Gisaeng: South Korea’s version of geishas becomes craze

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – They are known as the “flowers that can understand words” – graceful entertainers from Korea’s past who are adept at poetry, art and music, and are the peninsula’s version of Japan’s geishas.

And they have become the new hot cultural property in 21st-century South Korea.

A TV show based on the life of a famous 16th-century “gisaeng,” as the women are known in Korean, has become a runaway hit in South Korea, driving the country’s entertainment industry to fuel the trend with a musical, comic book, movie and more TV shows.

Ironically, the gisaeng are enjoying popularity as a model for today’s women seeking a greater say in male-dominated Korean society – with the entertainers having enjoyed special privileges to participate in the men’s sphere despite their low standing in the rigid class hierarchy of imperial times.

“Gisaeng becomes cultural icon of 2006,” the leading Chosun Ilbo daily headlined a recent story on the fad.

Theories of gisaeng origins vary, with some believing they date back to the Shilla dynasty that emerged in the fifth century. Their nickname is “Haeohwa” – a word combining the three Chinese characters for “understand,” “word” and “flower,” objectified as a symbol of indigenous beauty.

Lee Don-soo, an art historian who has staged an exhibition of gisaeng photos from his extensive collection and is compiling a book on the subject, insists the original gisaeng weren’t a sexual object but rather “entertainers who had intelligence” who predated the geishas of Japan.

Scrolling through photos in Lee’s digital archive, the gisaeng of the late 19th and early 20th centuries display surprising touches of modernity: confident-looking women crossing their legs in male fashion, pictured with books and glasses, even smoking – seeming affronts to deeply conservative Korean society. Girls assemble at calligraphy contests or play the geomungo, a harplike Korean traditional instrument.

Many also wear styles that appear far ahead of their time, with impressionistic print designs on their dresses and businesslike parted hair – individuality that would appear to set them apart from the Japanese geisha, who paint there faces pale white in uniform fashion and wear tight-fitting kimonos.

The gisaeng aren’t just objects of beauty, but models of feminine strength.

Stories about gisaeng playing a part in resistance to Korea’s colonial rulers over the centuries are common. One such tale is the story of Non Gae, who in the 16th century was summoned to entertain occupying Japanese forces. While embracing a general, she leapt into a river, killing them both.

That strength provides a role model for today’s women, who seek a greater say in South Korean society. More women work, wait longer to get married and have fewer children, as they concentrate on careers and rise in business and politics. The country’s first-ever female prime minister was sworn in this year.

“Gisaeng are the only group of females that could participate actively in society with men,” said Lee.

Much of the recent focus has centered on the most famous gisaeng, Hwang Jin-i, whose intelligence rivaled her beauty and whose poems and artwork left an enduring legend, although few details of her life are known. Hwang is the subject of a hit TV show now airing on South Korea’s main public channel KBS. TV ratings show women in their 20s and above are the main audience.

“More than anything else, she didn’t give in to the pressure of her class or of the era in which she was born,” Ha Ji-won, the actress playing Hwang, told the Chosun Ilbo.

“The way she dominates upper-class men is so thrilling,” said Lee Myoung-ju, a hair stylist in her 30s. “Her choice of words and expressions just petrifies and stupefies all men, except her real lovers.”

The gisaeng craze will continue with a musical focusing on Hwang, and next year a movie about Hwang comes out, based on a 2002 North Korean novel about her that has also been published in the South.

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