Gisaeng – Korea’s Multi-talented Female Entertainers
They could sing, dance, and recite poems. But most of all, they had a great store of knowledge that the upper-class enjoyed discussing current issues with them at banquets. Who were they? Renowned scholars of the time? Surprisingly, no, they were gisaeng/kisaeng 기생 – Korea’s multi-talented female entertainers. Their origin is unclear but, according to some scholars, the victorious Goryeo Dynasty had to find a way to effectively manage the war prisoners they had as a result of the successful unification of the Later Three Kingdoms 후삼국시대 husamgukshidae, and labelled male prisoners of war as “no” 노 and female prisoners as “bi” 비. Among them, females who excelled in dance and music were selected separately by the state, who later established a female music band called goryeo yeoak 고려 여악, and supplied them for the royal and Buddhist events.
During the Joseon Dynasty, gisaengs were managed and supervised under the system set up by the state, and for that reason only those registered with the government could work. Once on the register, they could not escape from the status of cheonmin 천민 (the lowest class of people, the “untouchable”), which was passed down to their children. Gisaengs had to be educated and trained for years because they had to be good at singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, writing poems, as well as calligraphy and drawing. Not only that, they learned to speak and behave in a refined and cultured manner because their clientele were mostly upper-class people.
Thus there was gyobang 교방, a school for educating gisaengs. The aspiring gisaengs entered the school at an early age. At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, gisaengs were divided into three groups: ilpae 일패, ipae 이패, and sampae 삼패 (1st, 2nd, and 3rd class). The ilpae gisaengs were a group of highly educated and trained female talents and belonged to the government, so they were known as “yangban (aristocracy/noblemen) gisaeng.” They were in charge of teaching and training new gisaengs for three years. On the other hand, ipae and sampae gisaengs were strictly prohibited from performing the dance and songs of ilpae. Unlike ilpae gisaengs, ipae and sampae gisaengs were allowed in providing sexual services for their clientele.
However, the system which categorized and distinguished the types and roles of gisaeng became blurry during the Japanese Occupation period, and there’s been a tendency to regard them as “high-class courtesans” mainly focusing on sexual services which ipae and sampae gisaengs provided. As a result, the contributions they made to Joseon society have been easily overlooked. They were actually the only group of people who played the role of inheriting and transmitting female literary and traditional arts. Famed gisaengs like Hwang Jini 황진이 excelled in many fields and left numerous works such as sijo 시조, traditional Korean poem, that are highly regarded as an important part of classical Korean literature.
Check out Korean poetry, translated in English. Though Flowers Fall I Have Never Forgotten You [Amazon]