Traditional Korean Masks and Dances

01
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Origins of Tal

A heap of traditional Korean Hahoe masks, used for festivals and rituals.
Different Hahoe masks, including the bride (center) and the fool (upper left). Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

It was the mid-Goryeo Dynasty era in Korea. The craftsman Huh Chongkak ("Bachelor Huh") bent over his carving, chiseling the wood into a laughing mask. He had been ordered by the gods to create 12 different masks without having any contact with other people until he was finished. Just as he completed the upper half of the last character Imae, "The Fool," a love-struck girl peeked into his workshop to see what he was doing. The artist immediately suffered a massive hemorrhage and died, leaving the final mask without its lower jaw.

This is the creation myth behind the Hahoe type of traditional Korean masks, called "tal." Nine of the Hahoe masks have been designated as "Cultural Treasures" of Korea; the other three designs have been lost over time. However, a time-worn mask recently put on display at a museum in Japan appears to be Huh's long-lost 12th-century carving of Byulchae, The Tax-Collector. The mask was taken to Japan as war booty by General Konishi Yukinaga between 1592 and 1598, and then it disappeared for 400 years.

Other Varieties of Tal and Talchum

Hahoe talchum is just one of dozens of styles of Korean masks and associated dances. Many different regions have their own unique forms of the art; in fact, some styles belong to a single small village. The masks range from fairly realistic to outlandish and monstrous. Some are large, exaggerated circles. Others are oval, or even triangular, with long and pointed chins.

The Cyber Tal Museum website displays a large collection of different masks from around the Korean peninsula. Many of the finest masks are carved from alder wood, but others are made of gourds, paper mache or even rice-straw. The masks are attached to a hood of black cloth, which serves to hold the mask in place, and also resembles hair.

These tal are used for shamanist or religious ceremonies, dances (called talnori) and dramas (talchum) that are still performed as part of the nation's heritage festivals and celebrations of its rich and lengthy history.

02
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Talchum and Talnori — Korean Dramas and Dances

Young Aristocrat, Monk, and Servant: Korean mask-dancers.
Three mask-dancers in full costume wait to perform at a Korean culture festival, wearing brightly-painted wooden masks. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

According to one theory, the word "tal" was borrowed from Chinese and is now used to mean "mask" in Korean. However, the original sense was "to let something go" or "to be free."

The masks offered freedom for performers to anonymously express their criticisms of powerful local people, such as members of the aristocracy or the Buddhist monastic hierarchy. Some of the "talchum," or plays performed through dance, also mock stereotyped versions of annoying personalities within the lower classes: the drunkard, the gossip, the flirt or the constantly-complaining grandmother.

Other scholars note that the root "tal" appears in the Korean language to denote illness or misfortune. For example, "talnatda" means "to become ill" or "to have trouble." The "talnori," or mask dance, originated as a shamanist practice meant to drive evil spirits of illness or bad luck out of an individual or a village. The shaman — or "mudang" — and her assistants would put on masks and dance in order to scare away the demons.

In any case, traditional Korean masks have been used for funerals, curing ceremonies, satirical plays and pure entertainment for centuries.

Early History

The first talchum performances probably took place during the Three Kingdoms Period, from 18 B.C.E. to 935 C.E. The Silla Kingdom — which existed from 57 B.C.E. to 935 C.E. — had a traditional sword dance called "kommu" wherein the dancers may have also worn masks.

Silla-era kommu was very popular during the Koryo Dynasty — from 918 to 1392 C.E. — and by that time the performances certainly included masked dancers. By the late Koryo period of the 12th to 14th centuries, talchum as we know it had emerged.

The Bachelor Huh invented the Hahoe style of masks from the Andong area, according to the story, but unknown artists all over the peninsula were hard at work creating vivid masks for this unique form of satirical play.

03
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Costumes and Music for the Dance

Korean traditional mask-dancer
Korean traditional mask-dancer in Jeju-do. neochicle on Flickr.com

Masked talchum actors and performers often wore colorful silk "hanbok," or "Korean clothes." The above type of hanbok is modeled on those from the late Joseon Dynasty — which lasted from 1392 to 1910. Even today, ordinary Korean people wear this type of clothing for special occasions such as weddings, first birthdays, the Lunar New Year ("Seolnal"), and the Harvest Festival ("Chuseok").

The dramatic, flowing white sleeves help to make the actor's movements more expressive, which is quite useful when wearing a fixed-jaw mask. This style of sleeves is seen in the costumes for several other types of formal or court dance in Korea as well. Since talchum is considered an informal, folk performance style, the long sleeves originally may have been a satirical detail.

Traditional Instruments for Talchum

You can't have a dance without music. Unsurprisingly, each regional version of mask-dancing also has a particular type of music to accompany the dancers. However, most use some combination of the same instruments. 

The haegum, a two-string bowed instrument is most commonly used to convey the melody and a version was featured in the recent animation "Kubo and the Two Strings." The chottae, a transverse bamboo flute, and the piri, a double-reed instrument simlar to the oboe are also commonly used to provide sweeping melodies. In the percussion section, many talchum orchestras feature the kkwaenggwari, a small gong, the changgu, an hourglass-shaped drum; and the puk, a shallow bowl-shaped drum. 

Although the melodies are region-specific, they typically harken back to Korea's long history, sounding oftentimes almost tribal in nature while maintaining an elegance and grace characteristic of most Korean culture. 

04
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Importance of the Masks to Talchums' Plots

Korean traditional mask dancer
Mokjung character from the Bonsang region. Vanuatu Monarch on Flickr.com

The original Hahoe masks were considered to be important religious relics. Huh's masks were believed to have magical powers to expel demons and protect the village. The people of Hahoe village believed that tragedy would befall their town if the masks were moved improperly from their places in the Sonang-tang, the local shrine.

In most regions, talchum masks would be burned as a sort of offering after each performance, and new ones made. This was a hold-over from the use of masks in funerals as funerary masks were always burned at the end of the ceremony. However, the aversion to harming Huh's masks prevented his masterpieces from being burned. 

Given the importance of the Hahoe masks to the local people, it must have been a terrible trauma for the entire village when three of them went missing. Controversy remains to this day over where they may have gone.

The Twelve Hahoe Mask Designs

There are twelve traditional characters in Hahoe talchum, three of which are missing including Chongkak (the bachelor), Byulchae (the tax collector) and Toktari (the old man).

The nine that still exist in the village are: Yangban (the aristocrat), Kaksi (the young woman or bride), Chung (the Buddhist monk), Choraengi (Yangban's clownish servant), Sonpi (the scholar), Imae (the foolish and jawless servant of Sonpi), Bune (the concubine), Baekjung (the murderous butcher), and Halmi (the old woman).

Some old stories claim that the people of neighboring Pyongsan stole the masks. Indeed, two suspiciously similar masks are found in Pyongsan today. Other people believe that the Japanese took some or all of Hahoe's missing masks. The recent discovery of Byulchae the Tax Collector in a Japanese collection supports this theory.

If both of these traditions regarding the thefts are true — that is if two are in Pyongsan and one is in Japan — then all of the missing masks have actually been located!

The Universality of a Good Plot

Korean masked dance and drama revolve around four dominant themes or plots. The first is mockery of the avarice, stupidity and general unwholesomeness of the aristocracy. The second is the love-triangle of a husband, a wife and a concubine. The third is the depraved and corrupt monk, like Choegwari. The fourth is a general good versus evil story, with virtue triumphing in the end.

In some cases, this fourth category describes plots from each of the first three categories, as well. These plays (in translation) would probably have been quite popular in Europe during the 14th or 15th century as well as these themes are universal to any stratified society.

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Hahoe Characters on Parade

Korean mask dancer as Kaksi, the Bride. Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

In the above image, the Hahoe characters Kaksi (the bride) and Halmi (the old woman) dance down the lane at a Korean traditional arts festival. Yangban (the aristocrat) is half-visible behind Kaksi's sleeve.

At least 13 different regional forms of talchum continue to be performed in Korea today. These include the famed "Hahoe Pyolshin-gut" from Kyongsangbuk-do, the east coast province that encompasses Andong City;  "Yangju Pyol-sandae" and "Songpa sandae" from Kyonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul in the northwest corner; "Kwanno" and "Namsadangpae Totpoegich'um" from the rugged northeastern province of Kangwon-do.

On the border of South Korea, the North Korean province of Hwanghae-do offers "Pongsan," "Kangnyong," and "Eunyul" styles of dance. On South Korea's southern coastal province Kyongsangnam-do, "Suyong Yayu," "Tongnae Yayu," "Gasan Ogwangdae," "Tongyong Ogwangdae," and "Kosong Ogwandae" are also performed.

Although talchum originally referred to only one of these forms of dramas, colloquially the term has involved to include all varieties.

06
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Choegwari, the Old Apostate Buddhist Monk

Satirical mask of an old, apostate Buddhist monk. Choegwari likes wine, women and song.
Choegwari, the dissolute old Buddhist monk character from Eunyul Talchul. He drinks alcohol and lusts after young women. Jon Crel on Flickr.com

Individual tal represent different characters from the plays. This particular mask is Choegwari, the old apostate Buddhist monk.

During the Koryeo period, many Buddhist clergies held considerable political power. Corruption was rampant, and the high monks indulged not only in feasting and bribe-collecting but also in the pleasures of wine, women and song. Thus, the corrupt and lusty monk became an object of mockery for the common people in talchum.

In the different plays in which he stars, Choegwari is shown feasting, drinking and reveling in his wealth. The fullness of his chin shows that he loves food. He also becomes enamored of the aristocrat's flirty concubine, Bune, and carries her away. One scene finds Choegwari appearing out from under the girl's skirt in a shocking violation of his monastic vows.

Incidentally, to western eyes the red color of this mask makes Choegwari appear somewhat demonic, which is not the Korean interpretation. In many regions, white masks represented young women (or occasionally young men), red masks were for middle-aged people and black masks signified the elderly.

07
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Bune, the Flirty Young Concubine

Bune, the flirty concubine of the yangban
Korean traditional mask of the character Bune, the Young Woman. Kallie Szczepanski

This mask is one of the Hahoe characters created by the unfortunate Bachelor Huh. Bune, sometimes spelled "Punae," is a flirty young woman. In many plays, she appears either as the concubine of Yangban, the aristocrat, or of Sonbi, the scholar and, as mentioned before oftentimes winds up in the throws of passion with Choegwari.

With her tiny, fixed mouth, smiling eyes, and apple-cheeks, Bune represents beauty and good humor. Her character is a bit shady and unrefined, however. At times, she tempts the monks and other men into sin.

08
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Nojang, Another Wayward Monk

Nojang, the Drunkard Monk. Traditional Korean mask.
Mask representing Nojang, the Drunk Monk. John Criel on Flick.com

Nojang is another wayward monk. He is usually depicted as a drunkard — note the jaundiced yellow eyes on this particular version — who has a weakness for the ladies. Nojang is older than Choegwari, so he is represented by a black mask rather than a red one.

In one popular drama, the Lord Buddha sends a lion down from the heavens to punish Nojang. The apostate monk begs for forgiveness and mends his ways, and the lion refrains from eating him. Then, everyone dances together.

According to one theory, the white spots on Nojang's face represent fly-specks. The high monk was so intense in his study of the Buddhist scripture that he did not even notice the flies landing on his face and leaving their "calling-cards." It's a mark of the rampant corruption of the monks (at least in the world of talchum) that even such a focused and devout head monk would fall into depravity.

09
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Yangban, the Aristocrat

Yangban, the cheerful aristocrat character in Korean mask-dancing.
Traditional Korean mask of Yangban, the aristocrat. Kallie Szczepanski

This mask represents Yangban, the aristocrat. The character looks rather jolly, but he sometimes has people flogged to death if they insult him. A skilled actor could make the mask look cheerful by holding his head high, or menacing by dropping his chin.

The common people took great joy in mocking the aristocracy through talchum. In addition to this regular type of yangban, some regions included a character whose face was painted half-white and half-red. This symbolized the fact that his biological father was a different man than his acknowledged father — he was an illegitimate son.

Other Yangban were portrayed as disfigured by leprosy or small pox. Audiences found such tribulations hilarious when they were inflicted on the aristocratic characters. In one play, a monster called Yeongno comes down from heaven. He informs Yangban that he has to eat 100 aristocrats in order to return to the exalted realm. Yangban tries to pretend that he's a commoner to avoid being eaten, but Yeongno isn't fooled... Crunch!

In other dramas, commoners deride the aristocrats for their families' failings and insult them with impunity. A comment to an aristocrat such as "You look like a dog's rear end!" would probably end in a death sentence in real life, but could be included in a masked play in perfect safety.

10
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Modern Day Usage and Style

Mask for sale to the tourists, Insadong, Seoul, South Korea
Korean traditional mask shop for tourists in Insadong, Seoul. Jason JT on Flickr.com

These days, Korean culture purists like to grumble about the abuses heaped on the traditional masks. After all, these are national cultural treasures, right?

Unless you are lucky enough to encounter a festival or other special performance, however, you are most likely to see tal on display as kitschy good-luck charms, or mass-produced tourist souveniers. Bachelor Huh's Hahoe masterpieces, Yangban and Bune, are the most exploited, but you can see knock-offs of many different regional characters.

Many Korean people like to buy smaller versions of the masks, as well. They may be handy refrigerator magnets, or good luck charms to dangle from a cell phone.

A stroll down the streets of the Insadong district in Seoul reveals many shops selling copies of traditional masterworks. The eye-catching tal are always prominently displayed!