Mask Dance in Korea: An excerpt from the book ‘Down In Andong’ by Steve Lehman

October 5, 2003 – After dinner I went to the Mask Dance Festival for the first time at night. I had been told to expect drunken revelry, but the place was more sober than during the day. The weather was a little brisk, so maybe that drove the drunks away. Or, since I left about ten o’clock, maybe they hadn’t arrived yet. Regardless, the festivities were unfolding in good order with many kids participating and no loutish behavior that I could see. Out of nowhere, an excellent Korean Mime appeared. He had apparently been trained in the Marcel Marceau School in France and even used French music to back him up. He winked at me mischievously through his makeup.

Afterward, I stopped at an elegant little hole in the wall near my room called Satchmo’s. It greets you entering with a Western style bar and ten high stools lined up in front of it. One booth in the corner might squeeze in six people, but it’s really made for four. Behind the bar are clean and well lighted display cases containing expensive bottles of Western booze. For example, you can get 375 ml. of Johnny Walker Red for 60,000 won. That’s about sixty bucks US. In most Korean places, you buy the hard stuff by the bottle. Then the establishment will keep it for you and pour the rest whenever you come back. Many of the display cases behind the bar sport little name tags in front of the bottles. I usually drink a Korean manufactured version of Budweiser beer at Satchmo’s, which goes for 4,000 won a bottle.

Satchmo’s is owned and operated by a twenty-seven year old Korean woman named Mee Hee. She opened the place a couple of years ago, I assume with the help of her parents, with whom she still lives, and since then has kept a killer graveyard schedule. She arrives at 7:00 PM seven days a week and serves customers until 3:00 AM.   Then she parties and/or lives her life until eleven in the morning when she goes to bed.   I make a point of taking my dictionary when I go in there, so I can communicate at least a little with Mee Hee or anyone else. Last night I learned the word for “to write” in Korean, culshida. I think this trip to Korea has taught me that I have a terminal case of the affliction. I have once again driven myself into profound alienation, perhaps in order to write my way out of it.

October 6, 2003 – I stopped writing altogether a few months before my first trip to Korea. Tired of science fiction, I’d gone back to Callaghan and Hemingway to get a sense of solid ground beneath my feet. At some point I picked up Milan Kundera’s Immortality. One passage in that book describes “writers” in Prague after the Russian invasion. Everyone was writing, Kundera said, but no one was publishing, or even showing their work to anyone else. He said most of these “writers” were using the solitary activity of writing to construct a protective wall of words around themselves. They were writing in order to defend against communication, not facilitate it. He called them graphomaniacs, instead of writers, since they were addicted to their own alienation, which they maintained by writing. I decided that description applied to me and stopped.

A month or so after arriving in Korea in 2001, however, I got an invitation out of the blue from The Hollins Critic to write another article on Arthur C. Clarke. Flattered, and hooked again, I went back to understanding writing as a form of meditation, even if no communication is involved. The emphasis should be on the process of creation, not the product or its reception, as Brad helped me understand, finally, about abstract expressionism in painting. So I’ve gone back to the idea I got from my Creative Writing teacher at the University of Illinois in 1968 who said, “The definition of a writer is doing it.” I guess all graphomaniacs are writers, but all writers are not graphomaniacs.

Yesterday, Ahn-suk and her family came up for the day, along with Eun-jae. We visited the Dosan Academy, a Confucian School located about 25 kilometers from Andong. It was founded in the 16th century by Toegye Yi Hwang, who is best known for giving Confucianism its philosophical foundation. Much of the area was flooded recently to create a reservoir for hydroelectric power, but one little island was artificially preserved. One classic, little building was kept high and dry because it was the scene of some important civil service examinations beginning in the rule of King Jeongjo in the late 18th century. I’m very impressed by the respect being shown to learning, but not sure if it’s educational bureaucracy or intellect that is being honored here.

After lunch in town, we visited the Bong Jeon Sa Temple about 15 kilometers on the other side of Andong. It was founded in 627 CE and the original building is the oldest Jusimpo style, wood structure in Korea. We sat on the wood floor of the main hall for ten minutes surveying the spectacular view in the valley below. Most well-known Buddhist Temples in Korea are built close to the top of a mountain, though you can run into the reverse swastika, indicating the presence of a Temple, almost anywhere.

They say that Korea is one-third Buddhist, one-third Christian, and entirely musok. Musok is the traditional Shamanism of the country with roots going back thousands of years before the other two. In the evening yesterday, we went to the grand finale of the Andong Mask Dance Festival and stumbled into a demonstration of a Shaman Exorcism. The Priestess was dancing around the stage with a couple of daggers, which she used to cut herbs over the bowed heads of those being exorcised. She also spread black paper sheets over their heads and used the daggers to shred them. Loud drums pounded in the background as she whirled around the stage in a robin’s egg blue and flaming red dress. Paper money given by the faithful was stuck in her headband, sleeves, and belt. After the ceremony, the paper flowers arranged behind the stage were disassembled and put into a large cardboard boat, which was sent down the river of time to be used again in the future.

We wondered out into the center of the huge Plaza after that and got caught up in the Pungmul troupes’ final celebration. I was spied oscillating to the wild beat of the various percussion instruments and pulled into the center of two different celebrations. With my backpack bouncing stupidly, I jumped around with the rest of the celebrants, hands waving in all directions. Eun-jae, Chul-jae, and Ahn-suk joined in the freestyle dance.   Even little Ho-jin forgot about the soccer ball he’d been kicking around all day and starting dancing with everyone else.

Then we went over to wait, and wait, and wait for the thirty foot high, wood pyramid to be set ablaze. We almost left beforehand because first, every politician in Andong had to be honored with a glass of wine and got to say a few words, but after the darkness was complete the grand finale finally began. Amateur fireworks started popping all over the plaza, and the climax of the event exploded. A rapturous fire mounted the wood structure, and I was glad we had stayed, happily mesmerized by the giant flames leaping into the dark abyss of the unknown sky.




Steve Lehman is a writer and teacher at John Abbott College. The above is an evocative insight into a cultural festival he witnessed while on a visit to Korea in 2003. Down In Andong, Steve’s book about Korea, is available at Smashwords and other e-book stores.








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