Question: What do Korean Pansori and Homer’s Odyssey have in common?
Answer: Both of them originated as a form of storytelling oral literature.
Pansori (판소리) is a type of Korean storytelling traditional music performed by a singer and a drummer. As Pansori began as a form of oral tradition, it is difficult to trace its origin. However, it is believed that Pansori originated from narrative shaman songs in south-western Korea in the 17th century. It began as a performance art of and for the common people but later attracted the middle-class audience and patronage of the upper class. In 2008, Pansori was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The stage setting of Pansori performance is very simple: a straw mat on the floor with a couple of cushions for the drummer and a drum. Sometimes, there is also a folding blind with landscape or calligraphy painted on it standing at the back. During the performance, the singer stands in the middle of the straw mat and the drummer sits on the left-hand side of the singer on the cushion. The singer holds a fan which can be used as a prop to represent anything, e.g., a book or a letter or can be used to point in a direction or to identify the position of a person.
The singer begins the performance by singing a short introductory song (usually unrelated to the Pansori work to be performed) to warm up his/her voice before the Pansori proper. The Pansori proper alternates between narration/dialogue and songs. The singer tells the story through his singing, words and body language and plays all the parts in the story including the narrator and all characters of the story and even non-human roles such as the sounds of nature. The drummer plays the accompanying role by providing the rhythm and shouting words of encouragement. During the performance, the singer and drummer interacts with each other and also with the audience. For example, the singer may ask the audience, “Don’t you think so?” or “Won’t you agree?” Performance of a complete Pansori work can last 5 to 8 hours.
Originally, there was a collection of 12 Pansori works but currently only 5 remains, namely, Chunhyangga (춘향가 – Song of Chunhyang), Simcheongga (심청가 – Song of Simcheong), Heungbuga (흥부가 – Song of Heungbu), Jeokbyeokga (적벽가 – Song of the Red Cliff) and Sugungga (수궁가 – Song of the Underwater Palace). The themes of the Pansori works are usually based on folk tales, legends and novels. You can watch excerpts of performance and brief introduction of these 5 Pansori works in UNESCO’s video mentioned in the “References” section below.
With the modernization of South Korea, the popularity of Pansori declined. In 1993, there was a film called “Sopyonje” (서편제) telling the story of a family of Pansori artists. This film attracted an audience of over 1 million and renewed the public interest in Pansori. You can watch the trailer of this film by clicking the link below:
However, after the short-lived fervor from “Sopyonje”, it seemed that Pansori received little public attention. Later this year, another film related to Pansori called “Dorihwaga”(도리화가) which is a story of Shin Jae Hyo (a famous Pansori writer) and his favourite student, Jin Chae Sun (Korea’s first female Pansori singer), will be released. Let’s see if this film can revive the popularity of Pansori like “Sopyonje”. “Dorihwaga” is the title of the Pansori work about Jin Chae Sun written by Shin Jae Hyo. The role of Jin Chae Sun will be played by Suzy Bae, a member of the K-pop idol girl group “Miss A”.
Do you want to learn Pansori? In the episode dated 25 November 2014 of the variety show, “Roommate”, the roommates learnt basic singing techniques and body movements from a Pansori teacher – it is very funny. You can watch this part of the show by clicking the link below:
You may also practise the basic techniques taught by the Pansori teacher in the “Roommate” video clip. Happy singing! 🙂
Reminder: The next blog post will be published on 9 February 2015. Watch this space!
“The Pansori Epic Chant“, UNESCO – the performance excerpts and brief introduction of the 5 remaining Pansori works start at 2:21 of the video
“Sopyonje (Seopyeonje) (1993)“, Korean Film Archive
“Intangible Heritage of Humanity List – The Pansori Epic Chant“, Korea Tourism Organization
Yim Yoon-hee, “Pansori master trains new generation of singers“, Arirang News, 2015-01-20
Arirang TV, “Pansori“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2014-12-10
Tae Sang-joon, “Ryu Seung-ryong and Suzy star in Dorihwaga“, Korean Film Biz Zone, 2014-06-24
Do Je-hae, “Misguided quest to globalize ‘Pansori’“, The Korea Times, 2013-10-14
Haekyung Um, Korean Musical Drama: Pansori and the making of tradition in modernity, Surrey, UK., Vermont, USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2013
Kichung Kim, An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to Pansori, New York, London: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996, pp.197-208