• Update 19.11.21 (목) 18:51

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연재끝난기사
The Rise and Fall of Gi-nyeo, Professional Female Entertainers
기사 게재일 : 2007-03-26
The term gi-nyeo, or gi-saeng, is said to have originated from the Three Kingdoms (Silla-Baekje-Goguryeo) Era (57BC ~ AD668). In the ensuing Era of Goryeo (918~1392), gi-nyeo was referred to variously (numerous times) in the History of the the Three Kingdoms, compiled in 1145 by a high government official named Kim Bu-shik, and in the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) written by Iryeon in 1281. Later, the centralist government system of the Joseon Regime (1392~1910) installed the gi-nyeo system, assigning women to central and local government offices. The purpose of the gi-nyeos was to attend government functions and to render comforting services for the pains and toils of government officials by singing and dancing. Gi-nyeo literally means a singing girl. Therefore in the beginning, most of the gi-nyeos were gwan-gi, or government gi-nyeos. But toward the latter half of Joseon Period, some of the government entertainers, possibly after passing the prime of their life, kept independent establishments to entertain the yangban class and the general public. The yangbans were the members of the two orders of officialdom who served in the bureaucracy of the Joseon Kingdom. They were privileged to hold civil and military posts in the bureaucracy.

The female entertainers were divided into capital and local ones, depending on locality. The allotted number of entertainers differed depending on the size of administrative unit. Smaller centers had at least twenty gi-nyeos, while larger centers like Pyongyang, now the North Korean capital, had no less than two hundred entertainers.

Such a gi-nyeo system was in fact contrary to the then social order based on Confucianism, which was the Joseon Dynasty's national creed. Attempts were made to abolish the system. But it had to do directly with the conduct of the bureaucrats themselves and the attempts failed to materialize. The chief reason was that the abolition might cause violation of innocent women by bureaucrats through illicit dealings. This was something like a certain country's tolerance toward a red-light district. After all, this system was maintained to the end of the Dynasty in spite of its running against the ruling ideology.

In principle, gi-nyeo entertainers belonged to the government. They were at the bottom of social stratification as lowborn like slaves, butchers and shamans.
Once registered in the Entertainers' Register, they could not free themselves from the yoke of the lowborn. Even if they married yangbans, their sons became slaves and their daughters gi-nyeos. This was due to the "Lowborn-follows-mother Law." They could not break out of the class unless they managed to provide atonement money. Therefore, most of the entertainers resulted from mother-daughter relations. In a severe famine, girls were sold as entertainers and a traitor's women were forced to become slaves or entertainers.

The female entertainer's age ranged from 15 to 50, classified into young and old ones, with the retired ones beyond the age limit. Once they registered in the Gi-nyeo Register at the age of 15, they enrolled in music institutes and started learning the arts of pleasing others. They would learn calligraphy, painting, dancing, singing, musical instruments, reading of poetry and books, discourse, and table manners, etc. Since those who they associated with were royal families, high-ranking officials and well-versed scholars, they had to be well-mannered and well-read. After schooling, they were ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd according to their personal beauty and talent. The first could sing and dance in the presence of the king and high-ranking officials. The second had access to government offices and ranking official's residents. The third could associate with the commoners.

Among special entertainers were the medical entertainer and needle entertainer. Korean society was very strict in avoiding association with the opposite sex. So, when females got ill, male doctors could not treat them. Thus the medical gi-nyeo was introduced. Remember the teaching, "When boys and girls reach the age of seven, they are not to sit together." This keeping distance between the sexes was strict to the extent that when the queen got ill, the court doctor had to examine her pulse out of the sickroom through a thread tied to her wrist. The needle entertainer was charged with making the king's and queen's clothing. Having to read medical books, the medical entertainers were well versed in Chinese letters and had occasions to associate with ranking officials, resulting in becoming their concubine, a way of upgrading their social status.

The term gi-nyeo is associated with the Japanese geisha who lived in Japanese restaurants since the end of the Joseon Dynasty and during the Japanese colonial rule. The present-day use of gi-nyeo is deprived of its original professional meaning and is associated with a prostitute. The retired gi-nyeos would set up their own private establishments and train young girls to be gi-nyeos to serve the common people. This trend gradually deteriorated, with the establishments falling into brothels.

By 2Ys
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