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Folk entertainment at a village festival in 1957

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By Robert Neff

An elderly Korean gentleman at a rice festival in 1954/55   Robert Neff Collection
An elderly Korean gentleman at a rice festival in 1954/55 Robert Neff Collection
In 1957, Richard Rutt ― an Anglican missionary ― wrote a series of anonymous articles for The Korea Times in which he described his life in a small village near Pyeongtaek. He was a master storyteller and his narratives were vivid, humorous and filled with detail which granted his readers the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of Seoul and relax in the simplicity of the countryside as it transitioned from the past to the present. Thus, it is not surprising, his articles were compiled and later published as "Korean Works and Days: Notes from the diary of a country priest."

One of my favorite anecdotes was his description of the village festival that took place just after the celebration of Buddha's birth. Rutt admitted he was tempted to describe the festival as "kicking up a dust in the market place" for truly, the market was the main venue.

Of course, a copious amount of alcohol was consumed by the participants ― much to the delight of the owners of the local taverns and small shops.

Gambling was also a big part of the festivities ― "the village became a rustic Monte Carlo" ― with gamblers seated on small straw mats as they wagered on their hwatu (also known as go-stop) cards or the fall of the yut (Korean traditional game) sticks. Small fortunes could be won or lost depending on the fickleness of fate.

Fortunes could also be revealed in the market ― for a price. "[Fortune-tellers] came out, including several depressed women with caged finches which would hop out of their cages and pick up folded billets from a tray for a gift of 20 hwan. Each paper contained the details of the payer's future."

Planting rice circa 1920-30s   Robert Neff Collection
Planting rice circa 1920-30s Robert Neff Collection

At one end of the market a huge swing ― some seven meters tall ― attracted his attention. Competitors (mainly young men ― which, Rutt noted, contradicted the old story that only women swing in Korea) vied with one another to attain the greatest height.

"A tall bamboo marked with knots of scarlet bunting was set up beside the swing to judge the height that the swingers reached. Since most of them, with both hands and feet firmly bound to the swing, got the ropes to the horizontal, I was at a loss to understand how the judging could be managed…"

He was greatly impressed with the prowess of the swingers ― "the clean lines of the taut young body swing rhythmically in arcs increasing until they reach the horizontal stretch of the ropes" and then suddenly the rope slackened and the swinger would fall backward. Rutt concluded that this was "obviously an agricultural sport, for men who have an even development of every muscle in their bodies."

Korean farmers work in the fields circa 1920-30s.   Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Korean farmers work in the fields circa 1920-30s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The prizes were well suited for a country festival in the 1950s. First prize was a gold ring, second prize a bolt of cloth, the third prize a half bolt of cloth and the fourth prize was an aluminum pan.

Another aspect of the festival he found interesting was the entertainment provided by the namsadang (itinerant troupe of performers) of the past and present.

The "jultagi" (tightrope) walker with his "oiled hair and hussar jacket" was a "professional and neither brooked nor invited any competition." Balancing himself with a large fan, he walked, danced and jumped about on the tightrope while singing old folk songs but was not very well received by the audience and soon departed. According to Rutt, "The old men [in the audience] wagged their heads and recalled the days when the tightrope walkers had been pretty boys in long-sleeved Buddhist robes and pointed caps." They were not pleased with this modern tightrope walker who "breathed more of the Western circus" than the namsadang of their nostalgic past.

The village had its own dance troupe and often competed against dance troupes of other villages for small prize purses. While many of the participants "were rather long in the tooth" they were extremely enthusiastic. During this festival, they performed twice a day in the market ― much to the delight of the villagers.

"The genuine pleasure of the villagers in the rapid drumming, the infectious rhythm of the gongs and cymbals, and the fantastic swirling of the swiveled streamers on their hats, was undeniable."

Girls swing in northern Korea in the early 1940s.   Robert Neff Collection
Girls swing in northern Korea in the early 1940s. Robert Neff Collection
They were, however, not the only dancing troupe. The county had its own team (Rutt likened them to an English county cricket team). The county team's members were "strictly professionals" and awed the village audience with "their showmanship and panache" while performing farmers' dances ― complete "with almost every possible embellishment." They were, unquestionably, great but Rutt noted they lacked the enthusiasm of their village counterparts.

The professional team not only provided entertainment but also helped bless homes and new businesses. The customer (the head of the household or the owner of the new business) "set up a measure overflowing with hulled rice, with green paper money arranged star-wise on the top of it. The money was weighted down with a hank [coil] of undyed yarn, whose length [symbolized] unlimited future."

The performers ― usually teenage boys ― would bow before the establishment or residence and perform a short dance while the drummer and cymbalist "would accompany a long and barbaric prayer." (Although Rutt was a missionary, he usually seemed pretty tolerant and understanding towards other beliefs and lifestyles ― but for some reason this prayer seems to have displeased him.) The performers then concluded the blessing with another bow and then hastily gathered their payment.

The true stars of the county team were the boy dancers who were, according to Rutt, known as "hwadong" or flower boys. The county team had three teens ― between the ages of 13 and 15 ― who wore "red skirts with sleeveless, split-skirted blue over them [and] covered with a series of crossed and knotted sashes in blue, yellow and red." Their heads were covered with red sashes arranged so that they resembled turbans. In the past, the teenage performers wore their hair long and in a single braided-ponytail ― much in the fashion of Western girls. Although Rutt did not mention it, there are many anecdotes from the late 19th century in which Western sailors mistook unmarried teenage Korean boys for girls. Often the mistake was revealed, much to the chagrin of the sailor, during a call of nature. Rutt did, however, note that the teenagers' skirts were "the only suggestion of female impersonation left about them."

The boys carried no musical instruments but danced amongst the men and waved their arms "with the amount of grace you might expect of boys of that age." They had a couple of dances that were particular to them but these paled in comparison to the dancing they did from the shoulders of the men. According to Rutt: "When they do this the boys' dancing is, of course, restricted to movements of the arms, heads and shoulders, while the man sways rhythmically, moving both arms and legs."

Korean gentlemen at a rice festival in 1954/55   Robert Neff Collection
Korean gentlemen at a rice festival in 1954/55 Robert Neff Collection

There was another young dancer ― perhaps even more dynamic than his peers ―a nine-year-old boy. While it may be somewhat shameful to quote so much of Rutt's writing, I think it is important to allow him to narrate his own observations.

"[The boy] has white cotton sashes tied crosswise round his legs and body, and the man who carries him has him sometimes on his shoulders, sometimes in his hands, sometimes on his head. He throws the child in aerial somersaults and catches him, finally throwing him into the arms of one of the other boys, who is already aloft, and quickly turns the little fellow round, so that now one man dances with two boys overhead. At the climax one of the grown men stands on another's shoulders, and the [young boy] is thrown up to the third storey while two of the other boys are balanced on either side of the men. For a short while one man thus circles the arena carrying four, but it is too hard to last long…"

The boys fell to the ground and then scrambled into the audience asking for small tips of appreciation for their acrobatic efforts.

The country team also provided other entertainment including a masked drama performed at night ― the only light provided by torches and fires. The performers wore large masks ― a tiger, a Buddhist monk with a bevy of pretty girls, and a kind old man ― and they danced about in the flickering light. Rutt lamented that he could not follow the story or persuade anyone to tell him what was going on but the audience apparently enjoyed the performance greatly.

A Korean gentleman and possibly his grandson in 1957   Robert Neff Collection
A Korean gentleman and possibly his grandson in 1957 Robert Neff Collection

The troupe also put on puppet shows. The puppets were carved from wood or affixed to sticks ― some even had moveable arms. The storyline revolved around a bankrupt landlord who wandered the countryside and encountered "dancing girls, a concubine, amorous monks, a man-eating snake, and a rather stupid governor of [Pyongyang]." This particular tale or play seems rather tame when compared to those of the past.

At the end of the night, "the puppets were packed away with promises of more snakes and dancing girls on the next evening." This went on until the festival ended (after about a week) and the county troupe left.

The festival "had been [a] very rustic, very earthy [and] very unsophisticated" event but Rutt and the villagers had greatly enjoyed it. "These folk entertainments of Korea are sadly neglected, but they are not yet dead. There is still time for more research into their very hazy history…"

Rutt went on to write about Korea's hazy history and, according to his Wikipedia page, was "perhaps the last of the line of scholar-missionaries." He even wrote about the less-talked-about history of the namsadang ― which is the topic for our next article.


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.




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