Category Archives: Korean Dance

Talchum 탈춤

The Nature and Origin of Masked Dance Drama

The masked dance drama that was popular during the Joseon period (1392-1910) undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of Korean vernacular culture. As its Korean name, talchum, implies, it is a form of play or dance (chum) performed while wearing masks (tal). It is also a way of releasing pent-up frustrations while concealing one’s identity behind a mask. By dressing up as a nobleman or shaman, a wife or concubine, or a servant, the common people would find fun in the tense situations of real life. As a result, there was no need for professional actors like those of China or Japan. Masked dance dramas are also quite different from the masked plays of other countries, which make a clear distinction between the stage and the auditorium. They are open-air events in which performers and spectators mingle freely together.

Thus, masked dance dramas developed as an entertainment ex-pressing the thoughts of the general populace. With characters like Malddugi the lowly servant, ruthlessly satirizing the falsehood and hypocrisy of his masters with bold gestures and broad humor, or the familiar debauched monk engaging in banter with women, these plays are rife with the critical consciousness of the common people. Through them, the commoners could amply express their resentment of the oppression they suffered.

Masked dance dramas enjoyed a widespread revival in connection with the people’s democratic movement that spread through Korean university campuses in the 1980s, but today it has been largely popularized as a form of folk entertainment enjoyed by people from all walks of life. Instructional programs are available in which anyone can try making the masks or learning to perform the dramas. The goal of these programs is not so much to train specialists in masked dance dramas, as to give ordinary people a taste of Korean tradition.

It is now easy to find live masked productions places in like Seoul Nori Madang. The long tradition of masked productions was once almost lost, but today it holds a firm position as a popular art of universal appeal.

Masked Dance Dramas and Their Masks

Masked dance dramas have been transmitted from all parts of the country. Major regional varieties include the communal shaman rite in Andong’s Hahoe Byeolsingut Tallori ; Gangneung Gwanno Gamyeongeuk (Government Servants Masked Dance Drama) the Songpa and Yangju areas’ Byeolsandae Nori of Seoul and Gyeonggi lineage performed by itinerant performing troupes; the west coast masked dance dramas from Bongsan, Gangnyeong, and Eunyul of Hwanghae lineage; and the Yayu (Field Masked Dance Drama) and Ogwangdae (Five Clowns Masked Dance Drama) performed in the regions to the east and west of the Nakdong River.

The Hahoe Byeolsandae Nori was performed at the Hahoe Village’s tutelary shrine after the tutelary deity had descended during the spiritual invocation performed by the villagers at the first full moon of the lunar year. From this we can infer that the “masked play” was not separate from the communal shaman rites but was itself one of the rites performed to bring prosperity and peace to the village.

Yayu and Ogwangdae masked productions are thought to have been less connected with shaman practice than with the repertoire of itinerant performing troupes called Daegwang-daepae that roved along the Nakdong River. And it is certainly true that they smack less of religion than of pure entertainment. But considering the style of the masks and dances and the fact that they were used mainly at village festivals, it appears that these plays too had more of a local character than a commercial one.

In the Seoul region, the Songpa Sandae Nori and Yangju Byeolsandae Nori appear to have been based on the Bonsandae Nori performed by itinerant troupes of professional entertainers. Yangju Byeolsandae Nori is said to derive from Ddakddagipae or Sandae Nori stage plays, and Songpa Sandae Nori from Gupabal Bonsandae Nori.

On the whole, the west coast masked dance dramas from Hwanghae Province (now in North Korea) differs little in content from the Sandae Nori. All the characters and scenes are similar: the Dance of the High Priest, the Eight Dark-faced Monks, the Reverend Priest, the Old and the Young, the Nobleman, and Grandma Miyal. The lively dance style of west coast masked dance dramas exploits the long sleeves of the Buddhist monk’s robe, which are alternately grasped and released, and the movements are broad and vigorous.

Characteristics of Korean Masks

The masks for Hahoe Byeolsingut Tallori are carved from alder wood that has been thoroughly dried in the shade. The distinguishing feature of these Hahoe masks is that the chin is separate from the rest of the face. However, the face and chin are not carved from separate pieces; rather, the face is made as a whole, and only then is the chin separated and attached with a string so that it can move freely up and down.

The facial expression of a Hahoe mask often seems to change with the movement and the viewing angle. The Nobleman mask is made with exaggerated eyebrows and cheek bones which appear to change their expression as the mask moves up or down, while the mask of the servant Choraengi has a mouth that changes from a smile to a frown as it is moved from side to side.

The masks of the Ogwangdae and Yayu plays are rather different from those of Sandae Nori or west coast masked dance dramas, which imitate the human features in a relatively realistic way. Their lines are broad, simple, and bold, with a strong effect of caricature. For instance, the masks of Tongyeong Ogwangdae have a pronounced symbolic and satirical quality, including masks for a mystic Monster, a Leper, a Red and White face, a Dark face, a Bent-nosed Man, a Guest, and the servant Malddugi. The Noblemen are all shown with deformed features, while the Red and White mask is painted half red and half white to symbolize the idea that the wearer has two fathers, Mr. Red and Mr. White. The Dark-faced mask indicates that the character was born of an adulterous mother. The Malddugi mask in the Ogwangdae and Yayu plays is exceptionally large, and its nose is shaped like a penis. The fact that the largest mask is given to this character, whose role is to criticize the aristocracy, suggests how deeply the common people must have resented the ruling class.

The masks of west coast are unusual in that they are made mainly of paper. This gives them a special quality in both color and shape.

Hahoe Masks : The 9 character types represented are the Bride, Nobleman, Female Entertainer, Monk, Servant, Scholar, Meddler, Butcher, and Grandma. Originally there were three more, the Bachelor, Ddeokdari, and Byeolchae, but these were lost during the Japanese colonial period. Together with the 2 Juji bird masks and 2 kinds of Byeongsan masks, the 9 Hahoe masks are designated National Treasure No. 121.


Bongsan Masks : The aristocratic characters such as the Lord, the Master, and the Son of the Head Family, are invariably shown with gaping or crooked mouths. They are made to seem abnormal in their appearance as well as their speech and behavior.





Suyeong Yayu Malddugi Mask : Malddugi is the servant who appears in many forms of masked dance drama to satirize the pretenses of the nobility.






Cheoyong Mask : Originating in the Legend of Cheoyong, this mask originally had the function of chasing away the demon of smallpox. On it were hung peony blossoms and the branch and fruit of a peach tree. The peony blossoms symbolized wealth and good fortune, while the peach branch stood for disease.






Yeongcheon General Mask : This mask of an army General is kept in the tutelary shrine in the Sinnyeong district of Yeongcheon County. Used as a sacred mask to signal the presence of the spirit, it is the focus of ceremonies performed by the shaman on the 1st and 15th day of each lunar month.




Foot Masks :This type of masked play is performed lying on one’s back behind a curtain while moving masks attached to the feet. It is said to have been mainly performed by itinerant male troupes of Anseong lineage.








Masks : These straw masks represent the twelve animals of the Oriental zodiac. The dance is performed with each actor wearing the mask of his own zodiac animal.






Tongyeong Ogwangdae Masks : These masks belong to the plays from the region of Tongyeong or Chungmu. The form of masked dance drama prevalent in the area to the west of the Nakdong River is known as Ogwangdae Masked Dance Drama. Tongyeong Ogwangdae Masked Dance Drama puts entertainment value first and comprises 5 scenes, centering respectively on the Leper, the Satirical Dance, the Minor Civil Servant, the Bride, and the Hunter.




1 Comment

Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Korean Dance, Talchum 탈춤


Buchaechum 부채춤

Buchaechum is a traditional form of Korean dance , usually performed by groups of female dancers. Many Koreans use this dance during many celebrations. They use fans painted with pink peony blossoms and display a show of dance. In the dance being performed, the dancers represent images using the fans e.g. flowers, butterflies and waves. They wear hanbok, the Korean traditional dress in bright colors. It appears to have developed under influence of both shamanic dance and traditional Joseon Dynasty court performance.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Buchaechum 부채춤, Korean Dance


Ganggangsullae circle dance traditional dace of Korea

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.