Gisaeng (기생)This is a featured page

Alleged portrait of Hwang Jini, circa 1520-1560Ha Ji Won as famous courtesan, Hwang JiniSong Hye Gyo as Hwang Jini, famous Korean courtesan


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.


A summary:

"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)


Social Standing

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.


GisaengHa Ji Won as Hwang Jini pictured with Geomungo


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



2: Young gisaengs in training.




Gisaeng as role models for (Korean) women

"In the rigid feudalistic society of the early Choson dynasty, women were not accorded opportunities and status equal to that of men in areas of social activity. However, the Kisaeng, a female artist-entertainer and professional hostess, was often in a position to mix with the upper classes despite her lower status in the social hierarchy. Unlike that of her modern counterpart, her trade was not necessarily labeled unsavory. At the higher levels, she might entertain and even associate with some of the leading male members of society: nobleman in the government, foreign ambassadors, high priests or monks and eminent scholars." - Korean Kisaeng and the Sijo Tradition.

"At the bottom of this strict social hierarchy were Korean women. Common women received little or no education and were in virtual bondage throughout their lives, to their fathers, husbands and sons. Women destined to be the wives of yangban or aristocrats were educated but the strict code of social behaviour forbade them consorting with unrelated males. This role fell to the famed kisaeng, a group of beautiful and charming women specially groomed to be the companions of artists, scholars and the rulers of the nation, similar in some respects to the western "literary salon". As such they were highly educated and trained in the arts of music, dance and song. They enjoyed the protection of the crown and all its attendant privileges and social freedoms. In this form the kisaeng institution passed to Japan where the kisaengs became geishas, meaning accomplished person." - Korean Confucianism

"Because of firm adherence to the segregation of men and women, few women could engage in any form of activities outside the family compound. There were, however, some exceptions. Three special groups of women wielded considerable influence by performing certain public functions in traditional society. They were shamans, folk healers, and entertainers (kisaeng). The women who worked in these special jobs were, almost without exception, from lower-class families... The women entertainers (kisaeng) also belonged to the low social group. Because their occupation was to entertain men, they developed special talents and skills in poetry composition, singing, dancing, calligraphy, and painting. They were the few women who had free access to public events. For this reason, entertaining women most frequently appeared as heroines in ancient tales and novels. To romanticize the lives of the low-born women in these special cases would be wrong; however, compared to the secluded life of the court and yangban families, the lives of female shamans, healers, and kisaeng permitted them to have broader experiences and development of their talents." - The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: South Korea


Gisaeng in Popular Korean Culture


Gisaengs have been instrumental in shaping popular Korean literature and gisaeng characters usually front pansori, a traditional form of Korean performing art. A pansori, which can take up to 8 hours to perform, details satire and or love story through descriptive speeches and songs.

Fresh treatments of popular gisaeng stories, such as the fictional Chunhyang and the historical Hwang Jini continue to emerge as novels, films, television series or theatre stagings.

1: Most popular scene from Hwang Jini (television series), starring Ha Ji-Won
In this scene, Jini performs a farewell/ tribute dance for her haengsu gisaeng, her teacher.
Note that she is fully garbed in gisaeng attire, when the standard funeral dress is the white hanbok.
Jini remembered her haengsu's advice that a gisaeng should be able to smile and perform even while in sadness or pain.



2: Hwang Jini (Movie) trailer. Starring Song Hye Gyo.






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