Who Were Korea's Gisaeng?

Gisaeng were of the slave class, but could live quite comfortable lives.
A gisaeng in the imperial court of Korea, c. 1910. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection / Library of Congress

The gisaeng — often referred to as kisaeng — were highly-trained artist women in ancient Korea who entertained men with music, conversation and poetry in much the same way as Japanese geisha. Highly skilled gisaeng served in the royal court, while others worked in the homes of the "yangban" — or scholar-officials. Some gisaeng were trained in other fields as well such as nursing though lower-ranked gisaeng also served as prostitutes.

Technically, the gisaeng were members of the "cheonmin" or slave class as most officially belonged to the government — which registered them — and gisaeng remained in the ranks of the cheonmin. Any daughters born to gisaeng were required to become gisaeng in turn.

Origins

The gisaeng were also known as "flowers that speak poetry." They likely originated in the Goryeo Kingdom from 935 to 1394 and continued to exist in different regional variations through the Joseon era of 1394 through 1910. 

Following the mass displacement that happened to start the Goryeo Kingdom — the fall of the Later Three Kingdoms — many nomadic tribes formed in early Korea, scarring the first king of Goryeo with their sheer number and the potential for civil war. As a result, Taejo, the first king, ordered that these traveling groups — called Baekje — be enslaved to work for the kingdom instead. 

The term gisaeng was first mentioned in the 11th century, though, so it may have taken a while for scholars in the capital to begin reappropriating these slave-nomads as artisans and prostitutes.

Still, many believe their first use was more for tradeable skills like 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 begin taking a census of their presence and activities.

This also brought with it the formation of the first schools for these performers, which were called gyobangs. Women who attended these schools were enslaved exclusively as high-end court entertainers, their expertise often being used to amuse visiting dignitaries and the ruling class alike.

In the later Joseon era, the gisaeng continued to prosper despite general apathy toward their plight from the ruling class. Perhaps because of the sheer power these women had established under Goryeo rule or perhaps because of the new Joseon rulers fearing dignitaries' carnal transgressions in the absence of gisaengs, they maintained their right to perform in ceremonies and within the courts throughout the era. 

However, the last king of the Joseon Kingdom and first emperor of the newly established Empire of Korea, Gojong, abolished the social status of the gisaeng and slavery altogether when he took the throne as part of the Gabo Reform of 1895.

Still to this day, gisaeng lives on in the teachings of gyobangs — which encourage women, not as slaves but as artisans, to carry on the sacred, time-honored tradition of Korean dance and art.