New book brings the art of mask dance to life

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New book brings the art of mask dance to life


The recently published book “Tal and Talchum” attempts to illuminate the ancient art of mask dance. Pages from the book, from left to right, show a collection of different masks, mask dance costumes and mask making. Provided by the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage

It isn’t always easy to understand something that doesn’t have a tangible format, such as air. It is the same for certain skills, such as dance or pottery making, or for traditional arts that are no longer present in everyday life.

To address this conundrum and promote understanding of one of these arts, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage has published a book about tal, or Korean masks, and talchum, or mask dance. It is the institute’s second book in a series of books about intangible Korean assets.

“Intangible assets can be understood better when combined with tangible artifacts,” said Bang In-ah of the NRICH’s Intangible Cultural Asset Research Center.

“To better explain talchum, we first introduce tal, which are tangible. Putting the two together will have a synergy effect and foreigners will be able to understand both better.”

The book, “Tal and Talchum,” published earlier this month, is the culmination of research done by the NRICH, which originally published its findings in a 12-volume series.

It features full-color photographs of the masks and the dancers, both in performance and behind the scenes.

It excludes some of the more complex discussions of historical background and academic research about mask dance in order to present a simple introduction of the form.

“We just thought we wouldn’t need to do a one-to-one translation from the original research, so that’s why we sorted the information to make the English version,” Bang said. “But the book does include a variety of folktales from talchum that have been passed down as oral histories.”

The book describes how the masks were used in performance, introduces five mask dance plays - Seonanggut, Ogwangdae, Yaryu, Sandaenori, Haeseo talchum, Sajanoreum - and illustrates some of the themes in a mask dance play.

Also included are a presentation on how masks are made - typically with gourd, paper, wood or bamboo - and a discussion of the differences between ritual and theatrical masks.

“Domestically, the study of tal itself is not very strong, since the masks are usually burned after a performance,” Bang said. “But since a mask is a tangible asset, we believed that foreigners would see the beauty of the masks by showing them how they are made.”

The book also shows how talchum is transmitted and preserved in the present day.

Bang said the book was published for international distribution, so it will not be sold here, but copies will be distributed to local public libraries, she said. Overseas, the book will be distributed to embassies, cultural centers and foreign institutes that study Korean culture, including the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, Bang said. The book will also be posted on the NRICH Web site ( within the month.

The book “Tal and Talchum” is the second book to be published by the NRICH. The first one, “Onggi,” published in January, can be also found on the Web site. The next book will feature designers of traditional Korean clothing.

By Lee Sun-min []
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