Gisaeng: Korea’s Geisha Women

Similar to Japanese geisha, the gisaeng or kisaeng were highly-trained artist women in ancient Korea who entertained men with music, conversation, and poetry. In addition to serving in the royal court, some gisaeng worked in the homes of the “yangban”-or scholar-officials. Other gisaeng were trained in other fields as well, such as nursing, though lower-ranked gisaeng also worked as prostitutes.

As most gisaeng belonged to the government, who registered them, they were technically members of the “cheonmin” or enslaved class. Daughters of gisaeng were required to become gisaengs themselves.

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From 935 to 1394, gisaeng were known as “flowers that speak poetry.” They continued to exist in different regional varieties through the Joseon era of 1394 through 1910. 

The mass displacement that started the Goryeo Kingdom-the fall of the Later Three Kingdoms-led to the formation of many nomadic tribes in early Korea, scarring the first king with their sheer numbers and the potential for civil war. Therefore, Taejo, the first king, enslaved these traveling groups, known as Baekje, to work for the kingdom. 

As gisaeng was first mentioned in the 11th century, it may have taken a while for scholars in the capital to reappropriate these enslaved nomads as artisans and prostitutes. Many still believe their first use was to trade skills such as sewing, music, and medicine. 

Expansion of the Social Class

During the reign of Myeongjong from 1170 to 1179, the increased number of gisaeng living and working in the city forced the king to conduct a census of them. It also led to the formation of the first schools for these performers, called gyobangs. Their expertise was often used to amuse visiting dignitaries and the ruling class alike, as women attending these schools were enslaved exclusively as high-end court entertainers.

In the later Joseon era, the gisaeng prospered despite the ruling class’ apathy toward their plight. They maintained their right to perform during ceremonies and within the courts throughout the era because of the sheer power they had established under Goryeo rule or perhaps because the new Joseon rulers feared dignitaries’ carnal transgressions in the absence of gisaengs. 

During the Gabo Reform of 1895, however, Gojong, the last king of the Joseon Kingdom and first emperor of the newly established Empire of Korea, abolished the social status of gisaeng and enslavement altogether.

Historically, gisaeng lives on in the teachings of gyobangs, which encourage women to carry on the sacred, time-honored tradition of Korean dance and art, not as enslaved people, but as artisans. 

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