Kye Wol Hyang and Korean
'geishas' | Pyongyang
Marathon Runner's Guide

A roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course. Today we look at the Pyongyang's tradition of women entertainers.

'And such a throng! High dignitaries, princes of the blood, sworded nobles, pale priests, weather-tanned officers of high command, court ladies with faces exposed, painted ki-sang or dancing girls who rested from entertaining, and duennas, waiting women, eunuchs, lackeys, and palace slaves a myriad of them.' -Jack London, The Star Rover

Approximate race distance: 310 m

Just on the right when you pass the Arch of Triumph on your outbound run, there is a two-level shop with rounded windows. This is the Wol Hyang shop, a souvenir stops for foreign visitors. Some of you will go there on your tour and inside the entrance above the stairs is a painting of a 16th century Korean woman, Kye Wol Hyang (계월향).

Kye Wol Hyang was a kisaeng (기생), the equally elegant and talented Korean equivalent of a Japanese geisha, or woman entertainer versed in the arts of music, dance, poetry, and conversation. Traditionally Pyongyang is famous for its kisaeng, who appear prominently in the ancient poetry about the city. The Choson Ri dynasty scholar Lim Che likely wrote about them in his poem On the Taedong River as translated by Lee Sung-Il:

As I watch girls walking on spring grass,

Willows drooping on the river make my heart ache.

If I could weave these thread-like willows,

I’d make a gown for which my love could dance.

Perhaps the girls are some of the city’s famous kisaeng relaxing during the day along the riverbank beneath the city’s equally famous willow trees (another ancient name for Pyongyang as the ‘city of willows’). Perhaps Lim Che is thinking of a particular kisaeng, for it was also a common theme for men to fall in love with these charming women. Together man and woman would normally spend lazy spring and summer days boating on the Taedong River or admiring crisp autumn and winter nights from an ornate pavilion without incident.

But not all days were so carefree in medieval Korea. In April of 1592, the Japanese strongman Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having the warring states of Japan, turned his ambition towards Ming dynasty China. In the way was Korea, a close ally of China. Rather than letting Japanese armies pass through their lands, Korea resisted in what became known as the Imjin War (1592-98). Japanese armies, experienced from decades of warfare in Japan, raced their way up the peninsula, capturing Pyongyang in northern Korea by July.

During the occupation of the city, the Japanese generals and officers enjoyed the local entertainment from their base in Pyongyang castle and it was here the Kye Wol Hyang saw a chance. Living inside the enemy camp, Kye seduced the Japanese general, all the while plotting his assassination with a regional Korean general, Kim Ung So. Disguising Kim as her brother, she drugged the Japanese commander and Kim cut off his head. Kye Wol Hyang was subsequently captured and then put to death.

In the days of peace before and after the Imjin War, kisaeng were a constant in Korean society. Pyongyang even had a kisaeng school to train young women in the arts of entertainment before sending them off to the city’s numerous kisaeng houses that remained in existence through the early 20th century. Although most are forgotten due to their lowly status in society, some through their own merit contributed greatly to the development of Korean literature, writing in classical Chinese and/or sijo a type of short Korean poem not unlike a more structured and whitty versions of a Japanese haiku. A few are considered among the greatest Korean writers to this day. After 1945, the socialist north official shut down these houses of entertainment and the school.

Yet their historic and cultural legacy of the Pyongyang kisaeng lives on to this day. There is a monument to Kye Wol Hyang on the Taedong River and more recently a miniseries was made about her life. The history books officially recognize that many unknown kisaeng took part in the March 1st Uprising against Japanese Colonial Rule. And the great Korean dancer Choe Seung Hui (최승희) incorporated kisaeng dances, along with other traditional styles, into what would become the foundation for modern Korean dance not only the north and south but also abroad in Japan and the United States.

Kisaeng were not unique to Pyongyang. The city of Kaesong, long before it was known for the Demilitarized Zone, was famous for Hwang Jin I, one of the city’s ‘three treasures’. Hwang Jin I’s poetry is revered to this day in both North and South Korea, as are her many romances and sexual conquests. A novelization of Hwang Jin I’s life was the first North Korean book to win an award in South Korea. Later this book was allowed to go out of print in the north due to its erotic content. Near Kaesong there is a small spring where you can drink water said to come from what is colloquially known as ‘the lower mouth’ of Hwang Jin I. More on that another time.

The Run Down

· Pyongyang was traditionally famous for its women entertainers, known as kisaeng. Despite a lowly position in society, many of these women contributed to the development of traditional Korean literature.

· One of the most famous kisaeng from Pyongyang was Kye Wol Hyang, who helped assassinate a Japanese general during the Imjin War, losing her life in the process.

· Kye Wol Hyang is considered a heroine in North Korea for her sacrifice.

· Although there are no more kisaeng, their music, dance, and poetry has been incorporated into modern Korean arts.

In our next post we will look Pyongyang's Friendship Monument dedicated to soldiers of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army which fought in the Korean War.

You can watch the first episode of the North Korean TV series Kye Wol Hyang (2011) below.

'A Pyongyang Marathon Runner’s Guide’ is a roadside field guide to places and things along the Pyongyang Marathon course brought to you by the Koryo Tours North Korea Travel Guide.

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