The Unfathomable Gisaeng of Jeoson

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In 2006, KBS2 broadcasted a series about Hwang Jinyi, a famous gisaeng (Korean courtesans for upper class men and kings) of the 16th century and her tumultuous life. The show gained popularity and high ratings, giving rise to various other gisaeng themed TV series, movies and dramas. Although not historically accurate, the series was able to highlight the most important events focused around the character development of a beautiful woman from a charming courtesan into a renowned and respected female poet of the Korean literature history. Played by the enchanting Ha Ji Won, she later won the Daesang (Grand Prize) for her role at the 2006 KBS Drama Awards. Needless to say, she went on to be known as the most beloved actress in the South-Korean entertainment industry.

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The famous Hwang Jinyi was Born in 1506 in Kaesong (Now North-Korea) to Chin Hyungeum who was known to be extraordinarily beautiful herself and had attracted attention of a young yangban (nobleman) named Hwang Chinsa. She was taken by him for his mistress and their daughter Jinyi quickly gained popularity for her skills in music and beauty from a very young age. There hasn’t been a clear definition to why she ended up being a gisaeng despite being half noble, it has been speculated that she realized the power of her appeal after a young man killed herself for being madly in love with her, making the abrupt decision to become a gisaeng. Soon after her trainings she was renowned under her stage name Myung Wol (aka. Bright Moon) and was able to captivate almost anyone she came across. With her extreme beauty, intelligent personality and musical and poetic skills, she was able to seduce men with little to no effort. So when she did endeavored a government official named So Seyang who bragged on keeping her for a month and dismissing her without regrets, it has been told that the official was begging her to stay.

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Jinyi had the ability to handle men without sentiments and always allowed her to pursue her goals without hesitations and regrets. This has been shown in the TV series as the result of her tragic love story experienced at a young age. Although overruled as fiction, the drama shows a young boy, Kim Eun Ho (played by a young Jang Geun Suk), son of a powerful nobleman, who is head over heels in love with the young gisaeng in her training days. Despite the two had fallen madly in love with each other, her status as an illegitimate daughter and their differences in social status, the two are torn apart. Unable to be reunited with his lover, the young boy grieves until he catches a disease and faces an untimely death, after which Jinyi never loved other men throughout her life.

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At Cold Solstice

“I will break the back of this long, midwinter night
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt
That I may draw out the night, should my love return”

This poem of hers reflected the angst of her yearning for her lover during long winter nights and how she wished she could fold the night under her spring quilt. She says so in hopes that when she meets her lover someday, she would take out the night out again and fill the void she had without him. The manipulation of her words to portray her emotions were peculiar during those times when women, especially gisaeng were esteemed more for their beauty and elegance rather intelligence.

Although she never anticipated for any other attention from men, there weren’t any less men desiring for this brusque beauty of utmost talent. In the TV series, Byuk Kye Soo (Ryu Tae Joon) a high born with the royal blood, was obsessed with Hwang Jinyi and wanted to make her his concubine. Not wanting to give away her freedom and love for arts, the beauty would reject the gentleman each time, making his obsession towards her even more domineering. She was aware of the impact she had on the man, and so she would play with words to either mock him or to chasten his ego of being from a superior clan.

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Blue Stream

“Blue Stream, don’t show off your speed running down my green mountain
Once you reach the wide blue sea, no easy way leads back
Moonlight now fills my valley; Slow yourself, rest and go”

This poem was originally written by Hwang Jinyi for a royal aristocrat named Lee Changgon to lure him to her gisaeng house who was trying hard to get by the beauty. Thus, she represented the scholar as Byuk Kye Soo (lit. blue stream), that is running past her with his dignified ego to reach the sea and that once he reaches the real world, there won’t be an easy way to come back and visit the gisaeng house. Moonlight (aka. the meaning of her name Myung Wol) fills the valley, so Jinyi suggests him to stay and avoid the early parting.

Hwang Jinyi however had one another man later in her life who gained her respect as a valued friend – the philosopher Seo Kyung Duk who is said to have been the only man unaffected with her charms. Taken Jinyi as one of his student, it has been said that he would often compare her as a rose among the thorns (thorns to be analyzed as his other students). He loved her, but not with lust. To him Jinyi was a beautiful flower that was to be gazed upon, but not picked. This challenged Jinyi and described him as the third wonders of Kaesong; the other two being Pakyeon Falls and herself. It might’ve been Kyung Dok’s unraveling nobility that endeared him to her and where she found a stability she was never accustomed to.

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In the drama series, this individual has been portrayed as a poet named Kim Jung Han (Kim Jae Won), who saves her from trying to kill herself, drowned with her first love’s sorrow. He has the kind of love for Jinyi unlike any other men she had met before, which is why she is captivated by him, and after living with him for few years as normal husband and wife, she leaves him, to dedicate her life creating music and poems by traveling across the country. This might’ve been a blend to another historical figure from Jinyi’s life, Yi Sajong, a famous singer and musician with whom she lived for six years and later left without remorse. She understood the pain of letting someone go and perhaps wrote the lovely poem of acknowledgement of  the joy of letting him go.

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Ah, What Have I Done

“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”

Apart from my idealism of a strong-willed artistic woman, there were various other aspects of this hit drama that made it so endearing. Veteran Kim Young Ae wonderfully characterized her role as the gyobang (gisaeng house) teacher of Hwang Jinyi, who was caring yet manipulative at the same time and the radiant Wang Bit Na gave an equally consequential role as the heroine’s nemesis. The dance, music and the costumes were visually astounding as well as the writers astute blend of fiction and history. But what radiated the most throughout the series was the enigmatic gisaeng Myung Wol herself, who, even through her part-fictional biography, left me at awe. Contemplating such a powerful grace filled with love for her independence and art still keeps me mesmerized at the thought of her existence. Perhaps poet Im Je could only justify a fragment of my thoughts through his poem, a tribute to the most unfathomable gisaeng of Korea.

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Are You Napping
Tribute to Hwang Jinyi after her demise by poet Im Je

“Are you napping or just hiding, lying still in this gully of wild blue grass?
Where is the high color of your face? Only white bones lie here
I hold a cup you can never fill, that I cannot raise to my sorrows”

 

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