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Songs of the Kisang.

Early in the Chosun or Yi dynasty, which governed Korea from 1392 until the Japanese annexation in 1910, the emperors incorporated a group of skilled women, called kisang, into a political institution used by the palace to control members of the elite and of the state bureaucracy. The political sex-life of the kisang engendered dependency and loyalty among the scholar-bureaucrats and initiated a system of remuneration which helped perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class. Over the centuries, political positions were often expressed through one's attitude towards these courtesans. The usurper-king Yunsangun (1491-1506) provides the most notorious example of support. He fortified his rule by increasing the number of kisang to over ten thousand in the capital alone. His abuse of sexual power extended his control over the army and nearly bankrupted the state treasury. Periodically, meretricious and hypocritical moral campaigns were launched against the kisang and the allocations necessary to support them. Nevertheless, both the institution and the dynasty survived into the early twentieth century.

During the five hundred years of Chosun rule, ideologues supported the hierarchy and ethical system of Confucianism. This system was based upon a conception of the family and the clan which valued wives only in their roles as bearers of sons. The son was the point on the time line upon which present, past, and future time depended. Virtuous women, however, were very isolated. The higher their social rank, the greater their seclusion. The faculties and skills of Korean women were arrested, limited as they were to physical labor, sewing, dancing, and practical household tasks. Women stayed home and were forbidden direct contact with any male who was not a family member. If her spouse was not at home, the lady of the house had to address visiting males indirectly and in the third person. Female dissatisfaction was unthinkable; insubordination impossible. Social structures intensified this female isolation since they mandated that wives resign themselves to their husbands' secondary wives and mistresses. Jealousy was grounds for divorce. The cardinal virtue of selflessness made the concept of individual female self-identity impossible. No life existed for her outside the family or clan. The kisang, however, played an almost antithetical role to that officially prescribed for women.

A kisang was inducted from the lower classes between the ages of eight and ten. Purchased from her family and schooled in a career which disqualified her from marriage and raising a family, she was, in compensation, allowed a certain amount of economic and social independence denied respectable women. A kisang might find herself allocated to the royal palace or elsewhere in the capital; perhaps she was assigned to the provinces or to the border-guard military posts of the kingdom. But with her special freedoms came other forms of dependence and difficulty, such as forced relocation. Thus Imniwol laments:

Here in exile, behind ocean walls,

only a dream is allowed to exist.

My request is that this passage of dream

will not have left any traces.

Kungnyo expresses her frustration at this forced acquiescence:

Who caught you, fish, to free you

into my garden pond?

Which clear northern sea did you leave

for these small waters?

Once here, with no way to flee,

you and I are the same.

Upon their forced retirement, the kisang were sent to the outlands as a sexual benefaction for the troops. Although not officially codified into statute, this displacement supported them into their old age.

A kisang was in some ways a social outcast; yet, unlike the respectable women of her time, she was educated and articulate. She was not prohibited from looking at or addressing men directly. Trained in eloquence, she might even discuss politics. Although she developed herself in ways unavailable to her mute female social superiors, her "knowledge of the way," as Kyesom says, "cannot block it;/such learning can only lead me to mourn. " She was not officially a member of society, and her children could never be integrated into the social structure.

A kisang's training instilled competence in the arts, politics, and professional sex. She led a life of intellectual, aesthetic, and sexual duplicity. Hongjang complains:

any sea gull can be trusted

to fly back and forth.

But if I enthrone a man

above me, he goes forth, does not return.

Unlike the song of the sea gulls, however, the diffidence which a kisang expressed for the entertainment of her clients resulted in lyrics whose restricted emotions, suffused with irony and technical mastery, established an enduring tradition of love poetry. An anonymous kisang asserts this paradox in a comparably humorous grievance:

The black crow does not paint itself,

nor does the crane turn itself white.

From time past, from their sky-given

birth, black and white have been.

Here I am. My lover sees me.

Yet he talks of black and white.

The poignancy of this self-expression was, however, inseparable from the kisang's social non-existence. Kang Gangwol recounts what price she paid for her own detachment: "Each day I am woken with low light, /then tears, then greater light. " Songi laments:

Your love is not for you to give

nor mine for you to crave.

Our blood is tainted;

it seeks its own grave.

Standard encounterers between kisang and client were staged within the acknowledged limits of infidelity. Out of this ambivalence, Hwang Jini questions herself:

Ah, what have I done - as though I didn't know my feelings would remain. I would not add the few words that would keep him.

I want to understand the joy

I felt as I was letting him go.

To a kisang, life was artifice and artifice art. Songi depicts herself: "I am a small weaver with a heart"; but Chinok more strongly asserts:

I remembered brittle pig iron

. . .hammered and annealed.

This time I will use a furnace of earth, bellows of such breath you will not withstand the fire.

They maintained what agency and autonomy they could within the role forced upon them by the government.

The poetry of a kisang, however accomplished, was usually unattributed. Anonymity was the rule, and the poets' reputations flourished only among the men these women entertained. Scholarship can establish chronology for the kisang only through the references of the men who fraternized them - a selection process over which a courtesan could exercise no control. Legends sometimes arose about kisang and the prominent men of their times, but much of what was remembered and transmitted did not always appertain to literature. The poetry of a surprising number of women was treasured, however, and memorized. Their poems survived orally, handed down from generation to generation through the centuries. The poems were gradually gathered into private, individual collections, and eventually into published anthologies. In Korea today, during the different stages of their education, students officially memorize the poems. Hence, although the kisang and their children were excluded from "respectable" Korean society, they have managed, ironically, to re-position themselves through poetry within the center of Korean culture.

Brief Songs of the Kisang includes the original Korean and English translations of fifty-five poems written primarily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The poets composed in the Sijo form - one of the longest enduring and most widely representative of poetic forms in Korea - which uses three lines, each of which is grouped into phrases of a specified number of syllables. Strong and weak caesuras score the relationships of phrase to phrase within the poem. Choe and Contogenis decided to suggest this Korean structure by retaining a system of pauses within single lines. But by expanding the poem's length to six lines, they "allow for the fidelity to the capacities of the Korean form," and divide the poem into quatrain and couplet. The anonymous "Were There" illustrates the linear pause groups and the final couplet:

Were there two lives for us,

you would become me, and I you.

Becoming me, you would still desire

me and so tear yourself as I tore you.

Only turn yourself around to see all

my life, to know all my pain.

The introduction contains a fine analysis of the original metrics and a parallel discussion of the strategies the translators evolved for the English version. It succinctly reviews the institution of the kisang and discusses the positions of these "quasi-females" in their own times. The translations recreate a world freshened by the dignity, strength, and irony of women whose mandated disregard of social rules allowed for the development of their own contingent personalities. That the poems were preserved at all, against the restrictive tenets of Confucian ideology, attests both to the vigor and poetic genius of the women who wrote them.
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Title Annotation:Korean courtesans in the Chosun dynasty
Author:Fusco, Peter
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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