Yong-ho Heo
Research Professor, Institute of Honam Studies, Chonnam National University, Korea

Puppetry practices in Korea have been handed down in diverse contexts and various genres, from maeulgut (village ritual) and mudang gut (shaman’s ritual) which are ceremonial rituals of worshipping transcendental beings, to mask dances which were developed primarily for entertainment purposes. Various traditional puppetry plays have been developed as independent genres in these practices of puppetry in Korea. Moreover, the mainstream category known as kkokdu gaksi noreum as well as seosan parkcheomji nori and baltal (mask plays performed with the soles of one’s feet) have also been transmitted. Seosan Parkcheomji nori is a puppetry play of native clowns, which has been shaped by the influence of kkokdu gaksi noreum, while baltal is a mask play in which a puppet and a man measure their wits. As it appears, kkokdu gaksi noreum inspired other types of puppetry as it has been acclaimed as a representative example of Korean traditional puppetry.

More than forty puppets including Kkokdu gaksi (Parkcheomji’s wife), Hongdongji (Parkcheomji’s nephew), and Isimi (serpent) appear in kkokdu gaksi noreum. Although most of them are mixed forms of string puppets and stick puppets, sometimes tightrope-walking and pocket puppets make an appearance during the plays. A main puppeteer and two or three assistant puppeteers manipulate the puppets and play the voices while hiding themselves behind the curtain at the rear of the stage. The skills of puppetry are various and unique while the appearance and movement of the puppets are simple and clumsy. The puppeteers exercise diverse skills by manipulating the sticks, hands, devices, and strings independently or simultaneously. Kkokdu gaksi noreum is comprehensive in its coverage of traditional puppetry skills in Korea.

The play largely consists of two main groups: puppeteers who manipulate the puppets hiding behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, and musicians who play background music off to the side of the stage. The dialogue between the puppeteers and one of the musicians leads the kkokdu gaksi noreum. The content of the plays is usually ‘criticisms on tyranny by a male and the gender conflict between male and female characters’, ‘privilege in the societal class observed in the relationship between the upper and lower classes’ and ‘empty prestige from conflicts between religious people and common people.’ These themes reflect critical views of the common people on society at large.

Groups which have performed and transmitted kkokdu gaksi noreum are called namsadangpae, (all-male vagabond clowns) who wandered around performing at different villages. While drifting around the country, the namsadangpae would perform various performing arts such as pungmul jultagi (tightrope-walking), mask dances, as well as kkokdu gaksi noreum. Recently, namsadang nori (performance by namsadangpae) including kkokdu gaksi noreum have been designated as elements of Important Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Republic of Korea and was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Kkokdu gaksi noreum has been transmitted through the practice of performing arts groups and is under the protection of the state. The specific performing state of the puppet play can be observed in the open performance of namsadangpae, the main transmitting body, and performances in festivals throughout different regions.