[Visual History of Korea] ‘Pansori’ — Musical Tales Across Societal Barriers

[Visual History of Korea] ‘Pansori’ — Musical Tales Across Societal Barriers

Pansori myeongchang Heo Ae-sun performs “Simcheongga” with drummer Go Jeong-hoon at Namwon Public Library in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, Korea, Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Among Korean oral traditions, “pansori”, or narrative singing of epic stories and folk dramas, is performed with the participation of the audience.

A solo performer who sings and tells folk tales must have an audience that verbally applauds, reacts to the climax of a scene, and helps the performer develop the spiritual and physical energy needed to bring the story to fruition.

A combination of chanting, called ‘chang’, plus verbal narration called ‘aniri’, and body language called ‘neoreumsae’, a pansori piece can last up to eight hours. The drummer sets the pace, while the audience energizes the storyteller with cheers, adlibs and cheers.

The word “pan” in pansori means gathered crowds and “sori” means singing or telling stories in front of an audience.

Added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List in 2003, pansori has been popular with the masses, but the pansori repertoire is riddled with old proverbs and idioms.

“Gwangdae,” which originally referred to performers wearing a mask, became the trade name for pansori singers during the Joseon period, according to written records.

When Yangban began to sing pansori, they institutionalized the repertoire with a Hanja-based vocabulary and elevated pansori to a genre of entertainment enjoyed by kings.

“Many of the earliest documented pansori singers are ‘seondal’, educated Yangban who did not hold government positions. the central government would act on the news and send undercover inspectors to areas that appear in pansori stories. The gwangdae performing pansori were intelligence gatherers who had access to the ears of high officials and even the king,” Kim said. Yong-geun, director of the Jirisan Cultural Resources Research Center, who has been studying pansori since 1987.

Artists perform in the Bubyeongnu yeonhoedo section of the

Artists perform in the Bubyeongnu yeonhoedo section of “Welcome Banquet for the Governor of Pyeongan” by painter Joseon Kim Hong-do (1745-1806) on display at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Namwon City in South Jeolla Province has a long tradition of pansori greats establishing Dongpyeonje, the style of pansori developed in areas east of the Seomjin River, centered around Namwon and Gurye. Seopyeonje hails from areas west of the Seomjin River, including Gwangju, Gochang, and Jindo.

Song Heung-rok (1801-1863), one of the founders of Dongpyeonje pansori, even held a very high-ranking government post, Jeong 3-pum, a third position from the top. He is worshiped in his hometown of Namwon, North Jeolla Province, alongside 49 accomplished pansori singers of the Joseon period, also known as pansori myeongchang.

One of the classic pansori, “Simcheongga”, is a story set in the year 1085 during the kingdom of Goryeo, of a woman called Sim Cheong who becomes empress.

Sim Cheong, in an effort to restore her blind father Sim Hak-gyu to his sight, leaps into the sea as a human sacrifice offered to appease the sea gods. Her filial piety moves the gods, and she becomes Empress upon his resurrection. At the palace, Sim Cheong invites blind people from all over the country.

The blind father travels a thousand li in the figurative sense, or about 400 kilometers, to reach the Emperor’s Palace where, on discovering his daughter, he regains his sight in a state of extreme shock.

Entertainment is enhanced when the pansori is articulated in an emotionally charged song, accompanied by a tragic story and an emphatic expression of body language.

This is the scene in which Lady Gwak, Sim Cheong’s mother, dies after giving birth – the pansori singer collapses to the floor, lands on her bottom and moans loudly with tears streaming down.

“Crying and moaning is the most difficult and exhausting part of pansori, because it takes a lot from you,” said Myeongchang Heo Ae-sun, 54, of the National Folk Music Center. Heo finished singing the entire four-hour “Simcheongga.”

A pansori drum, custom-made to Joseon dynasty specifications by Kim Yong-geun, director of the Jirisan Cultural Resources Research Center in Namwon, North Jeolla Province.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

A pansori drum, custom-made to Joseon dynasty specifications by Kim Yong-geun, director of the Jirisan Cultural Resources Research Center in Namwon, North Jeolla Province. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Heo’s mother, Ahn Jeong-ja, 76, is a Jindo Ssitkkimgut shaman. “When I first told my mother that I would like to learn pansori, my mother was thrilled and signed me up for pansori lessons,” Heo said.

But although the singers are acclaimed, the pansori is an exhausting performance.

“It takes a lot of energy. Several people I know don’t want to perform the full songs, saying it shortens the lifespan,” Heo said.

“I built my stamina and strength for at least two months before the performance. I’m usually a picky eater, but during this month I ate a lot of meat combined with cardio exercises and stretching,” said Heo said “I gained at least 2 kg in the last month,” Heo added.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Briana R. Cross