Review | Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition: Development, Authenticity, and Performance History & Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity

Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition: Development, Authenticity, and Performance History. By Yeonok Jang. Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press, 2014. [312 p., ISBN 978-0-8108-8461-8, Ebook: £51.95; Cloth: £51.95].

Korean Musical Drama: P’ansori and the Making of Tradition in Modernity. By Haekyung Um. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. [272 p., ISBN 978-0-7546-6276-1, Cloth: £63.00].

Reviewed by Dorothea Suh / Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

P’ansori, performed by a singer and a musician on a barrel drum, noticeably gained attention in the national and international mainstream media after the success of the novel Seopyeonje by Yi Chung-Jun and its screen adaptation in 1993, showing the dramatic story of a fictional female P’ansori singer. In 2003, P’ansori was proclaimed as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage by the UNESCO for its refined art of singing and storytelling.

Both Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition (KPS) by Yeonok Jang and Korean Musical Drama (KMD) by Haekyung Um examine the origins of P’ansori and follow the evolution of the schools and styles and contemporary performances; however, each book has a different focus area.

Yeonok Jang, a visiting lecturer in P’ansori studies and Korean Music at Dankook University, highlights the change in P’ansori performance style in the 1980s, the reception and perception of P’ansori through the audience, and the role of P’ansori in Korean society. The book is divided in three parts, titled: 1. Development, 2. From Sarangbang[1] to Theater, 3. Cultural Identity, and each part has two subchapters. As a professional kayagum[2] player and amateur P’ansori singer, Jang writes from a musician’s perspective and gives detailed insight into the transmission of the craft and the conflicting issues arising in the late 1980s through the previously implemented Intangible Cultural Property System in South Korea.

In Part 1 Development of KPS, Jang introduces different theories about the origins of P’ansori: shamanism, folk tales, novels, storytellers or Chinese oral traditions, but discards the majority of those theories due to lack of evidence. One of her suppositions is that “the storytellers were the creators of P’ansori” (39) with market places being the crucial factor in popularizing P’ansori. Jang is aware that her first statement conflicts with her secondary proposition: “the genre might have developed through the influence of Chinese narrative songs in the North or East Coast of the country” (39). There is no definite answer for placing the origin of P’ansori. The Chŏlla province in the south is mentioned as the birthplace of P’ansori, but Jang adds that P’ansori could have been based on the Beijing drum song, due to striking similarities in aesthetics and musical style and therefore possibly performed in North Korea first.

Part 2, From Sarangbang to Theater, continues the development of P’ansori, starting from the performances of P’ansori in traditional Korean houses (hanok) held by noblemen and literati towards the theater stage in the twentieth century. Jang states that refined singing techniques and the change of the audience from market place visitors to “upper class audiences” (73) are the “most notable factor[s] in the nineteenth century P’ansori history” (90) and suggests, that the transformation of the singers’ voice was a result of a different audience (market places to houses) and the rising competition between singers (a louder voice to receive attention). Jang also discusses the expansion of P’ansori towards the theater stage and Ch’anggŭk, a singing drama, as its successor.

Due to conflicting views from various scholars regarding the origin of the genre Ch’anggŭk itself, the chapter continues with describing the genre and its reception by P’ansori singers and audiences. Jang affirms that Ch’anggŭk “is performed less frequently and with less public interest. Its mass popularity has dwindled” (102) and that Ch’anggŭk needs to break away from “the notion that it has evolved from P’ansori” (102). However, current research and new productions such as the experimental “Mr. Rabbit and the Dragon King” (2011) and the critically acclaimed Seopyeonje (2012/2013) clearly show through their critically acclaimed productions and recurring performances in the upcoming season of the National Theater of Korea that mass popularity has not “dwindled” and the chosen topics for the newly created pieces are deeply connected to P’ansori, be it as an interpretation of existing P’ansori songs or an examination of the genre itself.

In Part 3, Cultural Identity, Jang stresses that P’ansori now “serves to express the traditional culture of Korea” (135) and therefore becomes involved in political schemes. The contemporary performances from the 1970s to the present were observed and investigated by Jang and analyzed through a comparative study of the song Kalkkaboda[3] from the P’ansori Chunhyang, where Jang examined two different singing styles (tongch’o and posong), music, rhythm and text. Because P’ansori is traditionally not written down (while the notation of the rhythm[4] has its own system), western staff notation was used to transcribe both versions of the songs. Those transcriptions provide a valuable guiding principle, but should not be seen as a fixture. While repetitions are a part of the learning process in P’ansori, a professional performance is seldom repeated twice—instead of following notations, the ability to improvise is held in high esteem. In terms of cultural identity, it is an interesting observation by Jang that the singer of the posong style used a vibrato similar to the western style of singing and that the socio-cultural environment with its ever present western media and art might be responsible for this. However, this was not a quantitative study, because the analysis was based on the examination of only two master singers, O Chongsuk and Song Ch’angsun.

Jang concludes, that while “P’ansori performance style has been in a constant process of change throughout its history” (230), it keeps “the nation’s cultural uniqueness” and portrays a cultural evolution. She questions, whether someone “can revolutionize the singing style of P’ansori to meet the taste of contemporary audiences” (230), because, although P’ansori may be a valued cultural asset, it does not have a necessary, growing audience. Instead, it may be a better choice to preserve P’ansori rather than modernizing the genre.

A more analytical approach is provided by Haekyung Um, lecturer in music at University of Liverpool. Her book includes eight chapters: 1. Performance, 2. Origins and Histories, 3. Text and Music, 4. Schools and Styles, 5. Individual Styles, 6. Aesthetics, 7. P’ansori in Diaspora, 8. New P’ansori. Um addresses a rarely researched topic, she studies the “relationship that exists between music-making and identity amongst the Korean diaspora in these post-soviet states”[5] (Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) and follows up with a representative cross section of newly created P’ansori, giving the reader a comprehensive introduction of the current P’ansori scene.

In her first section, Performance, Um dissects a P’ansori performance and explains how P’ansori is currently being presented – the settings, its purpose in being performed, the dynamics between the Cultural Heritage Administration and the musicians and lastly, related performing arts, such as Ch’anggŭk and Kayageum Pyong’chang. Um mentions that “competitive P’ansori performances are highly ‘presentational’ in their setting and purpose” (21) and “informal events and actions involve participatory music-making by connoisseurs and amateurs” (21). Therefore there are three distinct places for P’ansori to be performed and enjoyed: the auditorium, private clubs and student clubs. Um considers those P’ansori clubs, especially founded by student members and a professional artist, to be “integral to what could be called the P’ansori scene” (22), because they provide fans with self-run blogs, online fan sites, teachings, and other events.

Part two of KMD, Origins and Histories, shares similarities with Jang's KPS. Um introduces various theories about the origins of P’ansori, such as shamans from the Jeolla Province, traveling singers and Chinese literature, a possible origin which she notes is criticized because “by their nature, narrative genres share certain features rather than necessarily demonstrating cross-cultural influences” (36). As in Jang’s KPS, Um provides a detailed historiography and cultural history of P’ansori, embracing the so-called golden age in the nineteenth century towards significant changes in regard to the music making policy in the 1970. She argues that the progress and expansion of P’ansori was elucidated through seven stages: pre-eighteenth century, the eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, late nineteenth century, early twentieth century, reconstruction and renewal: 1945-164, and 1964 to the present. Through providing in-depth annotations, these seven stages display the complexity of P’ansori, because “social, political and economic changes in Korean society have produced conditions in which P’ansori has transformed profoundly” (55).

In the third chapter, Text and Music, Um uses the P’ansori Chunhyangga as an example to analyze the text, narrative structure, themes, speech styles and rhetorical devices characteristic of the P’ansori genre. The latter is of great interest, because the spoken text of a song is often stylized and studded with Sino-Korean words. According to Um, whereas “the Chinese words are associated with a display of spectacle or grandeur, vernacular Korean is usually used to express inner feelings and emotions”(64). Um describes the theoretical aspects of P’ansori, the rhythmic cycles (changdan), which she transcribes using square notation[6]. She then explains the vocal techniques of P’ansori and its connection to other folk genres. Here, she uses western staff notation to transcribe examples for displaying the various modes[7] and characteristic melodic types distinctive for specific master singers. The examples of the spoken text, changdan, and modes are mostly based on Ch’unhyangga, but they can be adapted to all five remaining P’ansori as well. Um concludes that “the text is linked to changdan, which in turn is combined with cho, and cho is related to the text” (100) and suggests that “these musical devices reinforce the implicit meaning of the text, which in turn are culturally and historically located.”

In chapter four, Schools and Styles, Um conducts a comparative analysis of six versions of Ch’unhyangga, questioning “the factors that define and influence the creation of certain styles” (101). The most important factor is che, meaning “system, construction or structure” (101). Starting from the two main schools, donpyeonje (eastern school) and seopyeonje (western school), Um follows the classification of che provided by P’ansori scholars starting from 1940. As che can also mean School of Singing or Sub-School [8], genealogies of Ch’unhyangga sung by famous singers are provided. For example, genealogies include that of master Song Mangap (1865-1939), Kim Changhwan (1854-1927), and Chong Chongnyol (1876-1928). These detailed genealogies are also of importance for P’ansori scholars tracing back current styles of other P’ansori, regardless of school[9]. Um explains the stylistic features of the major schools and individual styles using prior knowledge covered in chapter three, Text and Music, as well as examines the importance of che and it's meaning.

Chapter five, Individual Styles, continues examining the different schools and styles, based on Um’s fieldwork and lessons with the master singers Song Uhyang (1935) and Cho Sanghyon (1939)[10]. Um closely examines and analyzes the teaching methods and the influence of teachers based on transcriptions of public lessons, live performances, and studio performances. This chapter also gives the reader an insight into the education of students, how older teaching methods, learning by ear and repetition, have transformed and adapted to modern times.

For example students taping their lessons and learning different versions (beginner’s version or advanced version) of one musical piece. Interestingly, there is a brief view into gender issues within P’ansori. Um recalls Cho Sanghyon suggesting “that P’ansori had originally been developed for the male voice” (129), a statement based on the fact that the first noted female singer was Chin Ch’aeson from the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, Um states that “the gender of the teacher can also influence teaching,” such as learning yoja-sori (female style of singing) and the counterpart namja-sori (male singing style) (129).

The sixth chapter in KMD, Aesthetics, shares some similarities with part two, From Sarangbang to Theater, of KPS. In KMD, Um shows the development of P’ansori from a historical perspective, including the audience and patrons of P’ansori. Using the P’ansori Ch’unhyangga, Um describes the censorship of P’ansori and how patrons thought of P’ansori – a vulgar play with “real” characters but with values to be shared for educational purposes.

Socio-cultural changes through the decades, such as the “gentrification of P’ansori in the late nineteenth century” (153) and the “yangbanization,” altered the appreciation of P’ansori. The former middle and lower classes became more powerful than the elite through their increasing wealth, which led to “the appropriation of upper-class values... to display and affirm their newly elevated position” (153) including the support of P’ansori performances. Another section dwells deeper into the aesthetic criteria of sound, sentiment, and meaning, which draws further from the points discussed in prior chapters three through five. In the conclusion, Um states that the changing views on the aesthetics of P’ansori, such as the individual preferences of the musicians, a diverse audience and the inclusion of said audience in the performance, influenced P’ansori in developing and refining its lyrics and music.

Chapter seven, P’ansori in Diaspora, draws on Um’s research in the former Soviet Union and China. Providing historical background about the Korean migration to Russia following the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910 to the end of World War II, Um describes transnational P’ansori in the former Soviet Union and the opening of Choson Kukchang (Korean Theatre) in 1932, when Korean plays were performed alongside patriotic Soviet dramas. Um argues this was because “it was necessary for these Koreans to be seen to be assimilated into mainstream Soviet society,” therefore producing patriotic dramas such as Hong Pomdo in 1942, an anti-imperialist and revolutionary (169). Um argues that the Korean diaspora in China is much older than the migration to Russia, it began in the seventh century and continued in waves. P’ansori was introduced in 1939 through a touring P’ansori troupe and survived the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution until it ended in 1976. Newly composed Chinese-Korean P’ansori were mostly political and later merged with western opera styles. Um calls this a hybrid song narrative named ch’angdam, which later evolved into different forms. The meaning and value of P’ansori in the diaspora are different from in its homeland because P’ansori serves to “create a social space and a sense of community… a cultural memory of the common past which the diasporas share with other Korean transnational communities” (176). But Um adds, that at the same time, the younger generation of ethnic Koreans prefer the pop culture of their home (be it China or Russia) to P’ansori, because P’ansori “can be very distant from their current social world… and everyday life” (177).  Similar to chapter three, Cultural Identity, in KPS, KMD reflects on identity. In terms of P’ansori in the diaspora, Um finds “that diasporic performances and their ethnic and cultural identity are also defined by hybridity rather than by essence or purity” (178), which, in a way, is an inversion of the perception of identity and P’ansori within Korea.

The last chapter of KMD is a critical view of the new P’ansori in South Korea, called Ch’angjak P’ansori, which began being performed in 1904. The new compositions began to gain popularity after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 and, according to Um, reached “another creative peak in the 1970s. As was the case for many artistic endeavors in Korea” (181). Um categorizes the Ch’angjak P’ansori in three categories: Patriotic P’ansori, Religious P’ansori and Socio-Political P’ansori. Patriotic figures, such as General Yi Sunshin or revolutionary heroes of the resistance against Japan became protagonists of newly composed Ch’angjak P’ansori. Religious-themed P’ansori took their inspirations from famous buddhist monks (for example Yujong from the sixteenth century) or Christian topics, like the salvation of Christ.

Both, the patriotic and religious P’ansori were developed by professional singers and Um finds that they often depict “historical figures and events that are associated with the nationalist and anti-colonial struggle, thereby merging religion with national politics” (183). The third category of Ch’angjak P’ansori, the socio-political P’ansori, named minjung P’ansori, was the most popular among the new compositions and dealt with the politics and social issues of Korea starting from the 1970s. Based on contemporary issues and literature, socio-cultural P’ansori was mostly created by semi-professional singers, which gives it a connection to more traditional P’ansori – but in terms of creation, this is the only similarity. No longer orally taught, “new P’ansori has two stages: firstly the text is written and then the music is arranged,” using the traditional changdan and modes (185). Um indicates a shift in P’ansori from the twentieth century to the twenty-first century: while the former P’ansori were dramatic and tragic, the current P’ansori highlight humor above other characteristics. In addition, the use of elaborate costumes, requisites and the focus on professional acting gained more importance, as a way to express the narrated and sung story (189).

Finally, Um cites the rigid cultural policies used to keep nineteenth-century values alive and nostalgia as reasons for the tensions between old and new P’ansori performances. Despite these tensions, he stresses that “modernity is not a threat to the future of P’ansori” (212). Since the singers of the younger generation, such as Pak T’aeo and Yi Charam, surprisingly express the importance of traditional P’ansori instead of stressing the need for new P’ansori (even though both of them are successful with their new P’ansori projects), Um suggests that P’ansori is by no means meant to be a static art. Recognizing and accepting the choices these young artists make for their careers it requires a profound understanding of the dynamics within the decisions of these singers who are “in a milieu of competing forces (local, regional, global and historical)” (212).

Anyone interested in P’ansori, Korean traditional music, socio-cultural issues and cultural transformations in diaspora, will find these two well written and extensively researched books extremely useful. While KPS gives a complex and almost intimate take from an active musician’s point of view, KMD shines with definite, in-depth explanations and very detailed knowledge of the latest state of the art, including contemporary P’ansori in and outside of Korea.

In my opinion, both books tell the story how P’ansori became the highly honored art it is today. They both include an outlook into the future, and continue to honor the legacy of one of the most famous English publications, “The Korean Singer of Tales” by Marshall R. Phil, in popularizing P’ansori in academia. Both books do not need the other, but I believe that in some chapters, both books do represent distinctive opinions and demonstrate contrasting styles of research, presumably due to differing access to other resources and focus areas (such as singers). Because analysis of master singers, especially in the English language, are rare to find, KPS and KMD present a chance for non-native speakers to fill in the gaps of previous, incomplete research and work as a foundation for future investigations. [11]

[1] Room for males in a traditional Korean house (hanok), used for studying and leisure

[2] Twelve-string Korean zither

[3] Translation: Shall I Go?

[4] In Korean: Changdan

[5] Hae-kyung Um,, accessed June 14th, 2013

[6] Commonly used by ethnomusicologists focusing on Korea; the (western) tempo is being shown by a metronome mark (M.M.).

[7] Called Cho. Cho refers to the mode, melodic type and singing style in P’ansori.

[8] Sub-Schools are further subdivisions within the two major styles, the eastern and the western school, led by different master singers. Even though they might share the same style of singing, the versions of master singers of the same school differ in terms of individual technique and content.

[9] P'ansori singers were able to sing different P’ansori in different schools and styles.

[10] Both were taught by Cho Ungmin, who sung Ch’unhyangga in the Eastern School and Shimcheongga, Sugungga and Jeokbyeokka in the Western School.

[11] I do have another additional reading recommendation, “Voices from the Straw Mat” by Park Chan E. combines memoirs of a P’ansori musician and ethnomusicological research. I believe that those three books are the most current readings published on P’ansori in English language, suitable for students and professionals alike.


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