The Yeongno (영노)


Mythical monsters and beasts are the subject of many a folk tale, and typically it is most frequently the common folk at risk of becoming the creature's next delectable snack. In the rare cases a figure of status, power and wealth will star in one of these stories, usually outsmarting the creature, only rarely succumbing to the beast, often when there's indications that this figure is a terrible person

Some creatures only target virgins, people that commit specific sins or trespass in the creature's domain. But have you ever heard of monster that only targets the 1%? Doesn't that sound like a nice change of pace?

Let's talk about it


The Yeongno is a fascinating figure for many reasons, one being that most everything we know about it comes from Korean masked stage performances. But not just any stage performance, but performances that originated in the Gyeongsangnam-do region also known as South Gyeongsang Province which is located on the southern coast of South Korea

So yes, I have somehow found another topic that has roots in masked performances. I swear I don't do this on purpose

Korean mask dance performance or masked drama is a very broad description of a nuanced cultural practice with variations from every region of Korea, even some from what is now North Korea. Each region has their own name for what they call these performances, which can make it tricky to find information as much of the world seems to bunch them all together under one name, most frequently: Talchum (Korean: 탈춤)

This piece is done by Korean illustrator gomgome0526/gomgome. They do a myriad of work based on Korean folklore, fairytales and more. I see this image used everywhere without crediting which is a shame,  I strongly recommend checking out their work! Instagram / grafolio [portfolio]

Episode: File 0129-0130: Eat the Rich

Release Date: May 31 2024/Jun 7 2024

Researched and presented by Cayla

Talchum is used as catch-all in the for all dance performances while wearing a mask, whether they involved live music, dancing, singing or acting. This really over-simplifies a vibrant and robust set of cultural traditions. The term talchum actually describes one of the larger variants of masked dramas originating in what today is Hwanghae Province, in North Korea.

The confusion behind this mostly comes from genuine misunderstandings. See, like much of the world, Korea has really gone through some shit. Over the years many cultural practices were banned or lost across much of Korea, including these stage performances. In some areas the practice managed to survive, but for many places the art died and wasn't revived until the mid-late 1900s

Much of the masked performances you see in South Korea today are what they could piece together based on remaining costumes, masks, stories passed down orally and what little documentation has been found. In 1962 the Cultural Property Protection Law came into place, modelled after the Japan's own version from 1950. The program enables cultural practices to be designated an "Intangible Cultural Property" and their practitioners informally known as "Living National Treasures". There are over 145 practices that have been registered since 1964 with more being added every year and not just dances. Things like handcrafts, songs and something called baecheop or mounting, which is a practice of preserving scrolls of text or art, by applying silk or paper mounting

All of these practices have been deemed to represent something very specific to the Korean culture and history, which is pretty damn special, but without a doubt this only a small fraction of the practices that have been lost to time. On the list are 20 dances, including the Tongyeong ogwangdae which was added in 1964 and includes our privilege-eating monster

But to understand yeongno and masked performances in Korea, you have to understand some of its history

Origins of Practice

Since so much of Korea's history and culture has been lost, tracing back the origins of a practice as niche as masked-dances can be a little tricky. A small portion of historic Korean texts remain and only the tiniest portions mention these performances, usually in the vaguest way. Thankfully through archeological evidence, art, family stories and documentation from places like China we've been able to piece together a pretty decent idea of where exactly these practices came from and what their purpose was

The earliest mask dance we can trace back goes to the end of the 9th century, but there are hints that the practice may go back much further we just have no surviving, reliable literature to support that without question.

As far as we can tell the mask-dance has gone all the way back to the ancient times with Korea's shamanistic roots. Shamanism is a broad term that describes some of Korea's earliest spiritual and religious beliefs and practices, long before Buddhism, Daoism or Confucianism had found its way to the Korean people. This practice was called musok (무속; 巫俗) or Mu-ism (Korean: 무교; Hanja: 巫敎) and central to the religion are ritual specialists who were overwhelmingly female called mudang (무당; 巫堂) or mu (무; 巫). In English they are often called "shamans" but anthropologists debate if that really is the best term. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term shaman here, just know that that's not the whole picture.

Shamans led rituals and performed acts of mediumship, in some regions even allowing spirits to posses them, they were also often leaders in their communities and would provide guidance. Korean shamanism cannot be boiled down to a homogenous, unified religion like many of our modern religions. Practices and beliefs could vary dramatically from village to village, each having their own spirits, ancestors and needs that their rituals and prayers focused on.

There's a Korean holiday still celebrated today called the Dano Festival (단오) that falls on the 5th day of the fifth month of the lunar Korean calendar. It's a day of spiritual rites and enjoyment with song, dance, and wine, a day that is thought to originally have been a shamanistic holiday, celebrated as early as 100 BC

Korean mask-dances also give a community spirit-building. This usually was performed during the Tano festival. Tano is a Korean holiday, celebrated on the fifth day of May lunar month to commemorate the start of summer and to honor spirits and ancestors. While Tano, the rites and performances associated with the festival stretch from the 20th day of the April lunar month through the May lunar month. The maskdances were performed in front of the village shrine. Following the performance, the villagers joined the performers in the dance - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

These practices were kept from outsiders and not documented, but from we've been able to gather and from what has been passed down through long lines of shamans, the general purpose of a shaman was to communicate with supernatural beings "to decrease suffering and create a more harmonious life". The rituals involved could be small, prayers and individual offerings. Feasts and chanting were also common. Some rituals were brief or only lasted a single evening, others are said to have lasted days.

The most extravagant rituals seemed to involve elaborate performances of song and dance, often in costume, and this is where we believe the mask dance began. These performances were thought as a plea to the gods for a good harvest or for protection from evil spirits, or as a way to ward off disaster or supplicate the wellbeing of the village. This was thought to have been done by the creation of masks in the image of the spirits and performing as a way to placate these spirits, with shamans as leaders in these practices.

As the practices were orally passed down, there is little recorded about Korean shamanism before the modern era. What we do know is it's ancient, being traced back to at least 1000 BC and that there is a strong connection between ancient shamanistic practices and the masked dances we know today. 

Since shamanism was on an agricultural  society, people worshiped the gods of nature for a good harvest before planting and then gave thanks after the harvest. These rituals were obviously the main cultural events, stimulating the performances of dancing, singing, and acrobatics. The origin of Korean  theatre can be traced back to the entertainments derived from these agriculture rituals and festivals. - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

Along Came Buddhism

Korea would get exposed to Buddhism sometime around the 4th century. It was the aristocracy of the region then known as Silla which would be the first to officially adopt Buddhism in the 660s, from there it spread until Buddhism was the primary religion across much of what is today North and South Korea

Shifting from shamanistic practices to Buddhism wasn't that much of a stretch, with both sharing practices and some similar concepts. The change naturally was more complete in larger communities where members could be more thoroughly immersed in Buddhist practices and beliefs, and while those in smaller villages were most likely aware of Buddhism, it's likely without active practitioners and temples, most probably stuck with their shamanistic roots for the most part.

This creates a kind of gradient of belief ranging from the most rural locations to the most urban and it's natural for old beliefs to become muddled and integrated with new ones as we've seen time and time again throughout history. The easiest way to onboard someone to a religion is to make that transition as smooth as possible

One of the ways that these beliefs merged was through festivals and celebration. Buddhism is a religion with many religious holidays and it was through these that the practice of mask dances got integrated and became a large part of early Korean culture. But eventually Buddhism won out, when in the Goryeo Dynasty 918-1392 it became the national religion for all of united Korea.

The relationship between shamanism and Buddhism gradually changed their roles within society. Shamans, who may have been the first rulers of tribal societies, gradually lost their privileges, religion and sovereignty. Since shamans were adept at dancing and music, it is highly likely that some of them became simple theatrical performers. At the same time, Buddhist priests officially guided the spirit lives of the people, and some of them were respected as the teachers of Kings. So, as the society changed and developed, rituals no longer enjoyed the absolute authority and centrality as they held in previous cultures. However they were still a very important part of people's life- Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

It's thought the shamans brought their practices to varying festivals where interest grew more into entertainment as Buddhism had its own practices for appeasing the spirits and protecting its adherents from evil.

With Buddhism being a pretty big deal, the biggest holidays of the year became national holidays, complete with state sponsored entertainment. It is thought that these early performances were witnessed by some of Korea's early aristocracy and they decided they wanted some of that for themselves

It's around this time we begin to see some of the earliest actual documentation of the practice of mask dances, as these festivals had become a whole thing, but they weren't just about mask dances. These festivals came with exorcism rites to drive out evil sprits (Sandehi) and a whole variety show of different entertainment: music, acrobats and dance

But it wasn't just festivals where masked dances would be performed, but also as court entertainment, leading masked dances to be included in the royal palace and Buddhist temples, while still being part of the more rural shamanistic rites

This leads us up to the end of the Goryeo dynasty which ended in 1392, after which some pretty big and important political changes would take place, including the rise of the yangban, the yeongno's favorite snack

Birth of the Joseon Dynasty

In performances the yeongno plays opposite to the yangban. The yangban were considered part of the traditional ruling class or gentry of dynastic Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. They were largely government administrators and bureaucrats who oversaw medieval and early modern Korea's traditional agrarian bureaucracy until the end of the dynasty in 1897.

The yangban is actually a fascinating phenomenon, as where typically European and Japanese nobles gained their status by birth, born into the title and power, the yangban had to earn their status by passing state-sponsored civil service exams. The exams tested one's knowledge of the Confucian classics, history and poetry, but if you managed to pass them, you could be assigned a government post and land

Korean education and leadership structures were largely influenced by Confucianism which valued merit more than anything for eligibility to lead people. In Confucianism, education was the great equalizer and it was believed that anyone can benefit from a formal education and achieving enlightenment.

This is a pretty unusual concept, especially today where to become a political leader in North America you don't even need a high school degree. So what was Korea doing differently?

Well that's a two part answer, the first part being education


Korea has always been really big on education, and by always, I mean the earliest evidence comes from the Gojoseon period, which is the first era of Korean history. No one knows when this period starts, it literally has a start date on Wikipedia listed as a question mark. But some records indicate it may have started as early as 2333 BC

I should probably also clarify that while I am using Korea as a general term to refer to the people that lived in the areas of North and South Korea today, these peoples were not of a unified identity until 936 AD when the nation of Goryeo was founded which included much of what we deem Korea today. Up until that point the peoples that lived in these areas lived in disparate tribes, with mixed relations with each other. Korea went through several phases of unification before Goryeo, including China putting their claim in there for a time. But once Goryeo became a thing, Korea remained united for over a thousand years, which is pretty damn impressive when you think about it

As one can expect some of these tribes had wildly different practices, technology and stories, so I am really glazing over just how complex things were and I encourage anyone interested to look into this, there's some really fascinating stuff

Back to education

The earliest topics that were taught were naturally hunting, fishing, toolmaking and combat. These lessons encouraged people to work together as a society. But this education was pretty unstructured as it was highly dependent on the area the village was located in, knowing how to fish wasn't much use if your only water source was a small creek.

Records indicate that education evolved to include agriculture, law, morality and medicine. Korea's first educational slogan was "Hongik Ingan" (홍익인간; 弘益人間) which meant "live and work for the benefit of all mankind" which is a pretty dope sentiment and very similar to the shaman mission statement of "to decrease suffering and create a more harmonious life"

Korea's first public education may have been established as early as 400 AD and would only evolve from there with the education system being heavily influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism, which leads us to the second part of Korea's unique history


Founded in ancient China through teachings written by Confucius, who lived between 551–479 BCE, Confucianism is a set of beliefs that at their very core are humanistic.

Confucius was a regular middle class guy, that thought war was stupid and if we all just worked together in the pursuit of harmony and knowledge, we would all find enlightenment and that would be good. His ideas were so convincing that other people began nodding along and passing on the word. Fast forward a couple centuries and people were still talking about his words, so much that a collection of Confucius quotes were put together and passed around so everyone would have the opportunity to get a little of that good ol' fashion wisdom

Confucius's beliefs continued to gain ground over the centuries until the scholar Zhu Xi had some other ideas he thought should be included. Living between 1130-1200, Zhu Xi was a well-read man and really liked Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and figured, why not smack them all together for a virtuous sandwich? While at the time this was still considered Confucianism, modern historians choose to label this new branch as Neo-Confucianism

Meanwhile over in Korea, Buddhism was a pretty neat idea, first introduced in 338 AD, that had spread rapidly throughout the entirety of Korea. China and Korea had been friends for some time and Confucianism had come with that friendship, but it was kind of like that book your friend keeps recommending you read and you bought it, but you just can't be arsed, because why would you? You had Buddhism!

This was all fine and dandy up until about 1388, where King U decided he kind of wanted some of what China had and planned a campaign to invade present-day Liaoning. To lead this attack King U appointed a general Yi Song-gye, who seemed into the plan up until he reached the border and decided "Nah, fuck this guy" and rebelled

Yi Song-gye took Goryeo, something it almost seemed like he was destined to do, as his own father had put the last three Goryeo kings to death. By 1392 Yi Song-gye took the throne and Goryeo was no more, ushering a new dynasty: Joseon, which would last a little over 500 years. It was during this political upheaval the aristocracy that were big fanboys of neo-Confucianism decided it was their time to shine, including Jeong Do-Jeon, a Confucian scholar who just happened besties with Yi Song-gye

Neo-Confucianism had been brought to Korea in 1286, but with Buddhism still being the hottest thing on the block, its arrival didn't cause much of a stir for most, but the middle class folk that read it, thought there was some pretty dope ideas in it.

So by the time Yi Song-gye was in charge, people had become pretty disenchanted with previous leadership and upper class who were primarily Buddhist. So the same year he took the crown, he decided all of Korea could use a new coat of paint and Neo-Confucianism became the new official religion.

Many saw that Buddhism had twisted upon itself somehow becoming what it was never intended to be, a commercial power with strong political connections, connections to people that didn't seem to have the best interest of the average person in mind. So many were happy to make the switch and Buddhism fell out of favor, its corruption fresh in everyone's minds.

Gender Equality

We're going to take a brief detour here

Confucianism also changed something else: gender equality. Up until this point in many parts of Korea men and women were equal, receiving equal inheritance, with women able to own land and homes. Heck there had even been a Korean Queen in the 600s. But Confucianism brought with it a division of the sexes.

This changed a lot of things, women were now tightly controlled, kept indoors except for at night when men had cleared the streets and even then they had to wear veils. As the society moved towards a patriarchal structure the value of women primarily became about their ability to produce sons. While the misogyny in Korea is said to not have become as severe as in China, where it was not uncommon for female babies to be disposed of, it wasn't a whole lot better

The only exceptions to this were gisaeng and mudang. The gisaeng were highly educated courtesans trained from young ages to entertain court officials. The closest analogue would be the Japanese Geisha. They could go outside without a veil and lived relatively luxurious lives, but at the end of the day they were still slaves and had to answer to whatever whim or desire a courtier may have. Outside of the gisaeng, women were not educated.

As for the mudang, these were the female shamans of old. They occupied the lower rungs of the social class, but still seemed to command a little more respect than the average woman, though it's not exactly clear what that looked like.

It's suspected that women in more rural areas likely didn't have the same restrictions as women in the big cities. On a farm every hand is needed, and wearing a veil to do farm-work would seem a large disadvantage. 

ANYWAYS. Time to put Confucianism and Education together

Confucian Education - AKA the Yangban System

One of the things that neo-Confucianism was really big into was education, which Korea already was a big fan of, so with the change came a number of neo-Confucian schools founded throughout the country. The Korean literati were people in power that really liked to read about shit and passed a series of exams called the gwageo, these exams became new and improved in the Joseon dynasty with a big focus on Confucianism.

In Joseon it was decided that to become a government official now, passing the gwageo was a requirement and this was the birth of the yangban class. Theoretically anyone could take these exams (unless you were a shaman, a butcher, a buddhist monk, a child of a concubine or a nobi which is kind of like a serf, but we'll get to that). So in a way this almost seems like a pretty progressive idea

Until you realize this kind of selection played heavily in favor of those born to privilege. Also having a penis was kind of a pre-requisite since women were denied education unless they were gisaeng, and while not explicitly stated, I doubt that gisaeng were allowed to run for office.

Sure there were some excellent public schools funded by the state, but this required you to send your children to get educated, taking away valuable, sometimes necessary, labor from the home. The children of farmers and fishers didn't have the time to commit to the immense amount of studying required and didn't necessarily have access to all the required education if they were unable to leave home for years at a time, or more accurately, wouldn't have access to education on classic Chinese, because that was what the exams and the study material was written in.

You see, the Chinese classics had been pretty big among the Korean literati for some time, but with strengthening relations between the two countries (encouraged by Yi Song-gye's choice to NOT invade China) and Korea's adoption of Confucianism as their religion, it became all the more of interest as all the original Confucian documentation was in -surprise- Chinese.

And this system led to further nepotism, as once you were a yangban you would be given land and an area of responsibility. This also meant your whole family received that status as long as at least one family member every four generations passed the exam, if this didn't happen the entire family would lose its status and that position and land would become open to the next applicant. This made it incredibly important for women in yangban families to produce male heirs

There were multiple versions of the gwageo exams: literary, military and miscellaneous. The literary exams were what was required to get into government administration. There were two tiers, the lower and higher examinations. One had to pass the lower examinations to be eligible to do the high examinations. The high examinations were only administered once every three years. Each tier of exams had a limited number of entrants per exam, and only a limited number of successful candidates would be picked for the next tier. For the higher examinations, 240 candidates were selected every 3 years to participate, a variety of competencies were tested ending with an essay that was supposed to demonstrate the candidate's political aptitude. The final parts of the exams were held on palace grounds in the presence of the King

Yet as the years went on, there were less positions available which caused great strain on the yangban system. See the exams were required to get into the government, and passing the exams earned you the title yangban, but more and more that was less likely to get you a job, making the competition incredibly fierce. You see, yangban were exempt from the military and were not allowed to participate in manual labor or commerce, meaning if you didn't get a job in government or some other scholar related field as that was your expertise and one of the few jobs you were allowed to do while maintaining your title, things got tense.

It's said that yangban that didn't land a job were quick to become destitute. All that work to gain that title and recognition didn't mean a whole lot if it left you in poverty. This wasn't all bad, as poverty was seen as a virtue! But this was also a mentality that was instilled into the lower class to keep them from rising up, and much like today, the wealthy and powerful were happy to say these words but had no interest in living them. This led to assassinations and bribes, corrupting a once well-respected process and the people saw this.

A scholar by the name of Jo Gwang-jo became determined to restore honor to the gwageo and move society toward the ideal neo-Confucianist society, so he began to try and lead radical change toward that goal. Which only led to his execution in 1520. So Korea was into Neo-Confucianism, but not that much.

What was Jo's "radical reform"? He proposed that maybe we shouldn't just judge potential government officials on academia, but also on their moral fiber. What a monster.

The exam was changed to even more favor the privileged and it soon became more important to have connections vs talent, and then the yangban status became hereditary. It even got to a point that wealthy commoners could buy the yangban status without receiving an education or passing the exam. The corruption spread even further when yangbans began to steal land from poor farmers.

You can understand why the common-folk's opinion on these elite had soured and why they might make a monster who would seek vengeance on their behalf

Sandae-Dogam 山臺 都監

Ok enough history lets get back to the mask dance

Around this time the government put together an "Entertainment Bureau" called the Sandae-dogam. The new office enabled a way for the government to fund performances and hire on full-time entertainers they could access at their leisure. When the Sundae-dogam troupes weren't performing for Chinese dignitaries or at national festivals they would travel the countryside bringing their performances to the common folk.

Side Note: I have read that there was another court office which mask dances belonged to at the same time called narye dogam, but overwhelmingly in my research sandae-dogam is the only one I see mentioned. I did come across the term narye (儺禮) though which means "rite of exorcism" which was also done through a mask dance performance. It's said that on the Lunar New Year's eve every year a narye would be performed at the royal court, the narye dogam was likely the branch of government that was responsible for organizing that and there's a good chance that the narye dogam and sandae dogam pulled from the same pool of talent

But this isn't all wholesome and straight forward as it would first appear, as these "full-time entertainers" were actually slaves

That Whole Slavery Thing

Korea doesn't like acknowledging the rampant slavery that occurred in the Goryeo and Joseon era, downplaying it whenever possible, and there's a reason for that, it's much more complicated than we as westerners would expect. There were two primary categories of slaves in Korea, the nobi and noye. The noye were what we would traditionally consider slaves, they had no legal rights and owned no land. The nobi on the other hand is a little more complex, they had the right to own land, received subsistence wages and were contractually obligated through debt. Korean scholars compare the nobi to the serfs of Europe, a collection of people in an area that serve and pay the lord of the area, but again it is more complicated than that

Wealth in this period was measured by the amount of land one owned, so it's argued that since the nobi could own land and even other nobi, they weren't quite slaves. But call it what you will, the nobi were owned by yangban, the aristocratic class, the ones that yeongno eats.

During the last years of the Goryeo period it's estimated that 10% of Korea's population was made up of noye/nobi. During the following Joseon period, initially many nobi were freed on a large scale, but within a couple decades the nobi system was further formalized and became an integral part of the economy. It's suggested that the population of nobi peaked between the 15th and 17th centuries, some estimates saying the nobi then comprised 30% of the population. In the southern part of Korea it's estimated that the numbers were as high as 40% and here the nobi status was hereditary, as opposed to the north which had less nobi and they were not bound into their role by blood and they were also known there as "meoseum" (머슴), meaning hired servant. In Seoul in 1663, it's estimated that 73% of the population were nobi.

Some nobi were considered "resident nobi" indicating that they lived in the household or on the land of their owners, while "out-resident nobi" are more akin to European serfs, with their own land, homes, families and farms. 

The hierarchical relationship between yangban master and nobi was believed to be equivalent to the Confucian hierarchical relationship between ruler and subject, or father and son.[39] Nobi were considered an extension of the master's own body, and an ideology based on patronage and mutual obligation developed. The Annals of King Taejong stated: "The nobi is also a human being like us; therefore, it is reasonable to treat him generously" and

"In our country, we love our nobis like a part of our body." In 1426, Sejong the Great enacted a law that granted government nobi women 100 days of maternity leave after childbirth, which, in 1430, was lengthened by one month before childbirth. In 1434, Sejong also granted the husbands 30 days of paternity leave - wikipedia

In 17th century attitudes around the nobi system were shifting, undergoing great criticism by scholars and even some members of the Korean aristocracy seemed to recognize the issues with this. Over the next century the gradual deconstruction of the system would begin

Between the 18th-19th century these numbers dropped dramatically, as the dynasty undermined the system, that by 1858 the population was thought to be less than 1.5% and the system was officially abolished in 1894, though it took some time before it fully went away. Unfortunately when Korea was divided, the north would reinstate slavery and it's estimated that 10.4% of North Korea's populace are considered slaves as of 2018, which is equal to about 1.1 million


There was also another class of "slaves" that I had a hard time finding information about, called the banin. This is complicated by the fact that anglicized Korean is not consistent in its spelling. For the yeongno alone, I initially searched with the first spelling I had seen "yeongno" but ultimately found 4 or 5 other spellings, each of which brought more different results in my search. Not just that, I also saw different Korean spellings for the creature's name, it took referencing a couple Korean-English dictionaries for me to confirm that the alternative spellings still represented the same character, so without a doubt there are a ton of alternative terms that might have helped me find more if I knew about them

I did eventually find a book by a Korean author on mask-dances that seems to indicate that banin could be the same or connected with the baekjeong, an untouchable class of Korea, so far at the bottom of the ancient caste system, they might as well not have even been considered citizens, considered even below slaves. Information about them is spotty, but if you're familiar with burakumin, Japan's untouchables I touched on briefly in the episode I did on Witchcraft in Japanese, the baekjeong filled a similar role.

The word baekjeong has a very complex history, it was originally created as a general term for commonfolk, but by mid Joseon a more negative connotation became associated. There are suggestions that the original baekjeong people were from another place, records indicating some had red hair and blue eyes and were said to be over 6ft tall where the average Korean male was somewhere around 5,4" . In old texts they are referred to as "tartar" which seems to have been a general term for all northern peoples, Mongols and Manchurians being a couple.

There are reports that many baekjeong turned to crime, as many were nomadic hunters or warriors and not farmers, so when given land by the government, they didn't really know what to do with it. This became such a problem that how to deal with the baekjeong became a question on the gwageo. The common folk were terrified of the baekjeong and wouldn't go near their villages, even nobility and policemen avoided these places

This caused the baekjeong to be relegated to doing jobs that required contact with dead animals and people, undertakers, tanners, executioners and butchers primarily, as these were the least desired roles in Joseon society. While agriculture was not their jam there were also known as talented basket weavers, singers and dancers

Banin on the other hand were considered slaves, a professional entertainer class who were also butchers and descendants of nomadic people from northern countries. There is also a character representing a member of the baekjeong community that was not uncommon in mask dances. I began to speculate that the two were connected in some way

Until I found one article suggesting that the banin caste were entirely separate from the baekjeong, but that the two groups worked together frequently as the banin required meat for the ancestral rites they assisted with and for food in the palaces where they worked, leading the two to perform slaughter together. But the banin seemed to hold some superiority over the baekjeong as they would brag that their work was to feed Confucius and important figures, and because of this work they had connections with many high up officials. So where the baekjeong were looked down upon as butchers, the banin seemed to enjoy some kind of recognition and acceptance. Though I have seen the terms used interchangeably in some places, it seems that not all baekjeong were banin, not all banin were baekjeong, but a baekjeoung could become a banin. Confused yet?

And it was actually looking into the butchering aspect that found me even more answers

Sungkyunkwan (성균관)

Throughout the Goryeo dynasty, when Korea was still Buddhist, it was forbidden to eat beef. This changed for a short while in the Joseon dynasty under Confucianism, but once the people got a taste for beef its popularity exploded, leading to people eating so much beef that the country began to endure a cattle shortage. A ban was placed on the slaughtering of cattle, restricting cattle to only be used as farm labor. This made the eating of beef a forbidden thing only allowed under very specific circumstances, unless you were a king of course because you could do whatever the fuck you wanted

If you were caught illegally butchering cattle, you would become a government slave and your entire family would be moved to the frontier of whatever conflict was going on at the time

Yet it's estimated during this time that between 500-1000 cows were slaughtered a day, which seems pretty damn high in a country that banned the slaughter of cattle for beef. Aside from the upper echelons of the society making the rules and not following them, there were two exceptions to this rule:

  • The first being for soldiers, Korea was involved in many battles throughout this period, and an exception on the beef ban would be made for soldiers before they went into battle as a way to boost morale (most of the soldiers were conscripted commoners and slaves)
  • The 2nd was at Sungkyunkwan 

Sungkyunkwan (founded in 1398) was considered the foremost university and government office in the entire country and because of this the government funneled a lot of money into it. Banin for the school were responsible for the slaughter of cattle as offerings for ancestral rites, and I am sure some for the government officials. Whatever scraps they could gather, the banin would then sell at their own government licensed butcher shop (hyeonbang), this was how they would make ends meet

This was no ride on easy street though, as the government asked for a cut of the profits through a regular licensing fee, one that only seemed to go up year over year

The banin were said to have belonged to the Sungkyunkwan itself. Near the school was a neighborhood called Banchon (泮村 / 반촌 泮村 ) where ministers working at the school lived, among these were the banin. It's said that Banchon was created by slaves that had been donated by Anhyang to Gaegyeong Sungkyunkwan in the late Goryeo Dynasty. After the founding of Joseon, King Taejo moved Sungkyunkwan to Hanyang (Seoul). It is said that their descendants also migrated to Hanyang and formed Banchon

Not all banin were descendants of the school's original slaves, some did appear to be "northerners" like the baekjeong. During reign of King Sukjong between 1674-1720 it's estimated there were 4,000 banin

The Ban people, who numbered 4,000 during the reign of King Sukjong, were not all descendants of the northern people. Some of the Ban people were descendants of northern peoples. It appears that The demigods were not a group with the same personality, but were made up of various types of people
In High Spirit, Away From Sorrows: traditions of Korean mask dance drama (2019) National Intangible Heritage Center

According to the Chinese wikipedia, Banchon described multiple villages that surrounded the university, with all of the locals known as banin. Most of the banin were servants to the Confucian scholars of Sungkyunkwan.

As Sungkyunkwan was publicly funded education, going there was free unless you were living in a boarding house in Banchon which could happen if the on-campus dorms didn't have space. You would also be exempt from the civil service exams if you graduated as a Confucian student, though to become a Confucian student was very difficult and required the applicant to jump through a lot of hoops and demonstrate their knowledge.

Banchon was almost treated like an extended campus to the school. Banchon was a strange no-man's land. If you were a student that got sick, you'd be sent to Banchon to recover and if you were wanted for a crime you could come and hide there as law enforcement officials would not enter because of how close it was to a Confucian shrine.

The banin would enter into Sungkyunkwan as rotating groups of servants, who rotated out every 6 months. They did all sorts of work for the school, from general cleaning, assisting professors, preparing food and even as security guards. When they weren't on shift at the school, that's when they were butchers.

Among the many jobs that banin did were performances for the narye dogam and sandae dogam. These performers were government owned entertainment troupes, who would get called upon for performing at national events, holidays and greet Chinese envoys. When they weren't working they may have performed in Banchon to try and earn some extra coin

"There are two categories of plays, Sanhui (山戱) and Yahui (野戱), which belong to the Naryedogam," Sanhui refers to puppet play and Yahui refers to mask play - encykorea

In late Joseon dynasty when the government could no long afford to run Sungkyunkwan simply as a school, it changed functions to be more of a commercial government building. Banin's whose jobs were initially specialized had to resort to doing whatever needed to be done to stay on and had to pay tithes. Many banin around this time had an incredibly hard time making a living based on how little they earned and rising expenses 

"The performers of [sandaehui] (산대희의 / a festival) were lower class people who did menial work in the palace and were called [banin [반인泮人 = half human]], and intercourse [translates directly to marriage, may mean interaction?] with merchants was prohibited. [..] They were subordinate to [sandae-dogam] or [narye dogam] and received rice and beans from the royal court, but they were given food. [In the 12th year of King Injo's reign] in Sangju. After [sandaehui] was abolished in the royal court, they devoted themselves to the success of the performance and created a large stage. also disappeared. In particular, there were many performers living in Ahyeon-ri, a western suburb, and the so-called Ahyeon-ae Ogaesandae was famous"


산대희의 연희자는 궁중에서 천한 일을 하던 하층민으로 반인泮人(panin)이라 칭했는데, 상인常人과의 교혼交婚은 금지되

었다. 그들은 산대도감 또는 나례도감에 예속되어 궁중으로부터 쌀이나 콩 등을 지급받아 왔으나, 인조 12년 상주上奏에

의해 궁중에서 산대희가 폐지됨으로써, 그 이후에는 그들 자신이 연희의 흥행에 전력하게 되었고 커다란 무대를 만드

는 것도 없어지게 되었다. 특히 서쪽 교외의 아현리阿峴里에 사는 연희자들이 많았는데, 소위 아현애오개산대의 이름이

秋葉隆, 「山臺戱」, 『朝鮮民俗誌』, 東京: 六三書院, 1954, 172쪽.

The End of Sandae Dogam

The end of the sandae dogam came in 1634 when the government of King In-Jo took it upon themselves to dissolve the bureau due to financial difficulties. Korea had been involved in conflict after conflict stretching resources thin

But it wasn't just the cost that put an end to the masked dance guild, it was also the continued rise of Confucianism who believed that mask-dance theatre "violated Confucian ideals with vulgar and immoral content which had a bad influence on people"

The King banned the performance of royal mask dance and kicked the performers out of the court, but that didn't stop the practice and led to the banin having to get creative to keep their art alive.

The governmental ban on the mask-dance players brought about a new phase in the development of the Korean mask-dance theatre. The actors, driven away from the court, spread out to different provinces where they joined local performers. Free from the restraints of the ruling class and accommodating new audiences comprised of common people, the actors developed mask-dances as a folk theatre which increasingly reflected the common people's sentiments. - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr
When the Sandae Dogam was abolished, performers must have continued to perform—at least for major regional festivals—but without government oversight the dramas diverged from the Sandae Dogam model. Scholars agree that the major similarities in the basic themes of most mask dance dramas can be partially ascribed to the Sandae Dogam. Certainly the talchum and sandae noli variants include almost all the same major characters and story elements - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Post Sandae-Dogam

With the sandae-dogam being no more and all performances being taken on by commonfolk, the mask dances began to diversify. It's because of this and the lack of primary sources that it's hard to describe what exactly these mask-dance performances were like pre sandae-dogam, as most of what we know today was only recorded during or after this period.

But this means we can finally get into what the heck these performances were about. Long departed from their original spiritual and religious roots, having turned from a secretive shaman specific practice, to a form of government controlled entertainment, and then finally a form of social commentary, these performances tell us a lot about what was important to the Korean people of the time, what their stresses were and what their sense of humor was like. And if we are to assume that near all these performances branched off from the original sandae-dogam performance, it tells us what resonated most in each region

In this list you can see many of the different regions, groups and some interesting notes about their performances. One being the number of acts in their performances which fall between 4-8

We also saw the contents of the performances diversifying.


Up until this point the performances by Sandae dogam troupes were quite uniform, involving mostly the same story beats and characters. We are left to guess exactly what the sandae-dogam standard was, but by comparing the branches as they diverged we can make guesses. Traditionally the performances seemed to be made of five acts, but each act was totally independent from each other. An act would tell one story and when the next act started there would be a completely different cast of characters and story. 

Performances of the mask-dance begin and end with ritualistic ceremonies with several dramatic episodes in the middle. Having a rather simplistic dramatic structure and typical stock characters, a performance is largely dependent upon improvisation. The typical stock characters include an Old Priest, Monk, Nobleman, Servant, Old Man, Old Woman, Drunkard, and Shaman. - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

The characters in the Korean mask dance dramas are "types" rather than specific individuals. Therefore they do not have names like the characters in a Western play (Romeo Montague), but are known by a title, or a distinguishing descriptive nickname. The important character of the old wife or old grandmother is called (often using dialectical Korean) "granny" or "big momma." - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

The lion dance, constituting a separate act in many Korean traditional mask dances, attests to their common roots in palace entertainment. Although the lion did not exist in Korea, the Joseon palace entertainment accepted the lion motif from traditional Chinese dramas, which was later retained by court entertainers dispersed to private communities. As its name suggests, the Bukcheong Lion Play (Bukcheong Saja Noreum), widely performed in the northeastern region of Hamgyeong, has a lion as the lead character - Korean Heritage (2011) 

Yangban characters were known by the color of their clothes (red yangban, yellow yangban etc), they also represent the five directions (five being a very important number in Korean culture). In some dramas less important yangban may be known simply as Third Yangban or Fourth Yangban. The servant character is almost always called Malddugi, no matter where on the peninsula the mask dance drama is from, and the young female shamans (even when there are more than one in the drama) are called Somu.


The masks were made from a variety of materials but paper-mache was the most common. The masks were formed on molds using Korean traditional hanji mulberry paper. Fur, hair, twine or other details may be glued on, including hats. Larger masks used a basket or basket like design for structure. Masks were also made from gourds and paper

In most cases the masks were burned after performances to dispel any associated spirits, in rare cases they were kept in a shrine when not in use. The masks that were kept seemed to mostly be carved from wood

The appearance of the masks is generally quite exaggerated, with large features and vibrant colors in order to be clearly visible from a distance. In general characters with white masks are beautiful, pure, or sit around inside (like yangban), while dark masks belong to the old and those who have had a difficult life, and red masks are associated with drunkenness. Many characters have ugly or misshapen faces; the more criticized in the drama the worse their visage will be. Yangban often have harelips or misplaced features, and old monks will be dark and are often pockmarked. Most masks are attached to a hood that covers the hair of the player. The performers wear a white headband with a pad on their forehead inside the mask[..]With the exception of a few starring roles, the performers constantly rotate through the different parts; hence for those with unusually large or small faces the eye holes are sometimes poorly placed - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)


The mask dance dramas have four major themes. This holds true whether the drama is performed full length over four hours (as in the talchum and sandae variants) or when it is completed in a little more than an hour (as in the ogwangdae and yayu variants).

Of all things though, the mask-dances were full of satire. 

"The upper class yangban, for example, are lampooned. Through dialogue the knowledge of this educated class is shown to be lacking and their greed and ordinary human desire to get drunk, consort with women, and enjoy festivities (attend mask dance dramas!) is brought to the fore. In almost all mask dance dramas it is a servant who shows up the yangban, a formula that provided a playful release of tensions within a stratified society. The use of drama or theater to release this type of tension has existed in many societies throughout history.


Recurring jokes with the yangban as the dummy include (in the sandae and talchum variants) the process of securing lodging for three yangban who have come to town to watch the mask dance drama. Their servant explains that their inn (which is really a pigpen) has a door to the sky and ushers them offstage to the "inn," calling "du du du" and shaking his whip at their heels. The audience knows that du is the sound you make when you drive pigs
All the humor is not about the yangban and their failings of intellect and improper or undignified actions. There are many other types of humor within the mask dance dramas as well. Much humor is related to physical bodily processes—there is always, for example, a character that checks for onlookers and, finding none, relieves him- or herself. There is sex, labor, childbirth, death, farts, beautification processes, clothing malfunctions, looking up skirts, and picking of lice, and several characters are smelly

A fair amount of the humor has to do with who is performing the action. When a monk plays a card game it is funny because it is against his precepts; for another character the same behavior would be less amusing. Indeed, the monks bear the brunt of many jokes, if not as many as the yangban. There are three reasons why monks receive this treatment. First, there were political reasons to lampoon the monks. During the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), the monks held enormous power, and the clergy was very large. The Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) was partially predicated on the moral superiority of Confucianism over the supposed corruption in Buddhism. The mask dance dramas, originally performed under the auspices of the Sandae Dogam entertainment office, could have partially filled a government propaganda role.

Second, in the early Joseon many temples were forcibly closed, and monks were abruptly kicked out and forced to live life as regular citizens. Lacking clothing other than robes, robe-attired former monks may have engaged in many activities with which monks were not habitually associated, leading to criticism.

Third, it is human nature to expose the failings of those who claim moral superiority. With their status reduced to the level of shamans, butchers, and slaves, monks were even safer to criticize than the yangban.
Positive Buddhist elements appear in the mask dance dramas as well, not just in the dances of the novice monks mentioned above, but also in the form of the lion. The lion, a creature associated with Buddhism, was not endemic to Korea. When a lion (or two) appears in the mask dance dramas it has the power to scare away evil and represent the Buddha positively

Finally, though it may seem quite obvious, daily life of the Joseon dynasty was reflected in the mask dance dramas. In addition to portraying aspects of life from birth to death (and the rituals associated with both), there are motions that are said to reflect those of common farming activities, and countless tasks are carried out during the dramas—from weaving, to hunting, to butchering an ox, to washing, to educating children. There is rich ethnographic detail to be extracted from the mask dance dramas, if now filtered through generations of performers who have never had a loom in their own home" -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

It's thought that even when the sandae-dogam was performing, elements of mockery at the yangban's expense was still a part of the general lineup, though likely not as overt as we see after. There's hints that these early versions weren't as harsh on the yangban and usually resulted in all parties reconciling at the end. This is thought to be allowed as a way to ease tensions among the common folk

It was because once a whole year servants and commoners were permitted to make fun of their oppressive noblemen masters to relieve their pent-up stress and frustration. It was a kind of strategic release valve of the elite class to prevent any attempt by the oppressed masses to overthrow the discriminative social structure. - Korean Heritage (2011)


The mask dances had lost their festivals, so new reasons and places to perform had to be found. It varied from community to community, but local religious rites, seasonal events and special occasions (like a local administrator's birthday) were common, but also some times it was just for the entertainment. Holidays that seem to be consistent across different regions is the first month of the lunar calendar and the Tano festival on the 5th of May.

Performances usually took place after dark under torchlight and continued all night until dawn. Makeshift stages called sandae would be made on hillsides or in the center of market squares.

Most of the mask dance dramas include ritual elements for purification and warding off evil. Just the presence of a lion, or other scary creature (such as the yangban-eating bird Bibi, the strange lion-like juji from Hahoi's drama, or the dark-faced monks from the talchum variant) was thought to scare away spirits that might bedevil the community. When performed full length, the mask dance dramas also include shamanistic framing elements. The shamanic element at the beginning of the mask dance drama is a ceremony called gosa performed by the players and guests before an altar, with the masks arranged behind the altar

A traditional final element includes burning the masks (or returning them to a shrine in the case of mask dance dramas such as Hahoi Byeolsin'gut Talnoli), and whether the masks are burned or not, there is a shamanic ceremony at the end of almost every mask dance drama. This comes in the form of a funeral conducted within the final act of the play (generally for the old grandmother, although in Gangneung Gwanno Gamyeon'geuk, it is the young maiden who has died). These ceremonies may include large funeral parades, a makeshift shamanic rite with the daughter of the deceased playing the part of the shaman, or an elaborate shamanic rite such as in Eunyul Talchum, in which the play's highlight is a long song recited by the shaman as she dances, shakes bells, and splits a cloth—just as shamans do in regular life -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

In general, the event gives the commoners a chance to show their concern for society and in a way to express emotions and viewpoints that they could not express aloud. From a critique of corruption to a satire of elitism, the mask-dance was a vehicle for social protest and employed colorful devices for fierce criticism of hypocrisies, such as pedantic thoughts, class discrimination and male violence. Common people criticized and ridiculed the upper class through the lyrics contained in these traditional mask-dances - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

In the 19th century most mask dances were performed by locals. The actors for a mask dance drama would be recruited a month or so before each performance, and they would be responsible for a wide range of preparations in addition to practicing the play

Sometimes, as in Suyeong Yayu, these actors were already members of a guild that was responsible for preparing festivities for the village. As the actors prepared they sometimes played drumming music and blessed individual homes in exchange for payment (in rice or cloth) that could be used to obtain the necessary paraphernalia for the production. Those who had never participated before would fill the minor roles, and the most articulate repeat actors would act the coveted parts.

All of the parts in the dramas were acted by men until late in the Joseon dynasty. At that point, in a few cases, such as Bongsan Talchum, noted beauties (sometimes shamans, sometimes gisaeng, the Korean equivalent of geishas) were recruited for roles like that of the winsome beauty Somu. In this case they would perform with the mask worn like a hat atop their heads, and the audience would increase in size as locals seized an opportunity to stare at the young woman -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

The evolution of each variant can likely be attributed to the fact that these performances were oral tradition and were largely improvised

The mask dance dramas were orally transmitted; this was unavoidable as very few participants were literate. In the preliterate era each act proceeded from one important element of the story to the next, sensitive to the audience response, but the specific dialogue employed shifted constantly, with only the most popular jokes and punchlines surviving for multiple renditions. These oral narratives included plentiful repetition and patterns in the dialogue, which made it easier for the players to memorize their lines. The dialogues were not transcribed from the memory of elderly informants until the late 1930s, in the earliest case (Bongsan Talchum), and most were not transcribed until research began to list them for protection under the CPPL (in the 1960s). Therefore, the dialogue we hear today in a mask dance drama performance can be considered only a stale approximation of the constantly shifting dialogue of the past. In the heyday of mask dance drama performance in the late nineteenth century, the dialogues were responsive to the audience and local concerns. Today, however, it would be "inauthentic" to include a reference to the current president, a well-known scandal, or social trends, whereas the nineteenth century equivalent was commonplace and part of the fun -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Ogwandae and Yeongno

Ogwandae is where it gets extra interesting though. While most of the acts from the other areas follow a lot of the same broad strokes, Ogwandae dances had different elements and stories, one being the yeongno

As mentioned before, it's thought that most of these performances had spun off from the sandae-dogam standard, but something happened to make ogwandae different. 

"It is less clear what the ogwangdae and yayu variants owe to the Sandae Dogam. Scholars generally agree that traveling performers, similar to the Namsadang—who performed an abridged version of the sandae noli variant—were active in the region of present-day Busan. It is believed that local farmers decided to begin performing their own mask dance dramas when the traveling troupe could not meet local demand for holiday performances all around the southern region. Although traveling performers or resettlement may account for the common themes, local origin tales tell a different story. For example, according to legend, Tongyeong Ogwangdae was founded after a chest full of costumes and masks floated down the river to Tongyeong (Bak 2001)" -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Tracing specific dances is hard on a good day, but I've gathered what I could find that might give some answers

Ogwangdae and Yayu performances are very very similar and the reason is that Yayu represents the performances just from the other side of the nakdong river.

One story says that all these performances were inspired by a performance that seemed to regularly occur at the Chogye Bammari Markteplace, a regular marketplace on the Nakdong river which would eventually become a yearly summer fixture. Merchandise brought here for trading was said to come from 4 different regions Chogye, Hapcheon, Uiryeong, and Goryeong

The performance in question was said to be put on by the traveling Daegwangdae Pae (대광대패) troupe whose entertainment repertoire was quite broad from music to acrobatics, and of course mask-dance. It is said that yeongno was a character in their mask dance

Another story says that the Teongyeong Ogwangdae and the Yayu were created around the same time as people from both sides were there when the chest of costumes and masks washed up on the shore. This supposedly occurred one year when the nakdong river flooded

Some versions says the chest was on an unmanned boat which seemed to come from Chungcheong Province and entertainers were brought from Chungcheong Province to perform with them

Another story says that the tongyeong ogwangdae was modeled after the Changwon Ogwangdae, that one of the Changwon's region's performers, a man named Lee-Hwa Seon had moved to Teongyeong and spread the word in the early 1900s. It's said he had lived in Myeongjeong-dong, a neighborhood in Seoul that was known to have many shamans and musicians living there and that the original tongyeong ogwangdae was performed by a group of people from martial arts circles.

Even another story suggests that the ogwangdae performance's composition is reminiscent of a performance that had been passed down since Silla, a region of Korea from before it was united, said to have existed between 57 BC - 935 AD, at which point the country would be united as Goryeo

But the earliest mention I could find is a claim that this specific dance may have been performed up until 1895 in Youngyouung, where the navy force had established a tradition on the last day of the year where many people would get together and perform. 30 musicians who were drafted in the navy from small islands practiced starting the 28th of the twelfth month of the lunar year. They marched in procession in the office district and then private houses from New Year's Eve until the 15th of January. The performance was a kind of ceremony to exorcise evil spirits 

For performances from the ogwandae region, it is act 2 or 3 where we see yeongno. Most performances across the board feature some kind of supernatural being, in some cases a lion serves a similar purpose as the yeongno, but the yeongno has unique lore

The yeongno typical story is as follows: the yeongno had been an omnivorous celestial being, but for some reason gets kicked out of heaven and is now on earth trying to earn its way back. The yeongno is said to be able to eat anything, rocks, iron even shadows, but the good person has nothing to fear.

It's unveiled that to get back to heaven, the yeongno needs to eat 100 yangban, and typically in these stories the yeongno is only one yangban away from receiving salvation so that it return to heaven and turn into a dragon

The results vary. In some versions (goseong ogwangdae specifically), the yangban tries to trick the yeongno by telling it that he is their father or grandfather. In that scenario the yeongno will not attack, showing that the monster has more honor and dignity than the yangban, the yeongno demonstrating Confucian virtues of familial duty and respect. Then one of two things can happen, the yeongno and yangban will then dance together and the skit ends, or the yeongno figures out that the yangban is lying and eats him. Some versions don't include the tricking aspect and the scene is mostly the yeongno chasing the yangban around trying to eat him.

The appearance of Yeongno is a notable feature of gamyeonggeuk passed down in Gyeongsangnam-do Province, as it is not seen in dramas performed in other regions. In addition, in the Yangban and Malttugi act, noblemen are subject to harsh criticism and are even directly punished, clear evidence that class conflict and criticism were more pervasive in the Gyeongsangnam-do region than elsewhere
In short, the character of Yeongno, not found in any folktales, is the embodiment of pubic longing for the arrival of a being that challenges social inequality and oppression of the commoners. However, given that Yeongno appears only in masked dancedramas performed in the Gyeongsangnam-do region, the monster is dramatic representation of the wishes of the local community - folkency 

There is another variety of yeongno that isn't as benevolent. In these versions yeongno is a catastrophic entity burning and destroying everything in its path

This can be seen in one of the ogwandae origin legends

It happened one year ago during a great flood. A large wooden chest washed up in Chogye Bam Village (now Yulji-ri, Deokgok-myeon, Hapcheon-gun). When the villagers took it out and opened it, it was full of masks, and along with them, there was a book called 『First volume of Yeongnojeon (初卷)』. At that time, various infectious diseases and other disasters were constantly occurring in the village, so even if all the supposedly good methods were tried, they had no effect. At that time, as someone said, I put on a mask and played with it, and strangely enough, the disaster disappeared. It is said that since then, the people of this village have been performing in masks every year.

The people of Yulji-ri overcame disasters such as epidemics that followed the flood through Talnori. The reason why the book containing the contents of talnori is called 'Yeongnojeon' is because Yeongno was considered a monster that brought about disasters such as floods and epidemics, and at the same time a divine being who would eliminate disasters and create a new order.

In the late Joseon Dynasty, Yulji-ri suffered significant damage due to the overflow of the Nakdong River, and it is said that the private sector gathered together to build 'Hwalindae' to prevent casualties. The extant Hwalindae Bulmangbi was built in 1757 and renovated in 1859, and it is recorded that the cost was raised by visiting [mask-dance troupes] at the time of the remodeling. The mask dance that was popular at the time would have been performed. Then, the story of mask performance as written in the first volume of Yeongnojeon after the Nakdong River flooded is connected to the performance of Yeongnogwajang in a mask dance to build the Hwalindae. The purpose is to appease Yeongno, the cause of the flood, and prevent future disasters.

If Yeongno of Yaryu and Ogwangdae is a cosmic monster symbolizing natural disasters, the nobleman who exploits and oppresses the subjugated class can be said to be a social monster. Therefore, Yeongno's act of eating a nobleman can be interpreted as offering the nobleman, a scourge of human society, as a sacrifice to appease Yeongno, a cosmic monster. Alternatively, it can be seen that they turned to a more terrifying cosmic monster to eliminate the social monster called the nobleman who harasses the common people. - Korean Heritage Agency

The yeongno is often signified by entering the stage playing a willow pipe which makes a threatening "bibi" sound, which has led the yeongno to be called bibi in some cases, and the mask to be called "bibital"

There are several versions of ogwangdae performances based on region, and there are differences in the yeongno costuming in these regions.

In dongnae yaryu performance the mask is painted red represents the color of yang (Kor. 양, Chin. 陽, lit. positive), which expels evil spirits. It can also be seen as the visual representation of the idea that noblemen are evil spirits to be driven away. The sharp, triangular teeth and tough-looking face are certainly frightening

Meanwhile in Tonyeong ogwandae, yeongno wears a dragon-head mask. The monster's body is covered in a big sack with dragon scales painted on it

There is a perception that ogwandae performances are considered "soft" and "gentle", but the yeongno skits are anything but

Another character from the ogwangdae is Bibi (sometimes called yeongno), a creature from heaven that bedevils the yangban. Bibi, however, does not dance slowly—he runs to catch the yangban, jumping through the air to pounce on his victim again and again. The dance movements of this character are broken by dialogue between Bibi and the yangban, who is pleading for his life. Even with such breaks, the performers would hardly agree that southern mask dance dramas use smaller, gentler motions -The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

The yeongno usually has a long mask while wearing a cloak with scales painted on it. But there are different masks with flat faces that we might be able to attribute to the lion version of the story. It is said that the yeongno is supposed to have the head of a monster on the body of a human, but most descriptions and pictures I have seen have the entire body cloaked

Some believe that the yeongno is an imoogi, a mythic creature that resembles a giant serpent. In legend an imoogi can either become a dragon or can't, some stories say they are cursed and will never gain dragon-hood, others say they're lesser dragons that can become a dragon under specific conditions. One condition is that the imoogi must live a thousand years, another says it has to catch a Yeouiju that falls from heaven which is a magical sphere of divine energy, these are the spheres you always see Asian dragons holding. 

Another legend says that if the imoogi catches and evil person it can ascend to heaven as a dragon, this story in particular is what makes people think the two might be related

Last Years of Joseon

Social tensions in Korea hit a breaking point in 1894 leading to the donghak peasant revolution, a revolt that would go on for nearly 2 years. The Korean government didn't know what to do, so turned to their allies in China to ask for help. They responded happily, sending 2,700 soldiers to their aid. Which pissed off Japan

See, almost a decade earlier China and Japan got in a pissing match over who should get custody of Korea, long story short, the government at the time were China stans, meanwhile a rebellious group of yangbans had become Japanese fanboys and decided they were sick of the sluggish reform of their government, having had enough of all this yangban bullshit and wanting to abolish the caste system. They attempted a coup. In all the political chaos, China saw a chance to sneak in to Korea and take control

The coup ultimately failed, the current government scolded Japan for their involvement and Japan having seen that China had been all up in Korea's business pointed out that the pot was black too. They ultimately agreed on shared custody and even signed a piece of paper and everything saying that both sides promised to get their forces out of Korea, arrange a 3rd party military tutor for Korea and to not send forces into Korea without notifying the other first.

Those 2,700 soldiers China sent to help with the revolt broke that last agreement and that was the final straw. Again China and Japan both got up in Korea's business, China siding with the current government who didn't want to treat their people like actual human beings and Japan joining the side of the revolution, advocating for human rights. When conversations weren't going anywhere, China and Japan decided to duke it out

This led to the First Sino-Japanese War a 9 month slap fight where Japan showed China just how outclassed their military and its technology had become. China skulked off with its tail between its legs. The caste system was abolished, the yangban lost their titles and lands and the beginning of class equality was just coming into view. And Japan and Korea lived happily ever after

Japanese Occupation 1910-1945

But of course they didn't

The informal mask dance performances continued as far as we can tell up until about 1910, when Japan decided they weren't happy just being just friends anymore and moved in to Korea. And thus began the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945.

I know I am being pretty flippant here, but I want to acknowledge that this occupation has left deep wounds in the Korean people, the atrocities committed seem to have mostly been swept under the rug by Japan today and many Koreans feel like Japan hasn't done enough to own their mistakes. There were some very serious atrocities committed during this time and we try and make things fun here, but at the end of the day please recognize just how bad things were. If this is the first you're hearing of this, I implore you to look into this deeper, but know this is not an easy topic and you will find out some horrific things that will stick with you. I've chosen to not go very deep here as that's not the point of this story, and to really give that topic the justice it deserves would require much more time and space than we have here.

On that note

Occupation by Japan looked much like residential schools in North America, but on a much larger scale. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names, to not speak their native language, to be forcefully re-educated on Japanese culture. It's said that some Koreans instead of facing the humility losing their culture and their names which connected them to their ancestors, chose to take their own lives.

Many Koreans were treated horrifically, enduring repeated physical and sexual assault, being sold into slavery or forced into roles as "comfort women" which is exactly as it sounds. During this time Japan was also running Unit 731 in China, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that engaged in lethal human experimentation and biological weapons manufacturing between 1937-1945. While this lab was located in China, prisoners of war and Korean citizens were taken here to undergo these tortuous and often deadly experiments.

Yet, these details tend to get glossed over a lot, instead you see stories about all the "great things" Japan did for Korea

Many historians cite the so-called modernization of Korea by Japan as the reason for Korea's postwar prosperity, but the Japanese police, factories and trains were designed only to more easily take Korean timber, rice, fish, coal and cotton to Japan. And the Korean people, too: by August 1945, hundreds of thousands of Koreans had been forced to fight in the Japanese Army, work in their factories, or in the case of the Korean so-called comfort women, forced into sexual slavery. - New York Times

And this period would have a big impact on masked dances

However, like most Korean traditional arts, mask dance performance declined significantly during the Japanese occupation (1910–1945). Although many lay publications place the blame for this decline directly at the feet of Japanese cultural policies that oppressed local expression, even stating that the Japanese forbade the dramas, the cessation in mask dance drama performance was mostly a by-product of Japanese policies. Performances were not explicitly forbidden until after the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Prior to 1938 the largest obstacle was that Japanese policies to promote Shintoism and control the flow of resources within Korea had eliminated many regional festivals and ceremonies commonly associated with folk arts like the mask dance dramas - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Moreover, suppression by the Japanese during the colonial period depleted any chances of holding shows on stage. In 1925, Mask Dance Drama of Songpa in today's Seoul was lost since the performing village—its only stage—disappeared in a great flood. The mask dance drama of Hahoe and Byeongsan, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, also disappeared after the end of the 1920

In the 1930s, the performance of traditional masked dance dramas were revived temporarily as the Rural Revitalization Campaign in Korea, led by the Japanese as well as the Korean Studies Revitalization Movement by a group of Korean scholars, called for a re-evaluation of Joseon's culture of local pastimes. Mask Dance Drama of Bongsan was performed in Sariwon, the county office of Bongsan, prompting a resurgence of mask dance drama performances in all regions in Korea, but its effects were transient and circumstantially restricted. Eventually, wartime mobilization in the 1940s put an end to the majority of Korean traditions of mask dance dramas.

While mask dance dramas vanished from Korean community life under the suppressive Japanese regime, performers strove to save their traditions from the crises and scholars began to survey local performances and to collect oral historical testimonies about those that were about to disappear - In High Spirit, Away From Sorrows: traditions of Korean mask dance drama (2019) National Intangible Heritage Center

This is a photo of a Bongsan Talchum performance taken by Song Seok-ha in Sariwon on August 31, 1936. Bongsan Talchum was originally performed every year on Danot Day. This year, Baekjung Day could be held temporarily. After this performance, it became known nationwide through broadcasts and articles - In High Spirit, Away From Sorrows: traditions of Korean mask dance drama (2019) National Intangible Heritage Center

It's hard to truly comprehend just how degrading and alienating this experience was and the horror would last up until August 1945 and bombing of Hiroshima. In the following week Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration, effectively surrendering and while never saying so directly in their address to their people, releasing Korea from their grasp.

On the afternoon of Aug. 16, the Kyungsung Broadcast Station carried a very different radio broadcast, from An Jae-hong, a Korean independence movement leader, who invited Koreans to "meet our day of light." Aug. 15 is now Gwangbokjeol, "Return of Light Day," one of the few holidays observed in both North and South Korea. In the joint celebration resides some hope of celebrating it one day together, as one country - New York Times

But reclaiming one's country and heritage is not as simple as the invaders leaving. Many Koreans of this time never learned their native language, only knowing the Japanese they were forced to learn as they were raised in Japan occupied Korea

When some tried to make their own Korean flags to wave in celebration, they could not remember the exact way to render it; others had their flags, kept hidden for many years. Publishing houses even lacked for Korean language typesets. The country undertook a vast educational project to undo the one it had suffered through - New York Times

But this was not the end of Korea's struggles. That same August, the Soviet Union had begun moving in from the north. Many who saw this fled south, but so many more stayed, because this was their home and they had just gotten it back. Those that fled would arrive in the south only to be greeted by the US.

Korea had been divided on the 38th parallel, the north occupied by the Soviet Union and the south being "defended" by the US, effectively turning the Korean people once again into pawns in the wars of other nations. Many who fled south had left near all their belongings behind, personal journals, photo albums, extensive genealogies, the few items of Korean pride their families may have managed to save during the Japanese occupation. They had thought this would all blow over quickly and they could return to their homes. But they never did and many had left far more valuable things behind than mere possessions, like their families and friends

In 1948 North and South Korea would establish their own governments, their new countries shaped by the cultures and desires of the two factions that had chosen this country as their battleground. In the north, the Soviet Union implemented a soviet-style socialist republic and in the south a western influenced democracy. This was all supposed to be temporary until the Soviets and US could implement a trusteeship, a process they'd estimate would take 5 years, within two this idea had to be abandoned as the two colonizing powers couldn't come to an agreement

The occupation by both the Soviet Union and the US wasn't much different than the occupation by Japan. Reports on both sides of physical and sexual assault, cultural oppression and forced adoption of new languages

Up until this point, Korea had been a united country for over a thousand years and most desperately wanted to be reunited, but they had little choice in the matter as forces on both sides vied for power.

In 1950 the north would invade the south with plans of reuniting the country under communist rule, which resulted in the Korean War that lasted for 3 years, ending in a stalemate and leaving a battle ravaged scar between the two sides called the Korean Demilitarized Zone

The 1950s and 1960s The subsequent division of the peninsula, civil war, and lean years before the Republic of Korea began to prosper economically resulted in a temporary halt to most performing arts activity. Some of the mask dance drama activities in the 1950s and early 1960s revolved around refugees from the north - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Occupation by both the Soviets and the US and then the following Korean war left even more deep wounds, when they hadn't even recovered from the ones left by Japan, so by the time both sides had managed to regain any form of self governance, so much damage had been done, reconciliation was not going to be a simple thing. It wasn't until 2018, 73 years after they'd been separated that the leaders of South and North Korea met and agreed to establish peace and begin working toward reunification. As of 2019 the South Korea Defense White Paper does not label North Korea as an "enemy" or "threat" for the first time in history, unfortunately attempts at reconciliation have since been severely damaged to the point that lines of communication have once again been cut.

But something kind of amazing happened in the 1960s.

The presidency of Park Chung Hee had reappropriated folk culture as a tool for nationalism, but the prodemocracy activists (who opposed Park) aligned themselves with the commoners of the past and began ardent study of folk traditions—such as mask dance dramas. In the 1960s people learned music and drama, feeling a connection to their roots and their past. Later on these performance skills were utilized in protests against the government. Such use could be as simple as drawing a crowd through the seemingly apolitical activity of providing entertainment, then speechifying once the crowd grew too large for the police to quickly disperse  - The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas - Cedarbough Saeji (2012)

Performances of mask dance dramas resumed in various locations after Korea's liberation from the suppressive environment of the Japanese colonial period, and some of them even went on stage supported by newspaper companies or academic societies. These efforts were hampered again as the Korean War broke out, but the performing art came back to life as stage shows from the end of the 1950s. It was triggered by the National Folk Art Competition of 1958, held in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea.

Major mask dance drama teams, including the performers of the mask dance drama of Hahoe, competed for the grand prize and the performing art of mask dance drama became widely publicized through TV broadcasts and newspaper articles. In concert with impetus from social movements to preserve and continue the tradition, the individual efforts of relevant scholars and performers played an indispensable role in revitalizing Korean mask dance dramas.

These efforts finally led to the establishment of state policies which allowed a total of fourteen varieties of mask dance dramas to be designated as national intangible cultural heritages today. Societies for the preservation of mask dance dramas were also established to hand down the art of traditional masked performances. Despite many obstacles and threats to its continuation, the living spirit of mask dance dramas remains a part of Korean people's lives, rooted as it is in Korea's ancient history

Systematized government policies to protect the genre and accelerated moves to continue its tradition in triggered a boom in Korean mask dance drama concert with an effort to retrieve Korean cultural identity. In the 1970s-1980s, the practice of mask dance dramas vigorously spread among university students all over the country being used as an instrument to manifest their democratic movement and resistance against the regime. A mask dance drama club was established in every university to lead the revival movement of mask dance drama.

From the 1970s onwards, festive events were often created by local government agencies to stimulate cultural tourism, some of which are still held today. For example, Andong City holds 'Andong International Mask Dance Festival'; Hapcheon County, the cradle of mask dance drama (ogwangdae), hosts 'Bammari Ogwangdae Festival'; and Jinju City hosts 'Jinju Masked Dance and Drama Festival.' The National Folk Art Competition, first held during the Japanese colonial period, still takes place today. Another traditional performing art, the Traditional Theater Festival, emerged in 2007, expanding the ground for people to enjoy the art of Korean mask dance drama. While existing policies to protect designated cultural heritage are being improved to overcome its own limits on one hand, efforts persist on the other to open up a new, creative future for the continuation of traditional Korean mask drama dance.

Traditions of mask dance drama in North Korea were also discontinued in the 1960s, but the recent legislation is now serving to protect Mask Dance Drama of Bongsan and other similar arts as "nonmaterial cultural heritage." In terms of continuing the tradition, North Korean mask dance dramas are more focused on creative development than the preservation of the authentic form, in order to enhance national pride - In High Spirit, Away From Sorrows: traditions of Korean mask dance drama (2019) National Intangible Heritage Center

I tell you all this not to bum you out, but for you to understand just how miraculous that any cultural practice of Korea survived and a testament to human tenacity. These practices could've got people killed, simply for expressing their culture, feelings and thoughts, yet somehow time and time again they became tools of unity and protest, using that very culture, that history to fight back

It's why the little things like this are so important. Characters like the yeongno provided a way to release tensions, to give social commentary, express themselves and to connect with their fellow performers and communities. Where they can all just laugh at how ridiculous the whole situation is, because sometimes laughing is all you can do

There's an important component of the mask-dance we haven't talked about yet, a concept called simmyung

Sinmyung is a kind of ecstasy of performance and usually is achieved through the process of group song and dance. Korean mask-dance is representation of the people's sinmyung when a maskdance player unites his own sinmyung with the imminent sinmyung of the people. This psychological element, however, is not the material of dramatic structure, rather just the pleasure of the mask-dance - Korean mask-dance and Aristotle's poetics - Teayong Pakr

Maybe one day the Koreas will be united again. There's a whole other side of the mask dance that only exists on the northern side of that border, and it could be one of the many things that might start healing those scars. We as humans bond over sharing our stories and our history, we bond over laughter and tears, we bond over common experiences. And I think we can all relate to the desire for some mythical beast to show up and eat some self-entitled corrupt assholes

Full Source List