The Gisaeng at the Forefront of the 1919 Manse Demonstrations

The Historical Value and Heritage of the March 1st Movement (2)

Cho-Lee Yeoul 2021-03-05

Editor’s note: This is the second article in Ilda’s four-part series examining the role of women in the March 1st Independence Movement, documenting that time in women’s history, and considering its meaning. The March 1st Movement of 1919 (also referred to as the Manse Demonstrations, because “manse”—similar to the English “hurrah!”—was what protesters shouted) was one of Korea’s first large-scale displays of resistance to Japanese occupation.


Gisaeng “kindled the fire of independence” in the hearts of youth


In addition to the teenage female students covered in the first article in this series, another group that cannot be left out when discussing leaders of the Manse Demonstrations is none other than gisaeng.


In the society of Joseon—the Korean state that existed until shortly before Japanese occupation—women who were gisaeng were part of a class whose social sphere was outside of women’s “natural” space—the home—and thus one in which they could interact with men, especially intellectuals. Because they were dramatized or disparaged according to male intellectuals’ tastes throughout historical records and literature, there is little that we know for sure about the exact social position, role and identity of gisaeng.


However, the gisaeng as seen by Japanese police officers stationed in Seoul (then called “Gyeongseong”) at that time are quite different from the gisaeng we are (more-or-less) familiar with.


In Korean Modern Women’s History, by Choi Eun-hui, famous for being a journalist for South Korea’s first women’s daily newspaper, important materials about gisaeng as they were at that time are presented, some of them based on the testimony of Choi Yeong-hui, head of the National Institute of Korean History in the 1970s. Choi Yeong-hui provided the following quote from a Japanese policeman:


“When we were first stationed here, we never saw the Gyeongseong courtesans drinking or dancing or playing around. The 8,000 gisaeng seemed less like courtesans than independence fighters. Sparks flew from their red lips, and they kindled the fire of independence in the hearts of the Joseon youth who came to be entertained. The one hundred gisaeng houses in Gyeongseong have been reduced to criminal dens. Sometimes when we Japanese visit a gisaeng house to be entertained, their attitudes to us are as cold as ice, and they don’t speak or smile. That atmosphere makes us feel like we are ghosts, drinking in the afterworld.”


Japanese policeman Chiba Ryo, stationed in Gyeonseong as Commissioner of Public Order, made this report to the Government-General in August of 1919. It shows that many gisaeng were independence fighters teaching men about and fanning the flames of independence.


▲ Born into a poor household, Chung Chil-seong was a gisaeng who participate The March 1919 independence movement. Source: Encyclopedia of Korean Culture

In Haeju, number of gisaeng-led demonstrators reached 3,000


Through their association, gisaeng also staged organized manse demonstrations in Jinju, Tongyeong, Suwon, and other cities. In Haeju, there was a large-scale demonstration led by gisaeng in which the whole city took part.


People called these gisaeng who actively participated in the Manse Demonstrations sasang [“intellectual”] gisaeng. They belonged to the “artistic” gisaeng class(As opposed to the “entertaining” class, which mainly served alcohol), which was educated and possessed a variety of skills.


There were manse protests in Suwon every day from March 25th, but the protest started by the entirety of the Suwon gisaeng association, who marched to the front of the public hospital, became quite large. When Japanese military police came to arrest them, the crowd of students, merchants, and laborers protected the gisaeng, surrounded the hospital, and shouted, “Manse!”


In Haeju, an “all-or-nothing” squad of five gisaeng—Kim Wol-hui, Mun Wol-seon, Kim Yong-seong (professional name: Hae Jung-wol), Mun Jae-min (professional name: Hyeong-hui) and Ok Un-gyeong (professional name: Ok Chae-ju)—risked their lives in making vows to form the close-knit association and become independence fighters themselves instead depending on men. They set a date of April 1st at 10a.m. Because they had no way of obtaining an actual copy of the Declaration of Independence that had been read on March 1st, Wol-hui and Wol-seon wrote it in the Korean alphabet and had it mass-printed to distribute to demonstrators.


Though manse protests in Haeju-eup continued non-stop after March 10, the movement that began on April 1st developed into a particularly-large protest in which the whole city took part.


As the gisaeng, asserting themselves as the descendants of Non Gae(Famous historical gisaeng who killed or aided in the killing of Japanese military officers) and Kye Wol-hyang, took the lead and started the protest, housewives, too, thought, “Even gisaeng are sacrificing their bodies and fighting for independence…” and came out of their houses. People of all ages and genders ran to join the manse fervor, and the protest led by the gisaeng grew to encompass 3,000 people.


Choi Eun-hui, who was in the cell next to the gisaeng in Haeju Prison, wrote, “The bruises and burns all over their bodies made it look as if snakes were coiled around them, so it was unbearable to look at them.”


Organized and systematic protest spreads with help of gisaeng association


According to documents pertaining to gisaeng protests, far from being limited to one group or area, gisaeng involvement in the March 1st Movement occurred countrywide.


Evidence of organized, gisaeng-led, protests can be seen in newspaper articles, including those of the Daily News (Mae-il-sin-bo), reporting about gisaeng wielding the Korean flag in Jinju, gathering in front of the public hospital in Suwon, and entering the town office to cry manse, climbing a mountain with the Korean flag, and causing a commotion powerful enough to move mountains in Anseong.


This is documentation that shows that sasang gisaeng, through gisaeng associations and other methods, started very organized and systematic independence protests.


According to Prominent Women in History: Korea, after gathering to conspire on the evening of March 18th, 32 gisaeng in Jinju, including Park Geum-hyang, led the marching demonstrators on the 19th. 


These women led protesters carrying musical instruments, crying, “We are the proud descendants of Non Gae. Do not forfeit the traditional pride of Jinju’s artistic gisaeng! Manse!” and waving the Korean flag.


Upon seeing the gisaeng join the struggle, so-called “butchers’ wives” also took up the knives that were used to carve meat and ran outside, crying, “Manse!” After arresting them, the Japanese police viciously carved the character “eda” (meaning “the lowest class,” or butchers) into these women’s foreheads.


In Tongyeong, intense manse protests broke out and continued on March 28th and 31st and into April. Records presented in Prominent Women in History: Korea show that during that time, Tongyeong artistic gisaeng association members Jeong Hong-do and Lee Guk-hui sold their gold hairpins and rings to buy four rolls of fancy cloth, which, with 33 other gisaeng, they made into Korean flags and carried in the protests.


If one is bringing attention to the fact that the March 1st Movement was a nationwide movement by citizens who participated as equal actors, regardless of social standing, as members of society whose national sovereignty had been taken away, the history of gisaeng in the independence movement must not be left out.


By Cho-Lee Yeoul

Published: March 6, 2013

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article:


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(

기사입력 : 2021-03-05

트위터 페이스북 카카오톡 카카오스토리 밴드 naver URL복사
뒤로가기 홈으로


댓글 수정 및 삭제는 PC버전에서만 가능합니다.

가장 많이 읽은 기사

URL 복사

PC버전 맨위로 갱신

Copyright ⓒ All rights reserved.