Jeon Kyung Wook
Professor of Korean Language Education, Korea University

Transmission and Performance Background of Bongsan Talchum

Bongsan Talchum, or the Bongsan mask-dance drama, was originally transmitted in Giryang-ri, Dongseon-myeon, Bongsan-gun, Hwanghae Province in the northern part of Korean Peninsula. However, with the relocation of administrative bodies, including the district office to Sariwon in 1915, the mask-dance drama and its transmission activities were also transferred to the area. In South Korea, Bongsan Talchum had been transmitted since its restoration by performers who originated from the North, including Jin-ok Kim and Cheon-sik Min, and was designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 17 in 1967. The office of the Bongsan Mask Dance-Drama Preservation Society is currently housed within the Training Center for Important Intangible Cultural Properties in Seoul.
Bongsan Talchum, along with Gangryeong Talchum, constituted the acme of the mask-dance drama of the Haeseo region (Hwanghae Province) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, it became widely known after the performance held at the foot of Mt. Kyongam in Sariwon on the Buddhist All Souls’ Day (fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month) on 31 August 1936, was aired nationally by the Gyeongseong Broadcasting Station.
Bongsan Talchum was usually performed on the Dano day (fifth day of the fifth lunar month), as well as on special occasions celebrated by the local government office, such as the reception of envoys and the arrival of a newly appointed district magistrate. The old town of Bongsan, located on the Northeast Straight Road, was the seat of the Bongsan-gun government office and the temporary place of residence for Chinese envoys.
Performers consisted of petty officials of the local government office, in addition to merchants and villagers. The participation of petty officials facilitated the production and staging of mask dramas and also improved the standard of performance. The Musician Management Agency under the local government office actively supported the genre by providing musicians to play incidental music until around 1900. After the Japanese annexation of Korea led to the dissolution of the Musician Management Agency, musicians were invited from the performers’ village in Gachang-ri.

Bongsan Talchum as a Social Satire with Progressive Ideals

Bongsan Talchum is a social satirical comedy that reflects the social realities of the late Joseon period. In addition to breaking away from its ritualistic origins, Bongsan Talchum has acquired a theatrical format and content through the innovative adaptation of previous mask dances that had existed as a mere trivial talent.
Firstly, Bongsan Talchum and other mask dramas of the Sandae Nori (mask dances from the central region of Korea) style satirize the various absurdities and ills of the late Joseon society. To this end, each mask drama was created by separately combining existing content elements, such as the Monk Manseok dance that satirizes an apostate monk, which was performed as part of yuhui (儒戱, a satirical play about nobles) and sanhui (山戱, puppet show) at munhuiyeon (聞喜宴) and other feasts, and the Old Man and Woman dance that presents a love triangle between a husband, his wife, and his concubine, a tryst often encountered in everyday life. Consequently, Bongsan Talchum has become characterized by an omnibus style where a number of separate elements are interwoven to form a mask drama.
First of all, the nobleman playing act established its theatrical style and content based on the existing yuhui. Yuhui is a play that was always performed at munhuiyeon, the celebratory banquet for those who had passed the state civil service exam, and was composed of satires on seonbi (Confucian scholars) and ridicule of Confucianists and Confucian scriptures. While yuhui mocked Confucian scholars, the Yangban playing act made fun of noblemen. The masks of the noble characters portray the first nobleman with a double cleft lip, the second nobleman with a cleft lip, and the bachelor son of the head family with a crooked face and nose (Fig. 1). These distinct features are a way of expressing the popular consciousness that rejects social inequality and criticizes the privileges of the nobility.
On the other hand, the Nojang (old monk) playing act was constructed using the traditional Monk Manseok dance. The elements performed, centering around chaebung (makeshift wooden stage decorated with silk in five colors), which can be found in the recently discovered color painting Nakseongyeondo (落成宴圖), correspond with sanhui featured in the chapter of seonggi (聲伎, performances such as puppet shows and mask dramas) in Volume 1 of Gyeongdo-japji (京都雜志, “Seoul Miscellany”) written by Yu Deuk-gong (1749-1807). The chapter includes the phrase, “For sanhui, they lay platforms and put up coverings, and perform the lion, tiger, and Monk Manseok dances (山戱結棚下帳 作獅虎曼碩僧舞).” Two makeshift platforms are portrayed at the base of the Nakseongyeondo—they are chaebung. Performers are presenting lion-mask and tiger-mask dances in front of the chaebung while the nojang in a kudzu robe and a gisaeng (female entertainer) stand on the right chaebung and the drunk and red-faced chwibari (old bachelor) and a gisaeng on the left chaebung. These images describe none other than the Monk Manseok dance (Fig. 2). A different type of performance from Manseokjung Nori (Monk Manseok shadow play), it is a portrayal of the famous folktale of Monk Jijok and Hwang Jini in the form of mask dancing1.
North Korean scholar Kim Il-chul explains that the Sandae Nori of Kaesong deems the identity of Nojang (old monk) to be Jijok the great monk and that of Tangnyeo (gisaeng) to be Hwang Jini. In other words, the origin story of Manseokjung Nori (story of Monk Jijok, who is seduced by Hwang Jini and eventually becomes an apostate) was precisely reflected in the Sandae Nori of Kaesong, leading to the appearance of Monk Jijok as Nojang and Hwang Jini as Tangnyeo2.

According to Chujae Giyi (秋齋紀異, “Collective Essays of Chujae”) by a late Joseon dynasty poet Cho Su-sam (1762-1849), the mask dancer Tak Munhan, who lived from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, performed the Monk Manseok dance. The phrase in the book, “Hwang Jini struts with her face down, and Monk Manseok, dressed in a robe, dances while staggering around (眞娘弓步斂蛾眉 萬石槎槎舞衲緇)” matches the scene of the nojang playing act in the present-day mask drama, in which the robed nojang first appears, taking faltering steps and struggling to keep his footing. Therefore, it can be inferred that the nojang playing act of today’s mask drama originated from the folktale of Monk Jijok and Hwang Jini.
Secondly, Bongsan Talchum carried highly progressive themes for the time, reflecting the popular consciousness that rejected the established order and demanded new values. Korean mask dramas critically present real problems caused by social inequality. The names of the characters already hint the themes to be addressed in each playing act. They include nojang, somu (young shaman), sinjangsu (shoe peddler), yangban, malttugi (Yangban’s servant), yeonggam (old man) and halmi (old woman), which are mostly names indicating the character’s social status or class, with few specific individual names used. This shows that the mask drama aimed to address issues of social status and class, rather than the characters’ personal issues.
Noblemen’s privileged status revealed by a satire on yangban, nojang’s deceptive ideology revealed by a satire on the apostate monk, yeonggam’s male tyranny as exposed through his love triangle with his wife and concubine—these are all relics of a feudal society. Bongsan Talchum, which asserts the need to eradicate these negative relics, shows new progress toward heightened social consciousness. In addition, positive characters like chwibari, podobujang (police bureau official), malttugi and Halmi demonstrate the popular consciousness that rejected the established order and demanded new values3, which is in line with the Donghak Peasant Revolution and other historical movements that mark the transition from a medieval to modern society.

Figure 2. Chaebung and sanhui scene (lion, tiger and Monk Manseok dances) depicted in the color painting Nakseongyeondo.

1. Jeon, Kyung-wook, History of Traditional Performances in Korea, Seoul: Hakgojae Publishing, 2020, pp. 274-279.
2. Kim, Il-chul, A Study on the Folk Mask-dance Theatre in Joseon, Pyongyang: Academy of Sciences Publisher, 1958, p. 188.
3. Cho, Dong-il, The History and Principles of Talchum, Seoul: Hongseongsa, 1981, pp. 185-198.