By James Blake Wiener
A revered cultural icon and national muse for nearly five hundred years, the infamous Korean courtesan Hwang Jini (c.1500–1560s) has been the subject of novels, widely acclaimed television dramas, an opera, and several films. While renowned for her beauty, prodigal intellect, and exquisite dances across the centuries, only a few fragments from the past allow us to reconstruct the talent and the brilliance of a fêted polymath. Modern Koreans remain captivated by the elusive, but compelling, Hwang Jini because of her individuality and the romantic intricacy of her poetry.
Korean folklore suggests that Hwang Jini was born the daughter of an aristocratic man and a blind kisaeng, Hyeon Hak-Geum, in the city of Songdo (present-day Kaesong, North Korea). Educated by the celebrated Confucian scholar So Kyongdok (1489–1546), and taught music and dance by her mother — a noted musical virtuoso — Hwang Jini’s ancestry and broad education set her apart from other women in Early Modern Korea. Hwang Jini was a kisaeng: A lady accomplished in the art of conversation, song and dance, music, and poetry. Comparable to the cortigiana onesta of the Italian Renaissance, or the more widely known Japanese geisha, the kisaeng of the Korean peninsula occupied a contradictory space of position and identity throughout the protracted rule of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910).
Unlike the women of the Korean aristocracy (the yangban class) or even those of the middle class (the chugin class), kisaeng had the privilege to socialize freely with members of the opposite sex, and provide temporary emotional or intellectual companionship to male patrons. Until the Japanese annexation and occupation of Korea in 1910, kisaeng were the most educated women in the country. Nevertheless, despite their seemingly advantageous social status as the intellectual companions and entertainers of elites, the kisaeng occupied the lowest group in a society firmly guided by the principles of Neo-Confucian philosophy: The slave class (the ch’onmin class). In a feudal kingdom sharply defined by Confucian ethics, which expounded the station of public service and duty to the state, kisaeng women, like Hwang Jini, occupied a position of inferiority far beneath that of other Korean women.
Hwang Jini’s poetry appears, on the surface, to imitate the poetry of her contemporary male colleagues, echoing the tone and style of early Chinese Confucian and Daoist philosophers. Classical Chinese poetry with its ethical themes, naturalistic imagery, and frank diction, were avidly imitated in the Korean form of poetry known as sijo. The sijo is more ancient than its Japanese counterpart, haiku, but it shares a similar structure of syllabic configuration as well as the utilization of Classical Chinese themes. In particular, the futility of existence and the transitory nature of the world is a repeated theme common throughout the breadth of the sijo poetry composed during the Joseon dynasty. The awareness of the transience of life—coupled with Hwang Jini’s personal sentiment that her physical beauty was momentary—is apparent in several of Hwang Jini’s compositions in sijo form. One of Hwang Jini’s most famous poems revealing this outlook is as follows:
Silence reigns over an old temple by the ruined palace
A tall tree in the setting sun makes an onlooker sad.
Chilly fog spreads – the lingering dreams of monks
On the broken pagoda, time-stacked layers of dust.
Where a royal bird would soar, nameless birds fly
Where azaleas bloom ni more, sheep and cattle graze.
The overlooking mountain may recall pomp and glory
Did it know the spring would turn quickly to autumn.
Underscoring the destruction of the pagoda and the changing of the seasons, Hwang Jini acknowledges that her time as Korea’s most clever and beautiful kisaeng is, indeed, fleeting as well. This poem is especially poignant given the fact that the career of a kisaeng was essentially over upon reaching middle age. Instead of aging with respectability and with a sense of increased importance in their position – like other individuals in a Confucian milieu – Hwang Jini, as a kisaeng, was not entitled to enjoy such privilege. While recognizing the Daoist notion of transience in existence, Hwang Jini also alludes to the peace of mind that can be found with the observance of nature; although decay and transformation invariably occur throughout the journey of life, nature’s power and beauty remain constant, providing an individual a certain degree of solace. Hwang Jini contends that our experience in the world is relative to our own perspective, and that the essence of our experience is one of constant transformation.
Hwang Jini’s precious surviving sijo reflects her devotion to a patron or lover rather than the pangs of passion or licentiousness of seduction as might be expected from a kisaeng. The ethics of Confucianism advocated the suppression of intrinsic “vulgar” desires and demanded the transcendence of self-gratification. Although her place in society was peripheral and she was likely reproved for her immense knowledge and lack of social respectability as a mere courtesan, Hwang Jini’s poems extol traditional Confucian prescriptions of female fidelity to their loved ones, but with an undeniable twist.
Societal prejudice is the most likely root of Hwang Jini’s sentiments and her desire to write; it likely motivated her to assert her dignity by remaining faithful to her loved ones as well. The tone of many of her poems is one of restless longing but also of respectful devotion to her lovers. Like many kisaeng, Hwang Jini understood that she was required to abandon her personal feelings and her devotion to a lover due to the constraints of the kisaeng lifestyle. Kisaeng were officially slaves under Joseon law and married only under the most exceptional of circumstances. Accordingly, Hwang Jini had to let her lovers come and go just as she did the patrons she so brilliantly entertained each evening.
For centuries, Koreans have often quoted this romantic sijo which is widely regarded as Hwang Jini’s most elegant exhibition of lyrical poetry, “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 uncoil it the night my beloved returns.” This sijo is deceptively simple; it is composed with the central image of an eternal night, one that is both cold and loveless, but one that is ultimately transformed into a warm spring night of love and joy. The process of unraveling the cold night unifies the poem in a series of contrasting emotions and images — dark and light, warm and cold, perpetual and transient — rendering the poem as an analog to the various dualities of existence. Life on earth is thus transient and eternal given the emotion or setting in which an individual finds himself in a single moment of time. Love, Hwang Jini posits, is similar to this paradigm of time and space; it is both timeless and transitory. Hwang Jini’s fidelity, moreover, is reflective of the constraints of her own social position; she is as devoted as she can be due to the complex socio-cultural position she had to fulfill.
Hwang Jini managed to attain a considerable degree of economic independence and had the unique opportunity to socialize across social boundaries due to her wit and self- cultivation. Legend has it that she was buried near a river in her native Songdo as sign of concord with impoverished women and as an acknowledgement of the cyclicality of nature. While today she embodies the emancipated, urbane womanhood of the modern Korean woman, Hwang Jini’s poems, nonetheless, reflect a blend of traditional values and deep self-perception. These poems suggest a remarkable emotional freedom rooted in Hwang Jini’s complex position in the societal norms of Joseon Korea. However, they are tempered against feigned sentimentality and impassioned longings—both of which were deemed unacceptable by Confucian doctrines.
While Hwang Jini mingled through the social classes and had brief but celebrated love affairs with various men, her poems intriguingly mirror that of a self-composed woman with not only elegant tastes, but more importantly to the denizens of the Neo-Confucian minded Joseon dynasty, a woman with a keen sense of place and devotion to those she loved.
James Blake Wiener is a co-founder of World History Encyclopedia. Trained as a world historian, James received his BA and MA from New York University. He resides in Zürich, Switzerland. Learn more about his work at jameswiener.com.
Sung il-Lee, Moonlit Pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese (Copper Canyon Press, 1997)
See also: Sijo Masters in Translation
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Depiction of Hwang Jini from the early 20th century.