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Gisaengs (Variation: Kisaeng, Hangeul: 기생) were female courtesans prominent during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They are regarded as entertainers and artists that perform for upper social-classes such as the royal family or the nobles (Yangbans). Gisaengs were renowned for their refined beauty as well as talent in writing and reciting poetry and prose. As such, the term gisaeng was sometimes interpreted as 'flowers that could understand words'. Gisaengs had to be talented and trained to excel in the performing arts (i.e. dancing, singing) as well. Their intellectual talent, however, were not publicly acknowleged due to their inferior social standing.
Gisaengs are occassionally dismissed as geishas due to their similar roles and are thus often linked to prostitution. According to art historian Lee Don-Soo, however, the original gisaeng were not sexual objects but rather "entertainers who had intelligence". In addition, gisaengs are also said to pre-date the geishas. Gisaengs first originated in the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) while the latter became a distinctive group in the 17th century.
"During the half millennium long rein of the Chosôn Dynasty in Korea, there was a class of women whose fate was both appalling and seductive. The kisaeng, sometimes translated as "skilled women" were selected from early age for their beauty, given extensive education in poetry, music, the arts, and dance, trained in the skills of courtesanship, and then assigned as professional entertainers to the court, the high government bureaucracy, and even distant military outposts. Social outcasts unacceptable to Confucian mores, the kisaeng were often little more than prostitutes, and never attained any semblance of status in society. Even the few hundred sijo (three-line poem) they authored were preserved in spite of them by admiring males. Destined forever to fall in love and never able to retain a lover, the kisaeng wrote some of the most exquisite, if simple, lines to convey their pain." Songs of the Kisaeng (Contogenis & Choe, 1997)
In accordance to the dynasty's legislation, gisaengs are born to the cheonmin class (also known as 'vulgar commoners'). Members of the class include slaves, butchers, sorcerers and prostitutes. While they all belong to the same hierarchy, gisaengs were widely regarded as having a significantly higher status than the slaves. As such, a number of slaves worked for the gisaengs and were at their dispense.
The status is hereditary and thus the children of gisaengs also belong to the cheonmin class with the exception of male offsprings whose biological father is a yangban or a member of the royal family. Daughters automatically become gisaengs as well and are enrolled in a gyobang, a training institute of sorts for gisaengs, at a tender age of 8.
Gisaengs were considered property of the government and were kept under the respective district office's purview. Gijeok, a registry of gisaengs were maintained to monitor their population, and this practice is similar to that as conscripted government slaves. A gisaeng can only be officially liberated by the King at the request of a wealthy patron or a high government official.
As such, gisaengs were also known as having "the body of a slave but the mind of the aristrocrat".
Life of Gisaengs
While the gisaeng status is hereditary, there are other ways in which women can be prescribed the role. Young girls can be sold to the gyobang by families who otherwise cannot afford to raise them. In addition, even aristocratic women can be made a gisaeng by the government if they were found to have violated strict patriarchal rules.
A gisaeng's career was strictly regulated by the government. She had to attend regular training sessions while staying at the gyobang and types of instruction include dance and music. A gisaeng must master the region's specialty dance choreography and the gayageum or geomungeo (traditional Korean musical instruments). In addition, gisaengs must attend all banquets proposed and hosted for and by government officials. At such banquets, gisaengs were required to perform and entertain male clients. In exchange, clients pay for transactions with gifts, cash and ornaments. Gisaengs earned their keep and had to support their own lifestyle.
Gyobang instructors known as haengsu gisaeng also teach gisaeng trainees proper behavioural etiquettes and client management. Gisaengs learnt everything - from the art of serving tea and wine to the proper way to walk and sit as well as self-grooming (make-up, adorning self with tassels and jewellery). A refined gisaeng had to sit with her legs crossed (see pictures below) though this was viewed as vulgar by Korean women in the era.
Haengsu gisaengs were held responsible for the gisaeng's training, well being as well as discipline. They were usually held accountable for their students' actions as well as mistakes and thus carried great responsibilities.
Haengsu gisaengs often reiterate professionalism to gisaeng trainees. Thus, gisaengs were not encouraged to develop further relationships with clients. Due to strict adherence to the structured hierarchal system, gisaeng's were not allowed to marry anyone outside of the cheonmin class. A gisaeng can be taken in as a concubine by ministers or wealthy patrons only after the latter had paid a hefty price to the government.
However, gisaengs were allowed to have gibu (kisaeng husbands). While a gibu has no legal claim over his 'wife', he provides her with protection and economic support. Due to the nature of gisaeng's work, conflicts between patrons and gibu occurs frequently.
The gisaeng career generally peaks at age 16 or 17. Beyond that age range, gisaengs are no longer considered fresh and continue to serve in other areas such as dress making and medicine. Haengsu gisaengs are not allowed to entertain guests after age 30. By age 50, gisaengs are required to retire by law and will be removed from the gijeok list.
Gisaeng Life: A Sneak Peek [from the television series Hwang Jini (2006)]
1: Gisaeng grooming & dances
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