Homosexuality in Ancient and Modern Korea

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One of the earliest mentions of male attraction to boys is that of Gongmin of Goryeo (r. 1351–1374), the 31st king of the Goryeo dynasty, who was famous for his predilection for falling in love with young boys. After the death of his wife in 1365, he is reputed to have spent his time in the practice of Buddhism and relations with boys, establishing an organization for their recruitment. [2] Paul Michaut, a French physician writing in 1893, described Korea as a country where "[p]ederasty is general, it is part of the mores; it is practiced publicly, in the street, without the least reprobation." He associated its prevalence with that of syphilis which was likewise general: "[T]he non-contaminated subjects are the exception." (Proschan, Frank "Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty": Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (and French) Social Diseases" Journal of the History of Sexuality — Volume 11, Number 4, October 2002, pp. 610–636)[1]

Homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea


Pyongtaek University, Pyongtaek, Korea, and Hanyoung Theological University, Seoul, Korea


This paper examines Korean views on the subject of male homosexuality. Using historical and contemporary sources, it seeks to explain elements of new cultural openness towards homosexuality in modern Korea. Korean people’s understanding and knowledge of male homosexuality is ambiguous and limited. In the absence of knowledge and open communication, most Korean people imagine that male homosexuality is an abnormal and impure modern phenomenon. Prejudice and confusion lead most Korean male homosexuals to be estranged from their families, religious communities and non-homosexual peers. Moreover, they are often viewed as the ‘carriers’ of AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). The purpose of this paper is to examine current Korean perspectives on male homosexuality by exploring both the ancient history of the practice of male homosexuality and current thinking about homosexual life among Koreans, which has played an important part in the formation of contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality.


Homosexuality in ancient Korea The hwarang 2 offers the clearest example of ancient homosexuality in Korea. They were leaders of a military group of the Silla Dynasty (B.C. 57– A.D. 935), chosen from the sons of the nobility by popular election. Hundreds of men reportedly belonged to hwarang bands. Their major role was to fight a common enemy or to advance the common welfare by increasing national power. The Five Hwarang Commandments – serve the king with loyalty, serve parents with piety, be faithful to friends, never retreat in battle, and preserve life when possible – were the basic principles alongside loyalty to the nation, righteousness and dauntlessness.

Beyond their function as elite warriors, hwarang concern for ecstasy and eroticism – hyangga – can be found in the vernacular poetry of Silla. In the Sam-Guk-Yu-Sa,3 for example, can be found verses such as:

Song of Yearning for the Flower Boy Taemara

The whole world weeps sadly

The departing Spring.

Wrinkles lance

Your once handsome face,

For the space of a glance

May we meet again.

Fair Lord, what hope for my burning heart?

How can I sleep in my alley hovel?
Song in Praise of the Flower Boy Kilbo


Appearing fitfully

Trailing the white clouds,

Whither do you go?

The face of the Flower Boy Kilbo

Was reflected in the pale green water,

Here among the pebbles of the stream

I seek the bounds of the heart he bore.

Ah, ah! Flower Boy here,

Noble pine that fears no frost!
Cho Yong’s Song

Playing in the moonlight of the capital

Till the morning comes,

I return home

To see four legs in my bed.

Two belong to me.

Whose are the other two?

But what was my own

Has been taken from me, what now?

[2] In Korean society, the above songs have been traditionally seen as illustrating a hwarang penchant for sexual intercourse with same-sex partners. In colloquial usage, the term homosexuality in ancient and modern Korea hwarang has given rise to modern derivations such as hwallyangi or even hwangangnom, meaning a playboy and a lazy good-for-nothing, and also the word hwaryangnyon, or something outside the range of expected variations, meaning a slut or prostitute’ (Rutt 1961: 8). Until the twentieth century, the word hwarang was also used to mean sorcery, laziness, laxity, and having the life of the mountebank (Rutt 1961: 10). Modern hwarang or ‘players’ are also perceived of as a homosexually oriented group. One of the later Koryo Kings, Kongmin (A.D. 1352–1374), is well known both as a scholar-painter-calligrapher and for pederasty with royal catamites or chajewi. The names of five of these are recorded: Hong Yun, Han An, Kwon Chin, Hong Kwan, and No Son (see Hee-Dok Lee 1983 and Hi-Woon Kang 1964). In the Koryo Dynasty, homosexual practices were described as yongyang-chi-chong,8 the dragon and the sun, implying the coming together of the two male symbols.


Age Stratified Patterns


There does not appear to be much data on the age of the Hwarang (화, flower; 랑, shining purity) boys (Rutt, 1961; cf. Leupp, 1995:p19); they were “often in their mid-teens” (Murray)[22]. It was said that the use of flower boys, or hua lang, was officially instituted by a Silla king in the year A.D. 576, as a replacement of female shamans[23]. “During Silla period the cross-dressing ‘hwarang’ were cultivated by the king for military duty, but also for dancing etc. Later on became involved in (cross-gendered) prostitution. Also a tradition of ‘boy-wives’ who would be brides to older men, but who could later on marry as ‘true men’.”[24] [4]

Further reading

The following may be available in Google books.

Rutt, R. (1961) The Flower Boys of Silla (Hwarang), Royal Asian Soc, Transact Koran Branch 38:1-66. Reprinted in Dynes, W. R. & Donaldson, S. (Eds., 1992) Asian Homosexuality. New York & London: Garland, p187-266
Murray, S. O. (1992) The Wharang of ancient Korea, in Murray, S. O. (Ed., 1992) Oceanic Homosexualities. New York & London: Garland, p103-9

See also

South Korea
(Taehan Min’guk)

  1. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#0 Demographics and a Historical Perspective
  2. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#1 Basic Sexological Premises
  3. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#2 Religious and Ethnic Factors Affecting Sexuality
  4. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#3 Sexual Knowledge and Education
  5. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#4 Autoerotic Behaviors and Patterns
  6. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#5 Interpersonal Heterosexual Behaviors
  7. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#6 Homoerotic, Homosexual, and Ambisexual Behaviors
  8. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#7 Gender Conflicted Persons
  9. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#8 Significant Unconventional Sexual Behaviors
  10. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#9 Contraception, Abortion, and Population Planning
  11. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#10 Sexually Transmitted Diseases
  12. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#11 HIV/AIDS
  13. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#12 Sexual Dysfunctions, Counseling, and Therapies
  14. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#13 Research and Advanced Education
  15. http://www.sexarchive.info/IES/southkorea.html#references References and Suggested Readings
  16. references

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