Oh, joy! Spring allergies are here again. To celebrate, I spent yesterday incapacitated on the couch watching K-dramas, including re-watching episodes of one of my newer favorites Mr. Queen.
All of this reminds me that I must continue my series on women in late Joseon Korea, as excerpted from Louise Jordan Miln’s book Quaint Korea, published in 1895. Today I’ve posted passages about Korean geishas known as Kisaeng. These women, usually between 16 and 22 years of age, were formally trained for their profession and regulated by the Korean government. Miln refers to these women as geisha. I’ve replaced these references with the Korean word Kisaeng. If you’re interested in learning more about Kisaeng, the Wikipedia entry for the Kisaeng is great.
As I caveated in my previous post on Joseon women, this excerpt is only one American woman’s observation of her experiences in Korea. You are welcome to politely correct or add more information (or suggest really good K-dramas!)
The word geisha is a Japanese word, and it signifies “accomplished person.” The Korean word for the class of women of whom I am writing is ki-saing.
And as the women of the Korean gentry are more secluded than those of any other Asian gentry, so are the Kisaeng girls of Chosön more interesting, more fascinating…Women seem to be an indispensable element of society after all. Social enjoyment without them is more or less a failure, at least in any very prolonged form
The Kisaeng girls have names of their own, but then the Kisaeng have individuality; live lives, if not moral, why still, not colourless, and mix with men, if not on an equality, at least with a good deal of familiarity; and it would be rather awkward if the men who are dependent upon them for female society … had no name by which to call them. The “Fragrant Iris” was the name of a Kisaeng girl whose acquaintance Mr. Lowell tells us he made in Korea, and four of her companions were called “Peach Blossom,” “Plum Flower,” “Rose,” and “Moonbeam.”
To please, to amuse, to understand, and to companion men, mentally and socially, is their chief duty, their chief occupation, and their most earnest study. The Kisaeng girl is, as a rule, rather better educated than the concubine, better educated, quite possibly, than the wife; for the Kisaeng must make her way, and hold any position she gains, solely by personal talent, personal attractiveness, and personal attainments. Not for her to lay at the man’s feet a son who may worship him into the most desirable corner of the Korean heaven; only for her to please him while she is with him, to touch for him odd instruments and sing to them soft, weird songs, to shake the soft perfume of her hair across his cheek and the perfume of the flowers she wears upon the bowl of food, or of fish, or fruit she humbly places before him; only for her to laugh at his humour, flat howsoever it may be; only for her to applaud his ambitions, urge on his hopes, charm away his fears; only for her to please; never for her, save by accident, to be pleased.
In proportion to the populations of the two countries there are far fewer Geisha in Korea than in Japan, but this is solely, I think, because Korea is so much poorer than Japan; for nowhere are women of their profession more appreciated, more esteemed, and treated by men more on an equality than they are in Chosön. The Korean Kisaeng is systematically and carefully trained for her intended profession. Several years are occupied by her education, and not until she is proficient in singing, in dancing, in reciting, in the playing of many instruments, in repartee, in the pouring of wine, in the filling and lighting of pipes, in making herself generally useful at feasts and festivals, and above all, in being good-natured, is she allowed to ply her trade. In or near every large Korean city are picturesque little buildings called “pleasure-houses.” They are very like the tea-houses of Japan. They are usually built in some secluded spot, and are surrounded by the brilliance of flowers, and half hidden beneath the shadow of trees. They are scantily but artistically furnished, and are running over with tea and sweetmeats and girls.
The Kisaeng of the King are, of course, the flower of the profession, and are dressed even more elaborately than the ordinary Kisaeng, which is quite superfluous.
Most Asian dances are slow. Probably the slowest of them all is the dance of the Korean Kisaeng. The Kisaeng herself is covered and covered from throat to ankle. It would be imprudent to say how many dresses she usually wears at once. She dresses in silk and in glimmering tissues. Before dancing she usually takes off two or three of her gowns, and tucks up the trains of the robes she still wears, but even so she is very much dressed, and a thoroughly well-clad person. In winter she wears bands of costly fur on her jaunty little cap, and an edge of the same fur about her delightful little jacket of fine cashmere, or of silk. She wears most brilliant colours, and all her garments are perfumed and exquisitely clean. Indeed, cleanliness must be her ideal of godliness.
Her parents are poor, always very poor, and she is pretty, always very pretty. It is this prettiness which causes her almost from her babyhood to be destined for the amusement profession. It makes her suitable for that profession, and ensures her probable success in it. Her parents gladly set her aside from the toilers of the family, and she is given every possible advantage of mind and person. So she is insured a life of ease, and even of comparative luxury. She is a blooming, gladsome thing, with gleaming eyes, and laughing lips, and happy dancing feet. She looks like some marvelous human flower when you meet her in the streets of Söul, and forms an indescribable contrast to the draggled crowds that draw apart to let her pass as she goes on her laughing way to her well-paid work.
Kisaengs are greatly in demand for picnics, and in the summer often spend days in the cool, fragrant woods, playing for, reciting to, and feasting with some merry party of pleasure-makers. If their services are required at a Korean feast they usually slip in one by one when the meal is more than half done. The host and his guests make room for them, and each girl seats herself near to a man whose attendant she thus becomes for the entire evening. They pour wine for the men, and see that all their wants and creature comforts are well looked after. They do not eat unless the men voluntarily feed them. To feed them is to give them a great mark of favour, and it would be the worst of bad form for them to refuse any morsel so offered. After the feast they sing and dance in turn and together. They recite love stories and ballads, and strum industriously away upon Korean instruments. Their singing is very plaintive: as sad as any earthly music, but it is not sweet nor pleasing to European ears. To introduce them for an evening into the most respectable family circle is regarded as the best of good taste. Some of these girls live together, many of them live, nominally at least, in the homes of their own childhood. They form strange contrasts to their sisters of approximately the same age, whose lives have been lives of virtue and incessant work.
Kisaengs never by any chance become familiar with, or are treated familiarly by the women of the households into which they are occasionally introduced, and yet some of them are not unchaste in their personal lives. This, however, is of course very exceptional. Occasionally the Kisaeng becomes the concubine of a man of position, or the personal attendant of a man of wealth.