The Republic of Korea’s Traditional Performing Arts in the 21st Century


A review of Transmission and Performance: Memory, Heritage and Authenticity in Korean Mask Dramas, by CedarBough Tam Saeji.

CedarBough Saeji’s dissertation examines the transmission, performance and vitality of Korean traditional performing arts within the context of South Korea’s Cultural Property Protection Law (hereafter CPPL). Given that the CPPL was first set in motion in 1962, Saeji’s evaluation takes place nearly fifty years later, between 2004 and 2011. While Saeji engages with an impressively wide spectrum of performing arts, her ethnographic fieldwork centers on three regional styles of mask dance drama (Songpa Sandae Noli, Bongsan Talchum and Goseong Ogwangdae) and a regional style of pungmul (Imshil Pilbong Nongak). In her focus on mask dance drama, in particular, Saeji builds upon Yang Jongsung’s 2003 book Cultural Protection Policy in Korea and differentiates her work from Keith Howard’s 2006 more music-based study Preserving Korean Music: Intangible Cultural Properties and Icons of Identity. While all of these authors interrogate the construction of authenticity in the transmission process, Saeji integrates her discussion with concerns about memory and heritage.

The dissertation is conceived in four parts. Part 1 involves “Setting the Stage,” and develops the main ideas of the dissertation in Chapters 1, 2 and 3. Part 2 looks “Behind the Mask” and features Saeji’s robust research with performing artists and forms the bulk of the dissertation in Chapters 4 through 8. Part 3 shifts perspective and looks “In Front of the Mask” to explore audience perspectives in Chapters 9 and 10. Part 4 concludes the dissertation with Chapter 11.

Chapter 1 opens and ends with a firsthand, multi-sensory description of practicing sangmo, the art of twirling a long ribbon that is attached to a player’s hat while dancing and/or playing a percussion instrument. The remarkable intensity and effort that is involved in making it look so effortless serves as a metaphor for what it will take to ensure the future of Korean traditional performing arts as well as a cue for the author’s commitment to participant-observation. In Saeji’s words, this kind of research is a “somatic and embodied encounter” that proceeds through “sweat and aching muscles” (21). Following a general introduction to the CPPL system and to the performing arts traditions examined in most depth, Saeji reflexively situates herself vis-à-vis the field and her research and reflects upon the role of activism and advocacy. Saeji then lays out the main components of her research methodology, which includes intensive participant-observation, interviews, document research and audience surveys. She concludes the chapter by summarizing her holistic approach to looking at transmission “without losing sight of the modern Korean culture with which it is intertwined” and then provides a chapter overview of the dissertation.

In Chapter 2, Saeji lays out her theoretical framework for the dissertation. First, she positions the preservation of traditional Korean performing arts as a response to globalization. Then she discusses memory, heritage and authenticity within the context of transmission. Here, she argues that the transmission of arts knowledge is an important component in shaping and embodying collective memory. At this point she analyzes heritage, not as a given, but as something that is activated over time, ideally through conversations or what Laurajane Smith calls “consensual heritage discourse.” Saeji argues that the conversation on consensual heritage has recently gone quiet and that Koreans are now in danger of disconnecting from their heritage. Finally, Saeji discusses the problems associated with designating cultural properties based upon authenticity claims and presents various types of and theories about authenticity that complicate its definition. In the end, the major question for Saeji seems to be the complex role of change in shaping authenticity, implying that preserving forms without allowing for gradual change is akin to taxidermy, which in her view erodes authenticity while still providing the illusion of vitality.

In Chapter 3, Saeji explores the double-edged nature of protection systems in the global context and then examines how the Korean CPPL works, often in ways that go against its stated goals. Saeji explains her preference for taxidermization—as opposed to fossilization, ossification, freezing and even pickling—as a metaphor that most aptly describes the perils of intangible cultural property protection. She follows this with an unflinching report of how the CPPL has changed the way Korean arts are performed. Among the most dramatic of these changes include the development and adherence to the wonhyeong or “original form”; the disconnection of the performing arts from its immediate community, regional location and context; the move towards increased professionalization; and the development of unequal power dynamics among performers. Saeji nuances her findings with interviews with a diversity of actors—cultural arbiters, programmers, and performers—making for engaging multivocal ethnography.

In the introduction to Part 2 (Chapters 4 through 8), Saeji asserts that there are two types of transmission: transmission-through-performance and transmission-through-teaching. She then provides an overview of the various modes of transmission-through-teaching in Korea (transmission-through-performance will be discussed in Part 3). Her discussion of gujeon shimsu (oral transmission of the skills and heartfelt intentions of the teacher), in particular, is both fascinating and widely applicable. In Chapter 4, Saeji takes a closer look at professionalization of traditional performers and arts, focusing mostly on Bongsan Talchum. Through a vivid combination of text, ethnographic interviews, data-filled comparison charts and photographs, Saeiji highlights the high level of professionalization that has occurred in Bongsan Talchum compared with other prominent mask dance drama traditions.

Continuing the theme of professionalization, Chapter 5 hones in on the transmission of Korean traditional performing arts in formal educational programs. Instead of focusing on traditional music or dance programs, Saeji turns to the yeonhi program at the Korean National University of the Arts. This program is unique in the way that it integrates instruction in multiple comprehensive performing arts traditions such as pungmul, namsadang, mask dance and shaman ritual. With a focus on the perspective of students and enriched with data that tracks their careers upon graduation, this chapter provides a valuable inside look into this innovative program that Saeji positions as key to the future success of Korean traditional performing arts. Interestingly, this chapter also features a study-within-a-study as Saeji follows these students as they attend an intensive training session at the Goseong Ogwangdae transmission center.

In Chapter 6, Saeji shifts gears to examine the reverence and status that is bestowed upon elder performers. Bolstered by the cultural notion that true aesthetic mastery is not truly achieved until late in life, this phenomenon is also partially driven by the CPPL’s system of advancing only a limited numbers of older individuals to the coveted status of national human treasure. Saeji conveys through her research that this phenomenon has profound consequences, not only by pushing elderly performers at a time when they may be beyond their physical peak, but also by making the advancement of younger performers slower and more difficult to negotiate.

Chapter 7 is a case study of students of Bongsan talchum representing different generations and individual motivations. By interweaving the stories of these individuals, Saeji reveals changing trends and demonstrates how the increasingly career-oriented motivations of some students both support as well as diverge from the goals of a given preservation organization. Chapter 8 focuses on intensive training camps held by the Goseong Ogwangdae and Imshil Pilbong Nongak transmission centers. These two transmission centers have a history of attracting college student groups and, as a result, Saeji mainly encounters a very different type of student, one who is not necessarily interested in learning the tradition in order to pursue a career in the arts. With this examination, Saeji provides a fuller picture of transmission than would have been possible by focusing on one group.

In Chapters 9 and 10, Saeji moves to Part 3 of her dissertation that looks “In Front of the Mask” to concentrate on audiences and audience development. In Chapter 9, Saeji is careful first to contextualize the need to focus on audience development for Korean performing arts, given the continued dominance of Western-derived arts programming in South Korea. Saeji discusses the importance of audience participation and the importance of better understanding the Korean audience by developing a typology of Korean audiences. Saeji then looks at different methods that venues have employed to get audiences to come to performances. Chapter 10 goes into more depth about the ways in which presenters have educated their audiences through promotional materials, programs, the use of emcees and innovating cultural education programs. Saeji also includes an interesting section on how audience outreach is creatively extended by groups that fuse various traditional performing arts with modern sensibilities.

In Part 4, consisting of Chapter 11, Saeji concludes her dissertation by summarizing the impact of cultural protection policies worldwide. She contextualizes her study and offers her recommendations in ways that are immediately applicable and relevant to South Korea, as well as to international systems such as UNESCO or to other nations with similar preservation systems. While Saeji engages critically with loaded issues such as cultural appropriation and taxidermization, her outlook is optimistic. Equipped with an extraordinary eye that can both honestly assess the larger picture as well as hone in on flashpoints of creativity, Saeji’s recommendations are framed in a constructive manner. As such, this dissertation is relevant to a wide spectrum of fields such as arts administration and applied anthropology as well as to the academic areas of Korean Studies, dance, performance studies and ethnomusicology. While it would be impossible to cover all of the performing arts that are designated for preservation under the CPPL law, Saeji’s work is remarkably comprehensive. In this light, Saeji’s engagement with multiple genres and actors in the Korean performing arts world is unprecedented, making it a welcome and valuable contribution to Korean Studies.

Donna Lee Kwon
Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology
University of Kentucky

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork in South Korea (2004-2011), including participant-observation, field notes, audio and video documentation with Bongsan talchum, Songpa Sandae NoriGoseong Ogwangdae and Imsil Pilbong.
140 interviews with performing artists, cultural brokers, students and audience members.
3 audience surveys of 159 individuals.
Documents include original certification documents, Cultural Heritage Administration paperwork, confidential evaluation documents from the Cultural Properties Committee, as well as organizational documents from the four preservation associations related to performances, recruitment activities, and finances.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2012. 593 pp. Primary Advisor: Christopher Waterman.

Image: Photo by the author.

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