[Inkstone] Pansori: The Essence of Korean Popular Art

  • onMarch 25, 2021
  • Vol.51 Spring 2021
  • byShin Dong-hun
Pansori is a performance art that emerged between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, going on to remain popular among Koreans for at least 300 years. The height of its popularity lasted for approximately 200 years, from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Having begun as a live performance genre, pansori later expanded into stage performances, gramophone records, and broadcast media.
Pansori is created through a synergistic meeting of the storytelling and singing cultures that rose to prominence in late Joseon. Satisfying the different artistic demands of commoners and nobles alike, pansori underwent a variety of divisions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were written down and became established as novels, and they were performed on stage as musical plays with roles divided among multiple actors. Popular works were also sold as LP records, coming into competition with pop songs. Ssukdaemeori is a good example of this. Of course, pansori was also kept alive in its original form as a live performance genre.
The Concept and Character of Pansori
The term pansori combines two separate words: pan and sori. Pan is a term given to any place where several people gather, while sori means “song.” Pansori thus means “a song sung at a pan,” or “a song that creates a pan.” Pansori performances can vary in length from several dozen minutes to several hours, and are characterized by their lengthy and thriving  pan.
The pan element of pansori is also sometimes interpreted in terms of the Sino-Korean word meaning a precisely-dimensioned “board” (÷ù) or “framework.” Those who take this view explain that the name refers to songs with elaborate and well-crafted combinations of rhythm, melody and lyrics.
The physical format of pansori is simple. As long as a singer, known as a gwangdae, and an accompanist, known as a gosu, are present, pansori can be performed anywhere and at any time. Accompaniment is played using only a drum and drumstick: a style so simple that anyone with just a drum can perform pansori anywhere in the world.
The cultural and artistic power of pansori is phenomenal. With its combination of captivating storylines and details and vivid music that resonates in the heart, it creates compelling and uplifting performances. Pansori’s survival over several centuries can be ascribed to its efficient combination of unique motive power and artistry.
The stories told in pansori brought together salient fragments from various similar tales already widely known among the general public. Their flexible structure thus allowed them to be altered in a range of variations by their listeners. The establishment of modern print and publishing systems led to the emergence of new fiction, followed by the arrival in earnest of the modern novel. This allowed various pansori motifs (themes, subjects, characters, etc.) to be adapted into diverse forms capable of capturing the audience’s interests.
The Origins and Development of Pansori
The origins of pansori are the subject of various academic theories, the most plausible of which holds that its roots lie in shamanic songs. Many shamanic songs sung at gut (rituals) contain stories and some employ a mixture of song and spoken word. Pansori is said to have appeared when such forms were developed in a more professional manner and became established as a genre of popular performance art. The fact that many pansori singers come from shamanic families is testimony to the deep ties between shamanic songs and pansori.
But there are few songs in the pansori repertory that have survived from shamanic songs. Their plots are comprised of vivid and lengthy single stories, which should be seen as developments of popular storytelling culture.
The many storytellers active among the civilian population developed the storytelling culture in late Joseon, and the gwangdae, who were street performers, expanded and rearranged these stories into longer, more complex forms.
Artistic Features of Pansori
Pansori music consists of various rhythms and vocal sounds. Rhythms range from jinyangjo, the slowest, to hwimori, the fastest, with jungmeori and jungjungmeori (moderate tempos) being the two principal types. A type of irregular rhythm, known as eotjangdan, is also used. The range of vocal sounds and ways of using the throat in pansori are so diverse that listing them all is close to impossible. Only those who master sad sounds, happy sounds, pure sounds, raspy sounds and various other types are able to attain the appellation of myeongchang (master singers), reserved for the most esteemed sorikkun (singers).
As music, pansori aims to realistically reflect all the sounds of the world. In addition to the sounds of people of all ages and genders, singers vividly reproduce the sounds of birds and other animals, as well as of natural features. Effectively, there is no sound that pansori cannot express. Sorikkun are so skilled at this that they are said to be able to summon birds by making bird sounds. To reach this level, the singers would practice until their throats bled.
As a form of literature, pansori is oriented towards reality, vividly depicting the minds and specific circumstances of believable characters in realistic stories. Pansori literature sent shockwaves through the literary world by opening a new arena of realist narrative. Audiences laughed and cried, captivated by the realistic situations that unfolded before them.
In terms of aesthetic orientation, pansori has been described as “music for the hidden side,” meaning that its music must accord with the inner nature of situations. Through a perfect combination of narrative and music, pansori creates peerless aesthetic effects. As a genre, it freely expresses every emotion, from joy and sorrow to love, hate and desire.
Pansori is a remarkable art, capable of making audiences laugh one moment and cry the next, or even both at the same time. To Koreans of old, who lived lives of hardship, it was an unparalleled artistic genre that brought enormous comfort.
Transmission and Evolution of Pansori Literature
Pansori enjoyed huge popularity among the general public, and a wide variety of works were developed. But among these, it was only those that most entertained and moved audiences that survived and underwent further development. These are known as the twelve madang (song cycles) of pansori; of these, the five most popular are Chunhyangga (The song of Chunhyang), Simcheongga (The song of Simcheong), Heungbuga (The song of Heungbu), Sugungga (The song of the Underwater Palace) and Jeokbyeokga (The song of the Red Cliffs). These are known as the five madang of pansori.
These five works remained popular for centuries and have undergone many variations in terms of both music and narrative. Chunhyangga alone can be said to comprise several hundred different works. This is the result of ongoing shifts as numerous sorikkun changed the contents and expressions of the work in their own ways. The literary value conveyed by these works has in no way faded over time. When performed by a solo voice, their emotive powers are even greater.
With the advent of the twentieth century and modernity, these five pansori works continued to thrive. Even today, they constitute the main canon of pansori. In addition to the traditional two-person performance format of singer and accompanist, they are sometimes performed on larger scales as grandiose traditional-style changgeuk (operas). The state-run National Changgeuk Company of Korea performs new works every year and both Koreans and foreigners have enjoyed many of these changgeuk. One work has even been directed by an overseas artist: Achim Freyer’s 2011 production of Sugungga, titled Mr. Rabbit and Dragon King in English.
Meanwhile, many newer pansori works reflecting the current era are being created and performed. More than a thousand such new pansori works have been created since Korea’s liberation in 1945, some to considerable acclaim. Some of the best known examples include Ojeok (Five bandits) and Ttongbada (Sea of excrement), biting satires of Korea’s dictatorial regimes, and Owol Gwangju (Gwangju in May), a passionate account of the Gwangju democracy struggle, all of which are occasionally performed even today. Some comedic pansori created by young sorikkun have also been highly popular. Syupeodaek ssireum daehoe chuljeongi (Mrs. Super’s wrestling match) has been performed over a hundred times at various festivals.
In the realm of cinema, there has been a steady stream of film adaptions of the five madang. These include Shin Sang-ok’s Simcheongjeon (The Tale of Sim Chong), Im Kwon-taek’s Chunhyangdyeon (The Tale of Chunhyang) and Kim Dae-woo’s Bangjajeon (The Servant). The film Seopyeonje, based on the novel by Yi Chong-jun, has been often cited as the best film on pansori. Directed by Im Kwon-taek, the film set a box office record upon its release, moving many viewers to tears. It was followed by several other films that have brought pansori music to the silver screen, including Hwimori, Cheonnyeonhak (Beyond the Years), Dori hwaga (The Sound of a Flower) and Sorikkun.
Key pansori-based musicals that have attracted wide public interest include Indangsu sarangga (Indangsu love song) and Seopyeonje. The latter is an adaptation of the hit film of the same name. Starring actors like Yi Ja-ram, it became highly popular. Yi herself caused a sensation with her experimental pansori musical adaptations of foreign novels such as The Old Man and the Sea and Bon Voyage, Mr. President! Recently, the alternative pop band Leenalchi has been gaining huge popularity for its youthful, unconventional, and modern reinterpretation of pansori.
Pansori are valuable not only as a universal cultural asset from Korean antiquity, but a composite performing art genre with the potential to grow into new content for cultural communication. As a performance style, there is a high artistry that transcends the times. Pansori will continue to play an important role in the field of culture and art.
Shin Dong-hun
Konkuk University
Translated by Ben Jackson