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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.