Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shedding light on kisaeng in Korea

Shedding light on kisaeng in Korea

By Hong, Jin-woo, reporter,

등록일: 2006-02-26 오후 7:09:18

Kisaeng (female entertainers in traditional Korean society), were a part of Korean culture for a long time. Most Koreans, however, learn very little about this part of their culture until they finish formal education; at best, they pick up scraps of information from friends or books. In fact, there is a surprising lack of deep research on the life of the kisaeng, and we have to rely on a small number of well-known books to find out what we can about them. It is time, therefore, to throw some light on their real lives.

▲ Kisaeng with yangban on the boat
ⓒ photo by naver
Who were the kisaeng, and where did they come from? As mentioned above, kisaeng were female entertainers who could write, sing and dance. They worked mostly for noblemen called yangban (traditional Korean nobility), who could afford their services because of their wealth and social status. The kisaeng's abilities therefore had to be appropriate for interacting with members of high-class society, and because of this, there was even an institute for training kisaeng. It is widely believed that the kisaeng concept started from the Choson dynasty era though some scholars and researchers have found evidence dating back to the Shilla or even the Koryo era.

▲ The potrait of Hwangjin-i
ⓒ photo by naver
There have been many famous kisaeng throughout history. For example, Hwangjin-i, who was talented in various areas, is known for making every man who met her feel heartbroken. Her poems and stories of her love-affairs and flirting are still well known to this day. Another kisaeng, Nonkae, threw herself and the Japanese general she was with into the river, when the local Korean castle was occupied during the Japanese invasion in the Chosun dynasty era. There is a shrine commemorating her courageous behavior at the spot from which she threw herself off the mountain. Other less-well-known kisaeng's works have come down to us in books.

There is another side to this phenomenon, however, and controversy about the role of the kisaeng continues in various boks. For instance, it is known that during the Chosun dynasty era their function was not confined to entertaining rich noblemen. It seems that comfort women were provided to foreign missions under the name of kisaeng diplomacy, and kisaeng were even dispatched to military bases along the border with China to comfort the soldiers. These facts are revealed by Kawamura Minato, a professor of Hosei University in Japan, who wrote the book "A Talking Flower, Kisaeng" (Malhanun Kkot, kisaeng). Her research has proved exceptional, and even embarrassing to Koreans, since there had been little attempt to unearth the facts about this hidden class prior to the publication of this book, written by a foreigner. In addition, Kawamura insists that the root of modern prostitution in Korea stems from the kisaeng culture. It is not surprising that a series of Korean books have been written in reaction to her research, and that these accuse her of subjectivity and manipulation of the available information.

▲ Two books about kisaeng
ⓒ photo by naver
In one such book "How the Kisaeng Were Invented" (Kisaengun Ottoke Manduro Chonnunga), the author, Lee Kyung-min, claims that Japanese authorities during the colonial period tried to degrade the image of the kisaeng from that of versatile artists to prostitutes, in order to make people around the world believe that Korea was (as a country) similar to its kisaeng - passive and obedient to others. Lee also argues that Kawamura's book focuses too heavily on the negative aspect of the kisaeng tradition, and shows an unbalanced view of these misunderstood people.

It appears that the kisaeng system did indeed change during the Japanese occupation. Kisaeng still were required to be skillful in singing, dancing and writing, but they were also, from that time, deliberately controlled and restricted. Regular hygiene tests were performed on them, and the Japanese sent them to world exhibitions to use their tarnished image as a means of rationalizing the colonization of Korea. The original image of kisaeng underwent transformation and distortion at this time, and by the time of Korea's liberation from Japan, the kisaeng had disappeared or changed into a lower class, offering sexual services appropriate to the era of modernization. As a result, many people in Korea now think of kisaeng as humiliating and shameful.

▲ Modern kisaeng during Japanese colonial period
ⓒ photo by naver
It can be seen, therefore, that there is a difference between the traditional and the modern concept and that its contemporary meaning is undesirable. But it is hard to deny the significant influence of the kisaeng on Korean culture. Whether good or bad, it is important that we learn more about this tradition, and keep an open mind, embracing our heritage through constant research.


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