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Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Inscribed Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
Pansori epic chant
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The Pansori Epic Chants
Passionate and Mournful: The Root of Korean Music

Since ancient times, the Korean people have been renowned for their enjoyment of song and dance. Pansori, or the epic chant of Korea, is a genre of indigenous traditional music that has stirred the hearts of Koreans for ages with its passionate, mournful sounds. In a pansori performance, the singer recites a long narrative (saseol) to the rhythm of a drum, while combining it with singing (chang), recitatives (aniri) and bodily gestures (balim or neoreumsae). If the focus is on the song, it is music; if the focus is on the arrangement of words, it is literature; and if the focus is on theatrical factors, it is a composite art form that falls under the category of drama.
Pansori is often compared to Western operas, such as "Aida," "Carmen" or "La boheme," but in contrast to the spectacular stage of a Western opera, created by a large number of performers including a dance troupe, a chorus and a symphony orchestra, and embellished by elaborate costumes and lighting, the stage of a pansori has just a solo singer holding nothing more than a single folding fan and who appears along with a drummer carrying a single drum. And yet, a pansori’s melody captivates the audience, at times violently filling the stage like the downpour of a waterfall, while alternately caressing the audience like a spring breeze.

It is not known exactly when, how, or by whom pansori began to be performed because the musical tradition originated from folk tales that had been passed on orally. The stories, most of which were very long and were often told in song form, eventually evolved into narrative songs (chang).
However, some believe that pansori has about 300 years of history due to the fact that the lyrics of “The Song of Chunhyang” (Chunhyang ga), were translated into a poem in classical Chinese and are contained in the Collected Works of Manhwa (Manhwa jip), written by a man named Yu Jin-han in the mid-17th century, during the reign of King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty. The author stated in the book that the poem was based on a song that he had heard while sightseeing around the Honam region, or the southwestern province of Jeolla.

The works of pansori are counted with the unit madang, literally meaning a “courtyard,” which used to be the usual venue for a pansori performance. During the reigns of the Joseon kings Jeongjo and Sunjo, there were numerous works of pansori, and 12 selected works called yeoldu madang (literally “twelve courtyards”) were particularly famous. However, just five works have survived until today: “The Song of Simcheong” (Simcheong ga), “The Song of Chunhyang” (Chunhyang ga), “The Song of Heungbu” (Heungbu ga), “The Song of the Underwater Palace” (Sugung ga) and “The Song of the Red Cliff” (Jeokbyeok ga).

In a pansori performance, the singer (soriggun or gwangdae) performs alone with the drummer (gosu). The singer plays the roles of all the characters that appear in a given work. To take “The Song of Simcheong” as an example, the singer plays Sim Cheong (the heroine), her father, her evil stepmother, the Buddhist monk, the merchant, the king, etc. To completely perform one work of pansori, it could at most take up to eight hours, or minimally a few hours.
To complete a pansori performance from beginning to end is not a trivial matter. Pansori does not have a musical score and has only been transmitted orally. Often, one section is excerpted to be performed for a short program, and sometimes the singer improvises on some part (deoneum) according to the subjective feeling or the situation at that moment.

Still, it is neither the singer’s talent alone nor the accompanying rhythms of the drummer that makes a pansori performance perfect. Besides the singer and the drummer, another factor that completes a performance is the audience. The pansori performance is only complete when an enraptured audience exclaims words of encouragement and delight (chuimsae; akin to “Ole!” “Bravo!” etc.).