7 Interesting Facts About Kisaeng “Korean Geishas”

Professor Oh May 9, 2013 8


What’s a kisaeng? Watch the latest episode of KWOW above. Then learn some more little known facts below!

1. Confucian scholars tried to get rid of the kisaeng class. However failed because, as one theory states, government officials feared that other men would steal their wives.

2. Yeon San Gun, the 10th King of the Joseon Dynasty, was infamous for capturing 1,000 females nationwide to serve as his palace kisaeng. He turned the Seonggyungwan Hall of Study into a house of personal pleasure. Yeon San Gun was eventually dethroned, exiled, then died within the same year. His young sons were beheaded.

kisaeng-dance-performance-in-palace
Left: Kisaeng performing at the court of King Seonjo. Right: close-up of palace kisaeng in dance attire.

3. The most renowned kisaeng training institute was once located in Pyongyang, which today is the capital of North Korea. Those of kisaeng descent are highly frowned upon in North Korea.

4. Kisaeng had gibu. Gibu were men who protected kisaeng, as well as assist with finances. Some jealous gibu created tension with their kisaeng’s patrons. Sounds like a real-life Korean drama!

5. Some wealthy patrons went broke after spending too much money on kisaeng entertainment. They lost their status and became gibu (see #4).

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 11.06.12 AM
Above: Pyongyang kisaeng wearing dancer’s hanbok.

6. When kisaeng had children and the biological father was from the royal family, the son would inherit his father’s status while the daughter would inherit her mother’s.

7. Medical kisaeng studied well and passed exams were rewarded. Those who failed were punished and assigned to be tea brewers.

8 Comments »

  1. Andrew Jonathan Walk December 5, 2013 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Since I am half korean I actually do not think that the kisanage were much like the geishas. I really really hope that they were like dancers or entertainers. I really hope that they were not like geishas.

  2. steve May 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    more questions…

    What were the protocols for interacting with kisaeng? Could you just turn up and talk (for a fee) or was there an invitation and a response?

    Did (wealthy) women ever engage in the services of kisaeng as specialist entertainers or for companions?

    How did the whole kisaeng husband thing work?? What was the point?

    Are there any modern reflections / cultural memory in the likes of 다방 girls????

  3. Luisa Lopes May 10, 2013 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Sorry, i like your channel but you should not bring up the problem Japan vs Korean. you shoud haven’t said “misunderstood like geishas, the original kisaeng were not prostitutes”. if ask to japoneses they will say the same “geishas were not prostitutes”. Not matter what books says, both geishas and kisang are high class/level prostitutes (maybe not from the beginning) and i would still consider they artists, were they or not . I’m pretty sure this sort of thing existed in a lot of countries but not as famous and as organized. As a woman i’m proud of those women who lived/fighted back in history against societies that didn’t recognize and protect their girls. Because as you said most of those girls geishas and kisaengs didn’t choose this way.

    • steve May 11, 2013 at 10:05 pm - Reply

      There’s an interesting chapter on kisaeng in “Women in Korean History” by Pae-Yong Yi. The author’s view was that kisaeng were officially public servants, but “were gradually identified as men’s playthings, or prostitutes, rather than artists or technicians”.

      I don’t know, but I suspect prostitution would have been limited due to the relative privelege offerred by the role (food, education, clothes, freedom of association) and the relative rarity of the kisaeng (only a few 1000 spread across a country of a few million).

    • just saying. May 12, 2013 at 2:10 am - Reply

      “she said misunderstood like geishas”… meaning both are misunderstood as being prostitutes…
      Meaning she said kisaengs and geishas are not prostitutes ;-)

  4. Steve May 10, 2013 at 4:20 am - Reply

    kewl stuff, I really appreciate the effort you went to putting this together. Not to mention — you are very funny ;-)

    I’m interested in finding out some more about a famous kiesang, Man-hyang of Hamheung
    Sorry about the romanisation, it was a copy and paste job from the kisaeng wikipedia article
    I’d like to know the hangul and hanja for her name and her story.. any idea where to start?

    cheers

    steve

    • steve May 11, 2013 at 10:10 pm - Reply

      Answering my own questions:

      Man-hyang, is 만향 in hangul-gal which is 晩香 or “evening incense” in Chinese (I think).

      She was famous for her filial care, ie. she was devoted to her parents.

  5. Keis May 9, 2013 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Very interesting. Is it true you can go to school(like uni or college) to be trained in the traditional dance and music of gisaeng? Thanks.

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