A Hanbok fit for a 16th century Gisaeng.

By Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir/ Rebecca Lucas.

As a woman of European descent, I am obligated to be respectful of Korean culture, and of Korean people. To ignore the meaning of my clothing, and the societal norms of the timeframe I am studying, is an insult. It is especially compounded when I look at the 'options' I have in terms of what societal role I can play, and discover that to be able to socialise with both men and women I would need to be an entertainer. And that treds awfully close to the stereotype of 'all Asian women are geisha.' So, please find below my musings on why I am looking at the dress of the gisaeng, instead of the more orthodox yangban noblewoman.

It had to happen sooner or later. There is only so many times a girl can run a class on medieval tea culture while wearing Viking-age Baltic dress, before it begins to feel wrong. But, there was a problem; while the Society for Creative Anachronism, (or any other re-enactment group), is in the 21st century, and is a lot more egalitarian than the social norms of your average medieval European, and appears to be almost unthinkable to a pious, Confucian woman in 16th century Korea.

So, I have to walk a line between what is expected of an individual when involved with a medieval re-creation group, and what would be expected of me as a mid-Joseon lady? It sounds impossible! From the late 15th century, Yangban women would have been secluded in the gender-segregated inner quarters of their home (Mann, 2005; 54). When women did leave the house, they were required to keep their faces hidden, and to avoid communicating with other people, would travel by palanquin or horseback (Han, 2004; 116-7). Socialising with people outside of your home would have only occured when guests of your husband arrived, and you was expected to entertain them with food and wine. (Han, 2004; 136) So, while it would be saving me money on buying fabric, and paying to attend events and feasts, simply because you would never see me, that is not a very enjoyable prospect.

The answer then, may be to look at the lower classes of medieval Korean society, and the special role that some Cheonmin (lowborn class) women could obtain. (Han, 2004; 114) Palace women (gungnyeo, 궁녀), female physicians (uinyeo, 의녀) and entertainers (gisaeng, 기생) are women who lived outside of their birthplace, in the palace. Even then, however, they were restricted to the palace grounds. (Han, 2004; 143)

Of the various women who lived in the palace, the one with the most freedom in terms of having contact with the opposite gender, were the entertainers. (McCann, 1974; 40) However, their careers were short, and by 22 they began to be pressured to retire (Wikipedia, quoting Hwang (1997) 451), so I was already too old to be a fully-fledged gisaeng. The other option, is the medical women who also doubled as entertainers in the court, the yakbang gisaeng (약방기생). In the early 16th century, King Yeonsangun began to send the uinyeo to feasts and weddings to work alongside the gisaeng. 'As a result, from that point on, female physicians often became entertainers during parties carried out within the palace.' (Han, 2004; 146) Furthermore, it appears that the criteria for becoming a physician may have been more brains than beauty, and a woman could be in training until she was forty. (Han, 2004; 145)

So, in order to justify coming to a medieval feast, where I could talk to both men and women, and not nessercarily be the most beautiful woman in the room, I should concentrate on the role and dress of the yakbang gisaeng.


  • Han, Hee-sook "Women’s Life during the Chosŏn Dynasty" International Journal of Korean History 6 2004 pp. 141–146 & 152–153. [PDF]
  • Mann, Susan "Women in East Asia: China, Japan and Korea" in Bonnie G. Smith [ed.] Women's history in global perspective (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005) 47-100.
  • McCann, David "Traditional World of Kisaeng" Korea Journal 14(2) 1974 pp.40-43
  • Wikipedia Kisaeng February 10th, 2009.