The perception that Korea does not have a traditional theatre form comparable to those of other Asian countries has been widely accepted by Koreans as well as international observers. The last hundred years have seen a sustained effort to fill this gap with a genre called ch'angguka type of opera using the singing style, and often the actual repertoire, of the older musical storytelling form p'ansori. But admission to the hallowed ranks of the traditional has not come easily, and ch'angguk still awaits the marks of institutional recognition bestowed on p'ansori and other designated "cultural assets." This article traces the complex and unfinished history of ch'angguk's efforts to position itself relative to the "traditional" against the backdrop of Korea's turbulent transition from Confucian dynastic rule through colonization, partition, and nation building. In the process, we see how a genre that seeks to associate itself with tradition has had to address issues of historical truth, modernity, nationalism, gender, and the colonial encounter.