*This is the third part in our series, “Masks & the Mask Dance” published in partnership with the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage
1. What is the mask dance?
The traditional Korean mask dance, or talchum, is a form of drama featuring the wearing of masks, singing and dancing. It was originally a regional term only applied to mask dances traditional to Hwanghae Province. It eventually became a general term referring to all forms of the art after the Hwanghae Province style of mask dance received extensive publicity.
Mask dances are referred to by different names depending on where they originate. The mask dances from Hwanghae Province are known as talchum, whereas those from the Seoul and Gyeonggi Province areas are known as sandae nori. The region of Bukcheong, North Hamgyeong Province, located in what is today North Korea, is famous for its saja noreum, meaning lion dance performance.
With the Nakdong River as a divider, the western part of South Gyeongsang Province calls its version of the mask dance ogwangdae, which is made up of a performance by five clowns or five scenes. The eastern half refers to it as yaryu or deulloreum, which means a performance conducted in an open field.
In addition, the mask dance drama from the region around Andong, North Gyeongsang Province is called byeolsingut talnori, which means a mask performance conducted as part of shamanic rituals.
Basic themes of mask dances
A mask dance is a type of drama divided into several acts, but they are not closely connected to form a unified story as in some Western plays. It is comprised of several scenes or chapters (gwajang), which deal with distinct episodes in a separate way. No scene is directly connected to the others and each presents a different conflict and theme. The structure of chapters and the performance style differ, as do the names used in each region. However, scenes featuring noblemen (yangban), apostate monks (pagyeseung) and old women (miyalhalmi) are included across nearly all mask dance performances.
Through satire, mask dances criticize decadent noblemen, ridicule apostate monks and shame patriarchal husbands. These are the basic themes running through all traditional mask dance performances.
The nobleman scene
This episode ridicules noblemen. A nobleman brags about himself by showing off his learning, but the servant ridicules his master's knowledge. The nobleman does not even recognize that he is being mocked by his servant.
The apostate monk scene
This episode satirizes a depraved old monk. He is tempted by a flirtatious young woman into removing his precious Buddhist rosary. Despite having passed through a long period of ascetic training, the old monk, charmed by a young shaman, forgets his duties and attempts to seduce her. However, the young female shaman's prodigal lover, the drunkard, comes on the scene to criticize the old monk for his depravity and attacks him in order to win back his love. The old monk loses the young woman and is chased away by the drunkard, who is stronger.
Traditional mask dances are found throughout the Korean Peninsula and each regional variation displays distinctive characteristics. As the aftermath of the Korean War divided the country into North and South, the geographical distribution of the mask dance tradition was changed markedly. Displaced natives of regions in North Korea where particular mask dance traditions originated fled to the south during the war and began to perform their local styles of mask dance around the southern capital region. These North Korean defectors have actively engaged in transmitting and preserving their mask dance traditions. The Bukcheong Saja Noreum, the Bongsan Talchum, the Gangnyeong Talchum and the Eunyul Talchum are all examples of dances that have been transmitted to the south with their original names left unchanged.
This chapter will take a closer look at those twelve mask dance performances designated in the south as Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea.