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War and the Death of a Kisaeng: The Construction of the Collective Memory of the "Righteous Kisaeng Non'gae" in Late Choson

War and the Death of a Kisaeng: The Construction of the Collective Memory of the "Righteous Kisaeng Non'gae" in Late Choson
Young, Jung Ji
Ewha Authors
Issue Date
Journal Title
1225-0201JCR Link
vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 157 - 180
Non'gaekisaenglate Chosonchastitygender
This article investigates how memories about the death of the kisaeng Non'gae developed from right after the Imjin War until the point where she became the symbol of a woman who offered her body for the country. Non'gae is widely known in Korean society as the kisaeng who, after the fall of the city of Chinju during the Imjin War, killed herself by embracing an enemy general and throwing herself into the Nam River. However, her death was not recognized as a sacrifice for the country from the beginning. During the process of compiling the Tongguk sinsok samgang haengsil to (New continued illustrated exemplars of the three bonds of Korea) in the early 17th century, some proposed to include her, but strong opposition from the majority prevented this. It was simply unthinkable to consider a low-born female entertainer as the embodiment of "chastity." Later, the elites of Chinju started to commemorate Non'gae, and petitioned the court to recognize her as a "righteous kisaeng." During the 18th Century, she indeed became recognized as a righteous kisaeng, and her death was discussed in terms of "loyalty." This shows how during the Choson period notions about gender and women's agency in terms of loyalty changed. The so-called Three Bonds of filial piety, chastity, and loyalty are the representative Confucian norms adopted in the Choson period, and are organized on a gendered basis: chastity was reserved for women and loyalty for men. However, in the wake of the Imjin War and the Manchu invasions, during the process of reconstruction the value of loyalty was inscribed on women through the discourse of Non'gae. The fact that a woman could be recognized for her direct contribution to the state rather than through the agency of men signifies a broadening of the social imagination of women. This was achieved, however, through the official construction of memories regarding Non'gae; the process of including her as an agent of loyalty entailed the exclusion of elements that were deemed irreconcilable with the concept of loyalty. The birth of the "righteous kisaeng Non'gae" marks both the result of and the impetus for the state's changing perception of women and their relation to the state.
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