An image of Kim Nong-ju, a gisaeng clad in indigo-purple chima (Korean skirt) and white jeogori (Korean traditional jacket), wearing a yellow shawl, with a modern hairstyle and makeup in a new fashion.
By Chung Ah-young
The ``gisaeng,'' or Korean female entertainers, were fashion leaders on the threshold of modern civilization in the 20th century.
Often called ``haeohwa,'' meaning ``a flower that understands words,'' the gisaeng were not only literate and educated but also fashionable.
To catch a glimpse of the lifestyles of these women, the National Folk Museum of Korea is holding a special exhibition entitled ``Understanding of Gisaeng in Postcards'' from June 18 to July 10.
The exhibit features 150 postcards donated by Park Min-il, professor at Kangwon National University, focusing on gisaeng from the late Joseon period to the Japanese colonial period.
The postcards include one of Kim Nong-ju, a gisaeng clad in indigo-purple chima (Korean skirt) and white jeogori (Korean traditional jacket), wearing a yellow shawl, with a modern hairstyle and makeup.
Choi Eun-soo, curator of the museum, said that the exhibit is to show past styles and fashion through gisaeng images.
``For a long time, these women had a negative image, and were looked down on as women who sold their bodies, often becoming the subject of mockery. But the exhibit will shed light on their lives as trendsetters and at the same time as traditional heritage bearers who handed down our traditions to descendants,'' she said.
Choi said that the gisaeng have a long history, with various different titles all basically meaning ``entertainer women.'' During the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), they played major roles in boosting festive moods through performances such as traditional song and dance at royal banquets.
Particularly from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), many gisaeng such as Hwang Jin-i, who were also performing artists at royal events, are still famous to these days. Many were employed at court, but many were also spread throughout the country. They were carefully trained, and were frequently accomplished in the fine arts, poetry, and prose, although their talents were often ignored due to the way society viewed them.
But in 1908, the gisaeng system changed. Gisaeng attached to local government known as ``gwangi,'' were abolished. As a result, many gisaeng who lost their jobs created ``gweonbeon,'' a Japanese-style association in 1910, the curator said.
``Their association became bigger and stronger. Later, they functioned as a school to cultivate and train gisaeng by teaching songs, poets, music and dance. Pyongyang gisaeng school was the biggest school that cultivated many famous gisaeng at that time,'' said Choi.
She said that gisaeng of the early 1910 accepted new Western culture while keeping Korean traditions.
``They adopted Western fashion codes into hanbok through makeup styles and accessories which looked sexy and gorgeous,'' she said.
Interestingly, the show features a photo of one gisaeng, Wang Su-bok (1917-2003), known as a lover of the late novelist Lee Hyo-seok renowned for ``When Buckwheat Flowers Are in Bloom'' and also a star singer of the time.
Wang, who was a famous folk singer, entered the Pyongyang gisaeng school at age 12 and released famous music albums.
``We can trace modern gisaeng through these pictures. Some gisaeng are still alive. But they don't want to reveal themselves to the public,'' said Choi.
In addition to postcards, other related items on display include clothes, related modern artwork, accessories and cosmetic tools they used from the 1910s to the 1940s.
Admission is free. Fore more information, call (02) 3704-3256.