Where did traditional Korean dances, music and poetry come from? A lot of traditional Korean culture that we appreciate and enjoy today can be traced to the gisaeng (기생), also called ginyeo (기녀). The hanja (한자) or Chinese Korean characters for 기생 consist of 妓 which means, female entertainer and 生, which means life.
Who exactly were the gisaeng? They performed various functions in society, but all of them were of Cheonmin (천민) rank, meaning that they were in the same class as slaves. Unlike slaves, however, the gisaeng were educated. They could read, write and play instruments. In many ways, the gisaeng were perhaps more educated than most women in other social classes.
The reason why some scholars want to ignore any mention of the gisaeng in Korean history is because of the sexual nature of their work. There is evidence that the gisaeng peformed sexual services for pay. However, even if some Koreans don’t want to admit it, the reason why traditional Korean music, dance and poetry exist is because of the gisaeng.
That’s why scholars should acknowledge the gisaeng’s contribution to Korean society. More and more people are beginning to embrace and even sympathize with the gisaeng. The drama series Hwang jin yi (황진이) made in 2006, provides an accurate depiction of the gisaeng’s life. It’s pretty accurate. When you watch the drama, you’ll see that they wore these large wigs called gache (가체).
There’s also a documentary about the kisaeng that you might be interested in :
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