The Korean Peninsula has been divided since 1945 into two distinct sovereign states, North Korea (officially, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Chosŏn’gŭl: 조선민주주의인민공화국; Hancha/Hanja: 朝鮮民主主義人民共和國; RR: Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk; or DPRK) and South Korea (officially, Republic of Korea Hangui: 대한민국; Hanja: 大韓民; Daehan Minguk, lit. “The Republic of Great Han”; or ROK). The Korean Peninsula is bordered to the north-west by China and to the north-east by Russia. It is separated from Japan to the east by the Korean Strait and the East Sea. 

The content here refers to the entire peninsula before national division, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) post-division. Korea here concerns the Republic of Korea or South Korea from the mid 20th century.

History and Tradition

The date that puppets first appeared in Korea is unknown and still debated, but it was before the introduction of Buddhism at the end of the 4th century. The oldest mention of wooden figures (of a now extinct tradition) is found in Chinese chronicles regarding the people of Goguryeo (Koguryo), the largest of the three kingdoms on the divided peninsula before Korea unified in the 7th century. In contrast, the puppetry of Baekche (Paiksche) and Shilla (Silla) is not explicitly mentioned, though all three kingdoms were part of a common culture with music and dance which has left its traces in Japanese puppetry.

After Shilla took over the whole peninsula in 668, the tradition of puppetry continued. After the fall of Shilla, during the following Goryeo (Koryo) Dynasty (918-1392), puppetry was included as one of the types of entertainment, along with other forms, under State control. It is thought that in this period puppeteers were nomads who originated in north-west India and came through China to Korea and Japan. The close relationship between Goryeo and the Mongol Empire, which ruled China in the 13th century, suggests further Eurasian influences on the Korean art of puppetry.

The Joseon (Choson) Dynasty (1392-1910) that succeeded Goryeo established the Sandae Dogam (Entertainment Bureau) which administered seasonal ceremonies and gave presentations for the people. During the Joseon Dynasty, most puppet performances were given mainly by the Namsadang ensemble, a group of itinerant professionals that included puppetry as a part of their repertoire. Other puppetry of that era included types of puppet plays known to have existed but were lost with the annexation of the country by Japan (1910-1945). One of the Korean terms for puppets is kkoktu or kkoktu-gaksi (ggokdu-gaksi) which is also the name of a female character in the namsadang performance (see Kkoktu-gaksi Norum).

Pak-Chomji Norum (Pak Chomji Norum, Bak Cheomji Noreum)

The puppetry of Korea has a genealogy related to that of China and Japan and included string puppets, rod puppets, and glove puppets. Although the other traditions waned, the rod puppets remained. Also called the Pak-Chomji norum (Bak Cheomji noreum) or Pak Chomji’s Play, the kkoktu-gaksi norum (kkoktugaksi norum, ggokdu gaksi noreum) uses sixteen puppets made of different materials and the performers sing, speak, and manipulate the figures. Each puppeteer plays the triple role of singer, speaker, and manipulator of the figures. Alongside the puppeteers, musicians are seated around the black-draped wooden stage.

The text of the play is thought to have been created around the 17th century, a lively era, and the period of the rise of folk literature. Because the content of the play, like the mask dance, was transmitted orally, inevitably differences existed in the texts of the diverse itinerant troupes of namsadang. However, as in the masked dance-dramas, the scenes are usually the same: traces of a shamanistic culture; satire of the apostate monk; the conflicts caused when a husband has both a wife and a concubine; denunciation of the oppression of the powerful and ridicule of the aristocracy, and an exposé of the moral standards prevailing in both noble and common classes of society; and, finally, a memorial ceremony, either shamanic or Buddhist, after one of the characters dies to console the departed soul and supplicate for its eternal bliss in shamanistic-inflected Buddhism. Throughout, the performance gives the spectator a telling portrayal of human life and social conditions of the late Joseon Dynasty.

All in all, the play is divided into between seven and ten acts dealing with the themes mentioned previously. Although the protagonist Pak Chomji – who is both the narrator and a character in the scenes – appears in each scene, there is not a consistent connection between episodes. Yet, the presence of the protagonist Pak Chomji assures a continuity of the acts and dramatic unity. It is as if the play were actually a biography of Pak Chomji himself. Such a device for controlling the flow of the play is unusual when compared to the other traditional Korean folk performances, such as the masked dance dramas, which lack such a central narrator or character.

Modern Puppetry

The revival of Korean puppetry began in l961 when Choi Chang-bong, vice president of KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) created a children’s television show. Mrs Kim Hae-kyung (Kim Hae-gyeong) organized the Seoul Puppet Theatre, Seoul Inhyeong Geukhoe (서울인형극회), and produced the shows with Ahn Jeong-ui (Ahn Jung-ui, An Jeong-ui). The latter took over direction of the company in 1980, which remained active in 2005. Cho Yong-su (Jo Yong-su) is another television puppeteer who also later organized his own theatre company named the Hyeondae Inhyeong Geukhoe (현대인형극회), commonly known as Hyundai Puppet Theatre, and performed for some years. It is to be noted, however, that puppets were not called kkoktu-gaksi at this time, but inhyeong (inhyung, “doll”). Since this name was adopted and used by the TV shows in South Korea, the term inhyeong-geuk (“doll-plays”, derived from the Japanese ningyō-geki) became a common term in the 1960s to refer to the television shows made for children. The scripts have usually been based on Korean or foreign stories.

Two generic terms are used for puppetry, i.e. kkoktu-geuk (or ggokdu-geuk;  “kkoktu ”means “puppet” and “geuk” means “play” or “drama”) and kkoktu-gaksi norum, which was applied to traditional puppetry. The Korean public was unfamiliar with these terms before 1964. In that year, Nam Un-ryong and his wife Park Kae-soon (Bak Gye-sun) reorganized the Namsadang, which had disappeared during the Japanese colonial regime, using former troupe members and their own family. The official recognition of the art and public acclaim brought recognition, but did not fully lift the art from obscurity or provide wide acceptance. In 1972, Huh Kyu (Heoh Gyu), the former director of the National Theatre of Korea, presented The Sun and Moon, and Kong Ho-suk (Gong Ho-seok) founded Kkot-dongnae (Ggot Dongnae). In 1975, Minye presented The Story of Heoh Saeng (Huh-saeng).

In the 1970s in South Korea, there was a broad resurgence of scholarly interest in folklore and many of the traditional Korean arts. Puppetry, often considered a variation of the better-documented mask dance dramas, received little public notice. It only benefited partially, since it was normally only recognized as a variation on mask dance which was better documented. However, after it became an object of wide academic research, it accrued more exposure which augmented its prestige. In the same period, economic growth in South Korea favoured the arts generally and theatre in particular as theatre attracted students and other spectators.  

National and International Recognition

Lee Kyung-hee (Yi Gyeong-hee) founded UNIMA-Korea in September 1979 (see Union Internationale de la Marionnette, UNIMA). A group of cultural leaders also joined UNIMA-Korea as charter members, demonstrating that puppetry was finally recognized as a legitimate form of art in South Korea. Diverse people including culture workers, writers, critics, teachers, and theatre professionals were included as founding members of UNIMA-Korea. Lee Kyung-hee, an essayist, also founded her own puppet troupe, the Orit-Kwangdae (Eolit Gwangdae) and the journal devoted to puppetry, Kkoktu-geuk (Ggokdu-geuk).

A succession of performances by newly organized puppet theatre companies and the support of UNIMA-Korea and the government prompted more people to practise puppetry. In 1982, Kang Sung-kyun (Gang Seung-gyun) and his company Geukdan Yeong (극단 영), or Yeong Theatre (also written Young Theatre, Yung or Yong Theatre), which performed shadow theatre, presented a version of The Three Little Pigs, which was the first shadow-puppet performance in South Korea. Another company, Wood and Paper, was organized in 1983 by young students who performed The Running Girl of Lee Kyung-hee (Yi Gyeong-hee), directed by Kim Ho-tae (Kim Hotae). Kim Ock-rang, Director of Dongsung Art Centre, organized her company Rang-Rang to perform, in 1985, a large-scale puppet play, Seonunnyeo wa Namuggkkun (or Sunnyo wa namukkun, The Fairy and the Woodcutter). Kim Ock-rang succeeded Mrs Lee Kyung-hee as publisher of Kkoktu-geuk.

Since its founding, UNIMA-Korea has hosted international puppet festivals in 1988 and 1991 in Seoul, as well as many workshops with teachers from abroad. More festivals followed in the 1990s, such as the College Puppet Festival and South East Asia and Pacific Puppet Festival. South Korean puppeteers participate in numerous festivals around the world, gaining an international audience.  

In 1989, in Chuncheon (Chunchon), the capital of Gangwong-do (Kangwon-do) Province, a puppet festival was organized by Kang Joon-hyuk (Gang Jun-hyeok, Artistic Director), Kang Sung-kyun (Gang Seung-gyun, Director of the Yeong Young theatre company), and Ahn Jeong-ui (Director of the Seoul Puppet Theatre). The festival has become an annual event held every August, bringing together puppeteers from around South Korea, and has become an important centre of activity. The Foundation of the Festival of Chuncheon runs a theatre, a museum, and an institute of puppetry.

At present, there are over thirty active puppet companies in South Korea, including amateur groups, with nearly a hundred puppeteers active in performances and workshops throughout the country, especially educational workshops.

(See also Cho Yong-suk, Hong Dongji, Lee Du-hyun, Sim U-song, Yim Jong-mi.)


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