Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hahoe, Traditional Village of Performance

Three hours on the Mungunghwa train from Seoul to Andong, Gyeongsanbuk Province, and another 50 minutes by local bus brings the traveler to Hahoe Village, a village nearly encircled by a curve in the Nakdong River. The name Hahoe stems from ha meaning “river” and hoe for “turning around”, in short, a village nestled in the river. When looking at the village from the cliffs opposite, the village resembles a lotus flower floating on the river or the spiraling yin-yang taeguk surrounded by flowing water, both images evident of the strong geomantic principles for which the village site was chosen.

Hahoe Village, along with another traditional village with Joseon-style architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The housing in the village is a mixture of tile-roofed residences for the yangban class of the Ryu clan and are surrounded by the thatched-roof houses of the peasant class. Unlike many traditional villages that attract tourism, the majority of the Hahoe houses are inhabited and even have rooms available for overnight paying guests. Others offer simple meals or the popular Korean fast-food of fish-paste on a stick, ramyun noodles or rice cake in a peppery sauce. Still others have rooms converted into tea and soju rooms.

The village is renowned for not only its traditional housing but other traditional architectural structures like a pavilion, manor houses and a Confucian shrine that are classed as folklore material, not to mention a western-style church, other shrines, a mask museum and in the heart of the city a 600-year-old zelkova tree that is said to be resident of the village spirit, Samsin. In traditional times it was under the village tree, where the village spirit resided, that people rested, performed or prayed for the well-being and success of the village. Now visitors likewise visit the tree to release their prayers. After walking three times around the zelkova one writes his or her name and wish on a streamer of white paper and fastens the paper to the tree where the wind and the spirit gather the prayers. The lower branches of the tree and the low fence around its trunk are a froth of streaming prayers whispering in the wind.

The biggest attraction to Hahoe Village, however, is the talchum, the mask dance. There are 13 regional styles of Korean talchum in existence, and Hahoe has a most unique style. Unlike other mask dances which feature masks made of hanji—Korean traditional paper—and were burnt following the masked funeral or other ritual performance, the making of the alder wood Hahoe masks are steeped in legend.

According to legend, a man named Heo in the mid-Goryeo dynasty (57 – 935 BCE) received a message from an oracle on the way to break the misfortune of the village. He was to completely isolate himself for the duration it took him to carve 12 masks depicting the natures of mankind. Unfortunately on the 100th day of isolation and while he was yet carving the final mask, his virgin lover could not bear the isolation any longer and peeked through the window of his workshop. Instantly upon viewing him, he spewed blood and died, and the virgin lover in shame and remorse committed suicide. The villagers, knowing that bad luck and illness could descend upon them by the spirit of the broken-hearted lover, gave sacrificial rites to her to appease her spirit and ask for her protection from other evil spirits for a woman’s fury knows no limits. And thus, the virgin lover became the protecting village spirit. Whether the legendary lover is the same as Samsin, the protecting spirit inhabiting the aged zelkova, however, is not clear.

Despite dying before completion of his oracle-given task, Heo’s 11 completed masks and one-half mask were used in an exorcism to rid the bad luck from the village, and thus was born the byeolsingut, a ritualized performance praying for the well-being of the village, for crop fertility and for a bountiful harvest.

The byeolsingut, registered as Important Intangible Cultural Properties, is the oldest known mask dance in Korea. It is a masked drama that incorporates dance, mime, music, animals and spirits in a story-line that often mocks human characteristics. It particularly attacks the yangban class for their greed and the monks for their corrupt morals but other human behaviors are exaggerated and mocked as well, like the pure and demure virgin and her alter-ego the vulgar granny. The drama was performed by the peasant class and, in a society suppressed by rigid hierarchies, street performances in entertaining play format were a way of expressing sentiments and opinions not to otherwise be voiced. The sting of attack could thus be viewed as a mere performance and therefore the peasants were not fearful of punitive reprisals for their “outspokenness” or even open lewdness.

The byeolsingut has eight episodes, all entertaining to the ribald disposition of the peasant class and in line with praying for fertility to the land. Sexual innuendo is therefore the common thread through all eight episodes, from the butcher who kills the bull-beast and removes the heart and testicles to sell to the audience, to the old widow singing of her loneliness, to the lecherous monk who watches a young flirty girl “water the flowers”, and to the yangban with his delightfully rude servant and a scholar competing over the flirty, shameless virgin. The performance ends with all actors—of course involving the audience throughout—on stage and suddenly whisking themselves off to the off-stage wedding and the wedding night, which is not a part of the common performance.    

During the performance, the audience is expected to participate. Members are pulled from the audience, particularly foreigners that stand out, a bald man or an attractively dressed female, and gentle fun is poked at them in Korean with some bits of English slipped in. The foreigners are encouraged to dance with the actors, the audience is further entertained, and the parody of mockery and satire is extended.

Hahoe Village is open year-round but mask performances are held only in the warm-weather months, particularly on weekends, and throughout the 10-day long Andong Mask Festival held in the fall. The festival is a grand mixture of world-wide mask dances as well as the various representative mask dances of Korea. For 10 days international mask dances are held in the host city of Andong and local dances are performed in the traditional village of Hahoe. The final fanfare for the festival is the julbulnori, the traditional firework display back in Hahoe Village on the last Saturday night of the festival. Julbulnori roughly translates as “a line of fire play” which is pretty accurate as to how it appears. Several lines of fireworks are strung from the 64-meter high Buyongdae cliffs, which overlook Hahoe Village. On the final Saturday night of the Andong Mask Festival the lines are lighted and they sizzle and burn vigorously while paper lanterns are lit and released as prayers into the heavens; below on the Nakdong River lighted boats float gracefully beneath the burning lines of fireworks and from the heights of the cliffs above western-style fireworks are lit to explode overhead. 

As soon as the fireworks start to fizzle, the masses make rushes to catch the last bus back to Andong or to their cars to beat the jam of one-way traffic back to the non-traditional. This year the Andong Mask Festival 2015 will be from September 25 to October 4—and the neighboring Hahoe Village will host more traditional performances, more fireworks and be the gateway to yet more visitors wanting a cultural experience in a nostalgically traditional village-wide stage. 

[Published in Korean Quarterly, Vol 18, No 3, Spring 2015, p 64-65]

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