A Gungnyeo’s Life

When you read books or watch dramas or movies about palaces in Korea, you always read or hear the word “gungnyeo.” A gungnyeo is a girl or a woman who does household jobs in the palace. Gungnyeos have existed in every dynasty of Korean history, but they haven’t received very much attention. Some people think that a gungnyeo was just a palace flower, but their life was full of ups and downs. Let's examine the gungnyeo’s life.

Generally, gungnyeos entered the palace between the ages of 4 and 13. Virginity, family line, appearance, and character were considered in selecting gungnyeos. To know whether a girl was a virgin or not, parrot's blood was dropped on the girl's wrist. If the blood stayed on the girl's wrist, she was considered a virgin. They received a strict education for 15 years and then began their own duties. Gungnyeos did all the household jobs of the palace like cooking, cleaning, and serving the king or queen. Gungnyeo’s hair styles and customs were different according to their position. They worked every second day and their vacations weren’t regular. They could have a vacation when they were sick or had some special occasion. Among the gungnyeos, the lowest grades were the “musuri” and “euinyeo.” A musuri was a gungnyeo’s helper and an euinyeo was in charge of the medicine. Also, euinyeos danced at palace parties and sometimes caught women criminals.

All gungnyeos belonged to the king. They couldn’t fall in love with other men. Gungnyeos couldn’t imagine love with another person except the king. When the king discovered a gungnyeo’s love scandal, she was beheaded immediately. There was no chance for her to explain herself. If the gungnyeo was pregnant, she was beheaded as soon as she gave birth to her baby, and the baby became a slave. Some historical documents say there were some lesbians in the palace. The gungnyeo lesbians were called “daesik.” In the Joseon Dynasty, King Se-jong’s second daughter-in-law, named Bong, and a gungnyeo named So-ssang fell in love. King Se-jong disinherited Bong and evicted her from the palace.

Gungnyeos were believed to stay in the palace until they died. More exactly speaking, right before they took their last breath they should leave. If a gungnyeo died in the palace, her corpse was discarded secretly and cremated. Gungnyeos could leave the palace under three circumstances: when they were too old or too ill to do their jobs, when there was a big problem like a war, and when a gungnyeo committed a crime. Even if they lived outside the palace they couldn’t marry because they were still regarded as the king’s property.