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Reviewed by:
  • The Gwangdae, and: Hahoe Talchum
  • J. L. Murdoch
The Gwangdae. Seoul, South Korea. 26 July 2009.
Hahoe Talchum. Hahoe, South Korea. 8 August 2009.

Hahoe Talchum is one of the most recent forms of Talchum to have been named an Intangible Cultural Property; as recently as 1979, it was thought to be “lost.” Dating back 800 years, it now is not only one of thirteen types of Talchum whose preservation is being funded by the Korean government, but iconographically, its masks are the most widely recognized of the Korean traditional arts. [End Page 101] The Andong Mask-Dance Festival has been so successful in recent years, in fact, that the government has used the masks as part of its national and international publicity programs. The features of the Hahoe masks tend to be more realistic than in many other of the masked traditions in Korea, which perhaps makes them more accessible to those who do not understand the symbolism of the larger, more grotesque masks found in other types of Talchum performance.

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A Hahoe Talchum Chuji (lion). (Photo: J. L. Murdoch.)

Creators of Hahoe and many of the other forms of Talchum have been criticized, though, for decisions made in preservation efforts. Detractors of the current efforts tend to feel that the historically improvisational tradition is now more of a museum piece, with scripted lines, choreographed movements, and a distanced audience. In this review, I will consider two performances by two different groups, both of which represent a distinct perspective on the preservation and perpetuation of Talchum. The first performance, hosted by the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama Preservation Society, maintains that its presentation is historically accurate; the second, performed by the Gwangdae, an itinerant group of young professional, traditional performers, has chosen to embrace the spirit of the form and focus on improvisation, satire, and audience participation. By juxtaposing these two approaches, I suggest that presenting Talchum in a way that allows the audience to access this spirit of the masked dance-drama tradition achieves the goals of preservation and perpetuation in a manner stronger than mere museum pieces.

On summer weekends, the traditional village of Hahoe (pronounced HAH-hwey) in South Korea hosts performances of the historical Hahoe Talchum. I traveled five hours from my home in Seoul into the countryside for the performance and was seated snuggly between other audience members on stone steps that circled the large, open, outdoor space of the stage, or madang. The woman in front of me seated herself firmly on my feet, and the child behind me rested his head on my shoulder. In many forms of Talchum, the audience is considered to be another character in the drama, and a sense of community developed quickly as individuals crowded into the limited seating.

A man in traditional Korean attire entered the stage and spoke for about five minutes in Korean. [End Page 102] It was still early in my language training, but I understood enough to know that he gave a history of Hahoe Talchum and the preservation efforts that are taking place through the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama Preservation Society and the Andong Mask Museum. After he left the stage, the band, with instruments consisting of four types of traditional drums (the hourglass shaped Changgo; the gong-like Ching; the brassy Kkaenggwari; and the Jeolgo, a barrel drum) and a clarinet-like T’aep’yongso, entered in procession and circled the stage in a tighter and tighter pattern.

As the musicians circled, another performer entered with a masked character standing on his shoulders and waving her long sleeves back and forth in flowing arcs over her head. She was the impersonation of the goddess specific to Hahoe, who is invoked to cleanse the playing space before every performance. Her status as deity requires that she not touch the ground. Based on ancient and somewhat random intervals of three, five, or ten years, the preservation society holds a full ritual performance for the gods. This involves climbing the mountain outside the village early in the morning of the first full moon of the lunar new year and inviting the goddess to enter the...


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