Monday, February 22, 2010


Kisaeng (also spelled gisaeng), sometimes called ginyeo (기녀), were female Korean entertainers. Kisaeng are artists who work to entertain others, such as the yangbans and kings.
First appearing in the Goryeo Dynasty, kisaeng were legally entertainers of the government, required to perform various functions for the state. Many were employed at court, but they were also spread throughout the country. They were carefully trained, and frequently accomplished in the fine arts, poetry, and prose, although their talents were often ignored due to their inferior social status.
Women of the kisaeng class performed various roles, although they were all of the same low status in the eyes of yangban society. Aside from entertainment, these roles included medical care and needlework. In some cases, such as at army bases, kisaeng were expected to fill several such roles.
Kisaeng, both historic and fictional, play an important role in Korean conceptions of the traditional culture of the Joseon Dynasty. Some of Korea's oldest and most popular stories, such as the tale of Chunhyang, feature kisaeng as heroines. Although the names of most real kisaeng have been forgotten, a few are remembered for an outstanding attribute, such as talent or loyalty. The most famous of these is the 16th-century kisaeng Hwang Jin-i.

Social position

Throughout the Goryeo and Joseon periods, kisaeng held the status of cheonmin, the lowest rank of society. They shared this status with other entertainers, as well as butchers and slaves. Status was hereditary, so the children of a kisaeng were also of cheonmin status, and the daughters automatically became kisaeng as well. Beginning in the Goryeo period, the governing offices in each district kept a registry of kisaeng, to ensure thorough oversight. The same practice was followed for conscripted slaves. Kisaeng could only be released from their position if a hefty price was paid to the government; this could usually only be done by a wealthy patron, typically a high government official. 
Many kisaeng were skilled in poetry, and numerous sijo composed by kisaeng have survived. These often reflect themes of heartache and parting, similar to poems composed by scholars in exile.  In addition, some of the most famous kisaeng poems were composed to persuade prominent scholars to spend the night.  Indeed, the sijo style came to be associated with kisaeng women, while women of yangban status focused on the gasa form.
Kisaeng attached to a local government office were known as gwan-gi, and their status was carefully differentiated from that of the common slaves also attached to the office. They were separately entered on the census rolls. The kisaeng were regarded as of significantly higher status than the slaves, although technically they were all of cheonmin rank.
In Korea's structured, hierarchical society, gisaeng were technically slaves. For this reason, they were sometimes spoken of as "possessing the body of the lower class but the mind of the aristocrat."


The career of most kisaeng was very short, generally peaking at age 16 or 17, and over by age 22. Only a few kisaeng were able to maintain their business for very long beyond this time. It may be for this reason that the kisaeng training institutes accepted entrants as young as eight. All kisaeng, even those who did not work as entertainers, were obliged by law to retire at age 50. The best prospect most kisaeng had for long-term support was through becoming the concubine of a patron. However, even this was not an option unless their patron first purchased them from the state, which few men of the Joseon period could afford. Thus, most former kisaeng went on to work in or manage a local tavern.
In the later period of Joseon, a three-tiered system developed. The highest tier was occupied by haengsu (행수,行首) who sang and danced at upper-class feasts. Haengsu kisaeng were not permitted to entertain after they turned thirty. However, they could continue working in other duties, such as dressmaking and medicine, until the age of fifty. They received guests only by choice. Most of the kisaeng of the court were of the haengsu tier, also called seonsang (선상,選上). The haengsu kisaeng of each district also took charge of discipline and training new kisaeng.

Kisaeng of the lowest tier were called samsu (삼수, 三首). The samsu were forbidden to perform the songs and dances of the haengsu. The tiered system, like other aspects of Joseon class division, broke down in the late nineteenth century.

In the course of their careers, some kisaeng were able to amass considerable personal wealth. However, these were the exception. Kisaeng were required to meet their expenses, including food, clothes, and makeup, out of their own personal funds.

Becoming a kisaeng

Women entered the kisaeng class through various paths. Some were the daughters of kisaeng, who inherited their mother's status. Others were sold into the gijeok by families who could not afford to support them. Most such families were of cheonmin rank, but sometimes poor families of higher status sold their children in this fashion. On occasion, even women from the yangban aristocracy were made kisaeng, usually because they had violated the strict sexual mores of the Joseon period. 

As kisaeng were skilled workers from the beginning, the government took an early interest in ensuring correct education. This first emerged with the establishment of gyobang, training institutes for palace kisaeng during the Goryeo period. During the Joseon period, this became further codified. Instruction focused on music and dance.
In the three-tiered system of later Joseon, more specialized training schools were established for kisaeng of the first tier. The course of study lasted three years and covered poetry, dance, music, and art. The most advanced such school was located in Pyongyang. This system continued well into the Japanese colonial period, during which time the schools training kisaeng were known as gwonbeon (권번).

Daily life

As slaves of the government, the lives of kisaeng were closely regulated. They were overseen by the officer in charge of kisaeng, known as the hojang. The hojang was also in charge of maintaining the kisaeng register, and ensuring that none of the district's kisaeng had fled. Kisaeng were required to answer the requests of patrons, unless they had previously notified the hojang. The kisaeng of the district were expected to appear for inspection twice a month and also when a new official arrived in the area. In addition, they were required to report for continuing education, usually focused on music and dance. The frequency and content of this training varied from region to region.
However, the detailed affairs of the kisaeng were not directly overseen by the state. Order was kept within each gyobang, which might include some tens of kisaeng, by the haengsu kisaeng, those of the highest tier. When problems arose between a kisaeng and a client, or when charges of criminal conduct were made against a kisaeng, the haengsu kisaeng usually took the leading role in resolving the situation.
In addition, most kisaeng had a gibu, or "kisaeng husband," who provided protection and economic support, such as buying them pretty things or granting them social status in return for entertainment. Most gibu were former soldiers, government enforcers, or servants of the royal household. At times, there was friction between would-be customers and possessive gibu, although the gibu was not the kisaeng's husband and had no legal claim to her. The role of the gibu changed over time; at first, many kisaeng in government service had no such patron.  However, by the late Joseon dynasty, the gibu system was more or less universal.
Joseon Dynasty kisaeng houses were typically located near the center of a town, often close to the marketplace. They were laid out to create a welcoming effect; in many cases, a location was chosen with a fine view, and the area around the house was carefully landscaped with an ornamental pool and plantings.

Politics and diplomacy

Kisaeng played a number of important political roles, as servants of the state and in their own right. They were employed to entertain visiting dignitaries from China and Japan, and to accompany them if they travelled through the country.
Thanks to their frequenting the taverns and guest-houses of the town, kisaeng were often among of the most knowledgeable on local affairs. For this reason, they were at times a key source of intelligence. It was through information supplied by kisaeng that the rebel army of Hong Gyeong-rae was able to easily take the fortress of Jeongju in the early 19th century.
When cities fell, as many of Korea's cities did during the Seven Year War in the late 16th century, kisaeng were often made to entertain the generals of the victorious army. Some of Korea's most famous kisaeng, including Non Gae of Jinju, are remembered today for their bravery in killing or attempting to kill leaders of the Japanese army.
Some kisaeng were also active in the Korean independence movements of the early 20th century. In this they resembled other women of Joseon, who often took a leading role in the independence struggle. Aengmu, a kisaeng of Daegu, was a major donor to the National Debt Repayment Movement in the early 20th century. Some fifty kisaeng of Jinju took part in a demonstration as part of the March First Movement in 1919.

Regional differences

Kisaeng seem to have been relatively few in number, at the most a few thousand. They were spread throughout the country, with a few hundred in the larger centers and smaller numbers in the hyeon villages. They were also found in the "stations" and inns which provided food and shelter to travellers along the country's arterial roads, such as the Great Yeongnam Road.
The number and characteristics of the kisaeng varied greatly from region to region. During the Joseon period, the city with the most kisaeng by far was Seoul (then called Hanseong), with perhaps 1,000. Many of these worked for the court, and helped to fill the vast number of trained entertainers needed for grand festivals. Beautiful or talented kisaeng were often taken from the provinces to Seoul. The required training for kisaeng in Seoul was regular and very strict, with inattentive kisaeng sent home.
There were also large numbers of kisaeng in the old capitals of Gaeseong and Pyeongyang. The kisaeng of Pyeongyang were noted for their high level of skill and beauty. The kisaeng school of Pyeongyang was one of the country's most advanced, and continued operating until late in the Japanese occupation. The kisaeng of Pyeongyang were also known for their ability to recite the gwan san yung ma, a song by the 18th-century composer Sin Gwang-su.
Other large concentrations existed around army camps, particularly along the northern border. For instance, in the time of King Sejong in the 15th century, there were some 60 kisaeng attached to the army base at Yeongbyeon. In these areas, kisaeng essentially filled the role of wives for the army, and their role was commensurately more focused on domestic tasks than on entertainment.
The kisaeng of other regions also maintained distinctive local identities. The kisaeng of Jinju were particularly adept at the Geommu, a traditional sword dance. Those of Jeju were known for their equestrian prowess. In many cases, the noted skills of a region's kisaeng corresponded with some other local claim to fame. The kisaeng of the Gwandong region on the east coast, home to many famous sights including Geumgangsan, memorized the gwan dong byeol gok, a poem recounting their region's scenery. Those of the Honam region in the southwest were trained in pansori, while those of the seonbi city Andong could recite the Greater Learning by heart.


An overwhelming silence hangs over the official histories of Korea when it comes to the kisaeng. They enter only occasionally into official records such as the Goryeosa or Joseon Wangjo Sillok. Yet references to kisaeng are quite widespread in the "anecdotal histories" of later Joseon, and Silhak thinkers such as Yi Ik and Dasan gave some thought to their role and station in society. Even today, many formal histories of Korea pay little or no heed to the story of the kisaeng. For example, Ki-baek Lee's New History of Korea does not contain a single reference to the kisaeng.


There are various theories concerning the origin of the kisaeng. The first such theory was formulated by the scholar Dasan, and theories have multiplied as the kisaeng themselves have receded further into the past.
One theory actually places their origins in the Silla dynasty, among the wonhwa, female predecessors of the hwarang. However, there is little to suggest a concrete link between Silla's wonhwa and the later kisaeng. Also, the wonhwa seem to have been chosen from among the aristocracy, whereas kisaeng were always members of the lower classes. For these reasons, few contemporary scholars support this theory.
Many others trace their origins to the early years of Goryeo, when many people were displaced following the end of the Later Three Kingdoms period in 936. At this time, a large number of Baekje people wandered the country. It is not clear whether this nomadic lifestyle was already established, or a consequence of the recent turmoil. In fact, a connection between these wanderers and the nomadic tribes of Manchuria has been conjectured. The first king of Goryeo, Taejo, considered these wanderers to be a threat to the stability of the state. He ordered that they be made into slaves of the government. Although no certain records exist, it is likely that the first kisaeng were drawn from these former wanderers.


Regardless of their origins, kisaeng first emerged as a class and rose to prominence during the Goryeo Dynasty, 935-1394. They are first mentioned in the early 11th century. At this time, they were primarily engaged in skilled trades such as needlework, music, and medicine. The female entertainers of the court during this period filled a role similar to that later filled by almost all kisaeng.
Due to the growth of the kisaeng class, during the reign of Myeongjong the state began to keep records (called gijeok) of the kisaeng living in each jurisdiction. Around this time, the state also made its first efforts to set up educational institutions to train kisaeng entertainers. These academies were known as gyobang, and first appear in history with their abolition by King Hyeonjong in 1010. However, they were re-established in the reign of Chungnyeol. The gyobang provided training in the dangak and sogak musical styles.
The women trained in the gyobang were exclusively court entertainers. Their role in the affairs of the court became increasingly important as the dynasty progressed. They entertained both the king and visiting dignitaries, a role which continued into the Joseon period. In addition, beginning in the reign of Munjong, they performed at official ceremonies of the state.
Just as the origin of the kisaeng is unclear, so is their precise relation to other strata of society. The female entertainers who appear in records are exclusively kisaeng of the court, and are recorded as slaves of the government.


Goryeo was succeeded by the Joseon Dynasty, 1394-1910. During the Joseon dynasty, the kisaeng system continued to flourish and develop, despite the government's deeply ambivalent attitude toward it.
Joseon was founded on Neo-Confucian ideals, and the Neo-Confucian scholars of the time took a very dim view of professional women and of the kisaeng class in particular. There were many calls for the abolition of the kisaeng, or for their exclusion from court, but these were not successful -- perhaps because of the influence of the women themselves, or perhaps because of fear that officials would take to stealing the wives of other men. One such proposal was made during the reign of Sejong, but when an advisor of the court suggested that the abolition of the class would lead to government officials committing grave crimes, the king chose to preserve the kisaeng.
During the brief and violent reign of Yeonsan-gun, 1494-1506, kisaeng became symbolic of royal excess. Yeonsan-gun treated women as primarily objects of pleasure, and made even the medicinal kisaeng (yakbang gisaeng) into entertainers. Yeonsan-gun brought 1,000 women and girls from the provinces to serve as palace kisaeng; many of them were paid from the public treasury. He may have been the first to institute a formal hierarchy among them, dividing the kisaeng of the palace into "Heaven," those with whom he slept, and "Earth," those who served other functions.
In 1650, all kisaeng were made slaves of the government. The kisaeng attached to a government office were known as gwan-gi, or "kisaeng of the office." Their role did not, by law, include sexual service to the officeholder; in fact, government officials could be punished severely for consorting with a kisaeng. However, in practice kisaeng were often forced to serve the officeholder. A distinction was sometimes made between those gwan-gi who were obliged to sleep with the officeholder, and those who were not. This distinction was featured in the popular play Chunhyangga.
The Gabo Reform of 1895 officially abolished the class system of Joseon, and slavery as well. From that year forward, all kisaeng became nominally free. In practice, many kisaeng, like many other slaves, continued in servitude for many years. In addition, many of those who were freed had no alternative career; they continued as entertainers, now without the protections afforded by kisaeng status. During the subsequent decade, many of these kisaeng went to Japan to work.

Modern kisaeng

Very few traditional kisaeng houses continue to operate in South Korea, and many of the traditions and dances have been lost forever. Some South Korean business circles escort visiting foreign businesspeople to a kisaeng house, but the place is mostly a modern interpretation or a shadow of what the kisaeng house was in the past.

Today the kisaeng's evolution and impact on Korean society are receiving new attention as Koreans devote increasing efforts to rediscovering and re-invigorating their cultural and historical heritage. However, this interest is focused almost entirely on the historical kisaeng of the Joseon period, and not on the traces of the kisaeng which endure today.

Literary and artistic depictions

Kisaeng have played important roles in Korean popular literature since the mid-Joseon Dynasty. As popular literature such as novels and pansori emerged, kisaeng often took a leading role. This was in part due to their unique role as women who could move freely in society. Kisaeng appear as heroines in stories such as Chunhyangga, and as important figures in many other Joseon-era narratives.
Kisaeng also began to appear in the vernacular art of later Joseon. They are particularly common in the work of the famed early 19th-century painter Hyewon, whose work focused on both the life of the cheonmin and erotic themes.
Kisaeng continue to be central to the understanding and imagining of Joseon Dynasty culture in contemporary South and North Korea. For example, the female lead in the film Chwihwaseon was a kisaeng, the companion of painter Owon. Fresh treatments of popular kisaeng stories, including the fictional Chunhyang and the historical Hwang Jin-Yi, continue to emerge in popular novels and cinema.

Famous kisaeng

Notable kisaeng include:

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