Supernatural Magazine

A Korean Poltergeist Tale: The Plight of the Gisaeng (Singing Girl)

My New Year’s resolution was to listen to one supernatural story per day in Korean, in my quest to learn the language and the spiritual culture of this country. Here is the result of the first story which I’ve translated.

This is an apparently true story that comes from a diary entry written by Yu Man Ju, who kept a consistent diary from age 21 until his death age 34 in the mid-18th century. Although he asked his father to burn his diaries after his death, he didn’t do so and it’s now kept at Seoul National University, which has provided detailed descriptions about life at the time.

Here is the story.

14th July, 1781

It was said that there was some ghostly troubles at the gwana (a village with government offices) in Yesan county. It was occuring even in broad daylight, the ghost doing as it pleased and making a fuss, wandering around the servant’s quarters.

Firstly, when Shin Gyeong Jo was reappointed as governor of Sunchang [a city in Yesan], there were all kinds of eerie occurrences happening in the main house, and the people couldn’t cope with it. Sometimes large stones would break the crock pots, and other times the rice bowls would be thrown against the door. Still other times, charcoal was put in the eaves and set on fire. For about half a year, these strange events didn’t let up.

Someone said the following at that time. “Jeongwol is very strange. The eerie events seem to be possessed by Jeongwol.”

Originally, when Governor Shin Gyeong Jo was appointed as governor of Yecheon county before this, he had purchased a female performer or gisaeng (기생) named Jeongwol who was native to the town. Despite being given to him with the understanding that she would be a servant, instead, he kept her as his concubine. He brought her with him to his new home in Sunchang, which is when this strange activity began.

Ginseng (Painted by Yu Un-hong)
Ginseng (Painted by Yu Un-hong)

I’m going to pause here to talk about the gisaeng, which has been translated as singing girls, talented artists, and intellectuals [they came to be associated with prostitution during the Japanese occupation]. Their origin seems to come from female musicians over a millennium ago but this is not 100% clear. During the unification of the three kingdoms in the 10th century, female prisoners of war who were good at performing arts were then taken on and “managed” by the state. They were trained in singing, musical instruments, dance, calligraphy, literature, medicine and politics, and finally retired at age fifty.

While talented gisaeng could find themselves within royal and diplomatic circles, they were basically government slaves. However, their lifestyles were closer to those of modern women in the freedom they had relative to many women of their time, they were accomplished and made heroic sacrifices for their country that are still celebrated in annual festivals centuries later.

Although they were intelligent and cultivated, the gisaeng were looked down upon by many who believed they belonged to a lower social class. In the early 20th century, they were set apart by their shorter jackets and fixed their skirts to the right side instead of the left. They lived together and traveled to perform for officials or during special events.

So from what I gather, Jeongwol would have grown up as a gisaeng and expected that she would become this governor’s maidservant, but he instead kept her as a concubine. This may have left Jeongwol feeling betrayed or stuck in a situation that she wasn’t comfortable with. Unfortunately, this story isn’t told from her point of view and is only pieced together from the stories of the people she shared the household with who simply wanted her (and the paranormal activity) gone.

As you might be familiar with through films or witness reports, poltergeist stories in the Anglophone world also feature elements of abuse and a lack of control of one’s situation, which is seen as a trigger for activity.

Now back to the story.

From what people could see, each time that Jeongwol would come out, strange things would start to happen. They tested this and it indeed seemed to be the case. Because of this, Jeongwol was sent back to the slave manager in Yecheon. But it just so happened that they went up to Seoul with Jeongwol, and she ended up being left at the home of someone named Shingae.

At this time, the maidservants were in the kitchen cooking, when a cauldron suddenly started moving up and down in the fireplace, and then flew into the air and stuck to the ceiling. And then! As if nothing had happened, it settled back down to the place it had just been. The maidservants who had been cooking fled the scene in shock. Shingae immediately sent Jeongwol back to Yecheon. Meanwhile in Sunchang-gun, it was said that the activity in the kitchen ceased as soon as she left. They couldn’t make any sense of it.

I’m in the middle of translating the next ghost story and should have it up in the next week.

Original story (in Korean):

Samantha Lee Treasure

Samantha Lee Treasure

Samantha Lee Treasure is a British-Canadian medical anthropology student at SOAS University of London, and is currently based in South Korea. Inspired by childhood experiences on a (potentially) haunted farm, her research focuses on out-of-body experiences and sleep paralysis. Her first book, exploring the effects of technology and fiction on a variety of supernatural and hallucinatory experiences, is due to be released with Inner Traditions in 2023.