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Korean talchum mask dance may be next Unesco intangible cultural heritage

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Bongsan Talchum, or mask dance drama of Bongsan [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]
Bongsan Talchum, or mask dance drama of Bongsan [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Hahoe Byeolsin Mask Dance Performance is one type of talchum originating from a village in Andong, North Gyeongsang. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]
Hahoe Byeolsin Mask Dance Performance is one type of talchum originating from a village in Andong, North Gyeongsang. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Korea’s mask dance known as talchum may become the next addition to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announced Tuesday that “Talchum, Mask Dance Drama in the Republic of Korea” received the top “inscribe” recommendation by the evaluation body of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The items that receive such a recommendation by the evaluation body usually get inscribed in the Unesco list during the official committee, which is set to take place this year from Nov. 28 to Dec. 3 in Morocco.

The CHA said that the evaluation body screened a total of 46 items and gave the “inscribe” recommendations to 31, including Korea’s talchum. It gave “refer” to 14 items and “not to inscribe” to one item.

 

A masked dance from Yecheon in North Gyeongsang [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]
A masked dance from Yecheon in North Gyeongsang [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

Talchum is a form of art that consists of dance, music, and theatrical performance, complete with an audience that takes part by reacting loudly to the show with cheers and jeers as the drama unfolds. In the country’s pre-modern age, it was often a way through which ordinary citizens in Korea could vent their dissatisfaction at society’s inequalities and injustices.

“It was a form of satire, that usually involves a person telling a story while wearing a mask,” the CHA said in its statement. “With the right mix of music and dance, the storyteller pokes fun at the injustices in society. But the act doesn’t end there. It also poses possible ways for society to reach points of compromise for the betterment of many.”

The CHA explained in the document sent to Unesco that such “focus on social criticism contributed to talchum’s large-scale transmission in the 1970s and ’80s among young Koreans, particularly university students.”

It also added that “This generation continues to play a critical role in the transmission of the practice, passing on the related knowledge and skills of talchum performance and mask-making to younger generations through local associations, clubs, camps, and public schools.”

The Korean government began to officially recognize the form of art as an intangible cultural heritage when Yangju byeolsandae nori, a form of mask dancing originating from the city in Gyeonggi, was inscribed as national intangible cultural heritage No. 2 in 1964. A total of 13 forms of talchum have been inscribed as national intangible cultural heritage. The CHA said that it also emphasized to the Unesco evaluation body that the country’s 18 officially recognized talchum safeguarding associations are carrying out measures for its preservation.

A mask craftsman handcrafts a traditional mask called hahoetal, a type of mask worn in the Hahoe Byeolshingul talchum that dates back to the 12th century. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]
A mask craftsman handcrafts a traditional mask called hahoetal, a type of mask worn in the Hahoe Byeolshingul talchum that dates back to the 12th century. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

The evaluation body stated in its draft decision that talchum satisfies the criteria for inscription for being “manifested through the oral traditions, performing arts, social practices and rituals of its dances, music and theater and the traditional craftsmanship associated with crafting the masks.”

Korea currently has 21 items on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The latest was Yeondeunghoe, the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, which made it onto Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List in 2020. Ssireum, a form of traditional Korean wrestling, was inscribed before that, in 2018, and was a special case as it was the first item jointly registered by South and North Korea. Other items include Jeju’s women divers known as haenyeonongak, community band music, dance and rituals; Arirang; tightrope walking known as jultagigagok, or lyric song cycles accompanied by an orchestra; and pansori, or traditional Korean narrative singing, among many others.

The administration said North Korea’s Pyongyang Raengmyong also received the “inscribe” recommendation from the evaluation body. This cold noodle dish originating from Pyongyang, which uses thicker noodles made of buckwheat, is also popular among South Koreans. North Korea currently has three items on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list: Arirang, Tradition of Kimchi-making, and ssireum.

 

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [yim.seunghye@joongang.co.kr]