relatives first should have find a new place for their transfer.

The Question of Intimacy

In 1932, a firmer version of Confucianism was adopted in Korea. According to the new policy, genders were segregated at the age of seven. Girls were provided with a special education. In his fantastic book The Asian mystique: Dragon ladies, geisha girls, & our fantasies of the exotic Orient, Prasso (2005) covers the most intime and secret topics of the Kisaeng’s mission. He tells readers that a night with a customer who agreed to pay was legitimate for the Korean Kisaeng, while the Japanese Geisha generally could not offer it (Prasso, 2005, p. 56). In old Japan, Geisha could have one or more lovers, receive gifts and money, but she could not have official relations. It was straightly forbidden by the law and was punishable. In Korea, in the pre-modern era people considered that the profession of Kisaeng was good for women, especially for their mental and physical health. However, later “when kisaeng became formally incorporated into the Japanese prostitution licensing system, their status became closer to that of the licensed sex worker, provoking a profound crisis for the profession” (Barraclough, 2012). It can be explained by the fact that the profession of Geisha was more associated with satisfaction and love needs than high talks, literature, and political circles in the Japanese tradition.

In my opinion, the Asian tradition looks too sexual for the conservative West. Kisaeng opens to me a mysterious, exotic, and extremely sensual Oriental world. It seems dangerous based on stereotypes that we have in terms of Asian geishas, Kisaengs, or orions. However, if people look at the tradition without prejudice, they will notice a power of grace and strength covered in that profession. I am amazed by clothes they used to wear, education they got, and lifestyle they had to conduct. Kisaengs were extremely educated women who travelled a lot in their country with different noble people. They knew secrets people even cannot imagine. Despite the magic of their mysterious life, people’s attitude to the profession of Kisaeng is very reserved. They think it was too vulgar and trivial. Even the official history of Korea has little to tell about the Kisaeng tradition.

Kisaeng is a phenomenon of the Asian lifestyle and philosophy, which is hard to understand for the Western civilization. They used to be educted women in royal courts and palaces and provided company to noble people in Korea. Due to their service, they were always close to the most important events in the country and had the most prescious sourse, i.e. information, at their disposal. There were special schools that taught how to become a Kisaeng in Korea. Little has changed since their appearance in the 11th century. The peak of their spread was in the 1850th when Kisaengs played an important role in political events of the country.

 

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