Thursday, December 19, 2013

Changes to Traditional Theatre in Modern Korea

I was asked to write three entries in an upcoming publication called the Dictionary of Asian Theatre. This is my draft of one entry... the word count is practically killing me.

Changes to Traditional Theatre in Modern Korea
Three main primary reincarnations of traditional theatre in modern Korea have reimagined tradition in new ways: madanggeuk,yeonhigeuk, and changgeuk.

During the Korean pro-democracy movement activists became interested in re-appropriating Korean tradition from government control (as registered items of protected traditional culture), and to that end learned mask dance dramas and pungmul drumming. Motivated youth staged what appeared to be a traditional performance, but after a crowd had amassed and the show was underway, the traditional would often give way to a more explicit political message. Over time these young people realized that they no longer needed to clothe their politics within tradition and the genre madanggeuk was born. Through their connection with the democratization movement, these plays by and large focused on spoken and mimed messages. Due to performers’ background training in mask dance drama and pungmul and a desire to remain allied with Korean folk culture, their plays often incorporated traditional music and movement, with the players clad in Korean traditional clothing. In the present day many madanggeuk are performed without these elements, on a variety of themes limited only by the imagination of those involved. New members of madanggeuk troupes may never have learned pungmul or mask dance dramas, and although some troupes explicitly continue to incorporate tradition and train their members in these skills, others do not.
This madanggeuk performed by students of a women's university (not professionals) has lost almost all markers of tradition. 

This madanggeuk maintains the various traditional trappings, but the performers are not necessarily explicitly trained in traditional performance-- they employ the markers of tradition that are useful to evoke a country bumpkin aesthetic but the emphasis is on a humorous delivery of the story. When most Koreans picture madanggeuk they picture something like this.

             Although madanggeuk originally appeared to be the naturally evolving future of Korean traditional theatre, today yeonhi groups, or groups performing yeonhigeuk (yeonhi is a loose term for traditional folk theatre) have emerged. One reason for the resurgence of this term is the opening of a department in yeonhi at the Korean National University of the Arts. The department trains students in mask dance drama, pungmul, shamanic performance, and the skills of the traditional itinerant Korean performers, the Namsadang. Yeonhi groups, often including graduates of the university, have thorough traditional training and reassemble various traditions into full-length shows. Many yeonhi groups create new stories as a framework for presenting traditions they have learned. Instead of limiting themselves to one art or one genre (such as a single village’s pungmul style or one traditional folk dance), they combine styles and genres in a single show. This may include the lion dance from Bongsan’s mask dance drama, the spinning disks from Namsadang, drumming in a pan-regional style, and newly coined humorous dialogue delivered in a traditional style.

I really want to show you a specific video that perfectly encapsulates yeonhigeuk -- but for some reason I cannot embed it. Please visit it here.

Here is another example, this is of highlights from the yeonhi performance of "Good Morning Gut" by The Gwangdae

             Finally, changgeuk is the re-staging of the epic pansori tales that were originally sung by a solo singer accompanied by a drummer. In changgeuk, similar to an opera or a musical, each character is voiced by a different singer on an often elaborate set with props. Changgeuk were first staged in the early twentieth century and contributed to the ongoing success of the pansori genre by providing an alternative setting in which to hear the distinctive singing style. When staging pansori as changgeuk, the music expands from a single drummer to include multiple Korean traditional instruments, and other traditional arts such as dance may be presented in a scene only briefly described in the original tale. Newly composed changgeuk that are not based on the traditional pansori epics have been less successful.

This video is from a production of the National Changgeuk Company's performance of a changgeuk of the pansori tale of Shim Cheong. 


Almost one month ago I started training in Hapkido again.

For those of you who don't know, I am a 4th degree black belt. 3rd degree can teach in a secondary studio (but still technically supervised by their own instructor). 4th degree can open their own studio, if they choose to, or remain affiliated with their parent studio. Hapkido is only one of the many martial arts I've studied to greater or lesser degrees, and the one I have focused on the most-- I began in 1996 and for several years I spent up to seven hours a day leading class and practicing.

None of that is to say that I am some bad ass "grandmaster." I'm good, but not incredible, and I have spent years without any practice of Hapkido (although during many of those years I was practicing other arts-- in 2003-4 I was in China and learned wushu there, in 2004-2006 I was in Seoul and only occasionally went to Daegu to my studio to do Hapkido, but I did taekkyon almost everyday (I'm not going to get into my taekkyon story, but suffice to say it's not a short and simple one). In 2006-07 I was walking to Lhasa and in transition, in 2007-2008 I was dancing a lot but not doing any martial arts, 2008-2010 I did taiji seriously at UCLA and became an assistant instructor, then 2010-2011 I was in Korea practicing multiple arts (not martial arts), but sometimes I went down to Daegu to practice Hapkido in my original studio (although it's moved about 5 times). I did my 4th degree test in early 2011. In 2011-2012 I was back in LA doing taiji, and I kept doing taiji back on Lopez in 2012-2013 (it's the only martial art I've ever been able to practice on my own on a regular basis). Of course now I'm back in Korea.

At first I thought I could take the bus to Seoul and do my normal classes (Bongsan Talchum mask dance drama, and sangmo ribbon hat dance, plus rehearsing with Songpa Sandae Noli mask dance drama) but every time I leave Mohyeon I lose four hours or more to transportation, and the buses are horribly uncomfortable (when returning you don't always get a seat until you're halfway home). So I decided to find a local place to exercise. I interviewed the two closest Hapkido studios and watched their teaching style, both were acceptable, but Yi Sangsu's teaching style seemed better for me (if his studio not quite as nice inside). That was in September, and I planned to start in October, but... Karjam came and I was so busy, then I had the conference, so I finally started almost one month ago and I've been loving it.

At my age, I'm proud that I can still do a flip this well. I actually can do a little better than this, but after a couple more months of practice, I might have to upload another video to show the improvement!

I've written many times before about choosing martial arts studios-- and if anyone wants my opinion about it, please leave a question in the comments-- but I won't be going into that today except to say this:

If you think you need a martial arts studio where they speak English or whatever your language is, you're wrong. Watch and imitate, watch and imitate. This is about your body, not your intellectual understanding. I understand how to do a high scissors kick, that doesn't mean I'm able to leap off the ground and do one! Furthermore the studio is great place to practice Korean. And if you live in Korea, learn Korean already. No matter how long or how short you plan to stay, start learning Korean. It will improve your life.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Limitations to Simplifying English

Last week I had an unpleasant experience. The day before I was going to a TV show taping (for a program on traditional music that my friend's group was performing in) it occurred to me that maybe someone else wanted to go, so I posted a note in the elevator and one person responded. This colleague was about my age (perhaps a little more), white, male, and also American. I had never seen him before, but there are about 75 foreign faculty members that live in this building, so that is not a surprise. We met in the lobby and started walking to the bus. Almost immediately I noticed that he spoke in Broken English, or Pidgin English. Even though we were both American, he continued to do this on the entire 3 hour trip to the studio, and in between the two shows we watched them tape (thanks be afterwards he went to eat dinner before returning to campus, so we did not have to go back together). I explicitly called him on it, twice. I honestly think he has completely code-switched and has no idea that he's doing it. The alternative is to think he's a pretentious superior ass who was intentionally patronizing.

We all have a tendency to do this. We might start "picking up" the accent of a friend, or we might start speaking without using a/an/the (I watched a friend do that to her foreign ex-husband, but she'd do it to him and then speak normally to me in the next sentence), or if we're particularly insular, we might shout at foreigners thinking this makes English easier to understand. ESL professionals end up using shorter sentences and shorter words, and once they learn how difficult idioms are to explain to foreigners, they try to reduce the use of idioms and compound verbs, to the extent possible. (Go ahead, try to explain why we call up a friend-- are we turning our heads to the sky? Or are we just making a phone call?)

But the difference between ESL professionals and this faculty member is that he teaches in the sciences and probably never stopped to realize how difficult it is to understand incorrect English. Or how confusing it is for students--regardless of their own ability to speak error-free English-- to parse that they should not model their own English on that of their native-English speaking American professor. Korean students, although often horrible at speaking, have spent years learning English (the students we now have had English class since third grade of elementary school (English in elementary school, if my memory serves, began in March 1998, maybe 1999, and our freshmen were born in 1994). And that's just the English they had in school-- they also probably went to private after-school classes in hagwon. Sometimes in school and even more often in hagwon they learned with native-English speakers (who of course were explicitly there to model perfect English and not to speak in some sort of broken English). In other words, the students are relatively accustomed to listening to perfect English, although speaking slowly and simply is a good idea. They must be so confused trying to understand this man!

Please, foreigners teaching in Korea, or anywhere else, really. DO NOT DO THIS. It's easier to understand perfect English than to understand broken English. And you have a responsibility to model the correct way to talk. If any of this man's students are imitating how he talks (the same way I might start to speak with a weird hybrid-British accent, or use the same vocab in my answer that was in the question, because I'm sure the students have the vocabulary they just used) then he's doing them a huge disservice.   

Incidentally the TV taping was useful from a research perspective, and my friend's group did a group job performing.

During the taping of the second show I was right next to the stage, so I couldn't take any photos. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

My Father-in-Law

Today my father-in-law, Lorae, passed away. He was a wonderful man, always calm and patient, and accepting of me and my foreignness. I shared wonderful times with him, such as on our pilgrimage to Lhasa, Nepal and India.

He passed away in pain due to advanced cancer, but surrounded by his family, at home, and after religiously preparing himself to go. I am trying not to be too sad about not getting to see him one last time, because it's not about me. I will prostrate 108 times a day through the 49 day period, in prayers for the even better rebirth he deserves. He had seen too many hard times in this life, but still stayed strong and positive, and was a wonderful example to me.

I love you Apa Lorae, and I always will.

[I will post a photo later, apparently blogger has a bug right now and I cannot upload a photo]

Sunday, December 1, 2013

History Textbooks in Korea and Dr. Lew Young Ick (유영익)

As a general rule, even though I am a scholar of Korea, I do not spend much time worrying about the never­-ending squabbles of Korean political parties. I have been following the newspaper articles on the history textbook controversies with rolled eyes and an attitude of "oh, this again!" However, I recently become aware of the media castigation of Dr. Lew Young­ick that has accompanied the textbook controversy debate in the Korean media, and felt inspired to express my thoughts. Dr. Lew has been a tireless pioneer in scholarship of modern Korean history, it is only logical that the 국사편찬위원회 would ask him to head their organization, even if he's hardly a moderate. From my perspective, although Dr. Lew is a right­wing conservative (the opposite of my own political views), he is also a scholar. His efforts on behalf of the 국사편찬위원회 arise out of his own research-­based understanding of modern Korean history, and should be received in that way.

If Dr. Lew and his group has sponsored a textbook that those with my own political beliefs feel has gone too far, then there are two ways to approach the issue. The first is simply to, as scholars, refute the arguments, not at the level of sentences in the textbook, but rather through asking for the inclusion of alternative perspectives within the textbook­­ and striving to portray complex subjects without stripping away their complexity by portraying each detail as either "right" or "wrong." This is an issue partially because in Korea some (many) people still believe it's possible to make an impartial account of history. It's not. It's time for the world to admit their biases and move forward without the pipe-dream of impartiality.

The second and much more important step is to train Korean students to question the material they find in textbooks. Why do the politicians squabbling over textbook content believe that Korean students will receive the material in textbooks uncritically? Perhaps because when they were in classrooms their own teachers and professors did not encourage debate and multiple perspectives. Fortunately university education in Korea is changing, and many of the professors with whom I work are careful to present multiple viewpoints to students. In my own classes I encourage students to decode and analyze content. This will, I hope, trickle down to high school and middle school education as well. I think we should be striving for that goal, rather than fussing over ideological bias in the presentation of history.

Unfortunately much of the debate on textbooks recently seems to have turned into a witch hunt again Dr. Lew. First he was accused of lying so that his son could dodge the draft (a common practice for the Korean elite). Dr. Lew's son, an American citizen, did not serve in the Korean military and from a nationalistic perspective that does not look good. Then, on October 31st the National Assembly asked Dr. Lew Youngick, the head of the 국사편찬위원회, under oath, if he had used a conservative textbook 뉴라이트 대안 교과서 in a modern Korean history class at 한동 University. The elderly gentlemen, confused, answered "no" when he should have answered "yes." Now the media and various politicians castigate him for perjury. Obviously perjury is a serious offense, but the underlying criticism of Dr. Lew seems to center on portraying him as someone who is incurably and extremely right­ wing in his personal and professional life. Yet Dr. Lew, a pioneer in the field of modern Korean history, deserves our respect as a formidable scholar. A professor with talent and encyclopedic knowledge of the field, such as Dr. Lew, can teach students from any textbook, or no textbook at all.

As his former student, I know that Dr. Lew only assigned us a textbook, but never referred to it in class, carried it around, or opened it in front of us. The textbook was presented as pre­-reading that would help us to understand the lecture­­ familiarizing us with names and the chronology of events. During class time Dr. Lew, as any great educator, complexified the content from our readings ­­introducing multiple perspectives, not reducing his portrayal of events to either "right" or "wrong." As a left­-leaning liberal I survived Dr. Lew's classes with my own liberal understanding of Korea intact. My viewpoints, my test answers, and even a complimentary report on a book by (ultra)liberal scholar Bruce Cumings did not prevent me from having the highest grade in the class for both classes under Dr. Lew. 

As a liberal, and a professor at one of Korea's more liberal universities, I still adamantly refuse to join in the liberal witch-hunt that seems to ignore Dr. Lew's amazing contributions to scholarship, including his 2014 book (already available and in my office) on Syngman Rhee (Korea's first president). Instead I call on my fellow academics to convince these politicians that history textbooks can never be impartial, and ask them when creating textbooks to include multiple perspectives, because Korean youth are not "clay to be molded" but are more than able to come to their own decisions. 

To read more about this issue in Korean try these links: 유영익 위증, 유영익 경질 동의 못하겠다, and 대학교재 아들빌라