Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 29, May 2012

The Courtesan's Journal:
Kisaeng and the Sex Labour Market in Colonial Korea

Ruth Barraclough

  1. In January 1927 a new magazine entitled Chang Han (長恨 Enduring Bitterness) appeared in the bookshops and news-stands of Seoul, the capital of the Japanese colony of Korea. On its front cover was an illustration of a woman
    in an elaborate wicker cage. The magazine's heading exclaimed: 'Comrades, behold this caged body.' As distinct from much of the literature about kisaeng circulating in the colony at this time, Chang Han was written and produced by kisaeng themselves. Chang Han thus appears to be that most elusive document for feminist historians: the voice of the subaltern woman breaking through colonial and native patriarchal structures of silencing. Yet Chang Han evades neat definition. It is a commercial document as much as a literary one, that conveys crucial information about the political economy of sex work, the cultural appeal of kisaeng miscellaneous writings (sup'il 수필), and the resilience of the premodern caste system in the colony's emergent capitalist economy.[1]

    Figure 1. Cover of Chang Han, January 1927.
    Source: Korea Human Rights Website, accessed 26 April 2012.

  2. This article analyses Chang Han as a product of the intersection of labour politics and an increasingly commercialised sex industry in the 1920s in colonial Korea. The 1920s were a decade of complex reinvention for kisaeng as they negotiated the shift from courtesans (of varying grades) to new-style entertainers and sex workers in the kisaeng houses of Pyŏngyang and Seoul in Japan-occupied Korea. Chang Han contains important information about the lives and aspirations of these early-twentieth-century courtesans: their quest for market share; their mixed critique and loyalty to the profession; and their consciousness of the selling power of a particular brand of highbrow, low caste love.
  3. Kisaeng were traditionally part of the caste economy of Chosŏn Dynasty Korea (1392–1910) where girl children were born into or apprenticed to the kisaeng profession, or sold outright to kisaeng houses. As members of the lowest caste, the ch'ŏnmin, kisaeng shared the same status as butchers and slaves, yet their accomplishments brought them into intimate contact with the highest echelons of Chosŏn society. This old caste or slave labour economy proved adaptable to colonial Korea's growing market economy and the customary ways of marketing kisaeng were refined and modernised, often by kisaeng themselves, in the 1920s. Thus kisaeng were one of a number of Chosŏn Dynasty occupation categories that continued to function in modern twentieth-century Korea.[2] Even so the nature of the labour undertaken by kisaeng would be profoundly influenced by the new markets created via colonial capitalism. The many varieties of kisaeng labour—musical performance, dance, conversation, singing, poetry recitation and improvisation, flirting, soothing, flattering, and sexual labour—changed and expanded under Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945). The Korean National Folklore Museum lists the accomplishments of kisaeng as follows: 'They learnt to play the harp (hyŏngum), the kayagum, the drums, the seven-stringed fiddle (ajaeng), a selection of Korean stringed instruments and woodwind instruments, and mastery of a whole variety of instrumental and vocal music. In addition they performed court dances, and in their mastery of different musical and artistic mediums showed themselves to be complete artists (chonghap yaesulka)'.[3] This describes the classical kisaeng, working at the highest level of the profession: the royal court or the most prestigious kisaeng houses, in the late nineteenth century. Following the Japanese takeover of Korea in 1910 and their restructuring of the sex labour market, all this would change.
  4. The first major variation to the kisaeng's occupation status, and by extension the economy in which she laboured, occurred in 1894 when as part of the Kabo Reforms hereditary occupations and the caste system that sustained them were abolished. With this rule the inexorable hereditary nature of the slave economy was replaced with a system of bonded labour contracts.[4] For kisaeng this meant that rather than being born into the profession, one could now be sold into it in perpetuity. It is in the kisaeng's transition from hereditary slave to bonded labourer that we observe how Korea's very recent slave past would become a crucial component of colonial capitalism. It regulated in ways both profound and mundane the relations between people in an economy increasingly dubbed capitalist. Primary documents allow us to read through these changes as they affected kisaeng, in particular how these very young women and girl children negotiated the shift from 'feudal courtesans' to arbiters of a modern, hybrid femininity in the kisaeng houses of colonial Korea. Self-authored pieces allow us to analyse the complex re-invention of kisaeng over the colonial period; in particular how kisaeng used their expertise in 'high culture' to compete with licensed prostitutes, waitresses, bar girls and actresses in the increasingly competitive sex industry in colonial Korea.[5]
  5. The profession also carried its own internal hierarchies. During the late Chosŏn period kisaeng had conformed to a classification system that divided them into three grades. Grade one or ilp'ae kisaeng served the highest society and began their training in childhood. The second grade ip'ae were kisaeng who had been born and trained into the profession but had retired and worked privately seeing their own clients, while the third grade samp'ae were kisaeng who worked in taverns and provincial kisaeng chip (kisaeng salons) as entertainers and prostitutes. They were not allowed to use the same repertoire as ilp'ae kisaeng, but that all three were given the title kisaeng rankled with the trained and high ranked court kisaeng.[6]
  6. When kisaeng became formally incorporated into the Japanese prostitution licensing system, their status became closer to that of the licensed sex worker, provoking a profound crisis for the profession. Liberation from the caste system and its taint of slavery had in a few short decades resulted in kisaeng being exposed to a new, less ambiguous and much more competitive sex labour market. One of the results of this crisis was the birth of the magazine Chang Han in January 1927. Chang Han appeared at a time of extraordinary literary productivity in Korea. It bears comparison with the flagship women's magazine of this time Sinyŏsŏng (New Woman), which had closed the previous year and would re-commence in 1930. Sinyŏsŏng was addressed to an educated class of women interested in exploring the contours of a modern femininity: in fashion, jobs and relationships.[7] In 1929 more women's publications appeared: the leftist feminist magazine Kunu (Rose of Sharon), and the more commercial Samch'ŏnri (Three Thousand Li) both aimed at female readers. And in 1934 Yŏsŏng (The Nyusung) a magazine by and for bar girls made its boisterous debut. In these journals we glimpse the eclecticism and experimentation of colonial Korea's publishing and reading markets. Readers no less than writers were bent on engagement with a whole range of ideas and practices around the forms modern femininity might assume in Korea. Yet here too Chang Han stands apart as a women's magazine not primarily addressed to women. While the editors of Sinyŏsŏng pleaded with female readers to send in their stories and letters, Chang Han displays the characteristic self-absorption of the entertainment quarters.
  7. The magazine Chang Han carries an interesting assortment of material. Addressed to the colony's growing reading public, much of the magazine is devoted to pieces by kisaeng who write of their own girlhood journey into the profession. Under headings such as 'A Pathetic Tale', and 'The Role of the Ill-Fated Kisaeng,' kisaeng write of the consequences of female poverty in this economy, which left girl children utterly exposed to the bonded labour market.[8] Unlike leftist magazines at this time, there are no anonymous articles. Quite the contrary, studio shots of authors accompany the autobiographical pieces. But the grievance and bitterness that pervades the articles in volume one of Chang Han are directed towards 'fate' and 'society' in place of a sustained critique of the labour practices in the colony. There is a large amount of original poetry and sundry articles connected to women's health. Short stories and autobiographical articles sit side by side and the mode is confessional. In the pages of this magazine kisaeng express their distress at being misunderstood in this economy: taken for a common prostitute when their lineage and qualifications were far more complicated and exalted. As feminist historian Suh Ji-Young has noted, the first issue is reformist, arguing that kisaeng should return to their traditional accomplishments to reclaim the prestige of their profession.[9]
  8. Chang Han also carried articles that openly declared that kisaeng were slaves. Given that slavery had been abolished in 1894 and the caste system officially dismantled, what did they mean? When used by Pak Nokju in her essay introducing readers to the magazine, 長恨에 대하여 (About ChangHan) the term slave (로예) forms part of a general lament over the lives of kisaeng and the ways in which they are by turn misunderstood, desired and despised in colonial society.[10] Rather than being a view exclusive to that magazine, this lament was part of a discourse of liberal humanism already circulating in colonial society that fixed upon kisaeng as embodying a 'feudalism' both backward and alluring. Most prominent of all is Yi Kwang-su's 1917 novel Muj ŏng which berates the male protagonist (and by extension readers) for hypocrisy and voyeurism over the fate of his childhood sweetheart Youngch'ae, sold to a kisaeng house where her virginity will be auctioned off to a wealthy client. The lament over the fate of kisaeng also formed a crucial part of the kisaeng repertoire itself, used to entertain and confer poignancy on the special relationship shared by a kisaeng and her clients. When, ten years after the publication of Chang Han, the writer Yi Tae-jun steps through the doors of the great kisaeng house Myŏngwŏlkwan (one of the prime sponsors of the magazine Chang Han), the kisaeng sing to him the Japanese song Bird in A Birdcage.[11] To refer to oneself as a slave, a caged bird, was both to acknowledge the bonded labour system that tied kisaeng to their employers, and to distinguish the kisaeng, former 'palace slaves,' from all other women working in this expanding sex labour economy.

    The sex labour economy
  9. The forced opening of Korea by Japan in 1876, and the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and Russo-Japanese war (1905) greatly expanded the sex trade in Korea.[12] As red light districts became an important element of the foreign concessions, the status and variety of sexualised labour also began to change. When the Japanese police enacted the Kisaeng Regulation Order (Kisaeng Tansongnyong) in 1908, kisaeng 'left the palace' and came under the regulation of the colonial police.[13] Under the Regulation Order kisaeng were separated from their kibu (male partner/manager/ pimp), whose role was, in a sense, taken over by the colonial police force itself. Under the order kisaeng were to be affiliated with guilds (kwŏnbon) and all members were to register with the Japanese police.[14] And worse was to come. In March 1909 kisaeng became grouped together with street prostitutes (ch'anggi) who were required to submit to health examinations to check for venereal disease. That Japan used the argument of modern hygienic practice, specifically venereal disease prevention, to assume control of colonial women's bodies through a prostitution licensing system places it within well-established imperialist discourses of modernity and bio-power. For kisaeng this meant that even before Korea had been fully incorporated as a colony of Japan, their activities came to be closely controlled by the protectorate state. With outright annexation in 1910 the colonial state 'appropriated the sexual labour of women in the interests of empire' and kisaeng became one category in a complex hierarchy of sexualised workers labouring in Japan's imperial holdings.[15]
  10. Having lost their partners, and their status, former high-ranked kisaeng thus came to develop a deeply ambivalent relationship with the colonial police, who were clients as well as law enforcers.[16] In the regulations surrounding kisaeng in the early part of the colonial period, we see clearly that the preferences and pleasures of the regulators/clients were consulted above all other claims.[17] But clients included whole swathes of colonial Korean society: Korean men as well as foreign men, Christians and Buddhists, rich men and the educated elite, cosmopolitan men and provincials. Feminist theorists and activists in the field of sex labour have recently introduced 'the client' as an important object of analysis and regulation. Whether by studying his relationship with sex workers, or by legislating so that he bears the burden of criminalisation, the client has emerged as a key figure in the development of the argument for sex worker rights. In Chang Han, rather than take the role of the kisaeng's adversary or oppressor, the client is enlisted as amongst her friends and interpreters. In the article 'Foreigners On Chosŏn's Kisaeng' in volume one of Chang Han, three clients—a western man, a Japanese man and a Chinese man—are given four pages to enthuse about kisaeng and beg them to retain their artistic allure.[18] How do we interpret this catholic world of labourer and client, writer and reader, slave and supplicant?

    The world of Chang Han
  11. Feminist scholars have over the last ten years worked assiduously to trace the lineage of kisaeng and the circumstances of their patronage and decline in early and mid twentieth-century Korea. In great demand at restaurants, diplomatic parties and business functions throughout the colonial period, kisaeng famously entertained the incoming American delegation who in 1945 came to accept the surrender of Japan south of the 38th parallel. Indeed one of the first institutions to return to business as usual after the end of World War II and Japan's exit was the kisaeng chip (kisaeng salon). The colonial period saw a new appreciation and connoisseurship of kisaeng that was transmitted throughout the Japanese Empire through kisaeng postcards, photographs and tourist advertisements that stressed kisaeng as part of the attractions of a holiday in Korea. At the same time the profession itself was threatened by the development of a modern sex labour market that turned the specialised expertise of kisaeng into liabilities, namely its archaic accomplishments and its association with a shrinking clientele: the aristocracy (yangban).
  12. In these circumstances the magazine Chang Han gives us an important clue to the crisis of the 1920s for kisaeng. That they should turn to print is a feature of their times, when magazines and newspapers carried the great political and cultural messages of the day. By the late 1920s writers and journalists, influenced by the Proletarian Arts Movement in Japan were turning a new, critical attention to their own society, and newspapers and magazines were including fictional and documentary accounts of 'the lower-classes.' Intersecting with this political project was a gendered mission. For the 1920s was a time when kisaeng, female students, factory girls, actresses, bar girls and socialist women were establishing themselves as modern subjects in colonial Korea. The literary historian Ji-Eun Lee in her study of the magazine Sinyŏsŏng has shown that the figure of the modern or new middle-class woman in print culture was mediated by commercialisation, colonial publishing policy and male-dominated editorial boards. And socialist women when they appeared in fiction were sexualised and controlled by the discourse of Red Love.[19] Literary representation of factory girls was fragmented and excessively sentimental. But kisaeng could be said to have a literary oeuvre all of their own. Indeed modern literary fiction was one of the tools that helped construct the desirability of (feudal) kisaeng in (modern) Korea. With its poetry, short stories and autobiographical pieces, Change Han's intervention into the colony's literary culture sits somewhere between literary fiction and journalistic reportage.
  13. The magazine carries few advertisements, although its sponsors are listed prominently as major kisaeng houses, and it does advertise Myŏngwŏlkwan, the most prestigious kisaeng house in the colony at this time. The financial backing of established kisaeng houses is intriguing, given the magazine's critique of the kisaeng system.[20] But Chang Han contains many curiosities. For a start it does not have a single political line. The contributors disagree on whether it is preferable to reform the profession or to leave it altogether. These arguments on how to define kisaeng labour—are we artistes or bonded labourers?—are reminiscent of debates over advocacy versus abolition in sex worker organisations and related non-government agencies today. In this sense the kisaeng of Chang Han were posing a question that continues to be unresolved. Rather than attempt a pat resolution of this debate, I suggest that we approach Chang Han as a text showcasing the multiple subject positions of kisaeng, their varied and sometimes contradictory self-definitions all put to strategic use in outlining the labours of the modern courtesan.

    The labours of courtesans
  14. While volume one of Chang Han ran to over one hundred pages, a slim volume two, published the following month, would close the magazine's short run.[21] Volume two of Chang Han addressed itself directly to the question of how to categorise the labour of kisaeng. Print culture and radical political movements closely intersected in the colony as kisaeng became involved in the labour movement of the 1920s and began to agitate in the media as well as in strikes for the right to leave the profession. Chang Han was in part a product of this radical reconfiguring of kisaeng as 'workers,' but it also interacted with contemporary debates on the 'New Woman' of colonial Korea, a thoroughly modern figure signifying a westernised education, and loyalty to free love and individual liberty. As experts in paid love and bonded labour, kisaeng had much to add to this debate.
  15. An article in volume two of Chang Han illustrates how kisaeng had begun to chronicle their lives in terms suggested by the labour movement. Under the heading 'Are Kisaeng Workers Too?' the author Chon Nan-hong, a kisaeng, writes:

      The labour of kisaeng: when we open our mouths to sing, or reach for our instrument to play, how much more arduous is even this than the labour of male workers?. Male labourers do their work and receive their pittance it is true, but kisaeng must employ all the fibres of their being to please the taste of varied customers, and even as they labour at this, must smile and place a sympathetic heart at the mercy of their clients. How much harder than the male labourer's work are the tasks of kisaeng. And kisaeng can never feel entirely comfortably with themselves. The labourer labours openly. But in this world kisaeng hide from the name. I think the time has come for us to begin to say, 'rather call us workers.'[22]

  16. Here is a clear early description of the emotional labour that distinguished sexualised service work from all other kinds of labour. Here too is the ambivalent voice of kisaeng that gives a glimpse of the contradictions inherent in the profession: marvelling at the accomplishments and endurance of kisaeng even as it rails against the strains of the profession.
  17. The varied response of kisaeng to the sympathetic categories of the labour movement warrants examination. The great crisis of the kisaeng profession in the 1920s, their incorporation into the prostitution licensing system, and their subsequent search for a politics to describe their predicament underscores the limitations of the labour movement at this time. Marxists valorised abstract working-class labour but had no capacity to incorporate kisaeng or sex workers into their critique of capitalist relations. In these circumstances it is not surprising that the self-appointed task of many kisaeng was to restore the prestige of the profession rather than critique its very foundations.
  18. A number of kisaeng also adopted the notion of themselves as modern 'workers' using the labour movement parlance of the day, in order to critique or escape 'feudal' employment practices. There was also an affective side to kisaeng labour, one that helped construct their image in the modern cultural landscape. For kisaeng the colonial bonded labour market was connected to an aesthetic of bonded female labour that reveals itself in literature and song as the 'beautiful suffering' of kisaeng, and provided the kisaeng profession with much of its poignancy. This particular style of femininity—tied to a tragic and inescapable fate—was a feature of the kisaeng repertoire, where slavery, feminine suffering and sexual availability coalesced in songs and poetry to form an enticing product. Here the language of slavery and the picture of the caged woman become part of a discourse that slips easily between resistance and allure. Showcasing not vulnerability but rather mastery of the affective terms of debate around sexualised labour, Chang Han, a women's magazine primarily addressed to male clients, came into its own.

    Gender, sexuality and empire
  19. Feminist historians have established that the period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea oversaw extraordinary change in the professional lives of kisaeng. The compressed modernisation and primitive accumulation practices of the colonial period shaped the kisaeng profession and is the key to understanding how this pre-modern caste occupation survived to thrive in the colony's burgeoning capitalist society. Kisaeng were some of the first people to gain fluency in the Japanese language in colonial Korea as the Japanese established their own kisaeng training schools in the colony.[23] In addition they attained a prominent place in the increasingly regulated and commercialised sex industry in the colony where they vied with other women labouring in the entertainment districts, in bars, cafes and on the streets. As kisaeng competed as fashion leaders, and in the elegance of their repertoire, they learned to articulate a hybrid femininity: part Korean and part Japanese, part modern and part traditional—that could be sold in the colony and in the wider imperial economy. Their field of activity was not confined to cities, unlike yŏkup (bar girls) or actresses, kisaeng houses were found in the provinces as well as in metropolitan Seoul and Pyongyang and kisaeng ploughed a market the length and breadth of the colony.[24]
  20. Through an excavation of kisaeng writings we can observe some of the contradictions between the idealism of modern romantic love and the materialism of commodified sexuality. Prior to the colonial period, romantic and sexual love in Korea literature, and the kisaeng who often embodied it, had traditionally been imagined in the context of a rigid caste system. With the onset of colonial modernisation, received notions of morality, of the family, of marriage and of selfhood were challenged both by interaction with Japanese, Russian and Western ideas, and by the myriad of indigenous responses to colonial modernity. With their erudition and their cultural prominence, kisaeng were in a unique position to respond to many of the radical ideas sweeping the colony, and they joined emancipatory organisations and published tracts espousing their own version of a reorganised society.
  21. Many kisaeng contrived to leave the profession in the social and cultural upheaval of the 1920s. Chŏng Ch'il-sŏng became a socialist activist and writer, while after 1945 the head of first women's organisation in newly liberated Korea, the Choson Women's Union was former kisaeng, Yu Young-jun.[25] When these and other politically minded kisaeng left the profession to join organisations they brought their identity as kisaeng with them. Chŏng Ch'il-sŏng in particular openly acknowledged her working life as a kisaeng, and used it to substantiate her political appeal.[26] Rather than hiding their origins, or shunning recognition as shy and diffident 'talking flowers,' a number of kisaeng outed themselves both during and after the colonial period.[27] In noting this I want to suggest that we be wary of the notion of kisaeng 'hiding themselves' in post-liberation South Korea, or disappearing altogether in a changed (and disappointingly vulgar) sex labour economy.
  22. In fact the years immediately following the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Koreans from far-flung ports saw a proliferation of kisaeng and other sex workers as widows, orphans and lone wives sought work in the shattered labour market of liberated Korea. The July 1949 issue of the women's magazine Puin carries a letter by a reader from Myŏng-dong, Seoul who seeks advice on her predicament.[28] Stranded in a textile factory in Manchuria at war's end she made her way back to Korea only to find that poverty pushed her into employment in a kisaeng salon. Her very material questions to the magazine: 'Should I become a concubine? What do I tell my parents?' are swatted away as the columnist in reply indulges in abstract ruminations on life, historical change and the necessity to take the long view on present difficulties.

      History is changing. Soon there will be no such thing as concubine, or first wife. And women will not have to rely upon the income of their menfolk to sustain themselves. Do not think of becoming a kisaeng again, or entering into the life of a concubine. As our times change you should change with them and study for a new kind of occupation: typist or dressmaker or beautician.[29]

    Little did they know that exactly one year later the peninsula would be engulfed in a protracted civil war that in the words of Katherine Moon 'mass produced' prostitutes.[30]
  23. But if kisaeng as an occupation category in the sex labour market can be said to have disappeared from the late 1940s onward, what does this mean exactly? Who is looking for them and why? Given that many kisaeng fought for the right to leave the profession during the colonial period, what does it mean to lament the passing of kisaeng? Is this in fact the client's lament? The blurring of identity between kisaeng and client in available textual sources was bound to occur as so much that was written about kisaeng in the 1920s and 30s was written by clients. To paraphrase Marcus Wood, writing about a different context: we know little about kisaeng lives and kisaeng suffering, but a great deal about client fantasies of kisaeng lives and kisaeng suffering.[31] Nevertheless real divisions existed between kisaeng who wanted to destroy the profession and those who wanted to recuperate it.
  24. By exposing the classed basis of notions of free love, individual autonomy and a liberal model of marriage, kisaeng in their writings and political interventions challenged some of the founding tenets of liberal modernity. At the same time the loyalty of many kisaeng to the founding attributes of their profession: the caste system, the sexual double standard, bonded contracts and the profession's internal hierarchy, complicates our understanding of the history of colonial modernity in Korea. Kisaeng were engaged in a very public display of re-invention during the colonial period that was unique to their profession. Sensitive both to the changing market economy and to new cultural forms, kisaeng demonstrate how the business of love was transformed during Korea's colonial era. With the rise of a feminist movement in the 1920s that reinvigorated companionate marriage and socialism with its emphasis on comradely love, a new challenge arose for kisaeng. One cannot help but speculate that as brothel love competed with conjugal love and Red Love in the 1920s, kisaeng lost valuable ground just as other women began to gain it.
  25. Kisaeng themselves feature much in the writings of others, and composed lives that were part of their professional self—to perform to clients and to each other, but Chang Han was the first time that kisaeng reached out to speak to the world outside of the entertainment districts. Even within the pages of Chang Han we have divisions between those who gesture to the labour movement and those who would restore kisaeng to their premodern prestige, caste system and all. In addressing their ambiguous place in society, and their vulnerability to scorn, some kisaeng appealed to the very class system that kept them at the bottom. Kisaeng worked very hard in the 1920s to distinguish themselves from all those lower ranked showgirls and hookers. Some of them leant, with all their might, on the prestige of a status system that put them hovering around the bottom yet in intimate relations with those at the very top. Instead of saying – we are your equals – they said, in effect, our close relations with yangban men give us a special place in this society. The equality they were interested in, the shared humanity, was never with other sex labourers.

    Legacies of the kisaeng
  26. Following Japan's annexation of Korea in 1910 the hereditary nature of the kisaeng profession transformed with industrialisation, high unemployment in the Depression, and the modernisation and commercialisation of the entertainment and sex industries. The kisaeng profession responded to these changes: in schools, fashions, brothel management and repertoire. An analysis of the labour of kisaeng in the colonial period also enables us to re-visit the complex intimacies of collaboration, and the ubiquitous 'collaboration economy' of Korea at this time. Furthermore, the range of self-definitions of kisaeng—from slave to courtesan—gives pause to any attempt at a neat definition of kisaeng. With the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945 the kisaeng profession is said to have disappeared. Yet traces of kisaeng remained in South Korea: some of the first businesses to re-emerge in the liberation period were the ubiquitous kisaeng chip, where men could gather to discuss the end of the old colonial world. They also re-appeared, in kitsch form, in nostalgic 'kisaeng tours' peddled to Japanese men in the 1970s, and in the bonded contracts that characterised the sex industry in Korea. As the entertainment districts expanded during the military regimes of Park Chung Hee (1961–79), and Chun Doo-Hwan (1980–87), the popular coinage 'Republic of Prostitution' (Maech'un Konghwakuk) captured the importance of the sex industry to the domestic economy as entertainment districts blossomed under the patronage of a bloated military class. The resilience of remnants of the classical kisaeng profession in expensive male-only parties in contemporary South Korea alerts us to the resourcefulness of this occupation and the lasting appeal of the performance of professional femininity.
  27. One of the great myths of aristocratic societies like Korea at the close of the Chosŏn Dynasty and entering the colonial period is that rigid class distinctions kept people apart. This may be true for friendship, work associates and marriage partners, but it is certainly not the case for sexual relationships. Only by appreciating this can we grasp how kisaeng, women of the slave caste, were until recently still to be found at the heart of the most respectable and venerable of families. As a counter anecdote to the lament over the passing of kisaeng, I offer this story of the kisaeng hiding in plain sight within a conventional family. In the introduction to Nanun Kisaengida the literary historian Chong Byong-sol writes of his own family:[32]

      My now deceased great uncle had a concubine. For twenty years great-uncle was prostrate with palsy and great-aunt ministered to him. The concubine was not allowed to see him. But great-aunt passed away first and after her death great-uncle brought his concubine out into the open.

  28. This concubine, an old lady now, had been one of the Chinju kisaeng, a guild famed for their beauty and grace. With this anecdote we glimpse how not only societies but families also, in their most intimate relations, still carry the effects of a discarded caste system and its libidinal economy.


    [1] I would like to thank Jan Bardsley, Jiseung Roh and the other anonymous reviewer for Intersections, all of whom gave extremely helpful critical comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Hyaeweol Choi, Rebecca Copeland and Karen Leong, as well as the well-informed and engaged listeners at the AAS in Honolulu in March 2011, provided lots of stimulating suggestions, which I have tried to incorporate.

    [2] The recorded history of the kisaeng predates the Chosŏn Dynasty, and goes back to the Koryo Dynasty (935–1392).

    [3] Korean National Folklore Museum, Understanding Gisaeng Through Postcards (Yŏpsŏ Sok-ui Gisaeng Ilgi), Seoul: Minsokwon, 2009, p. 10.

    [4] While bonded labour contracts featured in the sex labour market throughout the colonial period and beyond, they were not the only form of labour exchange. Waitresses, for example, operated within a much more insecure and contingent wage environment that also meant that for them leaving the profession (for example to cohabit with a client) was much easier.

    [5] Jiseung Roh introduces the category of actress in her analysis of the emergence of the modern 'female' cultural figure in colonial Korea. See Roh Jiseung, Yuhokja-wa Huisaengyang (The Seductress and the Scapegoat: The Representation of Women in Modern Korean Novels), Seoul: Yaeok Publishers, 2010.

    [6] For example, Pak Chong-ae writes that higher grade kisaeng protested when samp'ae kisaeng used the customary red parasol reserved for them. Pak Chong-ae, 'Caged birds who long to fly: stories of colonial era kisaeng,' in Scandalous Women of the Twentieth Century, Seoul: Yosong Sinmunsa, 2001, pp. 77–89, p. 79.

    [7] See Ji-Eun Lee's 'New Women to New Housewives: Changing Discourses in Sinyŏsŏng, 1923–34,' U.S. Japan Women's Journal, 40 (2011): 90–121 for an excellent discussion of this important magazine.

    [8] Chang Han, vol. 1 (January 1927): 7–11.

    [9] Suh Ji-young, 'Sikminji Shidae Kisaeng Yŏngu' (A Study on Kisaeng in Colonial Korea), The Journal of Eastern Studies, 53, Sungkyunkwan University (March 2006): 267–94.

    [10] Pak Nokju, Chang Han, vol. 1 (January 1927), p. 45.

    [11] See Yi T'aejun, Eastern Sentiments, trans. Janet Poole, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 83.

    [12] Pak Chong-ae, 'Caged birds who long to fly,' p. 79.

    [13] Prior to the takeover of Korea by Japan kisaeng had been registered in government rosters and thus were said to have 'left the palace' following the Regulation Order of 1908 that placed them under the jurisdiction of the colonial police.

    [14] Insuk Lee, 'Convention and innovation: the lives and cultural legacy of the kisaeng in colonial Korea,' Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 23(1) (June 2010): 71–97, p. 78.

    [15] I borrow this turn of phrase from Prabha Kotiswaran, writing about sex work in colonial India in Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 9.

    [16] Insuk Lee reproduces in her article a photograph of a member of the Japanese constabulary with kisaeng, p. 80.

    [17] This is brought home by the fact that it was never considered a criminal offence to sell a child to a kisaeng establishment in this period. On the contrary, as Pak Chong-ae writes, to sell a twelve year old to a kisaeng school or guild was often believed to give her 'a better life,' the chance for an education and some cultivation. Pak Chong-ae, 'Caged birds who long to fly,' p. 84.

    [18] Chang Han, vol. 1 (January 1927), pp.18– 22.

    [19] For a fascinating discussion of this see Jang Young-eun, 'The agit keeper and the house keeper: love and the status of socialist women,' Daedong Munhwa Yongu, 64 (December 2008): 185–214.

    [20] For more evidence that some of the major kisaeng houses backed the magazine see Suh Ji-young, Sikminji Shidae Kisaeng Yongu,' p. 351.

    [21] Insuk Lee rather tantilisingly suggests there may be more volumes to Chang Han that have not yet been found. Insuk Lee, 'Convention and innovation,' p. 90.

    [22] Chang Han, vol. 2 (February 1927), p. 22.

    [23] Some kisaeng establishments were flagrantly pro-Japanese, while others welcomed independence fighters amongst their clientele.

    [24] Roh Jiseung, Yuhokja-wa Huisaengyang, p. 75, n. 88.

    [25] Pak Chong-ae, 'Caged birds who long to fly,' p. 89.

    [26] Pak Chong-ae, 'Socialist activist "intellectual kisaeng" of the March First Independence movement,' Hangyorae Sinmun, 15 April 2002.

    [27] Minato Kawamura, trans. Yu Chaesun, Malhanun kkot: Kisaeng (Talking Flowers: the Kisaeng), Seoul: Sodam, 2002.

    [28] 'Hwaryugye Yŏsŏng-ûi Kalgil' (The Journey of a woman of the pleasure quarters), Puin, 4 (July 1949), pp. 70–71. I would like to acknowledge the inspired work of my research assistant, Minseon Lee, in finding this article for me.

    [29] 'Hwaryugye Yŏsŏng-ûi Kalgil,' p. 71.

    [30] Katherine Moon, Sex Among Allies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

    [31] In his book about the Atlantic slave trade, Slavery, Empathy, Pornography, Marcus Wood writes that 'the "true" history of slavery is irrecoverable, and (it) has in part been made irrecoverable, with great care, by some very great writers.' Consequently his book on cultural memory of the Atlantic slave trade is 'not about black slave lives and black slave suffering, but about white fantasies of black lives and suffering,' Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 21.

    [32] This superb collection of kisaeng miscellaneous writings is introduced and sensitively interpreted by Chŏng Byŏng-sŏl, Nanun Kisaengida (I Am A Kisaeng), Seoul: Munhak Tongnae, 2007, p. 5.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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