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Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity- Republic of Korea
The Dance of Cheoyong
Talismanic Dance Incorporates Cosmic Energies

The Dance of Cheoyong (Cheoyongmu) was derived from a legendary folk tale about a mythical character named Cheoyong. It is a mask dance that has been passed down for over a thousand years from the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.-A.D. 935).
Also called the Dance of Cheoyong in the Five Directions (Obang cheoyongmu) and noted for its majestic and vigorous movements, this is the only form of Korean traditional court dance performed by dancers wearing masks.
The folk tale is set in Silla during the reign of King Heongang (r. 875-886). Cheonyong, the son of a dragon, met the king on the beach in Gaeunpo (today’s Ulsan) and joined his entourage. He married a Silla woman and lived in Sorabeol, the capital city which is today’s Gyeongju. One day, he came home to find his wife in bed with a stranger. Surprisingly, Cheoyong just turned around and left the room, dancing and singing a song of his own composition:

Under the bright moon in the capital
I reveled the night away.
Back home, I found four legs in my bed.
The two are mine, but
To whom do the other two belong?
She was mine but has been taken away from me.
But what could be done about it?

Impressed by his nonchalant response, the stranger revealed his identity as the “plague spirit.” He knelt down before Cheoyong and said, “I’ve done a horrible thing, but you didn’t get angry with me. Your generosity fills me with awe and admiration. From now on, when I see even the picture of your face, I swear I won’t go into that house.” Believing this tale, people started to hang the picture of Cheoyong on their doors to drive away evil spirits.
Until the end of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the Dance of Cheoyong was performed by a solo dancer as a ritual to ward off evil spirits. In the subsequent Joseon Dynasty, during the reign of King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), the Dance of Cheoyong was combined with the Crane Dance and the Lotus Pedestal Dance, and developed into the current form called the Dance of Cheoyong in the Five Directions, performed by five dancers at banquets or other festive occasions in the royal court and government offices. The performance of the dance was discontinued for a while toward the end of the Joseon Dynasty, but was revived by the Conservatory of the Yi Royal Family during the Japanese colonial rule. This dance is special in that its origin and development process are relatively well known, unlike many other traditional dances.

The masks and costumes are also noteworthy. Each of the five dancers is dressed in a robe in one of the colors representing the five cardinal directions: blue (east), red (south), yellow (center), black (north) and white (west). They wear a red mask with a pair of earrings and an official’s hat decorated with peony blossoms and a branch of peaches. Their outfit consists of an insignia embroidered in red and green, a band of green cloth hung from either side of the shoulder, dark blue wide pants with red embroidered patches attached on the knees, a short outer skirt, a gilt-bronze waist belt, white trailing sleeves, and white leather shoes.
The five dancers wearing five differently colored robes represent the East Asian philosophical principle of yin and yang, and the five elements. They wear red masks because the color red is associated with the power to drive away evil spirits, and their white leather shoes represent a wish to brighten the world with every step they take. The same is true for their white sleeves. All in all, the Dance of Cheoyong, an epitome of Korean dance, is packed with symbolism, incorporating traditional Korean philosophy and values into its costumes and movements.
The current version of the dance is accompanied by an ensemble of two small flutes (piri), a wooden clapper (bak), a large bamboo flute (daegeum), a two-stringed zither (haegeum), a double-sided drum (janggu) and a large hanging drum (jwago). This assortment of instruments is largely different from that which is typically used for court banquets.