Hwang Jini: Korea’s Sixteenth Century Muse

Article by James Wiener

Hwang Jini: Introducing Korea’s Sixteenth Century Muse Through Poetry

A revered 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 even several period-piece 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 this fêted polymath. Modern Koreans continue to be attracted to the elusive but compelling Hwang Jini because of the individuality and romantic intricacy of her poetry.

Hwang Jini, a KBS TV series (2006) starring Ha Ji-won, Wang Bit Na, Yoo Tae-Jun, and Jan Geun-suk.

Korean folklore suggests that [i] 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 noblemen, the kisaeng occupied the lowest strata in a society firmly guided by the principles of Neo-Confucian philosophy: that of the slave class (the ch’onmin class). In a society sharply defined by Confucian ethics, which expounded the station of public service and duty to the state, the kisaeng occupied a position of inferiority far beneath that of other Korean women.[ii]

[iii] Sijo is more ancient than its Japanese counterpart, haiku, but shares with it 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 [iv]

Underscoring the destruction of the pagoda and the changing of the seasons, [v] 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 remains constant and provides the individual a certain degree of solace. Hwang Jini contends that our experience in the world is relative to our own perspective, and that the world of our experience is constantly transforming.

A precious few of [vi] The ethics of Confucianism advocated the suppression of intrinsic “vulgar” desires and demanded the “transcendence” of self-gratification.[vii] 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 a twist.[viii] Societal prejudice is the most likely root of Hwang Jini’s sentiments; it motivated her to assert her dignity by remaining faithful to her loved ones.[ix] The tone of many of her poems is one of restless longing but also respectful devotion to her lovers. Like many kisaeng, Hwang Jini must have 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.[x]

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.”[xi] 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 combination with 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 states of existence.[xii] 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.[xiii] While today she embodies the “emancipated, urbane womanhood” of the modern Korean woman, Hwang Jini’s poems 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.

[i] Michael J. Seth, A Concise History of Korea: From the Neolithic Period through the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 2006), p. 158.

[ii] Constantine Contogenis and Wolhee Choe, Songs of the Kisaeng: Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty, (Rochester: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1997), p. 13.

[iii] Sung il-Lee, Moonlit pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1998), p. XIX.

[iv] Sung il-Lee, Moonlit pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, p. 59.

[v] Constantine Contogenis and Wolhee Choe, Songs of the Kisaeng: Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty, p. 17.

[vi] Sung il-Lee, Moonlit pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, p. XXVII.

[vii] Sung il-Lee, Moonlit pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese, p. XXV.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Constantine Contogenis and Wolhee Choe, Songs of the Kisaeng: Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty, p. 14.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Larry Gross, “Sijo by Hwang Chin’i.” Sijo Masters in Translation. Available from http://thewordshop.tripod.com/Sijo/hwangchini.html. Internet; Accessed 17 April 2011.

[xii] Kevin O’Rourke, A Hundred Love Poems from Old Korea, p. 45.

[xiii] Constantine Contogenis and Wolhee Choe, Songs of the Kisaeng: Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty, pp. 14-15

James Wiener earned his M.A. and B.A. in History from New York University. A freelance writer, James can be reached at james.wiener@nyu.edu.

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  1. Craig says:

    An interesting take. I’d guess there are a lot of dead authors with something to say about Korea.

  2. James Wiener says:

    Korean literature is as rich as it is diverse. Far too often, it has been overshadowed by the literature of its neighbors.


  3. Pierre says:

    A tragic life lived with honesty, beauty and honor? In many ways, more meaningful than a yangban life.

  4. James Wiener says:

    Hwang Jini occupied a contradictory social space in Joseon Korea as she was the daughter of a kisaeng and of a yangban man. Officially, she was a slave of the government but by ancestry, she theoretically belonged to the elite. In some of her surviving sijo, one finds that she subtly critiques the yangban for their hypocrisy and poor decorum.

  5. Joe says:

    Dear James, thanks for your good job here! thanks for your good understanding of Korean literature. Yes,we also have very rich culture and literature but not well known
    to out of Korea. We need a lot more of someone like you so that more people know about Korea. Maybe you also have studied Chinese and mixed some names of TV starrings. Anyway,very impressive! Have a nice day! Joe

  6. James Wiener says:

    Fortunately, Korean literature and culture is receiving increased attention because of the popularity of the “Korean Wave” or “Hallyu.” I think that the popularity of Korean culture will continue its momentum in this age of globalization.

    Hwang Jini is a poet of exceptional talent, meriting further attention in both a Korean and a “global” context. I’m glad that you liked the piece!

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