South Korea, just like its Asian neighbors, has managed to preserve most of its cultural traditions. It is often described as one of the most technically advanced countries. It is known worldwide for global products manufactured by the country’s global companies such as Hyundai, CJ Group, Fila, Kia Motors, Samsung Group, LG Group, Daewoo Group and Lotte Group among others. Fans around the world are enamored by South Korea’s most successful cultural export, K-pop groups like Girls Generation, Big Bang, FT Island, BoA, SS501, Rain, CN Blue, Super Junior and Wonder Girls. South Korea’s dramas and films are also gaining worldwide popularity, dubbed and subbed in different languages. There is still one thing that a country with a rich culture like South Korea has in store for the rest of the world – the Korean Theater.
Korean theater is still vibrant. Before the 20th century, the shows were more performance acts rather than drama. There were shaman rituals, dances and circus, called nolum or yeonhee, both of which translate to playing.
Before South Korea opened its doors, the country’s theater performances in the 19th century were centered on talchum and pansori, performances that did not have fixed scripts, but whose content and themes were handed down through generations.
Korean Theater: Pansori
Pansori, also called Korean Opera, is usually done by two performers. The central figure, the sorrikun, provides the song and dialogue throughout the telling of a story. A drumbeater or gosu, provides the mood and rhythm as well as the verbal sounds or chuimsae to emphasize parts of the song and story. Chuimsae is an exclamation. Members of the audience could also make chuimsae, with words like jalhanda, meaning good or eolsigu, which is Korean for yippee. The sound, rhythm and the style of singing in pansori are very distinct and almost irreproducible. Pansori first emerged in 1392. There were 12 operas in the original collection of pansori but only five have survived. It was recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. While a pansori performance can last from four to five hours, there is a revival of interest in this traditional Korean theater.
Korean Theater: Talchum
The term talchum translates to mask dance. It is somewhat similar to the Noh dance theater of Japan. It’s a form of Korean dance where performers wearing masks do singing, speaking and miming as part of their act. However, talchum is more specifically related to the dances performed in the Hwanghae Province, which is now part of North Korea. In Gyeonggi Province and in Seoul, the masked dances are called sandae noli. Those performed in the southern coast of South Korea, on the other hand, are called yayu, a term that translates to field play. When it is performed by five clowns, the act is called ogwangdae. Different characters are portrayed in the masked dance, and the performances are mostly satires, reflecting the frustrations of the lower classes for the oppressive treatment given them by the yangban or the rich folks. The dramas also reflect the daily lives of commoners and the social problems that existed during the Joseon era.
Korean theater is very much alive today. Aside from traditional theaters like the Pansori and Talchum, their modern theater has successfully shown Korean versions of popular Broadways shows.
Photo Credit: Pansori