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Korean Kisaeng and the Sijo Tradition


In the rigid feudalistic society of the early Choson dynasty (1392–1910), women were not accorded opportunities and status equal to that of men in areas of social activity. However, the Kisaeng, a female artist-entertainer and professional hostess, was often in a position to mix with the upper classes despite her lower status in the social hierarchy.

Unlike that of her modern counterpart, her trade was not necessarily labeled unsavory. At the higher levels, she might entertain and even associate with some of the leading male members of society: nobleman in the government, foreign ambassadors, high priests or monks and eminent scholars. She had to be talented and trained in arts such as literature, composition, singing, dancing and conversation.

The singing of sijo was regularly a necessity, and many Kisaeng composed sijo as well. Against the stock imagery and trite sermonizings frequently employed by scholars in their writing, a Kisaeng was free to express genuine feelings and truths that the more politic men felt they must hide. Though the number of known classical sijo ascribed to Kisaeng is limited in relation to the whole, quite a few of their works exceed in quality those written by men. Some of their verses,especially those by Hwang Chini, merit the highest admiration.

As Kim Unsong reports in his 100 Classical Korean Poems (Poet, March 1986), which was fundamental in introducing sijo to the West, the verses of female (primarily Kisaeng) poets of the classical period were
revolutionary and creative in their themes as well as contents. Ignoring the Confucian formality and ethical hypocrisy, their naked emotions ran free.... The language they used in the poems was sweet, passionate yet greatly refined with fresh imagery often with humourous similes and some thinly veiled metaphors.

When we delve into sijo of the kisaeng — indeed, of many sijo poets prior to the 18th century — it is necessary to keep in mind that little primary evidence exists. Since sijo were a part of the oral tradition, most were passed from singer to singer by word of mouth. Few were actually written down until the 18th century by scholars relying chiefly on oral accounts. Speaking specifically of the Kisaeng, David R. McCann (Early Korean Literature, 2000) reminds us:
Very few direct records remain of their lives, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that some of them may even have been inventions, characters inhabiting the stories of ill-fated love that accompanied the sijo songs ascribed to them.

Links to some of the more-well-known Kisaeng:

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Created 060309 Updated 090620