Drive Away Those Evil Winter Spirits!National Folk Museum Offers Performances and Activities
by Kim Hoo-ran(Contributing Writer)
For some, the word "museum" immediately conjures up images of staid, old exhibits displayed in rooms dimly lit to protect the relics from any damage by bright lights. For visitors walking through these shadowy halls, gaining knowledge and insight can often entail the laborious deciphering of explanations presented in fine print.
The National Folk Museum, located in the Kyongbok Palace grounds, aims to provide more than a still life of relics from the past. While the museum － which features aspects of traditional folk culture, with a focus on the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) － is well worth a visit for the exhibits alone, it also offers social and education programs helpful in gaining an understanding of Korean culture.
Well-established events offered by the museum include Saturday's "Hanmadang," a variety of traditional folk art performances, and folk theater on "Open Sunday." These events are crowd-pullers in their own right, bringing in people who would otherwise have little incentive to visit the museum. By the same token, visitors to the museum are also given an unexpected opportunity to gain an introduction to Korean traditional performance arts.
More than 100 people packed the small auditorium on the first floor of the museum last Saturday to hear pansori singing and gayakum byeongchang － an operatic rendition of oral literature accompanied by the 12-stringed zither performed by Jeong Myeong-hee.
While the majority of the predominately elderly audience had come expressly to attend the concert, there were several young people who had just happened to walk in during their visit to the museum.
"Pansori performances usually start out with a short, strong piece to give the singer a chance to warm up her voice," explained the master of ceremonies at the beginning of the performance. The informal concert sought to educate those unfamiliar with gayakum byeonchang, providing snippets of information about the story told in pansori and what to watch out for as the singer belted out the cascade of notes.
The program of Saturday concerts for the rest of the year － programs are free for museum visitors － include a haegum or two-stringed fiddle performance and Christmas carols with Korean instruments. A concert of a choreographed version of the well-loved Korean song "Arirang" and other traditional dances closes this year's Saturday performance series. All Saturday "Hanmadang" concerts start at 3 p.m. at the museum's auditorium on the first floor.
If something more interactive is more to your liking, the museum also has a program of activities throughout the year. While some of the activities are organized expressly for expatriates in Korea, most are open to everyone.
One upcoming event of interest is Monday's patjuk or red bean porridge making class at 10:30 a.m. Attendees can participate in preparing the porridge, used in a traditional ritual to chase away evil spirits.
"We are hosting this event in an effort to educate the public about the traditional celebration of the winter solstice, a part of our culture that is fast being forgotten," said Chung Yeon-hak, an official at the museum.
The winter solstice occupied a significant place in the lives of Koreans. At the winter solstice, daylight hours once again begin to lengthen following the longest night of the year, marking the precise beginning of a new year according to traditional Korean customs. That is why the winter solstice is also known as the "small New Year."
Patjuk, served with tiny balls of glutinous rice cake, was traditionally eaten on the winter solstice. The white rice cake balls, called saealshim or "bird's eggs," signify new life. Eating them was considered a symbolic marker of becoming a year older, according to Mr. Chung. If you are 10 years old, for example, you would eat 11 rice cake balls to mark the transition to a new year of age.
In southern parts of Kyongsang Province, people used red bean porridge to predict their fortune in next year's harvest. A bowl of the porridge made on the winter solstice would be left outside and examined a day later. If the porridge was moist, it indicated a flood, while dried-up porridge signified that a drought was on the way.
On the winter solstice, a memorial service was held at the family's ancestral shrine. Afterwards, bowls of the porridge were left in the storage room and hall. Sometimes, the porridge was even spattered around the house, on the main gate, walls and pillars. It was believed that the red of the porridge － representing the south, light, warmth and yang － would prevail over the dark yin forces from the north. Hence, Koreans of that era sought to chase away evil spirits with red bean porridge.
If you would like more information on the National Folk Museum or an event schedule, visit the museum's Web site at www.nfm.go.kr or call 02-734-1346.