Korea had no indoor theaters before the 20th century. One popular form of entertainment has been masked drama. In original mask dramas, the masks were carved for specific performances and then burned afterwards to get rid of the demons that were believed to inhabit them. In the 1970s and 1980s, dissident students and pro-democracy demonstrators often drew on the techniques of traditional folk drama to satirize contemporary politics.

Korea is home of an indigenous form of opera called “yosong kukkeuk” in which women play all the roles, including male characters. All-female opera has traditional been popular with female audiences who delighting watching women acting in ways that were frowned upon in Korea society. Veterans who have developed a deep vice usually play the male characters.

Pansori is a type of folk vocal music unique to Korea that combines singing and storytelling usually with a single vocalist accompanied by a changgo (traditional drum). The Tale of Ch'unhyang, a love story and one of the five extant traditional Pansori compositions. It requires more than eight hours to perform. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Kisaeng” girls are similar to Geisha girls in Japan. They entertain men with conversation, singing and poetry.

Mask Dramas in Korea

Traditional Korean masked drama is a mixture of music, dance and drama performed by players wearing grotesque and humorous masks that represent the personality of characters being played. In the old days, masked dance drama was regarded as a way for common people to relieve the frustration and sense of oppression they sometimes felt by satirizing the hypocrisy and greed of the upper classes and land-owning Buddhist monks. Twelve different forms of the masked dance still survive today.

According to The mask plays are found in Hahoe, Chinju, T’ongyong, Kimhae, and Tongnae in North and South Kyongsang provinces; Yangju in Kyonggi province; Pongsan in Hwanghae province; and Pukch’ong in South Hamgyong province. The most representative plays are the sandae kuk genre of Yangju, the pyolsin kut of Hahoe, and the okwangdae nori (five-actor play) of Chinju. Although the origin of these plays is uncertain, they are generally presumed to have developed from primitive communal ceremonies. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

“Gradually the ceremonial aspect of the plays disappeared, and their dramatic and comic possibilities were exploited. The dialogue was somewhat flexible, the actors being free to improvise and satirize as the occasion demanded. The plays were not performed on a stage, and there were no precise limits as to the space or time in which the performances took place. The audience also traditionally responded vocally to the play as well as passively watching it. The organization of the mask plays — through repetition and variety — achieves a remarkable effect of dramatic unity.”

Mask Theater in Korea

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Folk music is related to folk dancing and folk drama, genres that come together in the much-loved dramatic form of mask dance dramas. These are vestiges of village festival entertainment that go back as far as the Silla kingdom. Though it began as a form of court entertainment, it evolved into a distinctly plebeian type of theater that nearly died out before being revived in the national effort at cultural recovery in the late twentieth century. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Korea has several forms of mask theatre. All of them combine dance music, and spoken lines. The steps, movements and mask systems vary from region to region and usually the traditions are named after their birthplace. All the forms of mask theatre include a wide range of caricature-like characters, covering the hierarchy of the Korean society of older times. The introductory parts of each mask dance, however, still reveal the roots of this art form in earlier exorcism rituals, as each dance starts with greetings to the gods. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“These various forms of mask theatre are called by the generic names either talchum or tal nori. All of them are rather improvisatory in character. Direct communication between the dancers and the musicians is common, while even the audience can, from time to time, participate in the performances.

History of Korean Mask Plays

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The earliest textual reference to mask theatre in Korea seems to be from the 9th century AD and it mentions a form of temple ritual. Even today there exists a form of mask dance in which the village tutelary spirits appear as masked dancers. It is assumed that the present forms of mask theatre started to evolve in the 18th century. They originally presented the spontaneous art of agrarian people. Later, the urban middle class also became interested in them. Thus commercial, touring mask companies became common too. In the 19th century mask theatre was at the height of its popularity. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“The prototypes for many masks most probably came from China as well as via the Northern Silk Road from Central Asia, which once had a strong tradition of Buddhist mask dances and processional plays. In most of the forms of the present mask theatre the masks are made of painted paper maché, sometimes also bark. In some of the traditions, masks are kept in temples, which is possibly due to the mask theatre’s ancient ritual roots, while in some other traditions they are burned after the performance.”

“The Confucian ruling elite never really approved of mask theatre because of its obvious social criticism and sexual allusions. The official attitude became even more negative during the Japanese occupation of 1910–1945. However, one of the forms, Pongsan, experienced a short revival in the 1930s. The final revival began in the 1970s, when a new generation of academicians started to study the forms of Korean folk culture seriously; these forms were in serious danger of becoming extinct. Nowadays huge, state-organised mask theatre festivals gather together troupes from all over the country.

Structure of Korean Mask Dramas

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “The regional genres of mask theatre include Pongsan, Yangju pyosandae nori, Tongnae malttugi, Hahoe, Tongyong ogwangdae nori, Namsadang, and Tukpoeki. All of them share a more or less similar kind of dramatic structure. It consists of short numbers, in which familiar characters are introduced. These caricature characters include, among others, a wanton monk, a prostitute, a beautiful female shaman, a leper, a vain nobleman, a clever servant etc. The most complex dramatic structure is found in the Hahoe tradition. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“Despite the slight differences, all the traditions share the most popular characters and stock scenes. Their aim has been to criticise and even ridicule the upper strata of society by revealing their greed and bigotry. Various kinds of amorous couples or triangles also provide material for the comic scenes, while animal characters are also popular. Most of the masks used today represent extremely stylised naivety that reflects the characteristically hilarious, Korean sense of humour. The wooden Hahoe masks probably form the oldest of all the Korean mask systems, as their stylisation is clearly Chinese-influenced.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “There are only a few types of mask dramas. One, called sandae, has an all-male cast who change masks to play the various characters in scenes that detail the misadventures of a typical yangban nobleman, his wife, his concubine, and an assortment of villagers and monks who are supposed to be celibate but are actually very interested in women. This combination makes for many running jokes, giving the audience much merriment. Accompanying the action and dialogue is a musical troupe that plays and chants and sings folk songs, Buddhist music, and other religious incantations and shamanist invocations. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Like the equally famous mask dance that is performed in the village of Hahoe, near Andong in southeastern Korea, the performance was designed to be a holiday event to amuse rural people taking a rare break from toil in the fields. The dramas, which were long and drawn out and full of jokes and satirical references familiar to the onlookers, were intended to consume an entire afternoon. The plots were rather disjointed but the actors made up for this by their generous use of slapstick and exaggerated dialects and gestures.”

Cheoyongmu Masked Dance

Cheoyongmu — Masked Dance Performance Based on the Legendary Tale of Cheoyong — was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009. Cheoyongmu has traditionally been performed to dispel evil spirits and pray for tranquillity at royal banquets or during exorcism rites on New Year’s Eve to promote good fortune. Cheoyongmu is based on the legendary tale of Cheoyong from the Silla dynasty. Cheoyong came up with his own number to chase the evil spirit away with his singing and dancing. From then on, people believed that putting a drawing of Cheoyong on the outside of their main gate would ward off sickness and a variety of evils. Later, it the simple ritual to ward off evil had transformed into a formal royal court dance. The dance is performed by five men clad in white, blue, black, red and yellow to represent the four cardinal directions and the centre. The dancers move with stateliness and vigour through a variety of styles and tempos of music, punctuated by various lyrical song recitations. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

According to UNESCO: Cheoyongmu is a court dance today performed on stage but formerly used to dispel evil spirits and pray for tranquillity at royal banquets or during exorcism rites on New Year’s Eve to promote good fortune. Based on the Korean legend of Cheoyong, a son of the dragon king Yongwang, who took human form and saved his human wife from the smallpox spirit through singing and dancing, the dance is performed by five men clad in white, blue, black, red and yellow to represent the four cardinal directions and the centre. They wear the light wine-coloured mask of the man-god, with white teeth, tin earrings with a necklace of lead beads, and a black hat decorated with two peony blossoms and seven peaches to ward off evil and invite auspicious energy.

The dancers move with stateliness and vigour through a variety of styles and tempos of music, punctuated by various lyrical song recitations. Part of a greater folk mythology surrounding Cheoyong, including the belief that his image carved on the gate of a house would repel smallpox and other ills, Cheoyongmu also embodies the philosophy of Confucianism, particularly the Theory of the Five Elements. The creation of the Cheoyong masks also provides a valuable opportunity for traditional craftsmanship.

Kkoktukaksi Nori Puppet Play

According to “Only two puppet-show texts are extant,Kkoktukaksi nori (also called Pak Ch’omjikuk; “Old Pak’s Play”) and Mansok chung nori. Both titles are derived from names of characters in the plays. No theory has been formulated as to the origin and development of these plays. The plots of the puppet plays, like those of the mask plays, are full of satiric social criticism. The characters — Pak Ch’om-Ji, governor of P’yongam, Kkoktukaksi, Buddhist monk, and Hong Tong-Ji — dance and sing, enacting familiar tales that expose the malfeasance of the ruling classes. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Kkoktukaksi is the name of Korea's favorite puppet play; it is presented in a form as old as mask drama and shares many of the same origins in Chinese theater. The characters are the hero, Pak Ch'omji, his wife Kkoktukaksi, his concubine, his younger brother, a nephew, a monster, four Buddhist monks, a pair of female shamans, the provincial governor, and the governor's entourage. There are also musicians who act as extras. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“In scene 1, Pak Ch'omji goes on a sight-seeing tour and checks into a village inn to spend the night. He is awakened by a loud gambling game going on outside his door and when he gets up he begins singing songs about the wonders he has seen on his trip. In scene 2, one of the monks is dancing with one of the shamans. Pak starts flirting with the shamans but discovers that they are actually his own nieces. He is very upset and has his nephew come in to break up the scene. In the third scene, an ugly monster starts gobbling up the birds in a rice paddy and then turns on Pak Ch'omji and tries to eat him. Once again the nephew comes to the rescue and after considerable struggle, punctuated by all kinds of noise from the orchestra, manages to kill the monster.

“In the fourth scene Pak Ch'omji goes looking for his missing wife. When he doesn't find her he takes up with the concubine and is caught by his wife who has just returned. The two women start fighting and the hero is forced to give them equal shares of everything he owns in order to get them to stop. However, the concubine gets all the valuable things while the wife only gets the junk. She vents her fury in song and dance and then heads for the mountains to join a nunnery. In scene 5, the concubine breaks up with Pak Ch'omji and his neighbors persuade him to go retrieve his wife. In scene 6, the provincial governor arrives at the capital and decides to go pheasant hunting. Scene 7 is a funeral for the governor's mother, who oddly is not mourned by her son. Others have to carry the coffin, and one of the carriers drops it. Pak Ch'omji's nephew reappears to carry the coffin the rest of the way. At the end of the play is an eighth scene in which a temple is built on the mountainside to honor the spirit of the governor's dead mother.”


Pansori (P'ansori, Phansori) is an operatic style of storytelling and epic singing in which a single singer performs a sequence of songs and narrative passages, accompanied by a drummer. The term pansori is derived from the Korean words pan, meaning “a place where many people gather,” and sori meaning “song.” In 2003, Pansori epic chant was designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Pansori combines music and literary expression in ballad-form stories, which are both recited and sung by a performer accompanied by a drummer who sets the rhythms . It’s a kind of "one-man opera" one observer said. Pansori stories are usually are inspired by myths or folk tales and have Confucian, Buddhist, and folkloric themes.

One of the most intriguing aspects of pansori is the variety and range of human emotions that are depicted. The traditional themed stories evokes nationalistic sentiments experienced by both commoners and yangban (aristocrats). The a distinct, inimitable sound, rhythm, and singing technique make pansori a truly unique Korean of cultural expression. It is the performance genre for many of Korea's best-known literary works.

The southeast part of Korea is the source of pansori, There are five traditional pansori performed today; each is based on a well-known folk story or classical novel. Most pansori singers are women. In the past they were traveling mistrals who went from village to village playing before crowds on market day.

History of Pansori

According to UNESCO: Pansori originated in south-west Korea in the seventeenth century, probably as a new expression of the narrative songs of shamans. It remained an oral tradition among the common people until the late nineteenth century, by which time it acquired more sophisticated literary content and enjoyed considerable popularity among the urban elite. The settings, characters and situations that make up the Pansori universe are rooted in the Korea of the Chosun period (1392-1910).

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: The early form of Pansori was the creation of public entertainers, called changu. During the middle part of the Chosun Dynasty (1392–1910) they also added sung storytelling as a kind of comical interlude to their repertoire of music, dance and acrobatics. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

“In the 18th century Pansori was also accepted by the educated elite. During that time the Pansori repertoire consisted of various stories, many of them derived from Chinese folklore. The patronage of the upper classes gradually influenced the development of Pansori. Pansori’s “low” or comic elements were reduced while vernacular, epic stories were established as its repertoire. The music became more complex, combining the slowest and quickest tempos of Korean music, and the Pansori singing gained its extremely expressive style. Thus Pansori evolved from street entertainment towards an established form of “chamber art”. Commercial Pansori performances became common in the 19th century when it found its way to small theatre houses. At the same time female Pansori singers established their popularity.

According to UNESCO: Threatened by Korea’s rapid modernization, Pansori was designated a National Intangible Cultural Property in 1964. This measure spurred generous institutional support, which in turn fostered the revival of this tradition. Although Pansori remains one of the most prominent genres among traditional stage arts, it has lost much of its original spontaneous character. Ironically, this recent evolution is a direct result of the preservation process itself, for improvisation is tending to be stifled by the increasing number of written texts. Indeed, few singers nowadays can successfully improvise, and contemporary audiences are less receptive to the impromptu creativity and language of traditional Pansori.

Pansori Storytelling

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: Pansori is Korea’s still thriving storytelling tradition. In Pansori a singer, who employs stylised speech, expressive declamation and heartbreaking singing, narrates well-known epic stories accompanied by a drummer. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Originally, Pansori artists were men, but nowadays female singers are also more common. Like storytellers in general, Pansori singers also create intensive contact with the spectators, who may shout comments and approving comments during the performance. The drummer too has active contact with the performer. The only prop that the singer handles is a large fan. The lone singer relates a story, often lasting for up to 8 hours.

Pansori texts date to late Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). According to These texts were first recorded in the 19th century as verse, but the written forms were later expanded into pansori fiction, widely read among the common people. This transformation from poetry to narrative fiction was easily accomplished, since pansori were always narrative. Originally the entire pansori performance repertoire consisted of 12 madang (“titles”). Although all 12 remain as narrative fiction, only five of them are sung today. The texts evolved gradually from the legends, which provided their sources and were altered and expanded as they were passed from one performer to another. [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Byong-Wuk Chong, Peter H. Lee,]

The rhythm and meter of the stories often corresponded with traditional Korean sijo poetry. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Many sijo were really drinking songs, sung by revelers around a table, vying with each other for the best rendition, using chopsticks as percussion tools on the table's edge. Their poems (or songs) verged toward... Pansori”, which “seemed to have no length constraints at all. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Pansori Singers

According to UNESCO: Pansori singers undergo long and rigorous training to master the wide range of distinct vocal timbres and to memorize the complex repertories. Many virtuosos have developed personal interpretive styles and are renowned for their particular manner of performing specific episodes.”

Pansori singer Noh Eun-jeong told the Korean Times: "What pansori is all about is performing at the busiest marketplaces where people are going about their business, listening to you if they want to, ignoring you if they want, singing with you, shouting at you...Singers used to go to the most crowded of villages places, spread out a straw mat, or pan, smack in the middle of everything and sang, sori."

It is said that pansori singers don't become accomplished in their art until they reach the age of 40, after 20 years of rigorous training. Practice involves repeating songs, phrase-by-phrase, sung by a teacher. To capture the distinctive vocal timber of the music, pansori singers are supposed to sing next to a waterfall until their throats bleed.

"Basically making sori is systematically tearing your vocal chords, "Noh said. "You are ripping them to shreds so that sound will get caught in the right spot when you want it. Also, after singing a long time, your side hurts and your stomachs aches. So does your back. Its incredibly painful physically."

Pansori Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: As often in the art of storytelling, the Pansori singer acts as the narrator and also takes the roles of the various characters of the story. A full Pansori performance may last as long as six hours; it, of course, demands of the performer an exceptional memory, stamina and technique. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

According to UNESCO: “The popular tradition, characterized by expressive singing, stylized speech, a repertory of narratives and gesture, embraces both elite and folk culture. During performances lasting up to eight hours, a male or female singer, accompanied by a single barrel drum, improvises on texts that combine rural and erudite literary expressions.”

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”:“Pansori singing required a formidable vocal range, since the performer not only had to sing but also had to express the gamut of emotions in the voices of all the different characters in the story. The performance typically took many hours and usually left the performer (and the audience) exhausted. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The “single singer called a kwangdae” had “no props other than a handkerchief and a fan to wield as disguises, tools, weapons, or whatever the moment called for. Accompanied by a percussionist keeping rhythm on a drum and punctuating the singer's points with contrapuntal sounds of agreement, shock, encouragement, and disapproval, the p 'ansori performer would enthrall audiences for hours with operatic versions of much-loved folktales.

Pansori Epics

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: At the moment the Pansori repertoire consists of five vernacular epic tales: The Song of Hungbu (Hungbuga), The Song of the Underwater Palace (Sugungga), The Song of the Red Cliffs (Chokpyokka), The Song of the Chunhyang (Chunhyangga), and The Song Simchong (Shimchongga). Although the stories are Korean folk epics, they often emphasize Confucian virtues, such as filial piety etc. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Responding to popular tastes, the oral narrative known as Pansori was transformed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries from a narrative performance that incorporated shamanistic chants into a vehicle for treating popular customs and everyday life. The professional entertainers known as kwangdae quickly took up this developing form as their livelihood. The Pansori repertoire consisted originally of 12 madang, or song cycles, but by the time of King Kojong, the final Chosun monarch, who abdicated in 1907, the Pansori enthusiast Shin Chae-Hyo had compiled these songs into six cycles: Ch’unhyang ka (“Song of Ch’unhyang”), Hungbo ka (“Song of Hungbo”), Shim Ch’ong ka (“Song of Shim Ch’ong”), Sugung ka (“Song of the Water Palace”), Karu chigi t’aryong (“Ballad of a Ghost’s Revenge”), and Chokpyok ka (“Song of the Red Cliff”). [Source: Du-Hwan Kwon, Peter H. Lee,Encyclopædia Britannica]

“On the surface, the Pansori works seemed generally to promote such customary virtues as loyalty, filial piety, and female virtue, but they also used satire to implicitly criticize contemporary society. Following the increasing popularity of vernacular fiction during the 18th century, Pansori works reappeared in fictional form, as in Hungbu chon (“Tale of Hungbu”) and Shim Ch’ong chon (“Tale of Shim Ch’ong”). Forms of traditional folk drama — narrative shaman chants, puppet plays, and mask plays — likewise used satire to criticize contemporary society. Also appearing during this period were works such as “"Hapkangchong ga"” (“Song of Hapkang Arbor”) and “"Koch’ang ka"” (“Song of Koch’ang”), which occupied a middle ground between folk song and kasa and featured rebellious, antagonistic content.”

Ch'unhyang: a Classic Pansori Story

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “A good example of the Pansori genre is the story of the girl named Ch'unhyang, meaning "Spring Fragrance," known in Korean as Ch'unhyangjon. Ch'unhyang was the daughter of a kisaeng entertainer, a common girl living in the country town of Namwon who had a love affair with Yi Mongnyong, the son of a powerful yangban in the district. Because of the social difference between them they had to keep their affair a secret and were secretly married. Not long after the marriage, Yi Mongnyong's father ordered him to travel to Seoul, the capital, to advance his career as a budding government official. Mongnyong had to leave his bride behind, and because everyone thought she was still single, when a new governor came to town he ordered Ch'unhyang to become his concubine and threatened to imprison her if she refused. Ch'unhyang could have avoided trouble with the magistrate if she had revealed that she was already married to Yi Mongnyong, but knowing that her husband's chances of success would have been hurt by the news that he was married to a kisaengs daughter, she kept her silence. She tried to defend herself on moral grounds, arguing that she was a pure young woman who should not be forced to become a concubine to anyone against her will. When her argument failed and she still refused to obey the governor, she was thrown in prison where she suffered terrible torture and other miseries. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Meanwhile, Yi Mongnyong did succeed in Seoul, passing the civil service examinations and being appointed to important positions. He rose to the position of secret inspector, a type of government official who traveled around the country in disguise to spy on other officials who might be abusing their power and exploiting the people. Disguised as a beggar he returned to his hometown of Namwon, only to learn that his beloved Ch'unhyang had been insulted and imprisoned by the evil governor. He immediately had the governor fired and then, because he was now in a position to marry anyone he wanted, he openly acknowledged his marriage to the still-beautiful Ch'unhyang and they lived happily ever after.

“The Ch'unhyang story was ideally suited for Pansori. The young lovers' dilemma, their tragic separation, the arrival of the evil governor and his abuse of the innocent heroine, Ch'unhyang's faithfulness, the suspense about whether Yi Mongnyong would ever find out what had happened to his wife, and his miraculous return to liberate her and punish the evildoer all were themes that made for a highly emotional presentation, using action, comedy, satire, many kinds of voices, and long expositions on morality and on the arrogance of the ruling yangban as they abused common people. The story was popular enough to be sung and told in forms other than p 'ansori, and in modern times there have been several opera and movie versions.”

Changguk, Korean “Opera”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: Changguk is a form of sung drama evolved from Pansori storytelling. Originally, they shared a common repertoire and musical style. In Pansori one singer acts both as the narrator and is also responsible for the lines of the various characters, whereas in changguk the parts are allotted to several actor-singers. Their movement technique has a gentle, dance-like quality. While Pansori is accompanied by a single drummer, a small orchestra accompanies changguk. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

Changguk came into being in the urban context in the early 20th century. Visiting Chinese opera troupes awakened an interest in Korean sung drama. The novelty was based on the Pansori tradition. Changguk was originally performed by professional, male and female Pansori singers. According to the Chinese stage conventions, no stage décor was used.

In the early 20th century the Royal Theatre in Seoul employed famous Pansori stars for its changguk productions. The troupe was dissolved and performances were given again after 1910. Then the productions employed an illusory décor, inspired by Western theatre. Besides the traditionally folk epics that belonged to the Pansori repertoire, new plays were also adapted for changguk.

Western stage realism became fashionable in Korea in the 1930s. The scenography of changguk productions became more dominating and the Western-trained theatre directors also added realistic, spoken dialogue to their productions. The following two decades are seen as changguk’s golden age.

The productions gradually became increasingly grandiose, partly because of the growth of the theatre buildings. All the folk epics in the Pansori repertoire were dramatized for changguk, while new dramas were also created. Finally large dance and chorus scenes together with the heavy décor swallowed changguk’s original intimacy.

In the 1960s the National Changgkuk Troupe was founded in connection with the Korean National Theatre. It aims both to adapt changguk for the many large modern stages, while it also tries to maintain the original, small-scale performance tradition.

Namsadang Nori: Marvelous Feats of the Namsadang Clowns

Namsadang Nori — the Marvelous Feats of the Namsadang Clowns — was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity List in 2009. Namsadangnori generally refers to traditional Korean performances staged by Namsadangpae, a vagabond troupe of male performers. Namsadangnori was a tradition rooted in the experience of the common people, and performances were staged especially for them. Musicians, mask dancers and puppet shows could relieve the grief of the poor and disenfranchised, while criticizing the immorality of the yangban (noble class) through their sarcastic humor. Tighrope walking and somersault with interesting commentary in between the acts makes the stage even more exciting. After the Chosun Dynasty, Namsadangpae troupes performed nationwide and acted as an outlet for suppressed feeling of powerless commoners as they were encouraged by great music, performances and dancing. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

According to UNESCO: “Namsadang Nori, literally the ‘all-male vagabond clown theatre’, is a multifaceted folk performance tradition originally practised widely by travelling entertainers and now kept alive by professional troupes in the Republic of Korea. The performance is made up of six components: a segment of ‘farmers’ music’ emphasizes the percussive sounds of metal gongs and animal-hide drums; a mask dance presents four comic scenes depicting people from different social classes; a tightrope walking act sees an acrobat on a high-wire engaged in witty exchanges with a clown below; in a puppet play, more than fifty puppets act out seven scenes together with a narrator and musicians; an acrobatic segment combines physical feats performed on the ground with comic dialogue and music; and an intricate display of hoop spinning with a wooden stick rounds out the performance.

In addition to entertaining rural audiences that would surround the performers in outdoor arenas, Namsadang Nori carried an important social message. The mask dance and puppet plays in particular enacted the oppression of the lower classes as well as women in a male-dominated society. Through satire, these performances raised issues on behalf of those with no political voice and manifested ideals of equality and freedom, sustaining and inspiring the poor.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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