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. – Hwang Jini
Sex work is so stigmatized, slandered and hidden in modern Western society that it is difficult for most modern Westerners to comprehend just how normal it was in pre-industrial societies, and how woven into the fabric of those societies. Nowadays we are wont to draw sharp lines between prostitutes, mistresses, girlfriends, actresses, dancers, masseuses and other groups of women, but for most of human history the distinctions between various types of non-wives from whom men could obtain sex were blurry at best. Consider that courtesans such as the Madame de Pompadour and Jane Shore were still considered harlots despite the fact that all their liaisons were long-term and their total lifetime count of sex partners was lower than most modern women (who would be extremely offended to be called whores) rack up before graduating from university; also remember that working-class women from Roman times until well into the 20th century often supplemented their meager earnings by selling sex on the side, and you’ll begin to understand why the idea of the prostitute as a specific, “fallen” kind of woman only dates to the 19th century (and seems so ridiculous to those who know anything about it). That’s why modern assertions that certain historical types of women (such as geisha) were “not prostitutes” are so absurd and wrongheaded; even if these women did not openly advertise and sell sex to a large number of clients, there is no doubt that compensated sex was on the menu for at least some clients, and that in Christian Europe they absolutely would have been classified as whores.
The kisaeng of feudal Korea are a case in point. Though some authorities insist that they were definitely not prostitutes, or that only the lowest of the three classes of kisaeng were, or that only some did that job, the distinction simply isn’t a useful one. Whether a given woman took money for sex or not was wholly immaterial to her status; that was always cheonmin, the lowest caste of Korean society except for the baekjeong (untouchables). The cheonmin included members of all “unclean” professions including butchers, entertainers, jailers, metalworkers, prostitutes, shamans, shoemakers and sorcerers; they were not all slaves, but slaves were drawn from this caste. Kisaeng were technically slaves, and after 1650 they were all owned by the government; due to their high degree of training they were treated much better than ordinary slaves, but they were still owned by the state, and the price of freedom was so high it could only be paid by wealthy men (if such a man wanted one as a concubine).
There were three ways a girl could become a kisaeng: she could be born to a kisaeng mother (since caste was hereditary), sold to a kisaeng house by parents who could not afford to raise her, or drop out of the upper classes due to some unforgiveable breach of the complex and rigid Korean social rules. Training started young (as early as eight) and their careers were extremely short: they usually began active duty about 15, peaked about 17, and retired by age 22. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) this was codified into law; they were forced to retire from entertainment duties (including prostitution, singing and such) by 30, though they could continue working at non-entertainment tasks until 50. Like the geisha of Japan, kisaeng were trained in poetry, music, dance, art, conversation and the like; in fact, one particular poetic form (the sijo) came to be associated with them, and some famous examples are basically advertisements intended to entice gentlemen to buy their sexual services. But some kisaeng were also trained in needlework and medicine; since Korean doctors were not permitted to see noblewomen naked, their examination and hands-on treatment was the province of medical kisaeng under the direction of a doctor. The haengsu, highest of the three tiers of kisaeng, were in charge of training after they retired; those of the two lower tiers who were not taken as concubines generally retired by working as seamstresses, food preparers, tavern keepers or the like. Though some kisaeng became wealthy enough to support themselves, this did not happen nearly as frequently as among European courtesans.
Korean society was strict and regimented at every level, and the kisaeng were no exception; they were registered and forced to report twice a month to a bureaucrat called the hojang to ensure that they could not flee servitude without soon being missed. Their day-to-day affairs, however, (including disputes with clients) were supervised by the haengsu. Prior to the ascent of the Joseon Dynasty this was much looser, but the Joseons were Confucian and thus deeply enamored of hierarchy and regimentation. For the first two centuries of Joseon rule there were frequent calls for the abolition of the kisaeng, but wiser heads always prevailed because it was understood that without sex workers, officials would be much more likely to satisfy their extramarital urges with other men’s wives. The subjugation of all kisaeng to strict government control was thus a compromise with those who imagined society could do without whores, just as modern legalization schemes are. After 1650 some kisaeng were assigned to a specific government office; these were called gwan-gi, and though officeholders were strictly forbidden from having sex with them, in practice they were usually expected and often forced to provide sex to these bureaucrats (because some things never change). Many kisaeng who were not bound directly to government service had a gibu, or boyfriend; he got sex and companionship in exchange for protection, presents and economic support. Most gibu were lesser officials, military officers or the like, and though they had no legal status they sometimes became very possessive and pimpish; there were even cases in which they got into fights with their girlfriends’ clients, though obviously this was considered extremely rude and might result in the kisaeng breaking off the relationship. Over time gibu became more popular, and by the beginning of the 19th century it was rare to find a kisaeng without one.
Throughout the late 19th century, Korea was destabilized by interference from China, Japan, France, the UK and the US. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) resulted in increased Japanese dominance over Korea, and one of the reforms the Japanese encouraged was the abolition of the entire class system, including slavery. This technically freed the kisaeng, but (as so often happens when slaves are freed en masse by decree), many of them continued in servitude for the rest of their lives, but without the legal protections of their former status. Some went to work as what Westerners typically think of as prostitutes, and today the term kisaeng is sometimes used to mean a whore who specifically caters to foreigners. There are a few of the traditional houses still left, but since most of the songs, dances and such were passed down by oral tradition, they have been lost forever. Idealized kisaeng appear frequently in South Korean historical fiction (much as the geisha do in Japan), but North Korea’s communist government is so hostile to prostitution that it labels all descendents of kisaeng (of whom there are a sizeable number, since Pyongyang was once home to the greatest kisaeng school) as having “tainted blood”.
Unfortunately, courtesan denial is not rare nowadays; those who insist that sex workers of historical times were somehow fundamentally different from their modern descendants reveal not only a pathological aversion to human sexuality and a deep misunderstanding of human nature, but also an appalling ignorance of the truth about selling sex in any era. Courtesans throughout history would laugh at anyone who claimed that education automatically removed a woman from whoredom; the many who were talented singers, poets and writers would likewise ridicule the notion that artistic training somehow disqualified her from harlotry. They, the kisaeng, and modern hookers all know what so many pathetic moderns deny: a person is not what she does to make money, no matter how much repressive governments want to pretend she is.