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'Talchum' listed as UNESCO intangible cultural heritage

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Bongsan Talchum, a mask dance drama from the Bongsan region, currently in North Korea / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration
Bongsan Talchum, a mask dance drama from the Bongsan region, currently in North Korea / Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

By Kwak Yeon-soo

"Talchum" or traditional Korean mask dance, was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) list, Wednesday.

The Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announced that Korea's bid to inscribe talchum on the list was accepted during the 17th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, held in Rabat, Morocco.

The UNESCO ICH Committee stated that the message of talchum of universal equality and criticism of social hierarchy is still relevant today and praised its role as a symbol of respective cultural identities represented by its variant forms.

"The evaluation body highly appreciated its cultural meanings and ongoing efforts to address reconciliation and hope. For these reasons, the evaluation body recommends the inscription of talchum," a UNESCO official said.

Talchum is a performing art that encompasses dance, music and theater where an ensemble of six to 10 musicians accompany masked actors who sing, dance and interact with the audience through theatrical movements.

The main themes of talchum include driving away evil spirits, ridiculing the upper-class elites, pointing out the absurdities of patriarchal, pre-modern society and depicting the joys and sorrows of ordinary people. Themed around social criticism, talchum often addresses diverse social issues in a humorous, satirical manner. However, it is more about seeking harmony and reconciliation rather than causing conflict.

The mask dance drama is well known for interactive audience participation, where spectators join in dance and react loudly to the show with cheers and boos as the drama unfolds.

Choi Eung-chon, front row center, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, gives a
Choi Eung-chon, front row center, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, gives a "thank you" speech after "talchum," Korea's mask dance drama, gets inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during the 17th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, Wednesday. Courtesy of Cultural Heritage Administration

"As the administrator of the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea, I am very delighted that the decision has been made for Korea's mask dance drama to be inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I also thank you for your strong support and concern during the process for this successful outcome," Choi Eung-chon, head of the CHA, said after the committee's decision.

"As the head of a government agency responsible for the preservation of Korea's cultural heritage, I feel an added sense of responsibility to protect our intangible cultural heritage as Korea's mask dance drama has now become a part of the intangible cultural heritage of the world."

There are 18 different types of Korean mask dance dramas representing different regions and featuring unique acts and mask designs. Thirteen versions, including Bongsan Talchum, Gangryeol Talchum and Tongyeong Ogwangdae, are classified as National Intangible Cultural Heritage, while five others are classified as either city or provincial intangible cultural heritage.

Talchum became Korea's 22nd intangible cultural heritage recognized by UNESCO. The other 21 include "pansori," the traditional genre of musical storytelling that was inscribed in 2003; the traditional folk song "arirang" in 2012; Jeju's female divers known as "haenyeo" in 2016; and "yeondeunghoe," a lantern lighting festival celebrating Buddha's Birthday, in 2020.


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr


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