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Traditional Korean Masks

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Traditional Korean Masks
A heap of traditional Korean Hahoe masks, used for festivals and rituals.

Different Hahoe masks, including the bride (center) and the fool (upper left).

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

It was the mid-Goryeo Dynasty era in Korea. The craftsman Huh Chongkak ("Bachelor Huh") bent over his carving, chiseling the wood into a laughing mask. He had been ordered by the gods to create 12 different masks, and he was not to have any contact with other people until he was finished. Just as he completed the upper half of the last character, Imae ("The Fool"), a love-struck girl peeked into his workshop to see what he was doing. The artist suffered a massive hemorrhage and died, leaving the final mask without its lower jaw. (See the mask above on the upper left.)

This is the creation myth behind the Hahoe type of traditional Korean masks, called "tal." Nine of the Hahoe masks have been designated as Cultural Treasures of Korea; the other three designs had been lost over time. However, a time-worn mask recently put on display at a museum in Japan appears to be Huh's long-lost 12th century carving of Byulchae, The Tax-Collector. The mask was taken to Japan as war booty by General Konishi Yukinaga between 1592 and 1598, and then it disappeared for 400 years.

Various Kinds of Korean Masks and Performances

Hahoe talchum is just one of dozens of styles of Korean masks and associated dances. Many different regions have their own unique forms of the art; in fact, some styles belong to a single small village.

The masks range from fairly realistic to outlandish and monstrous. Some are large, exaggerated circles. Others are oval, or even triangular, with long and pointed chins.

The Cyber Tal Museum website displays a large collection of different masks from around the Korean peninsula.

Many of the finest masks are carved from alder wood, but others are made of gourds, paper mache or even rice-straw. The masks are attached to a hood of black cloth, which serves to hold the mask in place, and also resembles hair.

Tal are used for shamanist or religious ceremonies, dances, and dramas.

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