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South Korea: Mask Unmasked

Words & Photography: Ronan O’Connell

The transformation is startling. Even amid the prettiest of backdrops – a landscaped garden painted with a palette of warm autumnal colours – the petite young woman suddenly looks fearsome. Hyojin Lee is hidden behind the blood-red skin, bulging white eyes and straggly hair of a Korean mask.

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Traditional Korean masks, known as tal, are designed to look fearsome in order to scare away evil spirits from a home or a village.

This traditional façade, known in the Korean language as tal, is designed to give its wearer an intimidating appearance. It certainly works. There is no doubt Lee looks far more menacing now than she did five minutes ago dressed in a cardigan sitting behind her office desk. Except that the original aim of tal was to banish evil spirits, rather than to provide a mild shock to a visiting Australian journalist.

“That was the old reason for the masks – to frighten spirits (away) from people or places,” says 28-year-old Lee as she peels off her tal and leads me through the garden of Korea House, one of Seoul’s chief cultural institutions where she works as the Communications Manager. “Now that the masks are used for dances and performances, they’re not looked upon so sombrely anymore.”

BEHIND THE MASK

There are well over 100 different tal that feature in Korean mask dances. Among the best known are those used in the Bongsan mask dance, a version of which Lee wore after I hand-decorated it at Korea House, with the help of an art teacher. Each year, tal are donned by performers who stage mask dances at festivals across the country in an effort to preserve this historic art.

 Korea House Communications Manager, Hyojin Lee, is pictured here wearing a tal. According to Lee, the organisation’s tal-designing classes are a fun way to educate visitors on the history of this remarkable Korean cultural heritage.

Korea House Communications Manager, Hyojin Lee, is pictured here wearing a tal. According to Lee, the organisation’s tal-designing classes are a fun way to educate visitors on the history of this remarkable Korean cultural heritage.

The most notable of these events is the Andong Mask Dance Festival, which starts this month. The lively event takes place at the perfect venue – Hahoe Folk Village, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, which is also the best preserved ancient settlement in the country. Set on the banks of the Nakdong River in the shadow of Hwasan Mountain, this small quaint village has no more than 100 traditional homes built during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Its dirt roads meander through verdant farmland and are lined by meticulously maintained mud-walled homes with thatched roofs.

I am happy to see that Hahoe has not been turned into a nostalgic, cultural Disneyland for visitors from the cities and far-off places. It has not been marred by the proliferation of tacky souvenir shops, modern cafés and touristy restaurants. Thanks to preservation efforts by the local government, Hahoe has remained an authentic Korean village where locals farm its fertile land and life moves at a pace that is intoxicatingly slow. This is what makes this village in North Gyeongsang Province such an appealing venue for a showcase of one of the country’s most treasured cultural traditions – mask dances.

PROTECTING HERITAGE

Back in the 12th century, it was here in Hahoe that these dances were first performed. And it is here that Lee and I meet Director of Andong Mask Dance Festival Kim Eun-Jung, who firmly believes that Hahoe and talchum (Korean name for mask dance dramas) need to be celebrated and protected.

 Visitors can design their own masks under the guidance of artists at Korea House, one of Seoul’s most prominent cultural tourism organisations.

Visitors can design their own masks under the guidance of artists at Korea House, one of Seoul’s most prominent cultural tourism organisations.

As South Korea continues to grow and rapidly modernise, there is a danger that its artistic heritage could be lost. “Mask culture is in danger of becoming extinct,” says Kim. “So, the mask dance festival provides the opportunity for people to experience the value of mask culture.” The South Korean Government has classified more than a dozen different tal and talchum as Intangible Cultural Heritage Property. This official status not only grants protection to these historical and cultural legacies, it also reflects the government’s strong support of the Andong Mask Dance Festival. According to Kim, the publicity has greatly contributed to enhancing the draw of the 10-day festival, with about one million visitors expected this year. Visitors can choose from about 50 different events and programmes held in Hahoe and at Mask Dance Park in Andong city, also located along the Nakdong River, a 50-minute bus ride to the east of Hahoe.

A DARK PAST

A form of musical theatre in which masked performers dance, converse and occasionally sing, talchum has been a popular form of entertainment in South Korea for more than 800 years. To understand talchum, it is necessary to explore the genesis of the masks the performers don. While talchum is an upbeat and often humorous performance art, tal themselves have a dark past.

It is believed that the earliest known tal were used by prehistoric hunters. Designed to resemble the head of a beast, the masks provided hunters with camouflage as they crept up on their prey. Historians suggest that the masks were also worn in post-hunt rituals to appease the spirits of the slaughtered animals.

A masked dance performance on an outdoor stage in Hahoe.
A masked dance performance on an outdoor stage in Hahoe.

Lee explains that people in ancient Korea also wore tal during ceremonies to expel demons. The word tal itself has a grim second meaning in the Korean language, referring to sickness and hardship. In ancient Korea, disease and bad luck were thought to be the work of demonic forces. It was believed that performing shamanistic rituals while wearing a terrifying mask, resembling an animal or a god, could ward off evil spirits. “Our ancestors believed that tal protected the people because the masks, which looked ghastly, had the power to dispel malevolent spirits and diseases,” says Lee.

Masks were also a common feature of ancient Korean funerals, as they were believed to protect the soul of the departed. Unlike the present day, when tal are only regarded as dance accessories and souvenirs, in ancient times, they were holy items treated with reverence and even caution. As tal were worshipped and also feared, they were not stored in one’s home but kept within a shrine in the village, and sometimes, even destroyed after a ritual.

THE TALCHUM JOURNEY

The context in which the masks were viewed in Korean culture transformed significantly over time. Gradually, tal became less of an object to be feared, and more of an ornament that was displayed at royal functions and other state events. The perception of tal further evolved and the masks became the focal point of cultural festivals in villages all over the country. Then in the 12th century, tal became a part of talchum – one of the highest art forms in the nation that is typically performed in open-air settings, with each region developing its own unique versions of the popular Korean mask dance performance seen today. These talchum use various musical instruments such as oboes, flutes, wooden clappers, fiddles, drums and gongs to provide the musical accompaniment, while the masks employed vary from region to region.

Talchum often served as an outlet for the working class to vent their frustrations at the hypocrisies of the country's more privileged groups, and satirical scenes that depict these social disparities are still present in performances today.
Talchum often served as an outlet for the working class to vent their frustrations at the hypocrisies of the country’s more privileged groups, and satirical scenes that depict these social disparities are still present in performances today.

Kim points out that tal maintained its spiritual significance as a result of the growth of talchum, and to this day, praying for peace in a village remains one of the three key aims of a mask dance. It is also the aim of talchum to foster innovation in the arts within a traditional framework. Although many hallmarks of talchum have been replicated for centuries, Kim says he’s delighted to see subtle changes to dance sequences and dialogue that are introduced in the age-old performances at the Andong festival each year.

Traditionally, talchum was also a means of addressing social unrest; this was done via robust criticism of modern society and fierce satire of the elite classes. As the performance art developed, for the most part influenced by commoners from villages, talchum took aim at those in power – one of the aims of talchum is offering cathartic release for the working classes. These critiques and satire are still an intrinsic part of the performance and are spread across several acts of a talchum, with each act loosely connected rather than being successive scenes that make up an entire story, as is typical in Western theatre.

CHARACTERS AT PLAY

While the dance style, music and the structure of talchum vary depending on the province where it was birthed, the mask dance drama commonly involves a version of three particular scenes. These typically revolve around a monk, an elderly woman and a nobleman, each of them seeking to mock religion, patriarchy and the upper class, respectively.

In the monk scene, the man of religion is portrayed as being false in his piety. He is tricked into discarding his Buddhist prayer beads by a seductive young woman whom he romances. The monk is then publicly humiliated when the younger ex-lover of the temptress returns and conquers her heart once more. The male libido and ego are the target of derision in the elderly lady scene. Having been cast aside by her callous husband, who has eloped with his young mistress, the grief-stricken wife passes away. In a display of remorse, the older woman’s husband returns and enlists a masked shaman to lead a talchum at her funeral. The scene explores not just marital strife and the consequences of infidelity, but clearly signifies tal’s importance as a spiritual tool.

Andong village is not only the venue for the annual Andong Mask Dance Festival, it is also home to the Hahoe Mask Museum, which displays about 200 tal and masks from across the globe.
Andong village is not only the venue for the annual Andong Mask Dance Festival, it is also home to the Hahoe Mask Museum, which displays about 200 tal and masks from across the globe.

A comeuppance is also served in the act about the nobleman, who boastfully regales his servant with tales of his wealth and intelligence. And yet, when his help responds to the nobleman’s braggadocio with clever parodies, the nobleman finds himself at a loss for words. This scene aptly encapsulates the commoner rebellion at the heart of talchum. According to Kim, the relative anonymity offered to performers by their masks emboldens them to partake in these send-ups of more powerful members of society.

TAL-TALES

At the renowned Hahoe Mask Museum, 20 different styles of tal are on display. These include a prized collection of 11 wooden Hahoe masks, believed to be from the 12th century, which represent various common characters of talchum including the nobleman, the monk and the young temptress. Via their exaggerated facial features – long noses and wide eyes – they convey obvious emotions which range from joy to mirth and sorrow.

Masked performers wait for their cue at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.
Masked performers wait for their cue at the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.

There are also other tal that are more exotic, such as the four-eyed Bangsangssi masks, which are among the oldest known tal, dating back about 1,500 years. Like all tal, the Bangsangssi were constructed either from wood, straw or paper. Historically, the most expensive tal, those made of wood, were constructed for the elite, while the cheaper straw and paper versions were for the general noblemen and the commoners, respectively.

Then, there are the aggressive-looking Bongsan masks, one of which I decorated at Korea House. With enormous eyes set below a forehead with three mounds that resemble horns, it has a menacing appearance. The Bongsan talchum is one of the most renowned and frequently-performed mask dances in South Korea. Yet, it originated in Hwanghae Province, in what is now North Korea. Initially a feature of sober Buddhist rituals, it gradually became an entertaining, colourful folk dance that attracted massive crowds.

THE LEGACY CONTINUES

The Bongsan mask I painted at Korea House may not have attracted onlookers – my only audience had been Lee and my teacher, Jang Kye Sook, neither of whom seemed impressed with my artistic efforts – or been destined for shamanistic rituals to ward off evil spirits. But, the experience of being guided through creating something so culturally precious was a gift. And having learned the remarkable history of these masks, I feel honoured and inspired to share the history of this revered cultural art – and in so doing, celebrate the ancient hunters who invented tal, the 12th century commoners who popularised mask dances, and the modern-day performers who continue to honour these traditions today.

Talchum adhere to a basic framework, with standard themes and characters, but their creators are free to innovate within this structure, incorporating different types of dance and music. Also notable is the performer pictured here with a decorative fl oral headdress that creates a delightful, more light-hearted appearance in today’s mask dances, compared to the more frightening versions of tal used in shamanistic rituals in the old days.
Talchum adhere to a basic framework, with standard themes and characters, but their creators are free to innovate within this structure, incorporating different types of dance and music. Also notable is the performer pictured here with a decorative fl oral headdress that creates a delightful, more light-hearted appearance in today’s mask dances, compared to the more frightening versions of tal used in shamanistic rituals in the old days.

EVERLASTING LEGACY

These talchum, accorded national Intangible Cultural Heritage status, are three of the most famous mask dances and are still performed to packed venues in South Korea today.

HAHOE BYEOLSIN GUT TAL NORI Created in Hahoe, the birthplace of talchum, this mask dance is about 800 years old. Merging aspects of ancient shaman rituals with dancing and dramatic theatrical elements, it is performed regularly in Hahoe. It was originally a ritual designed to cleanse a village of demonic spirits and bring good fortune to the community.

GOSEONG OGWANGDAE Also known as the mask dance of the five clowns, this talchum was created in South Gyeongsang Province, in the country’s southeastern region. It starts with a ritual exorcism dance before proceeding into five or six chapters that satirise noblemen, patriarchy and religion.

SONGPA SANDAE NOLI The most famous mask dance to come from Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, this talchum emerged in the 15th century as a feature of royal ceremonies. When the regal custom eventually disappeared, the core elements of the performance were adapted into a more entertaining and humorous talchum performed in villages by commoners.

ANDONG MASK DANCE FESTIVAL

This year the festival takes place from September 29 to October 8. The Andong Mask Dance Festival is among the largest cultural events in South Korea. In the historic town of Hahoe, festival-goers can enjoy a wide variety of talchum performances,including dances from the Gyeongbuk and Yeongyang regions. The event is further enlivened by a fireworks display. Meanwhile, in Andong city, festival highlights include puppet shows, exhibits of masks from around the world and workshops on the decoration styles of various Korean masks. www.maskdance.com

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