Category Archives: Talchum 탈춤

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.




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