Korean Mask Dance: An Exciting Comprehensive Folk Art

Korean Mask Dance ⓒ shutterstock

The Cultural Heritage Administration selected ‘mask dance of Korea’ as its 2020 nomination for UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during a joint meeting of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Division of the Cultural Heritage Committee, which was held on 6 December 2019. Regarding the nomination, the International Mask Arts & Culture Organization (IMACO) held a research presentation and an international academic symposium on 20 and 21 December in collaboration with Andong City, Korea.

Here, ‘mask dance of Korea’ refers to a kind of drama performed while wearing masks with different local features. It is a comprehensive folk art that encompasses a variety of elements, including singing, dance, dramatic content, and costumes. Korean mask dance is a novel form of expressing the thoughts and feelings of the people, and it truly mesmerizes the audience with diverse characters and dance moves.

Traditionally, Korean mask dances helped people express their suppressed feelings and satire. Different types of mask dance drama have been transmitted nationwide. Among them, in particular, are Hahoe Byeolsingut Talnori of Andong, Byeolsingut Talnori of Gangneung, Songpa Sandae Nori and Yangju Byeolsandae Nori of Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, Haeseo of Hwanghae-do (incl. Bongsan, Gangnyeong, Eunyul), and Yayu and Ogwangdae of the east and west areas of Nakdong River.

The mask dance was a representative folk culture of the late Joseon period in Korea, along with pansori, a traditional form of musical storytelling. Mask dances hold great artistic significance and value in Korea’s traditional community, as it relates to the minds of the people through its theatrical and entertaining aspects while also functioning as a medium for social criticism.

Until now, thirteen mask dance elements have been listed as national intangible cultural heritage and four others have been listed as city/provincial intangible cultural heritage. The Cultural Heritage Administration is planning to submit the nomination file on Korean mask dance to UNESCO by the end of March 2020. The nomination will be decided during the seventeenth session of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee to be held in 2022.

Meanwhile, a special exhibition titled “In High Spirit, Away From Sorrows: Traditional Korea Mask Dance Drama” is being held at the National Intangible Heritage Center located in Jeonju, Korea. The exhibition presents the history of traditional masks and mask dance as well as five traditional masks known as hahoe-tal, the oldest mask dance tradition in Korea. The exhibition will be running until 23 February 2020. For more information, please visit the website.