Saturday, October 03, 2009

Andong Mask Dance Festival

Last weekend, I visited the city of Andong, which is the largest city in the North Gyeonsang Province. With a population of 185,000 it is surrounded by some beautiful countryside and acts as the market centre for agriculture in the area.

During the Joseon Dynasty, the city of Andong became famous for being the centre of confucianism in Korea and was home to many famous confucian scholars such as Toe-gye Yi Hwang (1501-70). The city also contained the highest number of private and confucian schools during this time and many members of the noble classes, who had great influence within Korean political circles, also lived here.

Probably the most famous confucian academy here is Dosan Seowon, which was founded in 1574 in honour of Toe-gye Yi Hwang. One of the foremost scholars of the period, he was a prolific writer who emphasized personal experience and moral self-cultivation, as the essence of learning.

My main reason for going to Andong was to visit the mask festival which takes place here annually at the beginning of October. Held on two main sites, one in the city centre itself and one in the countryside at the Hahoe Village, it not only provides a showcase for traditional Korean mask dancing, but is also an international event with mask dances from all over the world.

The Hahoe Village is a place that has been preserved from the Joseon era, with all its buildings still intact and it is not just a tourist destination, but a fully functioning village with a community of people who reside there as well. 176 families currently live in the village and even though many people here have the benefits of a modern lifestyle such as electricity, telephones, running water and internet access, the village and many of its traditions have been preserved from centuries past.

Its history dates back to the Goryeo period(918-1392) and is distinctly different from other villages of the time, as both commoners and the upper-classes lived here and it really helps to give you a taste of what traditional life would have been like in Korea's past.

Next to it are pine trees, where the Hahoe Mask Dance is staged and just beyond this is the Nakdong River with its huge cliffs towering over the opposite bank. It's extremely picturesque and provides the perfect setting to some of the most enjoyable theatrical performances I've yet seen in travels throughout Asia.

The custom of masks and mask dancing is one that dates back to prehistoric times and they were traditionally used in shamanistic worship to cleanse the audience, to please local deities and to ward off evil spirits from the village. During the Joseon Dynasty they they also became a form of social satire, which gave commoners the opportunity to mock those in authority such as the ruling classes, or wayward Buddhist monks.

Traditionally performed by men who were farmers, the masks are made of wood with highly exagerated features and are brightly coloured to represent different people. This was because the dance was usually done at night and would therefore help to compensate for the low light. Black would be used for and elderly person, red for a young man and white for a young woman.

It is believed that mask dance drama in Hahoe dates back to the 12th century and it is most famous for the Byeolsingut Talnori, which is believed to be the oldest known mask dance in Korea.

It opens with traditional Korean farmers' percussion music being played. Known as Nog-ak, it is Korea's oldest and most popular dance music and was used in important rural events, such as rice planting or village sacrificial rites. I've encountered it at a number of festivals that I've visited and the hypnotic beats of the drums and gongs combined really help to add to the flavour of the festivities.

Throughout the various acts we meet a variety of characters, each one representing a different class.

We are firstly introduced to the bride clown, a representation of Songwhang-shin, the village guardian spirit. She performs a dance around the stage and then the chief priest wearing a red scarf and straw hat enters.

Characters which mock the ruling elite then come on. The Yangban, an arrogant aristocrat with his curled upper lip and Sonbi, a pedantic scholar. Corrupt Buddhist priests are critiscized through the character of Chung, a depraved monk who drunkenly stumbles around the stage.

It then shifts to the humourous side and Imae, a foolish servant bounces around the stage like a demented kangaroo, poking fun at the various characters and Paekchong, a butcher with a coarse tongue and fondness for crude stories, both join the proceedings.

At the end of the performance all of the actors remove their masks and take a bow to great applause, then the audience is invited up onto the stage. Children run about in their hanbok, in and out of everyone as both the audience and performers dance to the accompanying music, as it finally reaches a crescendo.

You can see all of the photos here.

Here are a few highlights of the festival.