[Inkstone] Gagaek: The Idols of Premodern Korea

  • onOctober 5, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byLee Hyung-dae
Singer’s Pansori by Kim Jun-geun
Genre painting from the Joseon period depicting a gagaek singing accompanied by a gosu (drummer)
Image © Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University


The world’s eyes are on K-pop idols today. Fueled by Hallyu or the Korean wave, K-pop started gaining popularity all over the world sometime around 2010. BoA was the first Korean singer to be listed on the Billboard 200 in 2009, followed by BIGBANG and G-Dragon in 2012. In 2018, BTS topped the chart for the first time in K-pop history. Wonder Girls were the first K-pop group to enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2009, and Psy peaked at number two on the chart in 2012 with “Gangnam Style” and stayed there for seven consecutive weeks. CL and BTS put their names on the chart later, and in August 2020, BTS reached number one.

The predecessors of today’s K-pop idols were the gagaek, or singers, of the late Joseon period. The gagaek who appeared in Joseon society around the time of King Sukjong in the late seventeenth century were professional or semi-professional yein (entertainers) who specialized in singing, and their status was mainly middle-class. Does that mean there were no singers before then? Not exactly. Regardless of the era, there were always people who were good at singing. But even if there were talented singers, they were not called by the name gagaek until the late Joseon period.


1. Who Sang When There Were No Gagaek?

Since its founding, the Joseon Dynasty tried to realize a politics of ye-ak that would bring about harmony while abiding by its own code of ethics. Ye meant “order” and ak stood for “harmony.” Ye emphasized a distinction between classes and called for strict order between occupations, while ak contributed to maintaining harmonious relationships, which could otherwise become easily neglected because of ye. This was why the state controlled music in the Joseon Dynasty, to which end it established the Jangakwon (Bureau of Music). Official music used for the state or the royal court was played by akgong and aksaeng musicians of the Jangakwon, and songs were sung by ginyeo (female entertainers) or gadong (boy singers). They were state-appointed singers, so to speak, and they mainly performed court music at the royal court.



What about songs that sadaebu (scholar-bureaucrats) enjoyed at poetry gatherings, banquets, pungryu (arts appreciation) gatherings, and various feasts? In most cases, gwangi (women in charge of singing and dancing and instrumental music at the court or a government office) affiliated with a local government office, were mobilized to sing.

An example of this can be found in Yi Hwang’s Eobuga balmun: “Long ago, there was an old ginyeo in Andongbu, who was good at singing. My uncle Song Jae (1469–1517) summoned her to sing songs to brighten up his sixtieth birthday celebration. I was still young back then.” Ginyeo belonging to a local government office were called in to sing for various kinds of meetings that sadaebu held. Besides ginyeo, affluent sadaebu households had gabi (a private maid talented at singing) to entertain their guests. Records show that Nongam Yi Hyeon-bo and Jiam Yun Yi-hu, the grandson of Gosan Yun Seon-do, employed gabi. If you thought about it in today’s terms, those families had a singer exclusively working for them.



At times, sadaebu scholar-officials with a flair for singing themselves sang songs at pungryu gatherings. These sadaebu were called seongaja. Nogyeo Bak In-ro who composed a considerable number of mid-Joseon-period sijo and gasa poems was one such seongaja. Earlier than that, at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty and in the early years of the Joseon Dynasty, there was another sadaebu seongaja named Gong Bu (1352–1416). He passed the civil service examination during the Goryeo Dynasty and went into government service in the Joseon Dynasty as well. He visited China six times in his official capacity as seojanggwan (censor-secretary). As his pen name Eochon (meaning “fishing village”) testifies, even while serving as a government official, Gong Bu yearned for the life of fishermen who were not swayed by material desires. He was said to be good at singing “Eobuga.”

Meanwhile, Heo Gyun’s Seongongjisorok recounts an episode from the life of scholar Yi Eon-bang who was a talented singer during the reign of King Myeongjong. According to the anecdote, the melody of Yi’s singing was clear and high and no one could match him in singing. People who listened to his song were said to be so moved that they shed tears. When he visited Pyeongyang, the governor had two-hundred ginyeo from the gyobang training halls sit in a row along the street and sing songs in turn. Yi Eong-bang responded to each song with a song of his own, and all their voices were harmonious and smooth.

On hearing of him, Hwang Jini, a renowned gisaeng of Songdo, paid him a visit. Yi posed as his younger brother, saying, “My brother is not home, but I am a pretty good singer myself.” Then he performed a song. Hwang Jini immediately realized that he was Yi Eon-bang, and said in admiration that he had an incomparable voice that no gifted singer in China could match. Hwang Jini was able to recognize his talent as she herself was an incredible singer.


2. Emergence of the Gagaek

There were several socio-historical prerequisites for the emergence of gagaek. First, there had to be outstanding musicians. Songs require instrumental accompaniment, so naturally there had to be excellent instrumentalists. As mentioned above, until the early Joseon period, all professional musicians were affiliated with the Jangakwon state institution and they developed their skills through intensive training. But they were poorly treated and couldn’t pursue their own individual music because they were only allowed to play selected songs for ceremonies or rites. After Imjinwaeran (Japanese invasion in 1592) and Byeongjahoran (Manchu invasion in 1636), the aksa (musicians) of Jangakwon continued their musical activities outside the court and among the public. Thus, outstanding musicians came to be active both at the court and in the private sector .

Second, there had to be a popular artistic environment and people who consumed music. In the late Joseon Dynasty, not only did a commodity-money economy develop but Joseon rapidly urbanized around the capital of Hanyang. Under these circumstances, songs as works of art were put into circulation as commodities. Affluent jungin (middle class), and gyeongajeon (clerks in the capital) in particular, emerged as consumers of art, and some yangban who had excellent artistic taste became patrons of artists.

Gagaek emerged in this social environment. They were responsible for the creation of the pungryubang, or performance rooms, where music lovers gathered to enjoy songs and music. Its members were gagaek and aksa. Gagaek were professional singers who were proficient in vocal music such as gagok, gasa, and sijo. On the other hand, geomungo (Korean plucked zither) players who played accompaniment to gagok, or instrumental pieces such as the Korean court music repertoire Yeongsan hoesang were called geumgaek. These gagaek and aksa led the culture of pungryubang performance rooms.

What were the life and artistic activities of gagaek like? Fortunately, biographies that record the lives of some gagaek have survived. The following is an excerpt from Noraeggun Songsilsoljeon (A story of singer Song Sil-sol) written by Yi Ok, a writer during the era of King Jeongjo, which summarizes the life of gagaek Song Sil-sol.


Song Sil-sol was a Seoul gagaek who got his name from a song called Silsolgok” (Song of a cricket) that he sang extremely well. When he was young, he used to practice singing next to a roaring waterfall. After a year, the sound of the waterfall couldn’t drown out the sound of his singing. After he spent a year atop Mount Bugaksan, the sound of the whirlwind could not disturb his song. If he sang in a room, the sound vibrated along the crossbeams; if he sang in the mountains, it reverberated amongst the clouds. His voice harmonized with every instrument. When he sang in front of a crowd, the audience stared into space, unable to make out who the gagaek was.


From the above passage, we can see that Song Sil-sol underwent strenuous training to become a professional gagaek. When his singing defeated the sounds of waterfalls and whirlwinds, he became a true gagaek. Once established as a gagaek, he pursued his own creative form of singing. When singing “Chuiseunggok” or “Hwanggyeosa,” he did not sing along with the original music score; instead he freely improvised. He is said to have even wailed at a wake in the form of a song. All this shows that he pursued a relentless and infinitely free artistic vision.


Next is “Songosa” from Chujaejip by poet Jo Su-sam:


Son the Blind had no talent in fortune-telling, but he was good at singing gagok. He was highly proficient in ujo (the highest note of the Korean pentatonic scale), gyemyeonjo (A-minor), rhythm, pitch, and the 24 seong (notes). Every day he sat in the street and sang in both loud and thin voices. And when he reached the climax, the audience surrounded him like a wall and the coins they threw at him showered down like rain. He would then swipe them up and when he figured he had collected around 100 jeon, he would stand up, saying, “This will be enough for me to get drunk.”


The Joseon government allowed for the blind to tell fortunes as a form of welfare. But Son the Blind preferred singing to fortunetelling and became a professional gagaek. It seems that he mostly sang songs on the street, which can be likened to busking today. Whenever he sang, the audience “surrounded him like a wall and the coins they threw at him showered down like rain.” This proves how popular he was and how songs were sold to the public as commodities.


3. Noted Gagaek from the Late Joseon Period and their Songs

Gagaek have a bigger role in the history of Korean literature than just professional singers. They not only composed remarkable songs but also published gajip, which were compilations of sijo that had been passed down for generations. They realized the precious value of Korean songs and kept records of them out of concern that they might be lost if they were only passed down orally. As a result, excellent gajip such as Cheongguyeongeon, Haedong gayo, and Gagokwollyu were created.


Kim Cheon-taek

Kim Cheon-taek who compiled Cheonguyeongeon (the original version) was a pogyo constable during the reign of King Sukjong. Jeochon Yi Jeong-seob said this of Kim in his Choengguyeongeon hubal: “Kim Cheon-taek is a man of good character and knowledgeable and he memorized 300 works from the Sigyeong [The book of odes] with ease, so he is not just a singer.” Judging from this, not only was Kim Cheon-taek a gifted singer but he also had a scholarly temperament along with great knowledge. Jeong Yun-gyeong praised Kim in Cheongguyeongeon huseo: “Kim Cheon-taek makes the entire kingdom cry with his singing. He has a precise sense of rhythm and has cultivated literary accomplishments.” The following is a sijo composed by Kim Cheon-taek:


White seagull, let me ask you something. Don’t be alarmed.

Where are all the famed places, splendid lands that have been abandoned?

If you tell me in detail, we can go and spend time together there.


This sijo, which takes the form of a conversation with a white seagull, has a nature-friendly theme. The narrator asks the seagull where the wonderful natural places are, the beautiful places that have been abandoned. These places are in clear contrast to political spaces that covet riches and honors. He says he will live amidst the beauty of nature together with the seagull if it tells him where the places are located. His desire is similar to what sadaebu scholar-officials aimed to achieve. That is, to restrain the desire for a government post and to lead a pure and innocent life by becoming one with nature. However, if we look at it differently, we can discover another layer of meaning of Kim’s identity. Because the chances of status advancement were limited for a member of the jungin middle-class, Kim rather resignedly chooses to live in nature.


Kim Su-jang

If Kim Cheon-taek’s writing contained a conflict of social status as well as a sadaebu orientation, then Kim Su-jang—another gagaek who also came from the middle class, worked as a military clerk at the Ministry of Military Affairs, and compiled Haedong gayo—was straightforward and broad-minded. Regarding Kim Su-jang, who is believed to have been active a generation after Kim Cheon-taek, Jang Bok-so said this in Haedong gayo huseo: “He truly is a heroic man of virtue in this world full of woes and cares. He has inherited the tradition of singing and his mind and spirt are uncorrupted.” He was heroic, manly, and also appreciated the arts at the same time. Kim Su-jang was a gagaek who strived only for singing, and his performances were more urbanized and entertaining than that of Kim Cheon-taek. Here is a piece of saseol sijo (long-form narrative sijo) that he wrote:


Do you not know who I am, the Jeolchungjanggun (Jeong-3-pum military official) Yongyangwi (a military division) Buhogun (Fourth Deputy Commander)? I might be old, but I never was one to come second to anybody in singing, dancing, and going on trips across the south and the north of Hangang (Han River). There is no place for pungryu with blossoming flowers in the capital that I have not been to. Woman, you may underestimate me, but spend a night with me and you will know I am a man among men.

This is a saseol sijo in which the narrator, Kim Su-jang, delivers a message to a ginyeo. It seems that a ginyeo has scorned Kim for being old. But this doesn’t dent Kim’s confidence. He says he might be old, but he is still confident of his singing and dancing, and that he has been to every remarkable place for pungryu in the vicinity of the capital of Hanyang. He assures her that if any woman spent a night with him, she would appreciate his true worth as a man of arts. If Kim Cheon-taek hovered on the edge of sadaebu culture, Kim Su-jang pioneered his own world as a jungin (upper middle-class) and an artist. Despite his meager living, he built Nogajae in Hwagae-dong, Seoul at the age of seventy-one, and oversaw Nagajae gadan, an organization of gagaek. As the center of the music scene at that time, the organization was considered to have contributed to the literary development of sijo and gagokchang.


An Min-yeong

An Min-yeong who compiled Gagokwonryu was one of the representative nineteenth-century gagaek, along with Bak Hyo-gwan, his mentor. An learned how to sing from Bak and beautifully refined his lyrics. He also built relationships with the royal family including the Daewongun (1820–1898), and was a patron of numerous gisaeng. Geumokchongbu (1885), An’s personal anthology, confirms that he was a man of taste who artistically interacted and had romantic liaisons with a number of ginyeo all over the country. Quite a few of An’s sijo feature ginyeo with whom he had a relationship.


Don’t scold the limping donkey when I part with you

For how else could I get a close look at your tearful face under the blossoms

when I bid you farewell and turn away, if not for those limping steps?


People are overcome with sorrow when they part with a loved one. They would do anything to delay the parting and gaze upon their beloved’s face. With this wish, the person who leaves expresses his gratitude towards the limping donkey. According to the appendix of this work, the person left behind in this song was ginyeo Hyerani. She was a renowned ginyeo in Pyongyang. She was not only beautiful, but excelled at painting, singing, and playing the geomungo. This song was composed when An left Hyerani after spending seven months with her in Pyeongyang. It delicately depicts the sorrow of their parting.


The gagaek we have looked at above mostly excelled in gagokchang. One of the gagaek who had an outstanding talent for sijochang was Yi Se-chun. However, in the nineteenth century, japga (popular folk songs), which developed among the commoners, prevailed over gagokchang and sijochang with its unique lively musical sensibility and captivated people of all classes. That led to gifted singers of japga to become famous. New masterly singers emerged, such as Chu Gyo-sin, a renowned singer of Gyeonggi japga, Jo Gi-jun who excelled at 12 japga, and Bak Chun-gyeong, a farmer who developed japga further.

Japga is widely considered as the actual beginning of popular music in the history of Korean music. Whereas Gagokchang had its origins in the music of sadaebu scholar-officials, Japga, which started as a music of the common people and later swept the royal court, became the music of the entire kingdom. But japga, hwimori japga in particular, had lyrics that originated from saseol sijo, so they were not completely unconnected to sijo. Considering all this, if you look at the origins of modern singers in the popular sphere, the renowned singers of japga would be their predecessors. Also, if you look at them in terms of professional singers whose livelihood was singing, gagaek would be their predecessors.



Translated by June Yun


Lee Hyung-dae
Korea University