Saturday, September 25, 2010

[Chuseok] Folk games enrich the holidays

A performance of “ganggangsullae”

By Chung Ah-young, Ines Min

The holidays are a time for family, feasts and, in Korea, traditional folk games. Although Seollal (the Lunar New Year’s Day) is the holiday most associated with the light-hearted pastimes, the harvest moon festival of Chuseok is also distinguished in its celebrations, which focus more on the giving of thanks and paying respects to our ancestors and community. These folk games offer an insight not only into the celebration of the harvest in Korea, but also into the history and humor of the people.


The “ganggangsullae” dance is the most representative activity during Chuseok, which pays homage to the country’s past agrarian society. The ancient tradition was added to the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Once a recreational activity, the dance is comprised of a large ring of dozens of young women holding hands, singing and dancing. Originating from the southern provinces of Jeolla and Gyeongsang, ganggangsullae offered a form of catharsis for women in a male-dominated society, while providing a relaxing slice of life that all participants could indulge in. 

“The song lyrics are improvised with each dance. Mostly, they reflect all kinds of emotions — sorrow, happiness, anger and love,” said Park Soo-hwan, curator of the National Folk Museum of Korea. “For example, the dancers used to sing to lament their difficult life living with their mother-in-law.” 

A lead vocalist would sing while those remaining called back with the chorus, “ganggangsullae.” During breaks in the dancing, pantomimes of vignettes from daily life were acted out, showing scenes on a farm through the actions of tying herrings, treading roof tiles or rolling straw mats. 

Though the exact date and origins of the dance — in fact, the meaning of the word “ganggangsullae” is even unknown — cannot be traced back in detail, historians predict the dance to be thousands of years old. 

One particularly well-known example of its historical performance is during a time of war. “It is said that in 1592, Admiral Yi Sun-sin had women perform ganggangsullae at night around a fire. The flickering shadows fooled the invading Japanese into overestimating the size of Yi’s forces, who ultimately prevailed,” according to a UNESCO document detailing the dance. 

Although there are those who seek to preserve the original traditions, changes have occurred throughout the ages. For example, while once performers were young, unmarried women, a move in the 1960s — when the dance was named Important Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 8 — saw a shift to middle-aged performers, who worked to keep ganggangsullae intact. A preservation society was formed in the 1980s to further their aim.

“This propagation, however, comes at a price. Ganggangsullae has today evolved into a folk play rendered by professional performers on stage, departing from the old form of community-based folk plays,” according to the UNESCO description. 

“Another significant change has been made to the appearance of the performance. In its original form, performers run, dance and sing in a circle. In a stage performance, however, the lead singer stands outside of the circle and sings into a microphone.”

But it is not only ganggangsullae that has changed over the years, with Chuseok itself seeing vast differences from its origins. 

“Instead of folk games and customs, an exodus for urbanites’ hometowns emerged as the new phenomenon, and those staying behind in the cities look for something to enjoy during the holidays, like going to the theater,” said Park of the museum. “That’s the new culture in our modern society.”

Geobuk nori

Although it is difficult today to see “geobuk nori,” or the turtle dance, it was once a major part of the Chuseok holiday. 

A turtle shell of millet stalks would be created, with two men crouched underneath to act the part. Led by another man holding a leash, the “turtle” and an accompaniment of a farmers’ band would walk from house to house, calling out “This turtle crossed the East Sea to come here.”

The head of the house would then welcome in the procession, with the group wishing long life and prosperity to the home. After lively music and dancing, the turtle would collapse onto the ground, and the leader would cry: “This turtle is exhausted after crossing the East Sea. It needs to be fed.” The house would then provide food and drink for all, before the turtle bowed to the owner and proceeded to the next residence. 

“It is likely that the dance was originally intended to be a dramatic prayer for the health and longevity of the village community members,” according to the Encyclopedia of Seasonal Customs. “And was also possibly aimed at warding off sundry spirits.”

The grain and monetary profits gained from the performance were used to cover community expenses or to initiate group projects, encouraging closer bonds between residents — many of which would participate in geobuk nori. 

Join in the fun

The National Folk Museum of Korea is offering a folk festival to celebrate Chuseok from Sept. 21 to 23. The museum will explore everything from ancient customs to modern-day ones through various activities such as cooking, folk games and cultural performances. The event is divided into two parts — the old Chuseok and the modern Chuseok.

In the former, visitors can experience making “songpyeon” (rice cake steamed with pine needles), creating folk paintings and making masks. In the modern section, various experience halls such as barber shops and movie theaters are offered to visitors, showing a change in Chuseok culture as Korean society shifted from an agricultural to an industrial one.

The National Museum of Korea will hold a traditional event during the annual holidays. On Sept. 22 to 23, folk customs will take place at an outdoor venue at the museum. “Samulnori,” (four traditional percussion performances) will be staged while children can play at a giant balloon-filled playground. 

The Namsangol Hanok Village will hold shows Sept. 21 to 26 such as acrobatic performances, martial arts on horseback and making songpyeon, in addition to the traditional folk games. The activity times vary from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit for more information. 

Deoksu Palace will host pansori and nong-ak concerts at 2 p.m. on Sept. 22, and a ganggangsullae performance at 4 p.m. on Sept. 22 and 23. 

The area between Gyeonghui Palace and Seoul Plaza will be vibrant with traditional activities from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 22, while Cheonggye Plaza will hold concerts and games from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. the same day.

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