Korean Mask Dance – Talchum

In the blog post about Korean Dano Festival, I mentioned that one of the key events of the Gangneung Dano Festival is the Gangneung Gwanno Mask Dance Drama.  Actually, mask dance is a traditional Korean cultural symbol not restricted to Gangneung and there are many other places in Korea which have their own styles of mask dance.  Let’s discuss about talchum, Korean mask dance, in this blog post.

What is talchum?

Talchum (탈춤), Korean mask dance drama, is a form of folk entertainment. “Tal” (탈) literally means “mask” and “Chum” (춤) literally means “dance”.  Originally, talchum only referred to mask dances in the Hwanghae Province and different names were used for mask dances from other places like “sandae nori” (산대놀이) for mask dances in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, “ogwangdae” (오광대) for those in western part of South Gyeongsang Province and “Hahoe Byeolsingut Talnori” (하회별신굿탈놀이) in Andong of North Gyeongsang Province.  There are about 12 different types of mask dances throughout South Korea with each region having its own unique masks and dance.  Nowadays, talchum is used as a general term for Korean mask dances.

Talchum is a form of drama featuring the wearing of masks, singing and dancing. Korean masks can be made from wood, paper gourd or bamboo. The masks used in talchum have distorted, exaggerated and comical facial features which are out of proportion in most cases, for example, eyes larger and more circular than normal ones, long and drooping down nose, excessively lifted mouth, etc.  The features of the mask symbolically represent the social status or condition of the characters.  For example, the servant mask has larger eyes, nose and ears than other masks and these features suggest that the servant must watch and listen carefully the  corrupt and devious schemes of the nobleman, the ruling class.  The nobleman mask usually features an ugly and deformed face which is used to depict the vanity and corruption of the ruling class and express the hostility of the commoners towards the ruling class.

Talchum is divided into several scenes which are not closely connected and each represents a different conflict and theme.  While the themes of talchum from different regions may vary, the following are common themes:

(a) In the “nobleman” scene, the nobleman brags about himself by showing off his knowledge but the servant ridicules his master’s knowledge.

(b) In the “apostate monk” scene, the old monk is tempted by a young woman, forgets his duties and attempts to seduce her.  However, the young woman’s lover appears and criticizes the old monk and attacks him to win back his lover.  The old monk finally loses the young woman and is chased away by the young woman’s lover.

(c) The “old woman” scene depicts the conflict between husband and wife. The wife wanders all over the country searching for her husand but when she finally finds him, the husand breaks her heart by keeping a beautiful young concubine.  The wife leaves home and dies of a broken heart.  To lament the death of his wife, the husand invites a shaman to comfort his wife’s soul or hosts a funeral service for his wife.

While many different types of musical instruments may be used for talchum, it is common that rhythmic patterns are created by percussion instruments like the janggo (hourglass-shaped drum) and buk (double-headed drum) and melodies are played by daegeum (large bamboo flute), haegeum (two-stringed fiddle) and piri (cylindrical bamboo oboe).  A variety of styles of dance are performed to tunes with rhythms ranging from fast and slow, for example, exciting dances performed to a rapid rhythm and elegant dances performed to a slow rhythm.

Talchum is generally played in an open field where the actors perform in the centre of the field which serves as the stage and the audience watches the performance from seats around the performers.  The actors may modify their lines depending on the atmosphere of that day or vary their performance to encourage an audience response.  Moreover, towards the end of the performance, the audience joins together in robust dance.  Therefore, the audience are not only mere observers but also particpate in the performance.

You can watch the mask dances of the following regions by clicking the links below:

Hahoe Mask Dance

Bongsan Mask Dance

Gangneung Mask Dance

History of talchum

While it is difficult to trace the origin of talchum, it is believed that talchum began as a part of Shaman ritual which was used to please the gods and exorcise the evil spirits and later became a village ritual to pray for an abundant harvest, peace and prosperity.  During the Silla period (57 BC to 935 AD), speeches and songs were added to transform it into a play which acted as a form of court entertainment.  Later, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), talchum became a popular means through which the commoners satirized and critized the society while concealing their identity behind the masks.

This tradition was nearly lost during the difficult colonial period (1910-1945).  By the 1960’s, it was restored through the vigorous efforts of folklorists, talchum researchers and performers.  In the 1980’s, it regained its popularity on university campuses during the democratic movement.  Nowadays, it has become one of the Korean cultural symbols.

Enjoying talchum

If you want to experience the talchum culture, you may join the Andong Mask Dance Festival which is an annual event held in the Hahoe Folk Village of Andong. This year, it will be held from 25 September to 4 October 2015.   Apart from Hahoe Byeolsingut Talnori (which is the local version of mask dance), you can also watch the performances of mask dances from other regions in South Korea and from other countries (like Thailand, Philippines, China, India, Israel, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, Indonesia and Japan).  Moreover, there are also mask dance competitions and mask dance lessons in which the visitors can participate.  You can watch this video for an exerpt of the festival.  You can visit the festival’s website for details of the 2015 Andong Mask Dance Festival.

Do you want to learn some basic dance movements of talchum?  Watch this video to learn some very simple basic dance movements. Happy Dancing! 🙂

Reminder: The date of publication of the next post will be announced on the “Latest News” page of this website when it’s available. Or you can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  Watch this space!



Arirang TV, “Mask Dance“, 100 Icons of Korean Culture, 2013-08-24

Kang Nan-sook, Tal and Talchum, Daejeon: National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, 2011

Kim Joo-yeon, “Talchum: Korean masked dance“, The KNU Times, 2006-11-01

Talchum, Korean Mask Dance“, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade



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