Modern women in a Confucian timeThey came from the lowest classes, but had the souls of aristocrats. As women and as commoners, Korea’s gisaeng ― the women who, during the Joseon Dynasty, entertained high-ranking men with their music and poetry ―were perceived in complicated ways. Within the feudal system, their status was sometimes one of shame, sometimes one of honor.
They were seen as artists, as entertainers, as mistresses and as courtesans. They had the privilege of mingling with men who belonged to high society, but their interaction was restricted to the sale of their smiles, their talents and their feminine charm. They were also known as haeoehwa ― “a flower that hears” ― which may suggest that their lives were destined to be short.
Their occasionally tragic relationships with men, however, gave some of these women a motif for creating poems and songs that were among the finest of their time, works of wit and dignity that still survive.
To this day, gisaeng poetry is seen by critics as rare examples of literary works from the late Joseon Dynasty that make no pretense of upholding the Confucian order.
This leads to another truth about gisaeng: They were the only women in their Confucian society who could pursue liberal relationships with men outside the social boundaries of the time.
“They really took an active role in leading the consumption patterns of a new civilization at the turn of the century,” says Lee Don-su, a collector of historical Korean photographs and documents.
“They were the first to be categorized as ‘modern girls’ in Korea,” Mr. Lee added.
Selections from Mr. Lee’s extensive collection of early-20th-century picture postcards depicting gisaeng are being exhibited at Seoul Auction Center until mid-February. The exhibition addresses the issue of how these artistically gifted women came to be regarded as shady sex symbols in popular culture.
It wasn’t always so. The late historian Lee Neung-hwa wrote in his “History of Joseon Haeoehwa” that the gisaeng, through their songs and poems, kept alive a tradition of Korean art that wouldn’t otherwise have survived.
Other historians agree, noting that while the gisaeng might have sold their wit and talents, they often refrained from selling their bodies. One famous gisaeng, Hwangjini, was known for her distaste for public display; she even refused to wear facial make-up or body ornaments on occasions when she participated in public performances arranged by government authorities.
Part of the reason the gisaeng’s image changed seems to have been the breakdown of the Joseon court system after the Japanese annexation of Korea.
Thousands of gisaeng employed by royal offices were suddenly jobless; organizers of the postcard exhibition say that many of them were hired by bars and restaurants to entertain men who had little interest in their artistic gifts.
The photographs on display at Seoul Auction Center were taken between 1900 and the 1930s. Like modern-day souvenirs, many of them were produced with foreign tourists in mind; captions on the backs of the postcards are in English and Chinese. The beauty standards of the time are expressed in the models’ style, and in their costumes, hand-tinted orange and red.
The commercial aspect of the postcards makes it clear that many of these images were created to appeal to Westerners, satisfying their interest in “the exotic Orient.” Some of the women are shot in enigmatic poses that create a sense of mystery.
In one, a gisaeng in a long dress leans subtly forward to practice her calligraphy in her bedroom. The figurine, draped by a long paper scroll in the background with exotic writings of Chinese characters, exudes a seductive quality reminiscent of Peter Greenway’s film “The Pillow Book,” about an ancient text that’s said to fuse sex and art into one.
Other images are of a gisaeng getting a lesson in playing the gayageum (the traditional stringed instrument), shooting an arrow, smoking a cigarette or playing baduk. Other images have explicit sexual connotations, with gisaeng posed on their beds or with their legs spread; still others are straight portraiture. At the time, it was taboo for an ordinary woman to pose for a camera.
An interesting aspect of these postcards is that many were produced by Japanese studios; more than 20 were apparently involved. Some of the photos seem to have been motivated, at least in part, by a need to support the imperial enterprise. One postcard in the exhibition, for example, depicts Korean girls in a gisaeng training school in Pyeongyang practicing Japanese lessons.
Such photos are particularly interesting when one considers that a number of gisaeng participated in the anticolonial movement. Some of them wrote poems that candidly expressed their distaste for the Japanese colonists.
Some researchers believe that the women in these postcards weren’t even real gisaeng at all, merely models. If this were true, it might suggest that the postcards were part of a Japanese effort to erase the gisaeng tradition. But Mr. Lee believes they have value regardless.
“Even if these images were fabricated by outsiders, they carry aspects that are undeniably Korean,” says Mr. Lee. “It’s important to point to their social context and to decipher just what parts of their history have been distorted.”
by Park Soo-mee
The exhibition “Gisaeng” runs through Feb. 13 at Seoul Auction Center at Pyeongchang-dong. To get to the museum, take the museum bus from Insa Arts Center, or take city bus 1020 or 1711 from Gyeongbokgung subway station, line No. 3, exit 3. For more information, call (02) 395-0330.