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Korean Drama&Dance Essay, Research Paper

China, Korea, and Japan have been historically close for centuries, thus accounting for their numerous common artistic traditions. From pre-Christian times until the 8th and 9th century AD, the great trade routes crossed from the Middle East through Central Asia into China. Hinduism, Buddhism, some knowledge of ancient Greek, and much knowledge of Indian arts entered into China, and thence in time into Korea and Japan. Perhaps before Christ, the Central Asian art of manipulating hand puppets was carried to China.

For more than 700 years, until 668, in the kingdom of Koguryo, embracing northern Korea and Manchuria, court music and dances from Central Asia, from Han China, from Manchuria, and from Korea, called chiso and kajiso, were performed. Many of the dances were masked; all were stately as befit serious court art. They were taken to the Japanese court in Nara about the 7th century. Called bugaku in Japan, they have been preserved for 12 centuries and can still be seen performed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, though they have long since died out in China and Korea. In Koguryo’s neighbouring kingdom of Paekche, a form of Buddhist masked dance play was performed at court, and, in the 7th century, it too was taken to the Japanese court at Nara by a Korean performer, Mimaji, who had learned the dances while staying at the southern Chinese court of Wu-hou. Called kiak in Korea and gigaku in Japan, the Aryan features of some of its masks clearly indicate Indian (or Central Asian) influence. Such complicated genealogies are common in East Asian performing arts.

Korean drama has its origins in prehistoric religious rites, while music and dance play an integral role in all traditional theatrical performances. A good example of this classical theatrical form is the masked dance called sandaenori or talchum, a combination of dance, song and narrative punctuated with satire and humor. Slightly varying from one region to another in terms of style, dialogue and costume, it enjoyed remarkable popularity among rural people until the early 20th century.

Pansori, the lengthy narrative songs based on popular tales, and Kkokdugaksinoreum or puppet plays, performed by vagrant artists, also drew large audiences. The shamanistic rituals known as gut were another form of religious theater that appealed to the general public. All these performances are seldom presented today.

There are a few institutions that offer various performing arts in one place, an example of this being Jeong-dong Theater in central Seoul, that presents a traditional performing arts series, drama and music. The first performance of singeuk (new drama), a departure from the masked dance and other forms of olden-day dramas, was presented in December 1902. However, modern drama began to take firm root in the 1910s after the first Western-style theater was opened in Seoul in 1908. The theater named Wongaksa was in operation until November 1909.

Theatrical groups “Hyeoksindan” and “Munsu-seong” were also organized by those who returned from study in Japan and staged sinpa (new wave) dramas. Sinpa was a concept that countered gupa (old wave) drama, meaning kabuki of Japan. Sinpa dramas first dealt with political and military themes and then diversified into detective stories, soap operas and tragedies. While sinpa dramas proved to be a passing fad, a genuine new wave of dramas was promoted by artists who rallied around Wongaksa and raised the curtain of modern drama. In 1922, Towolhoe, a coterie of theatrical figures, was formed, with this organization leading the drama movement across the country, staging as many as 87 performances. Drama remained popular until the 1930s, but then subsided in the socio-political turmoil of the 1940s and ’50s. In the following decade, it was further weakened amidst the boom of motion pictures and the emergence of television.

In the 1970s, a number of young artists began to study and adopt the styles and themes of traditional theatrical works like the masked dance plays, shaman rituals and pansori. The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation has been sponsoring an annual drama festival to encourage local theatrical performances. At present, a great number of theatrical groups are active all the year round, featuring all manner of genres from comedy to historical epics at small theaters along Daehagno in downtown Seoul. Some theatrical performances become very successful and are staged for extended runs. The first Korean-made film was shown to the public in 1919. Entitled “Righteous Revenge,” it was a so-called kino-drama designed to be combined with a stage performance. The first feature film, “Oath Under the Moon,” was screened in 1923. In 1926, charismatic actor-director Na Ungyu drew an enthusiastic response from the public by producing “Arirang,” a cinematic protest against Japanese oppression.

After the Korean War in 1953, the local film industry grew gradually and enjoyed a booming business for about a decade. But the next two decades saw a stagnation of the industry due largely to the rapid growth of television. Since the early 1980s, however, the film industry has regained some vitality thanks mainly to a few talented young directors who boldly discarded old stereotypes in movie making. Their efforts succeeded and their movies have earned recognition at various international festivals including Cannes, Chicago, Berlin, Venice, London, Tokyo, Moscow and other cities. This positive trend has been accelerating in the 1990s with more and more Korean directors producing movies that have moved the hearts of world citizens based on unique Korean experiences and sentiments. Most recently in late 1998, Director Lee Kwang-mo’s art house movie “Spring in My Hometown” earned the Gold Prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Grand Prize at the Hawaii International Film Festival. The film was shown with English subtitles at a cinema in downtown Seoul at the ardent request of foreigners living in Korea.

Public interest in films has been mounting and several international film festivals have been staged by provincial governments or private organizations in Korea. They include the Pusan International Film Festival and the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. As in other countries, Korean cinema circles are seeing a noticeable expansion of the animation and cartoon industry. More than 200 companies are producing works of this up-to-date genre.

Korea sold 37 films with a combined value of about US$3.4 million in 1998. This figure may be equivalent to the price of a handful of imported movies. In 1998, movie houses showed 43 Korean-made films. When all these facts are considered, Korea’s film industry is still in a fledgling stage despite some creative directors.


Choe Sang Su, A Study of the Korean Puppet Play (1961)

Cho Wong Gyong, Dances of Korea (1962)

Halla Pai Huhm, Korean Dance, Theater, and Cinema (1983)

Korean Performing Arts

Nadia Yun

Novemeber 29, 2000

Choe Sang Su, A Study of the Korean Puppet Play (1961)

Cho Wong Gyong, Dances of Korea (1962)

Halla Pai Huhm, Korean Dance, Theater, and Cinema (1983)

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