Jong-sook Lee
Expert Advisor, Cultural Heritage Committee, Cultural Heritage Administration

Cheoyongmu is a traditional Korean dance per formed by five masked dancers, each dressed in a robe of a different color. The five colors —blue, red, yellow, black, and white—define and express the character of the dance as they represent the ohaeng (五行) ideology of Korean tradition.

While there is no variation in the cheoyong mask design, it expresses as much meaning as the five colors. The laughing face on the mask, reminiscent of a kindly old man, is strikingly expressive. A description of the mask is given in a long song sung during the Cheoyongmu. Crowning its wide forehead is a hat full of peonies as well as fruits and branches of the peach tree. It has eyebrows as thick and long as mountains, below which are laughing eyes described as those of “lovers who have just met.” Its complexion is the color of crimson peach blossoms. Below the neat row of pearly white teeth juts out a prominent chin. Such a visage was believed to contain good fortune, and thus the mask was a propitious symbol with the power to bring peace on earth.

The masked and costumed dancers enter the stage in a row in the order of blue, red, yellow, black, and white. Their measured walk is set to the pace of the very slow sujecheon (壽齊天) music, giving off an air of leisure and magnificence. After all five dancers have taken their positions on stage, they face the audience to display the five cardinal colors they are wearing. It becomes apparent to scholars of ancient Korean philosophy that the positioning of the colors and their movements contain a symbolic message.

The five cheoyongs dance, mimicking the cycles of nature with their five colors. Blue represents spring; red is summer; white is autumn; and black is winter while yellow represents control over the four seasons. Star ting with winter, the four seasons revolve, taking turns to interact with the yellow. This shows the cycle of the seasons, coming and going at an unchanging pace, neither too hasty nor too sluggish. This cycle of nature shows that the intense heat of summer gradually fades as does the frost of winter, according to the passage of time. When the four seasons express their respective energies accordingly, time continues its steady cycles, allowing for a full harvest. The harvest then enriches the state, bringing peace to its lands.

As the Cheoyongmu represents the cycles of nature, it was performed during narye ceremonies at the end of every year as well as at the end of parties in the royal court and government offices to bring in good luck.

Cheoyongmu is based on a story from the Samgukyusa, a record of mythology surrounding King Heongang of Shilla dating back to 875 A.D. Cheoyong, one of the sons of the Sea Dragon King, took on human form and followed King Heongang to Gyeongju, the capital of Shilla. There, he became a government official and took on a beautiful wife. Cheoyong’s wife became the subject of envy by the smallpox spirit, who stole into Cheoyong’s house while he was out, to lie by her side to test Cheoyong’s character. When Cheoyong returned to see this, he began to sing and dance instead of getting angry, which moved the smallpox spirit to kneel down and beg for forgiveness. Thus moved by Cheoyong’s magnanimity, the smallpox spirit made a promise never to enter houses bearing the portrait of Cheoyong. This was how the tradition of hanging Cheoyong portraits on the doors of houses around the end of the year began. Cheoyongmu was born out of this tradition and evolved from a solo dance into a pair dance and eventually into the five person group dance of today. Cheoyongmu was designated Important Intangible Cultural Heritage Number 39 in 1971 by the Korean government and inscribed onto the UNESCO Representative List in 2009.