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Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Inscribed Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Namsadang Nori


Marvelous Feats of the Namsadang Clowns
Vagabond Troupes Entertained Commoners

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), there were nomadic troupes of entertainers called namsadang, who traveled across the nation and engaged in a wide array of performances, including singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, acrobatic feats, mask dances and puppet plays. They were very popular among commoners who seldom had an opportunity for entertainment or an outlet to relieve the weariness of their hardworking lives.
In general, the performances of a namsadang troupe took place at the village square with the repertoire consisting of the farmer’s band music (pungmul), a dish-spinning show with rhetoric and singing (beona), acrobatics on the ground (salpan), tightrope walking with rhetoric and singing (eoreum), a four-act mask drama (deotboegi), and a puppet play (deolmi). Each of these separate acts was conducted one by one seamlessly over the course of a long program.

While the dish spinning and tightrope walking were acrobatic feats that required highly trained skills, the four-act mask drama and puppet play resemble comic satires of society and social issues. The main themes of the mask drama included the hypocritical noble class, the depravity of Buddhist monks, the conflict between the first wife and mistresses, and the sorrows and pains of lower-class commoners. Of the two acts that take the form of dramas, the puppet play is special in that it has retained its traditional form until today as one of the most frequently staged pieces in the modern repertoire of namsadang troupes.

A namsadang troupe was composed of 40-50 individuals, including the leader (called mogabi or kkokdusoe), planner (gombaengisoe), chief of each performance part (ddeunsoe), training performers (gayeol), beginners (ppiri), advisors (jeoseungpae), and porters who carried props and installations. Mostly, children from poor families or runaways joined the troupe to become performers, and although the troupe consisted of lower-class people like poor peasants and orphans, it operated under strict organizational rules.

Performances of the namsadang troupe were popular among commoners, but held with contempt by the noble class. Therefore, when a troupe arrived in the periphery of a village, they had to seek permission to go into the village for a temporary stay and performances. First, they would choose a site on a nearby hill having great visibility from the village and display all sorts of amazing feats. Meanwhile, the planner of the troupe would go into the village and attain permission from the village authorities to enter and perform for the villagers.
It is not known exactly when the namsadang troupes and their performances came into being. Based on orally transmitted stories, they are presumed to have appeared in the beginning of the Silla period (57 B.C.-A.D. 935). Written records on namsadang troupes and their activities are very few, and if any, most of them depict their performances in a negative light because they were the arts of the lowest class. From antiquity, there were many kinds of itinerant troupes of entertainers, including those of female entertainers (sadang-pae) and of pole-top acrobats (sotdaejaengi-pae). However, the name “sadang” as in namsadang is considered to have been used in the late Joseon era. Their unknown origin notwithstanding, performances of the namsadang troupes were significant in that they served as entertainment for commoners, their soul-stirring music and comic satires of society eased the common people’s frustration and gave them carefree moments of escape from the daily grind of manual labor.