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Traditional Korean Masks

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Origins of Talchum | Korean Mask-dancing
Young Aristocrat, Monk, and Servant: Korean mask-dancers.

Three mask-dancers in full costume wait to perform at a Korean culture festival, wearing brightly-painted wooden masks.

Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

According to one theory, the word tal was borrowed from Chinese, and is now used to mean "mask" in Korean. However, the original sense was "to let something go" or "to be free."

The masks offered freedom for performers to anonymously express their criticisms of powerful local people, such as members of the aristocracy or the Buddhist monastic hierarchy. Some of the talchum, or plays, also mock stereotyped versions of annoying personalities within the lower classes: the drunkard, the gossip, the flirt or the constantly-complaining grandmother.

Other scholars note that the root tal appears in the Korean language to denote illness or misfortune. For example, talnatda means "to become ill" or "to have trouble." The talnori, or mask dance, originated as a shamanist practice meant to drive evil spirits of illness or bad luck out of an individual or a village. The shaman (mudang) and her assistants would put on masks and dance in order to scare away the demons.

In any case, traditional Korean masks have been used for funerals, curing ceremonies, satirical plays, and pure entertainment for centuries.

Early History of Talchum

The first talchum performances probably took place during the Three Kingdoms Period, 18 BCE to 935 CE. The Silla Kingdom (57 BCE to 935 CE) had a traditional sword dance called kommu; the dancers may have worn masks.

Silla-era kommu was very popular during the Koryo Dynasty (918 to 1392 CE), and by that time the performances certainly included masked dancers. By the late Koryo period, in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, talchum as we know it had emerged.

The Bachelor Huh invented the Hahoe style of masks from the Andong area, according to the story, but unknown artists all over the peninsula were hard at work creating vivid masks for this unique form of satirical play.

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