Korea and the rest of East Asia, engaged in rice farming for several millennia, have formed a rice culture that can be compared to the wheat culture of Europe. Ganggangsullae is one of the most representative seasonal rituals of Korea’s rice farming culture, which permeates nearly every aspect of life among Koreans.
Ganggangsullae gives hints about the origins of recreational music and dance emblematic of the Korean peninsula, as it used to be widely performed in the southwestern coastal region of the peninsula and is closely linked to inland circle dances accompanying music, including Notdari Bapgi (Walking Over a Human Bridge) and Wolwoli Cheongcheong (Moon, Moon, Radiant Moon).
A combination of various recreational elements based on the basic form of holding hands to form a circle while singing and dancing, Ganggangsullae has been named as such since the refrain “ganggangsullae,” whose exact meaning is unknown, is repeated with every bar.
It was originally performed by unmarried youngsters aged between 15 and 20, and sometimes allowing the participation of recently married youngsters. But, when it was designated as a state cultural heritage the community members, largely women in their 40s or 50s, rendered the performance. Since then, Ganggangsullae has been handed down by middle-aged female members of the community, displaying proficient skills, rather than the creative vividness and dynamics of youngsters when they perform it.
Traditionally, Ganggangsullae was performed on Korea’s representative seasonal occasions, includingSeol (the lunar New Year), Daeboreum (the first full moon day of the year), Dano (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), Baekjung (the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month), Chuseok (the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month), and Junggu (the ninth day of the ninth lunar month), with the one on Chuseok being the largest.
As such, Ganggangsullae has been developed into a performance most commonly conducted onChuseok (Korea’s Thanksgiving). Under the bright full moon, dozens of young village women hold hands to form a circle and sing and dance. While the sun symbolizes men, and the moon, women, and women’s physical features are represented by a round shape, Ganggangsullae assumes the characteristics of the law of imitation, one of the laws of magic, reflecting primitive aesthetics. Because the dancing is strenuous, only young women are allowed to perform, but it is also their privilege as women of child-bearing age.
Ganggangsullae is a ballad dance unique to Korea.
The songs are poems written by ordinary people and a lead singer set the pace. Fellow performers follow the lead with the next lines in a song. Besides folklore and folk dance, folk music is also incorporated in the performance as traditional Korean music instruments such as a drum and an hourglass shaped drum accompany the dance, adding to the entertainment.
Ganggangsullae is so exciting and dynamic that participants often lose themselves and end up performing from the early evening when the moon rises until the moon sets. Depending on the tempo set by the lead singer, the music is categorized into gin (slow) Ganggangsullae, jung (middle) Ganggangsullae, and jajeun (quick) Ganggangsullae. The tempo of the dancers’ movement also varies according to the music.
During interludes, games reflecting life in farm or fishing village are played. They include imitating the Korean terrapin (one person goes into the circle to dance and the next comes in and imitates her), gathering brackens, tying herrings, treading on roof tiles, rolling and unrolling straw mats, catching a mouse (picking the tail), playing gatekeepers, riding palanquins, and looking for a handkerchief.
The archetype of Ganggangsullae is found from agricultural folk customs of Mahan, a Korean state that existed 2,000 years ago, according to ancient Chinese historical texts. In the history of man, it is not common to see an intangible cultural heritage handed down for such a long time. This long transmission of Ganggangsullae implies that expectations for the role of women both in the society and in the family have continued for such a long time as well.
Traditional Korean society was male centered, and young women were not allowed to sing aloud or go out at night. On Chuseok, however, women could freely sing and enjoy outdoor amusements under the full moon, venting their long-suppressed emotions through Ganggangsullae. The festival guaranteed women a chance to break away from usual restrictions and enjoy the festive mood.
Throughout its history, Ganggangsullae also had other functions. It is said that in 1592, Admiral Lee Sun-sin had women perform Ganggangsullae at night around a fire. The flickering shadows fooled the invading Japanese into overestimating the size of Lee’s forces, who ultimately prevailed. Also, listening carefully to the song verses, one can notice that there are many lines criticizing the society. In particular, the words written under the Japanese colonial rule reflect the Koreans’ resistance to the occupation forces.
Ganggangsullae is rarely performed in today’s rural villages since most young women have left for cities. But thanks to its national designation as an Important Intangible Cultural Heritage and state-level cultural and educational policies, Ganggangsullae has spread outside its traditional base in the southwestern region of the Korean peninsula. Today, Ganggangsullae is part of the music curriculum of elementary schools and is performed at many secondary schools and universities as well as public festivals across the country.
In recent years, research has been conducted regarding the application of Ganggangsullae in the field of art therapy. Ganggangsullae is expected to help those suffering from psychological problems such as depression. Also, new possibilities are being explored as an alternative therapy to help obese women lose their weight and as a means to enhance the well-being of lonely senior citizens.