Seeing as there is very little readily available information regarding kisaeng, often referred to as Korean “geiko,” I decided to compile all I have found here. Enjoy and use responsibly!
In historic Korean society (yangban society), they were considered to be members of the lowest social class (cheonmin) and were treated as government property. Kisaeng were trained by the government in the fine arts, singing, dancing, needlework, medicine, and poetry to perform at national/ provincial government feasts as well as private middle-class celebrations. By the Joseon period, a strict hierarchy of kisaeng was already established, dictating the quality of a particular kisaeng’s talent, knowledge, beauty and artistic repertoire.
Girls as young as 8 either inherited the profession (due to their kisaengmother’s hereditary cheonmin status) or were sold into it from all social levels. At this time their name would be entered on the gijeok, or local kisaeng registry, and they would begin their government regulated training at the local school and administrative center known as the gyobang. The only way a kisaeng could have her name removed the gijeok was to retire, be bought out of servitude or die.
All the village kisaeng would answer to the hojang, a low level government official solely responsible for maintaining a current gijeok and preventing any of the women from running away. He would conduct inspections twice a month and set the training regimens of the gyobang to reflect regional traditions and claims to fame.
The doogi, or apprentice kisaeng, would begin a three year training period, the content of which would be determined by the location of her gyobang. She would eventually be classified as one of three types of kisaeng. Government kisaeng, known as kwan-gi kisaeng, were the highest class of kisaeng and, upon completing their apprenticeship, would entertain directly in the royal palace in Seoul.
Provincial kisaeng, called hyang-gi or haengsu kisaeng, were highly skilled kisaeng who were retained by the local governments to perform for visiting officials and local bureaucrats. As the nickname seonsang (“preferred choice”) implies, these kisaeng were able to pick and choose their clients and were responsible for training the doogi of their local gyobang.
If the doogi proved to have too few charms, she could expect to be a lowly third rank kisaeng known as samsu kisaeng. These women had mediocre artistic training and abilities, mostly entertained at private middle-class (chungin) parties and were often hired for their sexual (rather than artistic) talents.
With their official careers starting around 12-13, it’s no surprise that most kisaeng careers peaked circa 16-17 years of age and were usually considered over by age 22. As a kwan-gi or hyang-gi kisaeng, they would be forced to retire from performing at age 30. At which point, they would focus on the handicraft or medicinal aspects of their training. No such expectation was made of samsu kisaeng however.
By age 50, all kisaeng, regardless of rank, were forced to retire from the profession entirely and find work elsewhere. Many kisaeng went into business as inn or tavern managers. A very few lucky kisaeng could suceed to become the concubine of a government official, who would pay the exorbitant price to have her name removed from the gijeok.
1. Kisaeng - Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kisaeng
2. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945; Atkins, E. Taylor, Copyright 2010.
3. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Post-Colonial Memory in Korea and Japan, Soh, C. Sarah, Copyright 2008.