The Courtesan

I ride in a decorated carriage,
My darling rides a blue-white horse.
Where should we tie the knot for our heart?
Under the Xiling pine and cypress.
-Su Xiaoxiao

Why the sudden interest in courtesans? Well my interest did not really come out of the blue rather it was piqued sometime last year when Sugabelly persuaded me to watch Sakuran, a movie about Japanese oiran (which I am still yet to finish, I did read the manga though…sort of). Incidentally, I am writing this post thanks to a drama, more on that later. It was this post by Sugabelly, ‘The Difference Between a Courtesan and a Prostitute’ that lead me to do my own research as I wanted to know what was so special about courtesans. I wanted to know why several women I knew are fascinated by them. I also wanted to know how exactly courtesans came to be. I am writing this post because I believe I have found my answers.

According to Merriam Webster a courtesan is “a prostitute with a courtly, wealthy, or upper-class clientele”. And I do believe courtesans are indeed high class prostitutes. At the same time I recognise that they were also artists, musicians and poets. I believe courtesans arose in popularity in those wealthy, developed civilisations that greatly favoured female forms of art. While I do not believe that courtesans largely lived happy lives, I do believe that they were the freest and most independent women in those patriarchal societies. I remember my friend reading me an essay she had written which she called ‘Why I want to be a whore’. She had written that essay for a Latin class she took and the context was ancient Rome. According to my friend the only profession that ensured a woman’s freedom and independence was to be prostitution and I am pretty sure she meant the art of the courtesan.

One thing I found interesting in my research is that courtesans have existed in almost every culture and historical civilisation. Furthermore baring the more initimate parts of their profession, courtesans from different cultures were all highly skilled in the same field; the arts. Whether they were Indian, Korean, Chinese or Japanese, thes women were skilled in the arts. Courtesans composed poetry, they sang, danced and played instruments. On the flip side, though they entertained men (and women sometimes) of the higher class, in most cases courtesans were considered to be part of the lower-class.

They were higher than the slaves and common prostitutes but they were still members of the lower-class. It is because of their position that we have all those movies about a courtesan falling in love with a noble, a love that is obviously doomed to failure due to society and laws. To be honest, this one troupe drove me away from movies about courtesans. I mean why can’t they make a movie about a courtesan that is just content to make her way to the top of the courtesan food chain and excel at her career rather than a movie that focuses on the conflict always centered on her love that will probably never come to be.

Hwang Jin Yi

It is particularly due to the drama’s portrayal of a courtesan that had more than one true loves in her life that I enjoyed the KBS Drama, Hwang Jin Yi *SPOILERS*. This drama is based on the life of 16th century Korean gisaeng (courtesan), Hwang Jin-i a.k.a Myonwul her courtesan name which means ‘bright moon’. Firstly most courtesan stories are 2 hour long movies which do not provide enough room for character development. However the drama, Hwang Jin Yi has 24 episode each lasting for about an hour which means we get to see Hwang Jin Yi as a child and we get to see her grow into the most desired gisaeng with her goal to perfect the act of dancing, witty persona and super confident ways.

There are many reasons I enjoyed the drama, for starters I believe it was very well developed. I also liked that in the drama Hwang Jin Yi (played by actress Ha Ji Won) was the daughter of a courtesan as opposed to some poor girl who is sold to a Headmistress. I have mentioned above that Hwang Jin Yi’s story survived even after the sad end of her first love and I like the way Jin Yi transformed after that. She became cold-hearted swearing never to fall in love again (that didn’t happen). I liked her transformation a lot. In fact the person who recommended the drama series to me told me that she was sure I’d like Hwang Jin Yi’s character because she was ‘wicked’.

Hwang Jin Yi and the men in her life (excluding her loyal bodyguard).

The drama, Hwang Jin Yi was realistic in its portrayals of courtesans, yes they did live colourfully and they had certain liberties but as was said several times in the drama, courtesans carried an enormous burden on their shoulders. They were not happy and though they were freer and more independent than other sorts of women, they were still not free in the patriarchy. Furthermore, they were living in societies where the value of a woman and her happiness were placed on marriage and children which as courtesans they could never have. Thus several of the courtesans would decry the fact that they could not live as normal women and Hwang Jin Yi’s mother, the blind courtesan Jin Hyeon Keum fought to keep her daughter away from the courtesan life.

I also appreciated the portrayal of the low status of courtesans as opposed to the women of the noble class in the drama. A noble woman could destroy a courtesan’s life if she wanted to and no one could do anything about it. The drama also stressed the rules of the society the courtesans lived in. The gisaeng were never considered free but instead belonged to the Emperor, they were the government’s slaves with their sole aim to provide entertainment to top government officials and others who could afford their services. Furthermore, the drama showed the kind of rigorous training courtesans went through in order to dance gracefully.

Practising for the Crane Dance

The Courtesan Dances

As I am someone who likes the flashy stuff, I really love the way courtesan dances are portrayed on film…or should I say certain courtesan dances. I found the dances of geisha and oiran as depicted on film to be boring however I was entranced by the sword dance of the courtesans in Hwang Jin Yi (the drama). I see I am not the only one as someone made a compilation of all the sword dancing scenes from that drama. Be warned, it is not subbed.

I was surprised to discover that the sword dance (geommu) is treasured in South Korea as it’s 12th Important Intangile Cultural Property.

My best courtesan dance number obviously comes from Bollywood. Who loves Devdas? Well I do and one of the reasons I enjoyed that movie so much was Chandramuhki, the tawaif played by Madhuri Dixit. Chandramukhi’s first song in the movie is ‘Kahe Chhed Mohe’ and though I know absolutely nothing about Indian classical music, I felt that the song was among those ranks. I am very glad I got a chance to read the subbed version as the lyrics are pretty interesting. (One thing for those who have watched Devdas, why did a gorgeous woman like Chandramuhki have to fall for an idiot like Devdas? That fool did not deserve her affection and he constantly looked down on her by never letting her touch him till he was almost dying. What an arrogant jerk…then again the movie did highlight the low status of the courtesan).

I do not think I will ever become as obsessed with courtesans as I am with those women in the past who dressed as men and went to fight wars (think Hua Mulan). However I do have a new-found respect for them after my research and watching Hwang Jin Yi. Another thing we know about the geisha, the oiran, the tawaif and the gisaeng, we don’t know much about African traditions of courtesans. Of course some people will argue that they never existed…and they would be liars. However without names and traditions of famous courtesans we can only help but hypothesize. Yet, when I think of the influence on arts courtesans had in other cultures, I cannot help but wonder if some of our African traditional dances were actually refined by courtesans. I started this post with a poem by Su Xiaoxiao and I think it is fitting to end it with a sijo from Hwang Jin Yi.

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 fondly uncoil it the night my beloved returns.
-Hwang Jin-i

22 responses

  1. Nice topic. Is there really evidence of African courtesans? From the historical tales I’ve read, sex outside of marriage was really frowned upon. I know prostitution is the oldest trade ever and I would be surprised if it wasn’t present in every society. I would be keen to know how exactly it worked in ancient Africa, because the strong familial dynamics seem to work against its existence.

    • thanks. were the historical tales you read focused on a specific region? i believe courtesans were mostly for the upper class and royalty. a large percentage of everyday people would not have been able to afford their services.

      if courtesans did exist in Africa, they will have been restricted to those empires and kingdoms like Mali, Songhay, Benin, Abyssinia etc. i remember reading about a royal scandal that took place in 14th century Mali that involved the Mansa (King) trying to marry a certain woman who he wanted to make his Queen. there was not much information about this woman but she could have been a courtesan as i can’t think of any other woman who would have been in close contact with the King that wasn’t already one of his wives or a slave. i’m a bit fuzzy on the details but may write up a post if i find my notes.

  2. Hwang Jin Yi was soooo sad!!! But the ending was wonderful and unconventional. I have the entire OST of that drama :)
    I’m not sure what courtesan can be identified as in African history or culture. African history has been manipulated so much, women’s history is marginally mentioned in textbooks…

    • Hwang Jin Yi is sad? i haven’t finished watching the series but what made it so sad? you’re right we don’t know much about African women in history, most of the information we have is based on oral traditions and i do believe that it may have been easier for people to ‘forget’ the stories of courtesans and the like. i mean when i think about it the only famous Nigerian woman from our history that i know is Queen Amina of Zaria…

  3. @JC: Actually sex outside marriage was NOT frowned upon in any way shape or form.

    It was PREGNANCY outside marriage that was frowned upon. And I have proof from at least a dozen different credible sources.

    • i do believe sex before marriage may have been frowned up among some cultures and ethnic groups. remember how culturally diverse the African continent is. i find it difficult to believe that all cultures were open to the idea of sex outside marriage.

      in some ethnic groups in southern Africa, pregnancy outside marriage was not frowned upon and was instead encouraged. if a woman got pregnant before she married, it was a sign of virility on the part of the man (her lover) and fertility on her part thus increasing the likelihood of their eventual marriage.

      • Oh, I wasn’t talking about Africa. I was talking about Southern Nigeria with particular emphasis on Igbo culture, Ibibio, Efik, Igala, Ogoni, Isoko, Edo, and Yoruba culture. Although of course, 90% of my emphasis is on Igbo culture because that is where I have the most concrete information.

      • Oh, and I don’t think there’s even a question of whether or not courtesans existed. Just because there’s little or no surviving literature or record of them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

        It’s simple human nature. Courtesans exist wherever the following factors are all present:

        A large population
        A royal court or some other seat of power (even a religious one)
        Lots and lots of money
        Lots and lots of power
        Men

        If all those things are present in one society, then I PROMISE YOU there are courtesans there (even if they are male).

        • i like your reasoning! also i wonder what role you think female genital mutilation played in the this. i don’t know if Igbos practiced this but i know now that Yorubas did. how does this add up to the courtesan business?

  4. The whole “sex outside marriage is bad” business came from Europeans. Igbo girls have always been allowed and even encouraged to have lovers and in our culture a woman’s husband is the legal father of any children she has while married to him even if they are her lover’s biological children.

    All this “Africans are holy” rubbish came from Europeans and now Africans are carrying it on their heads as if they were the ones that originated it.

    This is what my mother calls crying more than the bereaved.

  5. Actually quite a few communities in East Africa do frown upon sex before marriage. I do agree that the basis of this was the ‘fear’ of pregnancy. There was high regard for women who proved that they were virgins, sometimes even attracting higher dowry.

    Here is a book covering several parts of Africa. It doesn’t go into depth but atleast lists the various attitudes and perceptions vis a vis sex in African communities. African marriage and social change By Lucy Philip Mair

    • @JC: I wasn’t referring to Africa as a whole. I just think it’s inaccurate to say “Africans do blah blah” because we’re so diverse.

      In fact I don’t even think we should be dissecting this on an “African Courtesan” basis. We should go country by country if not CULTURE by CULTURE and society by society.

      If East Africans care about virginity before marriage then that’s a view that conflicts with traditional Igbo values. Although many Igbo today will argue that the Igbo value virginity, this only evolved after contact with European missionaries and didn’t really take hold until the 1960s.

      This is why I don’t think we can view this as whether or not there are “African” courtesans.

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  10. There are courtesans in our present day Nigeria – the ugly truth is no matter how successful a woman is beinging a courtesan she have no respect.

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