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

Definition:

The gisaeng 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. Lower-ranked gisaeng also served as prostitutes.

Technically, the gisaeng were members of the cheonmin or slave class. Most officially belonged to the government, which registered them, and insured that all children born to gisaeng remained in the ranks of the cheonmin. Any daughters born to gisaeng were required to become gisaeng in turn.

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

Also Known As: ginyeo

Alternate Spellings: kisaeng