Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Korean Mask Dancing and the Traditional Ways


{Lindyhoppers at Dosan Seowon}

Hey, that isn't traditional dancing! Or rather, it is traditional dancing, but it's traditional American dancing. My friends and I (all lindy hoppers) pose in the American "swing out" at Dosan Seowon (도산서원), a Confucian academy, before we reach the reach the autumn maskdancing festivals being held at Hahoe and Andong.

{Dosan Seowon, circa 1574}

{Just a Social Butterfly}

Hahoe and Andong are noted for their hand-carved wooden masks. The regional woodcarving artistry extends to tall wooden figures with carved faces, such as the one pictured above. They are about the size of small lamp posts.


Hahoe Village overlooks Nakdong River, which borders much of its perimeters. The word "hahoe" means "laughed at by waters."

I'm just bluffing. It actually means "surrounded by waters."

Some of the villages in Hahoe live in huts thatched with straw; others live in wooden hanoks with curved tile roofs. The countryside is surrounded by fresh air and the environ is surrounded not only by mountains by also by wildflowers and crops of growing food.

I could wile away the hours
Conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain

We see a traditional maskdancing performance in Hahoe. The setting is brilliant ~ an outdoor stage set under tall, ancient pines. Craggy cliffs rise dramatically in the background.

Some foreign visitors don't enjoy the maskdancing. It's all in Korean, and neither my friends nor myself can follow the plot. I love it, though. Most days in Korea, I can't understand most of what's being said ~ so it's just like that, only with bright costumes, music, and candy.

Hahoe Village one of the loveliest places I've visited in Korea, and it is considered by most people to be the most authentic of the Korean folk villages. Sure, electric wiring runs through many of the houses and Hahoe has some tourists, but nonetheless, it is a place where real people live, farm, and raise their families. The government supplements the locals' income to insure they preserve the old ways.

{Walking Through the Village}

{600-Year-Old Tree}

An ancient Zelkova tree has an enormous trunk and many sprawling branches and roots. For over 600 years, it has stood as a guardian to the villagers of Hahoe Village.

{Tying Wish to a 600-Year-Old-Tree}

This ancient tree is perfect for providing shade (in the summer!) and fulfilling wishes (year round!).

{Traditionally Confused}

If you visit the Korean countryside, you, too, will most likely want to find traditional Korean lodgings. To determine the authenticity of a place it should: 1. provide all bedding as thin mats on the floor; 2. the people-to-bathroom ratio should be roughly 60 people for every 1 bathroom. This rustic lifestyle gives outsiders the chance to experience the purity of country living. Why be cooped up the entire morning while readying for the day when you can brush your teeth in the fresh outdoors with a garden hose serving as both sink and shower? Queue up early, though, as there will even be a line for this.

{Hahoe Traditional Fireworks}

For a traditional firework display, ropes are strung across the river and then set on fire. Groups of people sometimes yell things in Korean, and shortly thereafter, a large object is set on fire on and tossed over the mountain. It's dark and confusing, unclear as to what's being tossed off the mountain, too ~ unwanted pianos, sacrifical virgins? I didn't understand it, didn't even understand that it WAS the actual fireworks festival until I asked someone when the fireworks would start.

After returning home, I did research on the web about it (and by "research" I really mean snooping through another traveler's Facebook comments about the festival). Here's what I learned: The blurry shape beneath the ropes is a boat containing poets. Whenever they finish writing a poem, everyone yells "drop the fire" and then a burning pine is tossed from the mountaintop. I'm a very slow writer, myself. If I were on the boat, fireworks would only occur every other week or so.


Andong has a bigger maskdancing festival, with an interesting variety of shows, but it's a modern city, large and charmless compared to Hahoe.

The inside stage at Andong, which must be entered by walking through the mouth of a giant mask, features a variety of performances from dancers across the world.

{"Buy a Pretty Flower" Korean Maskdance}

{Chinese Magician Maskdance}

{Traditional Korean Maskdance}

{Thai Dancers "Cock Fight"}


  1. Beautiful photos, Melanie, and a very interesting read. You're like me window into the Orient since I realize it's not an area I'll be visiting. Just not enough time and too many places to go.

    Who knows? I might just hand around here long enough to change my mind. I love to dance and even after all these years in Mexico, can do a mean Lindy Hop.

    Love the idea of a wish tree and rope fireworks. And any country that gives poets such a prominent spot has to be a good one.

    ¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Maria

  2. Hi Maria. Thanks for reading and commenting! I do recommend Asia as a place to visit, if for no other reason than it is so immensely, fascinatingly different from North America and Europe (the only two areas I've lived before this).

    Also, I love the fact that you can lindy hop, though I imagine Mexico must have a lot more salsa than swing.

  3. Korea, and all of Asia, intimidates me. I'm just now warming up to the idea of venturing off to that side of the world. Love the pictures!

  4. Ha! I'm giggling because I'm forever visiting a place or seeing something and wondering what's going on until I read about it later. The mask dance looks really beautiful!

  5. @elleswim -- Truthfully, Korea was not even on my original list for world travel. I just ended up here as a matter of serendipity, and now I love it. I think the idea of Asia is more intimidating than the reality of it, so if you're interested in seeing this part of the world, don't be afraid. My favourite thing about Asia is that it always surprises me -- and Korea, China, Japan, etc. are so much more different from each other than I ever imagined before seeing them.

  6. @bangkoksmackdown (love that name, btw), yeah I always INTEND to read up about places before visiting, but somehow never do. I guess it's not until I actually experience something that I care enough to read about it. Thanks for commenting.