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Hahoe Folk Village and mask dance

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By Yi Woo-won

Hahoe is one of the earliest and most folkloric clan villages in South Korea and was therefore designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. It is located about 25 kilometers to the west of Andong, North Gyeongsang Province. Founded in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Ryu clan of Pungsan, the village reflects the Confucian culture and historic legends of the early Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

Remarkably, to date Hahoe Village has preserved some of the oldest architectural styles that could have been lost during the rapid urbanization and development of more recent years. They include tile-roofed, wooden buildings for aristocrats or yangban and small, thatched-roof houses for servants or people of the lower classes. In the hierarchical society of the Joseon Kingdom, "yangban" referred to the family members of high-ranking officials and their descendants.

There are about 125 such houses, some of which date back over 500 years. The large, tile-roofed, stately houses, which used to be the residences of influential yangban, still look elegant and noble, depicting the wealth and dignity of former residents. Besides, although terribly weathered over the centuries, the elaborate woodwork of the buildings is still in good enough condition to attest to the unique and graceful architectural qualities of the Joseon dynasty.

There were a few other family names among the early settlers in the village, but the Ryu family of the Pungsan clan was predominant in number for many generations. Among the most celebrated figures of the Ryu family who had lived here during the Joseon dynasty were two renowned Confucian scholars: Ryu Wun-yong (1539-1601) and his younger brother, Ryu Seong-yong, who had served as prime minister during the Japanese Invasions (1592-1597).

Among the majestic buildings, one named, "Yang Jin Dang," in Chinese characters, meaning, "House of Fostering Truth," was the residence of Ryu Wun-yong. This house had, above all else, 11 rooms, four kitchens and two stables, which seemed enough to account for luxury and comfort for an important personage. Another noteworthy house in the village is one named "Chung Hyo Dang," or "House of Loyalty and Filial Piety," which was dedicated posthumously to late Prime Minister Ryu Seong-yong. He was revered by many fellow countrymen as a distinguished model of high integrity,

Unlike those impressive tile-roofed residences of the yangban, the tiny, thatched-roof huts that belonged to lower-class people were traditionally scattered along the periphery of the yangban village. This fact was due to the yangban's aversion to and discrimination against lower-class people. Life must have been quite unfair and hard for those occupants in these simple little mud houses. But, thanks to the wisdom of our ingenious ancestors, they seemed to have enjoyed a little comfort: coolness in summer under thick thatched roofs and warmth in winter in mud-walled rooms with ondol floor.

Another peculiar and genuinely intriguing feature of the historic village is talchum or "mask dance drama," which has been performed for centuries during the Lunar New Year holidays. It is generally assumed that the satirical and humorous performance of the drama was designed by the poor commoners to vent their grievances against haughty aristocratic yangban. Hence, the comedy is performed in a hilarious fashion with a bit of obscenity and curses to criticize and ridicule the yangban ruling class and further to disparage the licentious behavior of some Buddhist monks.

Though the correct number of original masks is unknown, nine of them have survived to date. They are the masks of a yangban, a housewife, a bride, an elderly woman, a monk, a scholar, a servant, a butcher and a fool. Incidentally, Queen Elizabeth II visited Hahoe Village in 1999. During her visit, natives of the village prepared a grand party to celebrate her 73rd birthday.

In the meantime and over the years, rumors of the mask dance event in a little village in Korea spread fast and far and wide. Now it has grown to become a huge international festival in Andong City, the birthplace of Confucianism and Confucian studies in Korea. The festivity for the global mask dance culture is now enjoyed by tens of thousands of locals and visitors from all over the world. The event is held annually for 10 days in late September through early October.

Yi Woo-won ( lives in Waegwan, North Gyeongsang Province, and has been writing since 1986.

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