Wooden smiles and scowls for show

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Wooden smiles and scowls for show

Masks, or tal in Korean, were often used in rituals and plays. Among the most famous are the Hahoe masks, which are thought to have originated in Andong 700 years ago. They are also the only masks to have been designated by the government as a national treasure ― No. 121.
About 2,000 of these masks, some quite old, are in the collection of the Hahoe Mask Museum in Andong, North Gyeongsang province. Kim Dong-pyo, 52, a native of Andong, opened the museum in 1995. He is deeply involved in the preservation of the hahoebyeolshingut tal noli, a traditional mask dance which has been designated intangible cultural asset No. 69.
Mr. Kim also makes Hahoe masks. Not counting time spent selecting the right wood, it takes about three days to make a mask. Alder wood is considered suited for masks as the wood is easy to shape and absorbs paint relatively well.
It is widely believed that 12 masked characters once existed in the Hahoe dance, of which nine survive; only the name of the missing three is known today. The masks represent human faces and are thought to show social and economic status and occupation as well as physical features. As the Hahoe dance is performed today, the characters include a corrupt priest, a landlord, a vain scholar, a buffoon, a crone, a busybody, a comely maiden and so on.
Hahoe masks differ from other Korean masks in one design feature. A string connects the mask’s upper and lower jaws, so when a performer pulls his head back the mask opens up to a broad smile. When the head is lowered, the mask shuts its mouth and shows an angry face.
Mr. Kim collects masks from all over the world ― from China, New Zealand, Nepal and elsewhere ― as well as Korea. “If you take a close look at them you can actually make psychological interpretations,” Mr. Kim says.
He has recently acquired five masks that he believes are among the best-preserved ones he has ever seen. Judging from the condition of the wood, he estimates that the masks are at least 150 to 200 years old. He says that if an approximate date can be determined, much could be learned about the masks’ manufacture.
Mr. Kim does not mind traveling all over the country in search of masks, but he says that high-quality ones are hard to find. “In Korea, after a mask dance was performed it was customary to burn them all. Besides, contrary to Japanese practice, Korean masks do not contain information about the artisans who made them,” says Mr. Kim.
The Hahoe Mask Museum receives about 300,000 visitors a year. About 800 masks from various regions of the country are on display. Curious visitors can also visit the museum’s home page (www.tal.or.kr), which also contains English information.

by Hong Soo-hun
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