- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

SEOUL

They are known as the “flowers that can understand words” — graceful entertainers from Korea’s past who are adept at poetry, art and music and are the peninsula’s version of Japan’s geishas.

And they have become the new hot cultural property in 21st-century South Korea.

A TV show based on the life of a famous 16th-century gisaeng, as the women are known in Korean, has become a runaway hit in South Korea, driving the country’s entertainment industry to fuel the trend with a musical, comic book, movie and more TV shows.

Ironically, the gisaeng are enjoying popularity as models for today’s women seeking a greater say in male-dominated Korean society. The entertainers enjoyed special privileges to participate in the men’s sphere despite their low standing in the rigid class hierarchy of imperial times.

Theories of gisaeng origins vary, with some believing they date back to the Shilla dynasty that emerged in the fifth century. Their nickname is “Haeohwa” — a word combining the three Chinese characters for “understand,” “word” and “flower,” objectified as a symbol of indigenous beauty.

Lee Don-soo, an art historian who has staged an exhibition of gisaeng photos from his extensive collection and is compiling a book on the subject, insists the original gisaeng weren’t sexual objects but rather “entertainers who had intelligence” and predated the geishas of Japan.

As one scrolls through photos in Mr. Lee’s digital archive, the gisaeng of the late 19th and early 20th centuries display surprising touches of modernity: confident-looking women crossing their legs in male fashion, pictured with books and glasses, even smoking.

Many also wear styles that appear far ahead of their time — individuality that would appear to set them apart from the Japanese geisha, who paint their faces pale white in uniform fashion and wear tight-fitting kimonos.

The gisaeng aren’t just objects of beauty, but models of feminine strength.

Stories about gisaeng playing a part in resistance to Korea’s colonial rulers over the centuries are common. One such tale is the story of Non Gae, who in the 16th century was summoned to entertain occupying Japanese forces. While embracing a general, she leapt into a river, killing them both.

That strength provides a role model for today’s women, who seek a greater say in South Korean society. More women work, wait longer to get married and have fewer children as they concentrate on careers and rise in business and politics. The country’s first-ever female prime minister was sworn in this year.

Much of the recent focus has centered on the most famous gisaeng, Hwang Jin-i, whose intelligence rivaled her beauty and whose poems and artwork left an enduring legend. Hwang is the subject of a hit TV show airing on South Korea’s main public channel, KBS. TV ratings show women in their 20s and older are the main audience.

“The way she dominates upper-class men is so thrilling,” said Lee Myoung-ju, a hairstylist in her 30s. “Her choice of words and expressions just petrifies and stupefies all men, except her real lovers.”

The gisaeng craze will continue with a musical focusing on Hwang, and a movie about Hwang, based on a 2002 North Korean novel about her that also has been published in the South, is scheduled to come out next year.

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