[Inkstone] Engaging Pansori as a Living Organism

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byIvanna Yi


Originating in the lower classes, pansori is Korea’s epic storytelling tradition. A popular form of entertainment performed by a standing singer-narrator (gwangdae) and a drummer (gosu), pansori was first recorded by literati in the mid-eighteenth century. According to the general consensus in Korean scholarship, pansori reached the apex of its popularity in the nineteenth century and then began a gradual decline in the twentieth century. During the Park Chung-hee regime, pansori was designated as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Korean government in 1964. On the global stage, pansori became one of the first internationally recognized forms of Korean cultural heritage when it was named a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003.

By emphasizing measures for protection and preservation, these local and international efforts have contributed to the perception of pansori as endangered or fossilized.1 Unlike some world oral traditions such as the Greek Homeric epic for which the music no longer exists, pansori continues to be performed today. Laurent Aubert characterizes music as a “living organism in constant mutation,”2 and pansori is no exception. While the Korean government and international agencies have framed the tradition as dying or endangered, this essay suggests that pansori flourished through transformations in the twentieth century and is continuing to proliferate.


Continuing Orality in Contemporary Korean Poetry

Beyond the five extant pansori tales from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), pansori is present in modern and contemporary Korean literature. The work of feminist poet Kim Hyesoon demonstrates how writing became a mode of oral performance for pansori in the twentieth century. Looking closely at Kim’s poem “Remembering the Day I Gave Birth to a Daughter” (1985) as an oral performance in the mode of pansori narrative can help elucidate how pansori has been received by contemporary authors and how the genre has been extended in the present.

The poem starts with the line: “pansori saseoljoro.” 3
What is a line instructing the reader to imagine pansori music doing in a written text of a poem in the late twentieth century? How does this line alter our perceptions and experience of what follows in the poem, which never explicitly mentions pansori again in its narration of childbirth?

By stepping outside of the voice of the lyric poem’s speaker and inscribing a directive to the reader, Kim’s role here is akin to that of a composer or conductor. Just as a composer might record specific directions on a score for a future performer on the tempo or style of a piece of music, Kim indicates how the poem should be read, while leaving the semantic content of the poem open to interpretation. The line can be translated as “In the melodic mode of pansori narrative.” Saseoljo is a neologism, bringing together two terms associated with pansori: saseol (辭說), which scholar and pansori performer Chan E. Park defines as the “linguistic content of lyric and narrative,”4 or the dramatic story which would constitute the written text of a pansori transcription, and jo (調), a melodic mode encompassing concepts such as emotional register, style of singing, and ornamentation. One further possibility is that Kim is borrowing from the term saseol sijo, an extended narrative version of the three-line lyric sijo form, replacing the music of sijo associated with the form with the music of pansori.

With the opening line, Kim signals that this poem is an oral performance, asking readers to hear the sound of pansori in their minds. Kim has stated that because of the marginal position of women in Korean society, women’s literary traditions are rooted in Korean oral traditions such as the ancient songs of the godae gayohyangga from the Unified Silla (668–935 CE) period, and muga, shaman songs from Joseon.5

An examination of the melodic modes frequently used in pansori can further illuminate Kim’s use of jo in the poem. While Kim does not specify which mode the poem is in, gyemyeonjo and ujo are the most frequently sung melodic modes in pansori according to ethnomusicologist Yeonok Jang. Gyemyeonjo, which expresses sorrow, is the predominant mode employed in pansori and is also associated with representative folk songs from Jeolla Province such as “Yukchabaegi.” Ujo is interpreted as conveying majesty and cheerfulness, as found in “Sarang ga” (Song of Love) in The Song of Chunhyang.

The narrative content of Kim’s poem of childbirth traverses both sorrow and great joy. Kim inscribes her text with the performance tradition of pansori, including the expressive qualities of pansori’s melodic modes. By creating a new literary melodic mode, Kim also extends a tradition in which pansori singers in the late Joseon period developed pansori singing by adding new modes and rhythms. In the first half of the nineteenth century, often called the “Age of the Eight Master Singers” (palmyeongchang), revered pansori singers such as Song Heungrok (1801–1863), who established the Eastern School Style of Singing, and Pak Yujeon (1835–1906), who established the Western School Style of Singing, created unique styles and expanded the musical repertoire and vocabulary. Writing becomes a mode of oral performance for Kim as she simultaneously borrows from the pansori tradition and extends it.

Contemporary poems such as “Remembering the Day I Gave Birth to a Daughter” reveal how pansori remains a living organism. The word “pansori” is composed of the prefix pan, a space where people gather, and sori, sound. When gwangdae set down a straw mat in the open marketplaces or at village gatherings where pansori was traditionally performed, they opened a pan, this space where people gathered to hear the sounds of pansori. Invoking the communality of the oral tradition, Kim opens a pan on the page, creating a communal space where readers gather for a performance of sori.

1 See the text of the UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), which emphasizes protection and preservation of cultural heritage.
2 Laurent Aubert, The Music of the Other: New Challenges for Ethnomusicology in a Global Age (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 10.
3 For an English translation of the poem, see David McCann, ed., The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 248.
4 Chan E. Park, Voices from the Straw Mat: Toward an Ethnography of Korean Story Singing (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2003), 309.
5 Don Mee Choi, “Korean Women—Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun,” positions: east asia cultures critique 11, no. 3 (Winter 2003): 529–539.
Ivanna Yi
Visiting Asst. Professor of Korean
University of Colorado Boulder