For and By Commoners: Bongsan Talchum – Korean Traditional Mask Dance


Bongsan Talchum is a type of Korean traditional mask dance that originated in Hwanghae Province, North Korea. This type of Korean musical theater is known for its humor centering on the satire of the upper class and portrayal of commoners’ life.

History of Talchum

Different masks in Korea
Figure 1. Korean Masks

Talchum, or mask dance, is a type of Korean traditional performing arts. Talchum was originated in local villages in association with shaman rituals (Zile 9). During the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), there was Office of Masked Dance-Drama (Sandae Togam) that oversaw different types of performances including Talchum (Zile 9). Talchum was often performed at national events, such as welcoming Chinese envoys (Lee 267). Moreover, Talchum was performed in major agricultural ceremonies such as Dano (May fifth of Lunar calendar), functioning as a prayer for good harvest (Lee 267). However, after the establishment of Joseon Dynasty in 1392, Confucian values began to rise significantly, which did not welcome Buddhist or Shamanistic ceremonies (Zile 10). Therefore, Sandae Togam was abolished, and Talchum became mostly a regional phenomenon, taking on unique characteristics of each area (Lee 265). In the northern region of Korea, Bongsan Talchum was famous, in the central Korea Sandae proliferated, and in southern regions Ogwangdae and Yaryu were well known (Lee 265). In general, there is a script with a general plot for Talchum, but performers often improvise (Lee and Lopez 13). Therefore, the level of audience participation is entirely dependent on the improvisation (Lee 266). This improvisation as well as unique regional characteristics built a sense of community in an agriculturally dominated traditional Korea (Lee and Lopez 15).

Bongsan Talchum

Due to its ritualistic origin and its context, Talchum is generally considered as a sacred performance. Talchum often involves Shamanistic performance called “gut,” and was traditionally used to hope for peace, good harvest, and birth (Lee and Lopez 14). However, Bongsan Talchum is unique in that although it still contains ritual performances in its story, it derived away from the religious function, thus focusing more on entertainment (Lee 265). Bongsan Talchum originated in Hwanghae province, which is current day North Korea, but some of the practitioners moved to southern region after Korean Independence, disseminating and preserving it until today (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). Now, it is the 17th Important Intangible Cultural Property of South Korea.

Bongsan Talchum is especially known for its humorous satire. It is full of witty remarks and clever wordplays that are often very direct in criticism, providing comic relief for common people (Lee 266). Bongsan Talchum mainly touched on criticizing topics or people that could not usually be done in public with a sense of humor (Zile 10). Main themes include satire of ostentatious monks, corrupted yangban (nobles), and polygamy, thus showing and relieving the sufferings of commoners (Zile 10). This satire was only possible in a society with strict social hierarchy because they were wearing tal (masks). By wearing tal, the performers were able to hide their social status, which not only gave power to the performers, but also prevented any preconceived stereotype of the performers, allowing them to express their emotions without the fear of social judgment (Lee and Lopez 13). Masks are usually highly exaggerated with vibrant colors, made of paper or wood (Saeji 155). Those who are beautiful or usually stay inside a lot, such as women and yangban, have white masks, those who are drunk have red ones, and those who are old or lived a harsh life have black masks (Saeji 155). Furthermore, those who are criticized the most have the most distorted masks (Saeji 155). For example, yangban usually have harelips or highly distorted facial features (Saeji 155). Masks are accompanied by costumes that symbolize the characters’ social status or identity as monks, Shaman, noblemen, or servants (Lee and Lopez 13).

Danwon drawing
Figure 2. Samhyon-yukkak by “Danwon” Kim Hong Do (1745 – 1816)

In addition to masks and costumes, characters are further distinguished by their dance styles. There are common dance styles used throughout, generally called sawi (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). For arm movements, there are oe-sawi (using one arm at a time), yang-sawi (using two arms), and kyup-sawi (two circles with one arm at a time). For footworks, performers engage in a combination of lifting their legs, jumping, and walking distinctively. Other than these general movements, specific characters have other names for their dance. Chwibari‘s dance is called Kkaekki chumMalttugi performs tuo chum, and Miyal kungdungi chum (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). Each character also have distinct walking styles. For example, Chwibari walks in a strutting motion and Miyal has a zig-zag walking pattern (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). The dances are accompanied by music played by samhyon-yukkak, or a six instrument ensemble (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). The six of instruments are two piris (pipe instrument), daegum (bamboo flute), haegum (string instrument), janggu (drums played on the sides), and buk (barrel drum) (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). Kkwaenggwari (small metal gong) is often added as well (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”).

General Plot

There are total of seven acts in Bongsan Talchum. The performance begins with a formal parade of performers into the performing area, which is called gilnori, or road play (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). Traditionally, the performance was usually in an open space, so the parade attracted and gathered people around (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). The First Act begins with a ceremonial dance of four young monks in white gowns that are carried onto the stage. Each of them bows to the four sides of the stage – east, west, north, and south – praying to the deities (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). In the Second Act, eight Buddhist monks enter one by one, dancing and singing after introducing themselves, which contrasts with the asceticism in Buddhism (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). In the Third Act, Sadang, a dancing girl, enters with kosas, or entertainers, singing and dancing.

Bongsan Talchum Chwibari
Figure 3. Chwibari costume

The Fourth Act consists of three scenes. In the first one, an old monk falls in love with a shaman girl. The old monk is considered as the reincarnation of Buddha, as he is deeply devoted to Buddhist doctrines; however, he cannot resist the seduction of the shaman girl (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). They perform one comical dance together, which is the highlight of Bongsan Talchum (see the video below). Interestingly, the entire flirtation process is portrayed without any dialogues – only using music and dance. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to grasp the situation, as the interaction between the two characters is clear. In the second scene, a shoe-seller enters with a monkey, making fun of the old monk for abandoning his doctrines. In the last scene, Chwibari, a drunkard, challenges the old monk and wins, taking the shaman girl for himself. She bears his baby, but abandons him. Chwibari takes his son and educates him. This Act overall, along with the Second Act, lampoons the corrupted monks who do not abide by the regulations of Buddhism.


The Fifth Act focuses on the lion dance. Buddha sends a lion as a punishment of corrupted monks. Lions are associated with Buddhism, but were not local animals in Korea (Saeji 159). Therefore, lions were mystic figures that scare off the evil powers and represent Buddha (Saeji 159). In this Act, the monks ask for forgiveness, which the lion grants, and they perform a dance together in harmony.

The Sixth Act is centered on the three yangban brothers and their servant named Malttugi. Malttugi makes fun of them through intricate wordplay, which yangban fall for every time. For example, Malttugi arranges a pig pen for lodging but the yangban are too ignorant to know what a pig pen is (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). This scene is especially criticizing yangban who bought their higher status with money during the 18th and 19th centuries in Joseon Dynasty. By portraying the supposedly uneducated servant as cleverer and smarter than yangban, this Act exposes the hypocrisy of the noblemen and unfairness of stratified society.

The final act features an old couple. The old man and Miyal, his wife, try to find each other, describing each other as ugly. They finally meet but Miyal sees her husband with a young and pretty concubine (“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama”). They fight in which Miyal ends up being killed. A shaman ritual is performed to comfort the dead wife. This act criticizes polygamy, or concubinage, which was a common practice especially among those with higher status. This scene makes the audience sympathize more with Miyal; therefore, points out the injustice of the system. Moreover, the final act also embodies Shamanistic ritual, showing that although the performance is not religiously driven, elements of Buddhist and Shamanistic rituals are still embedded throughout.

Bongsan Talchum in Current Day Korea

Nowadays, Bongsan Talchum is preserved mainly by Bongsan Mask Dance-Drama Preservation Society, which organizes annual performances, and International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Arts (CIOFF) in Korea. The traditional dance is also performed a lot in local festivals and traditional villages throughout the country. Although some performances are still held in open spaces with no boundaries between audience and the performers,  many are staged in a proscenium setting as well. In terms of context, it still retains the traditional satires, as the general plot is based on a script, but the performers often include contemporary references and commentaries on current social or political issues through improvisation, thus maintaining the tradition of creating a space for common people by common people (Zile 10).


Texts Cited

“Bongsan Mask Dance Drama.” Bongsan Mask Dance-Drama Preservation Society ,

Lee, Dongchoon. “Medieval Korean Drama: The Pongsan Mask Dance.” Comparative Drama, vol. 39, no. 3-4, 2005, pp. 263–285. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1353/cdr.2005.0023.

Lee, Youngkhill, and Richard Lopez. “Talch’um: Searching for the Meaning of Play.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, vol. 66, no. 8, 1995, pp. 28–31. ProQuest, doi:10.1080/07303084.1995.10607136.

Saeji, Cedarbough. “The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas: An Essay to Accompany Photographs.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 2012, pp. 439–468., doi:10.1353/ach.2012.0020.

Zile, Judy Van. Perspectives on Korean Dance. Wesleyan University Press, 2001.

Image Cited

Brett. “Korean Masks.” Flickr, 4 May 2005,

Kim, Hong Do “Danwon”. “Mudong.” Wikimedia Commons, 1780,

Kim, Sungdeuk. “Korean Mask Dance-Talchum. 취발이 (Chwibari), ‘Old Batchelor’ Mask. .” Wikimedia Commons, 13 Aug. 2007,

Min, Rene “Ralph”. “A Korean Traditional Dance.” Wikimedia Commons, 13 Mar. 2007,

Video Cited
“2016 봉산탈춤 보존전승회 봄 정기공연 중요무형문화재 제17호 봉산탈춤 제4과장 노장춤 니콘 D750 촬영.” Youtube, uploaded by Hongjoon Kim , 11 June 2016,
“2016 봉산탈춤 보존전승회 봄 정기공연 중요무형문화재 제17호 봉산탈춤 제7과장 미얄춤 할멈 영감 만나는 장면.” Youtube, uploaded by Hongjoon Kim , 11 June 2016,