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Talchum: Korean masked dance

-the satiric release of social frustrations-

By Kim, Joo-yeon, reporter 기자2006.11.01 00:00:00

If the public let you conceal your identity behind a mask and express any kind of frustration against society or an individual, how would you respond to this? The Korean masked dance Talchum- literally meaning a dance by performers behind masks – provided the common class with a chance of satirically presenting their social frustrations against the ruling class during the Chosun Dynasty. While such a theme, used to be prevalent, it was by no means the only one. There were, in fact, many other themes BEHIND THE MASK.

 
Bongsan Talchum 
ⓒ photo by encyber.com
The History of Korean Masked Dance

While the exact time period of its formation remains uncertain, many historians believe Korean masked dance initiated as a part of Shaman ritual. The main intention of the Shaman’s dance lay in pleasing the local goddess and exorcising evil spirits. Later villagers also adopted it as a village ritual in the hope of bringing an abundant harvest, peace and prosperity.

Though the masked dance is believed to have existed even before the era of the Three States, it was not until the Silla period that speeches and songs were added to transform itself into a play. At that time, such a dance acted as a form of court entertainment in the kingdom. Gradually, during the Chosun Dynasty, the focus of the play shifted to commoners’ satire and criticism of the society through the anonymity of masks.


 
Talchum performances 
ⓒ photo by encyber.com
Currently, all Korean traditional masked plays are called Talchum, an outdated word for describing the masked dance in the region of Haeseo. The major Talchum that have continued to the present include Songpa Sandaenori, Yangju Byeolsan Daenori, Bongsan Talchum, Gangnyeong Talchum, and Hahoebyeol Shingutnori. (Each of the initiating word refers to the name of the region where the Talchum originated).

The Characteristics of Talchum

During the Chosun Dynasty, Talchum reached the peak of its popularity. Commoners dressed up as noblemen, shamans, wives, concubines, or servants and greatly enjoyed mocking the ruling class. The commoners danced freely moving their arms to and fro and gaily stepping in the rhythm of music played by traditional instruments such as piri (a double-reed cylindrical oboe), jeotdae (transverse flute), janggu (an hourglass-shape drum), and kkwaenggwari (a hand-held gong).

 
Kaksi Tal / Sonbi Tal 
ⓒ photo by encyber.com
As was also true in the past, it is significant how the physical features of the masks play a large role in developing the performers’ characters. The masks are made of wood, paper, or calabash. In their facial expressions, audiences can predict the personality of a character. For example, those of Kaksi Tal -the mask of a bride- convey silence and calmness in the carving of her firmly closed lips. While there are a number of masks, some of the most famous masterpieces include the carvings of Imae (a fool), Paekchong (the butcher), Halmi (the old widow), Chung (the depraved buddhist monk), Yangban (the aristocrat), and Sonbi (the scholar).

The Main plot and theme of Talchum

Although many thematic portrayals came from commoners’ life under the constraints of noblemen, Talchum reflected on other themes as well. Often, they described cynical remarks about sinful Buddhist monks, complaints of a corrupted society, love and conflict between men and women, and the immortal and harsh realities of life.

Through Talchum, Korean ancestors humorously interpreted their joy and sorrow in life. It retained no particular scripts, dialogues, or professional actors and actresses in general. In addition, instead of making a clear distinction between the stage and the auditorium, it used an open-air stage in which performers and spectators mingled freely together. With its flexible patterns and setting, Talchum seem to deliver a message to the descendants of its creators: enjoy the freedom and optimistic qualities of life!



[No. 317]
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