I must admit that I love watching gisaeng (기생) in Korean TV dramas and movies more than Joseon queens and princesses and women from yangban families. But don’t get me wrong. All of these women, whichever social class they belong to, are beautiful and admirable. But in my eyes, the gisaeng oozes with mystique the most.
What fascinates me the most is the beautiful contradictions that abound in a gisaengs’ lives – as portrayed in Korean TV dramas. They are well-trained in literature and the arts, they are raised to be intelligent conversationalists, and they are clothed in the finest hanbok, but despite the trappings of a noblewoman’s life, they are actually part of the lower class. They captivate a lot of men, but they cannot reciprocate whatever mutual feelings they have into marriage because they are forbidden to do so. They possess so much depth in character, as can be seen in the poetry of the legendary Hwang Jin-Yi, but more often than not, their physical beauty blinds most people to the depth they possess.
Throughout my years of Korean TV drama enjoyment, specifically sageuk and fantasy dramas set in the Joseon period, I’ve seen the many faces and portrayals of the gisaeng. Here are three common portrayals that I noticed throughout my TV viewing, in no particular order:
Gisaeng as a beautiful object
This is the image of the gisaeng that we often see onscreen first. When they appear onscreen donning their bright and beautiful hanbok, elaborately made-up face, and intricately styled hair, our eyes just pop in admiration. Our eyes pop out even more when we see them expertly perform the art form that they took pains to master since they were children, be it a musical instrument, dance, singing, or poetry.
We love looking at them the way we look at dolls at a display case. A scene that comes to mind is when gisaeng prance around backstage as they get ready for a fashion show in the 2013 SBS TV series “Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love”. When they finally emerge onstage, their beauty is just breathtaking.
In some onscreen portrayals, these doll-like creatures are metaphorically taken out of their glass cases and into high-ranking and wealthy men’s eagerly outstretched arms. One gisaeng character that comes to mind is Park Chung-jo in the 2013 MBC drama “Gu Family Book” (구가의 서). Through the manipulations of Jo Gwan-woong, Chung-Jo, who used to be a noblewoman, was sold into a gisaeng house when her father died. She of course turns into a gisaeng, just as Jo Gwan-woong planned. In this drama, a gisaeng is portrayed as a beautiful woman who exists to serve men.
Gisaeng as an artist brimming with depth and intelligence
The gisaeng as someone possessing both beauty and brains is my favorite. In this portrayal, we see the gisaeng as someone trained in both beautifying one’s self and in the performing arts, visual arts, and literature. Brimming with depth and intelligence, she can converse with anyone, especially men who are high up in the social ladder. Flowery words of praise, diplomacy, tact – All these, she can skillfully deliver even in the face of pressure.
My ultimate gisaeng for this kind of portrayal is the legendary Hwang Jin-Yi. She is beautiful, artistic, and deep. Reading her poetry will make you feel the depth of her joys and sorrows, as well as the depth of her way of thinking.
This is one of my favorites:
Oh that I might capture the essence of this deep midwinter night
And fold it softly into the waft of a spring-moon quilt,
Then fondly uncoil it the night my beloved returns.
In contemporary times, an example of a gisaeng who’s brimming with beauty, artistry, and depth would be Dan Sa-Ran in “New Tales of Gisaeng”. She is not only an exquisite dancer in this drama, but she is also a modern woman who values grace, intelligence, depth, and agency.
Gisaeng as an intelligence gatherer or spy
Gisaeng in Korean TV drama also appear on the sly as intelligence gatherers or spies. This portrayal is something new for me, but I find it awesome. I’m not sure how historically accurate this portrayal is (If anyone knows, kindly leave a comment in the comments section below—and thanks in advance!) but it makes sense in the TV dramas I’ve seen, such as the character Chun Soo-Ryun, head gisaeng in “Gu Family Book”.
In this drama, high profile and high ranking Koreans of that time gather in the gisaeng house. As they come and go, gisaeng catch important bits of information that help collect intelligence to give to the good guys in the drama. The good guys, of course, use this information to save the day.
I like this particular portrayal. It seems to elevate the gisaeng (even if only in fiction) from an object to be looked at and admired from afar to someone with a significant and socially relevant mission.
So those are the three gisaeng portrayals I’ve noticed throughout my Korean TV drama viewing. Did you see more? Let’s talk in the comments section below. Thanks for reading this!