Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Constructing Gender in Pansori

Dr. Heather Willoughby studied music at Brigham Young University and wrote her PhD dissertation on "The Sound of Han: Pansori, Timbre, and a Korean Ethos of Suffering and Lament", having a major field on interest in traditional Korean music. Her interest was peaked when she heard 김송희, one of the best pansori singers of all times [Heather heard her in 1986 when she first came to Korea.] Her lecture write-up is a rich prelude to the topic of music which I know little about:
China, Japan and Korea have distinct musical theater arts that embody aesthetic practices unique to each nation and which express, reflect, and interpret notions of the self. When studied in a compartive manner, pronounced differences, but also threads of similarity can be seen and heard. This lecture will present certain sound aesthetics and other vocal and physical performative aspects that demonstrate the sound and image of an ideal woman in East Asia. Pansori, the main focus of this study, provides an interesting case to investigate verbal expressions of gender ideals as both men and women play all characters in any given story, creating a trans-gendered space, while at the same time occasionally alternating their physicality, timbre and even the pitch of the voice to distinguish Peking Opera with its distinct role types for and/or portraying women, and Japanese kabuki, in which male actors do not merely attempt to act like a woman but rather create and construct an ideal female likeness both visually and aurally.

Korean pansori artfully portrays how femininity and famales are constructed. In Confucianism cultivating proper females characteristics was important as comportment and conduct defined a "good" woman or a "bad" woman. Of highest honor paid to a woman was to have a gate or monument erected in front of her house declaring her loyalty, femininity and/or faithfulness to her husband. [Unfortunately, these gates and monuments were erected posthumously but held up to other women as icons of behavior telling them what was proper behavior to develop.) On the other hand were chanyeon, or a list of "bad" women and these were held as threats to little girls as what was dishonorable for females but which would have repercussions throughout their extended households. Little girls feared being on the list of chanyeon.

The tightening of restrictions on women's behavior and comportment came with the Chosun Dynasty which began to deny Buddhism as their national religion and started to adopt the gender-restricting Confucian principles. And therefore education and indoctrination of proper behavior for women, originated in several textbooks that discussed the precise laws and standards:

Chinese based texts: Yeollyeo, Myeonggam, Yeokyo, Sohak
Illustrated collections of stories: (including parts of) Samgang haengsildo
Guidebook: Naehum (Instructions for Women, compiled in 1475 by Queen Consort Sohye, mother of King Seongjong)

Korean Pansori

Very little is known about the history, development or even who developed or introduced pansori, but it can be traced back to itinerant musicians, who were often relatives to shamans. It was a music style that was also developed by the lower classes and for the lower classes, and was not seen as something to cultivate among the yangban, probably due to its informality of musical presentation and certainly because of the vulgarity.

Pansori has three key components - song, speech and gestures. There is no scenery, just a mat signifying space, the 소리 or song accompaniment, and the drum accompaniment. The song could be news from local or the central government, a musical narration over days, and utilize many different styles throughout even a single pansori performance.

However, as pansori became a musical genre that the upper classes started to cultivate, the genre began to change as it was "Confucianized". The cheeky vulgarity of the lower classes had to be cleaned up and racy stories eliminated or altered. The pansori became regulated and a teaching tool for Confucian morals and the teaching of principles. So of the 12 pansori performances still in existence today, only 5 were permitted to be told. And so pansori, as a tool of the upper classes, came to be relied on as a story-telling tool for the education and indoctrination of women. Women were prominent in Korean narratives and the thrust became "no matter how powerful a female character may be, it is imperative that she first be indoctrinated as to her proper mode of conduct. Only through the reification of her virtue will she be awarded honor in society." To have honor, feminine ideals were proper etiquette, conduct, demeanor, filial piety, monetary frugaliaty, marriage and other relationships maintained with chastity, faithfulness and virtue. And in the storytelling, three types of women emerged to laud the proper behavior of the "good" woman, and to chastise the "bad": women were either virtuous and having valor, bawdy and manipulative, or controlling and conniving (but caring). Ideal womanhood was emphasized!

Pansori performers were traditionally men, and only three women were trained in pansori prior to the 20th century, which means women were absent from the emergence and the development of the genre, and yet through the genre women were regulated to the role of "voicing" well-established roles of the ideal Korean woman. Not so ironically, as women gain recognition and "voice" in Korean society, their numbers of pansori singers has also risen, and today there are many more female pansori singers than male.

As for the sounds of pansori, no particular "femaleness" or "maleness" is apparent in the performance, that is, there is no physical movement to vindicate the change in character enactment although two or multiple characters are being enacted by a single pansori singer. The enactment is done solely through voice change. Because pansori was developed by males, when women began to sing pansori they had to adjust to the male style and range, although range can shift throughout each performance, creating an androgyny of sound.

Of the 5 most popular pansori performances still given today, "The Tale of Ch'unhyang" is most famous as it is based on a story of a "good" woman, which is replete with moral lessons, including filial devotion, obedience, faithfulness, and very important womanly virtue (chastity).

Constructing Women Comparatively

Traditionally in the development of Peking opera, men played men's roles; men play women's roles; women play young boy's roles. In Japanese kabuki, men dominated the performances and the "ideal woman" was traditionally played by a man. In Korean pansori, there was very little distinction between masculinity and femininity in the performance itself, but the 소리 was for the male voice range, and parts were broken up not based on gender but on story. As women entered the profession, ranges were not changed so women were trained to sing with strength and power.

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