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"Drunk on rice wine and the beautiful notes of the instruments, the noblemen gazed upon us with delicate lust; their eyes went over our bodies, glowing with a child's curiosity as our mistress at the gibang [the equivalent of today's room salon for the nobility] introduced us. She called out our names one by one, and we, in turn, bowed gracefully. The men cleared their throats and nodded with contentment. A nobleman with a long beard down to his chest hesitantly came to me and put his hand on my head while I was sitting obediently."

Kim Tak-whan described a gisaeng's first night in his most recent book, "I am Hwang Jin-i," which depicts the most favored courtesan among the Korean aristocracy in the 19th century. The author is describing Jin-i's first encounter with the nobility at the age of 16. Gisaeng, sometimes referred to as haeeohwa, "a flower that understands language," were courtesans who entertained the noble classes, or yangban, with dancing and song. The gisaeng in Seoul were especially popular, for only a few with exceptional beauty and charm were picked to work there because they were called on to attend the king's parties and casual strolls. Provincial gisaeng were disparaged.

They usually lived on an annual payment from the governors who hired them, but the payment was far too small to support themselves so they had to attend yangban's 60th birthday parties and other entertainments to keep the wolf from the door. Most were sexual toys for those in power. Unlike commoners back then, gisaeng were allowed to wear expensive silk dresses and decorative accessories ?but not for their own sake, but for the sake of the yangban who viewed them. They were supposed to take off their pretty clothes at the command of men and serve them. Their clothes were made for quick removal.

Gisaeng and yangban are all just historical remnants of the 19th century. But just as history is said to repeat itself, both classes seem to still exist, only in other forms: entertainers and politicians. The recent disclosure by an actress created a stir in the political world; she confessed that she once was "called" to a dinner with someone high in political life. Modern entertainers, unlike gisaeng, are considered professionals, not playthings. The revelation of the actress reminded me of the sex scandals in political and business circles 20 years ago, subjects of gossip for quite a long time. I hope the politicians and businessmen involved in modern gisaeng parties work instead for flood victims.

The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo

by Noh Jae-hyun

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