Saturday, April 7, 2012

Non-Gae: The Korean Heroine

Portrait of Non-Gae at the Non-Gae Shrine near Chokseongnu, South Korea.
One of Korea's most well-known heroines is without a doubt the Joseon-era kisaeng Ju Non-Gae, or Non-Gae (논개) as she's commonly known. Non-Gae has been the subject of many stories, movies, and even some manhwa (Korean manga), especially since the 1950s and 60s. But the story of Non-Gae is one that is not well-known in the West, and is one that has possibly been romanticized and fictionalized over the centuries.

According to most accounts, Non-Gae was born into extreme poverty during the 16th century in Jangsu, Jeolla province in modern-day South Korea. She grew up without a father and, like many other girls at the time, was destined for arranged marriage. She was, however, raised to be one thing and that was a kisaeng. Just like their geisha counterparts in Japan, kisaeng were trained to sing, dance, and entertain.

When Non-Gae and her mother were arrested in Jinju (in modern-day Gyeongsang province, South Korea), she was bequeathed to a court official who would become the man she loved: Choe Gyeong-hoe.

In 1593, Korea had been invaded by the forces of Japanese shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi and was struggling to expel the invaders. This war is known as the Seven Year's War. Hideyoshi's forces, under the command of the famous general Keyamura Rokusuke, laid siege to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul) and Choe led a small group of 3,000 Korean guerrillas at the Jinju fortress who were determined to repel Keyamura's 93,000 strong army.

After nine days of fierce fighting, the Japanese forces managed to kill every last defender, including Choe. After declaring victory, they had a celebration during which all the kisaeng of Jinju, including Non-Gae, were summoned to Chokseongnu Pavilion.

The grief-stricken Non-Gae chose to entertain none other than General Keyamura himself. She took him to an overhanging rock on the cliffside, put her arms around him, and locked her fingers together with her karakchi rings. Non-Gae then avenged the deaths of her brothers and sisters by throwing herself over the cliff with Keyamura, killing them both.

To this day, Non-Gae's sacrifice is remembered and honored by the Korean people. The Nongae Festival is held every May at the Jinju Fortress and a reenactment is held on the Uiam rock (의암, or "righteous rock") of Non-Gae's plunge with Keyamura Rokusuke. Near Chokseongnu, there is also a shrine dedicated to Non-Gae. She is upheld to this very day as an example for all Koreans to follow of patriotism, self-sacrifice, and duty.

Since the late 1950s, the story of Non-Gae has been the subject of a number of movies, TV dramas, books and manhwa. The first known movie made about Non-Gae is the 1956 movie "Nongae" starring Kim Sam-hwa, Choi Seong-ho, and Seong Su-min. In 1973, another movie about Non-Gae titled "Nongae the Kisaeng" was released. This movie starred Kim Ji-mee, Shin Sung-il, and Choi Bool-am. In recent years, the 2007 movie "Resurrection of the Butterfly" ('그림자'/Geurimja in Korean) starring Lee Moo-saeng, Jeong Bo-yeong, and Myung Seung-hoon also deals with the story of Non-Gae.

Non-Gae's story is a tragic one, but one that has captivated the Korean public for many centuries.

For more about Non-Gae, be sure to check out these sites:

Photo of Non-Gae copyright: kangbyeongkee/Wikimedia Commons


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