(569) ’Korean geisha’
Pretty much everybody who has lived in Korea for a length of time would have heard about Korean gisaeng, often described as “Korean geisha.” Such a description is certain to irritate many Koreans who would remind you that if anything, the singing girl tradition appeared in Korea earlier than in Japan. It’s true, but both Korean and Japanese female entertainers and part-time courtesans were parts of a larger tradition which emerged in China and encompassed the whole of East Asia.
Traditionally, gisaeng were both professional entertainers and high-level prostitutes who served the cultural and sexual needs of the Korean yangban elite. Many of the girls, in spite of being among the best educated women of the country, were considered slaves, and a decent woman could be made a gisaeng for a serious crime committed by her close relative.
However, in the early 20th century the old system ceased to exist. The slaves were emancipated, and the state disbanded the bodies which once served to control gisaeng. Therefore, the gisaeng business was, so to say, privatized, with private agencies taking over what once used to be a state-run activity.
The new organization mimicked the model which was then used by Japanese geisha. All gisaeng belonged to guilds, known as “gwonbon.” In colonial-era Seoul at any given moment there were between two to five such guilds. They would periodically merge or go bankrupt. Gisaeng could change guilds, but not too frequently, since such a move was bad for marketing. All major cities had their own guilds too. Pyongyang’s was perhaps the most famous (it had the gisaeng school, the major place for gisaeng training). There were also Japanese guilds which managed the geisha who operated in major Korean cities in large numbers.
In earlier times, gisaeng usually entertained officials during their house parties. This happened in the colonial era as well, but most gisaeng-attended functions were held in expensive restaurants. Restaurants appeared in Korea only in the 1890s, and until the introduction of a cheaper variety in the 1920s, most of them were very expensive places where the presence of gisaeng girls was seen as a natural part of the package.
Party organizers contacted a guild and asked for a certain number of girls to be sent. They could ask for a specific gisaeng, and she would come unless she was already booked elsewhere. The guild would keep a timetable of girls, arrange transportation and take care of all administrative matters if such matters arose.
Guilds not only handled bookings. Nearly all financial transactions and administrative affairs of the girls were handled by the guild. For example, in restaurants, when the party was over, the guests never paid the girls directly. It would be vulgar and would ruin the atmosphere which had to look sophisticated. Hence, fees were sent to the guild.
The usual mode of transportation was the rickshaw. Indeed, when rickshaws began to disappear from Seoul streets in the 1930s, gisaeng were among the last people who kept using the service. It was partially tradition (Japanese geisha use rickshaws up to this day), but there is a rational explanation as well: rickshaws could easily negotiate narrow alleys of the old city, bringing the girl to a house where a party would take place.
While on assignment, gisaeng spent few hours with their customers, singing and dancing, and also entertaining the guests with witty and playful conversation. They could not eat much in the presence of guests, so there was a tradition: when gisaeng girls arrived, they were first served food in a separate room. Only then did they begin their performance.
And then there is the question of sex which always attracts so much attention. Did they do it? Did gisaeng girls of the 1920s and 1930s sleep with their customers? The short answer is likely to be “yes,” but it would require numerous qualifications.
The gisaeng themselves, their guilds and their managers wanted to play down the significance of sex in their trade. This was understandable: they wanted to maintain a clear line between themselves and humble streetwalkers, and they also needed to project a more respectable image. They wanted to be seen as sophisticated entertainers, not as slightly improved versions of prostitutes.
However, contemporaries had different opinions on the matter. It seems that most gisaeng did sleep with patrons occasionally, and on the lower reaches of their group the line between a low-level gisaeng and a better paid prostitute was almost non-existent. On the other hand, at the highest reaches of the profession sex was not a part of the trade.
That said, there were conditions that had to be met. To start with, appearances had to be maintained. The liaison had to look like a genuine romantic affair, not just a sex-for-cash transaction. This means that in most cases a gisaeng had one semi-permanent lover, a rich man, who provided her with generous payments, but she had to be “loyal” to him. Lovers could change in rather quick succession, of course.
Gisaeng were also seen as media celebrities. Indeed, they played a major role in development in the Korean arts of the era. Many prominent actors, singers and dancers of the 1920s or 1930s began their artistic careers as gisaeng.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.