Traditional itinerant Korean performers and also the name of a puppet company that continues the tradition. The word namsadang was a general term for Korean itinerant troupes of folk musicians and theatre performers who toured the country presenting six types of entertainment in villages, marketplaces, and for special events. Today, the group Namsadang preserves the skills of these roving groups.
The term itself, nam (male) and sadang (entertainer/acrobat), indicates the all-male nature of the tradition. In the Joseon (Choson) Dynasty (1392-1910) there were hundreds of these groups. They presented several acts, including the puppet play called tolmi (deolmi) or Pak-Chomji norum (also Pak Chomji Norum, Bak Cheomji noreum, play of Pak Chomji/Bak Cheomji). Generally, performers used about 40 puppets and around 10 hand props in their puppet show. The repertory of the namsadang companies included, besides puppetry, acrobatics, juggling, mask dance, tightrope walking, music and dancing. By around 1920, most namsadang troupes had disappeared due to the increasing repression of the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945).
In the early 1960s, Nam Un-ryong reorganized the remaining old namsadang performers to revive their activities. With the death of Nam Un-ryong, his wife Park Kae-soon (Bak Gyae-sun) succeeded him as director. From that time, the Namsadang Company became the repository of the traditional art of Korean puppetry and its variations. Pak-Chomji norum (Bak Cheomji noreum), also called kkoktu-gaksi norum (kkokdu kagsi noleum or ggokdu gaksi noreum), is classed as Korea’s intangible cultural heritage property (No. 3 in 1964). It is taught and regularly performed in Anseong (Gyeonggi Province, near Seoul), the birthplace of the old namsadang. The mask play performed as part of the presentation is called deotboegi, and has parallels with the puppet play. Park In-bae (Bak In-bae) currently serves as artistic director of the group.
The Namsadang Company performed abroad for the first time at the Asia-Pacific International Puppetry Festival held in Tokyo (1979), and participated in the Rennes Festival of Traditional Arts (1982), the Festival of Asian Traditional Arts (1984), and the Nagoya International Puppet Festival (1988), to cite only some important performances. The form was inscribed in 2009 on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity. The form has inspired various theatre pieces and movies. Namsadang Sky (2008) was a theatre piece presented for the 100th anniversary of Korean spoken drama. It told the story of Baudeogi, who, although she was a woman, was elected the head of the troupe in the 19th century. She performed at the royal palace in Seoul for the workers engaged in rebuilding it, and was honoured by the regent, Heungseon Daewongun. Yi Jun-ik’s King and the Clown, a 2005 hit film, depicted namsadang artists in a fictitious fashion, consulting with the Anseong-based Namsadang Company.
- “Anseong Municipal Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmuldan”. http://www.namsadangnori.org/main.htm. Accessed 15 July 2012.
- “Namsadang Nori”. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/00184. Accessed 15 July 2012.
- Sim, U-song. Namsadangpae yeongu [A Study of Namsadang Troupes]. Seoul: Doseo chulpan dongmunseon, 1994.
- Sim, U-song. “‘The Formation of Namsadang (Korean Itinerant Performer) Troupes’: Chapter One of A Study of Namsadang Troupes”. Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Nathan Hesselink. Acta Koreana. Vol. 9, No. 2, 2006.