Andong Mask Dance Festival

in Hahoe, South Korea

Andong Mask Dance Festival

Words by Athan Rodostianos

Hahoemaul, Korea circa 1300

The restless spirits wanted appeasing so a plan was struck. One night one of them entered the dream of a young member of the Ho clan and instructed him to make wooden masks to be used in a ritual dance for the spirits' pleasure.

"But you must keep the process secret upon the penalty of immediate death," warned the spirit's voice.

Leaving his family and lover behind Ho headed for the solitude of the nearby mountains where deep inside a cave he began his decreed task, and there he worked until the hundredth day when his yearning lover searched out his hideaway.

The instant that she peeked at Ho and the masks, he began to spit up blood and died.

So the story goes...

Eight hundred years later Ho's village, Hahoe, still remains, nestled in a bend of the Naktong River, a living, breathing community with a history spanning the life of the Chosun Dynasty.

Originally founded by the Kimhae Ho clan the village was sited according to geomantic theory (the method of choosing auspicious sites for cities, residences and graves).

This location, guarded by the steep rocky cliffs of Puyongdae across the river to the north and a wall of pine tree forests and rugged mountains to the south, enabled the village to escape the ravages of wars and retain the rich history that is so much a part of this nation.

The Kimhae Ho clan was succeeded by the Kwangju Ahn clan, but it wasn't until after the P'ungsan Ryu clan came to the village in the late 14th century that Hahoe rose into prominence through the fame of its clan members.

Of these, the most celebrated are Ryu Song-ryong (1541-1607), who became prime minister and played a major role in countering the Hideyoshi invasions (1592-1598) and his elder brother Ryu Un-ryong (1539-1601) who was a famous Confucian scholar and long serving high official.

Although these figures are honored in the history of the village the community does not rely on this or on tourism to generate its prosperity. Instead, the clan, both upper and lower classes, works harmoniously to maintain the farming traditions that it has known for so long.

This successful cultural co-existence, which is evident the moment foot is set inside the village proper, is treasured and closely guarded by its residents. While visitors are welcomed to Hahoe its tranquility and charm can only become a part of one's life through marriage into the Ryu clan.

As a visitor, the allure of this weekend destination is immediate and compelling. The irrepressible feeling is one of levity and joy borne of casual strolls, picnics on the wide sandy beach and frolics in the shallows of the river.

The village, embraced by the river, was once regarded to represent a boat (or lotus flower) which forbade the use of stone for construction less its weight would sink the vessel. This virtual absence of stone as a building material, something which sets Hahoe aside from other national and international historic sites, further adds to this feeling, as if one is travelling back into time.

Although times have changed and the use of stone and concrete is evident today, the majority of the village walls are earthen. While every effort is made to protect them from the elements, some are cracked or hastily patched, a testament to the fact that Hahoe is much more than a tourist attraction.

A wander through the wall lined streets, which converge to the village center, provides passage to the homes of the members of the Ryu clan. Unlike many Korean villages where all the houses face south, the dwellings in this community are oriented in all four cardinal directions each capturing a unique aspect of the theatre beyond.

Graced by raised gates representing the power and social status of the clan, the stately buildings of the yangbang stand serenely and impressively, some patiently waiting for their wealthy owners to make the trip down from Seoul for a leisurely weekend sojourn.

In contrast, the thatch roof huts of the common people encircling the village abound with the activity of everyday life - a power saw ripping through freshly hewn lumber, the sounds of dishes being washed and the chugging of a rice field tractor going about its business.

The fields beyond are equally as active, at this time of year being carefully tilled and planted out, the efforts of which will bear reward come harvest time.

Despite the intrinsic success of Hahoe as a community its importance as a cultural jewel of Korea is well established. The village houses eighteen cultural properties and the government has provided significant support to ensure that it remains untainted by modern life. This includes the laying of underground electricity in the 1990's and an application to list it in UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The ensuing period authenticity of the village has resulted in it being prized as a film set for historical drama.

Additionally the village is the home of many traditional festivals including the Hahoe Mask Dance and in particular the Pyolshin Kut, a dance which gave common people the opportunity to mock those in authority.

Suppressed by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1928 due to its patriotic undertones the dance is the only mask dance that still includes community rites held at the local sonangdan (shaman shrine) and is performed at the village every Sunday.

The biggest event at Hahoe is the Andong Mask Dance Festival, this year to be held on October 6-15. This festival which showcases many Korean and international dance troupes pays homage to the tradition that was borne at Ho's village and includes the Hahoe sunyu-julbul-nori (Korean traditional fireworks).

Whilst Hahoe is remotely located, a crucial factor of its preservation in years past, it is still easily accessible. It is only a 40-minute ride on the number 46 bus which departs Andong station six times a day and drops you at the village gates.

Accommodation is available at a number of yogwan outside the village but the most relaxing experience would have to include an overnight stay at one of the minbak at the village. This can be arranged for 20,000 won per room (2 people) but should be booked in advance during the busy Spring-Autumn period.

For anyone with a weekend to spare, a visit to Hahoe Folk Village is a must. It will prove an endless delight and provide an unrivaled insight into traditional rural living in Korea.

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