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Broken VoicesPostcolonial Entanglements and the Preservation of Korea's Central Folksong Traditions$

Roald Maliangkay

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780824866655

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824866655.001.0001

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Mimicry and Adaptation

(p.149) Conclusion
Broken Voices

Roald Maliangkay

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

Folksong traditions have come to be promoted as the valuable property of the Korean people as a whole, including the growing number of Koreans born overseas. While the direct recollection of the colonial experience is waning, the changes it has effected in the three genres—the substitution of “authenticity” with popular, iconic appeal—may be permanent. Rather than being threatened by the loss of authenticity, however, folksongs retain their appeal, albeit for arguably less practical and more political reasons, such as tourism, nostalgia, and community pride.

Keywords:   postcolonialism, folksong, heritage, airport art, preservation, K-pop, icon, nostalgia, tourism, gender

LOCATED in the East and West wings of Incheon Airport’s departure terminal stand the Korea Traditional Cultural Experience Centers. They are fairly large galleries that offer Korean traditional handicrafts for sale and, albeit “free only for foreigners,” do-it-yourself workshops. Young ladies dressed in hanbok scurry through the narrow aisles offering assistance and information, while tourists seated at large tables concentrate on their crafts. In the corner there used to be a small raised platform for music recitals, but they have been replaced with theme park-like pro cessions in traditional costume. Although the galleries pipe traditional music through their speakers, no such CDs are for sale. One can, on the other hand, buy miniature versions of a small range of musical instruments, such as flutes, drums, and zithers. The centers represent the scope of the Korean government’s heritage management scheme, while revealing some of its challenges at the same time. A fair amount of what is on offer is indeed created by artistry and craft passed down through generations, and their assorted display and commercialization may serve to sustain traditions and nurture an interest in them.1 But displayed here, surrounded by images of a global economy and popular culture, the objects take on new meaning. Critics would label them “airport art” for being kitsch,2 but judging by the large number of workshop participants, few of the visitors care. The items offer them a unique experience, one that may allow them to pass time or add a measure of cosmopolitanism to their travel experience. They will expect the traditional items to have been somewhat manipulated, but are not concerned by this as long as their presentation of Korean traditional culture is unique and holds its own in comparison to other iconic Asian airport art.

An important feature of airport art is its representation of culture in a way that allows consumers to recognize it as iconic, and relate it to that of other cultures. Whereas it may be akin to a romantic orientalism to deny the importance (p.150) of comparison and seek, like Arthur Phillips did, recognition of one’s art as it is,3 such would deny it a wider audience and crucial testing ground. For decades, Korea has promoted local tourism and Korean cultural events overseas not only as a way of generating direct revenue or soft power, but also to foster nationalism domestically, through the foreign endorsement they receive.4 Eclipsing the impact of Japanese icons has been an important motive. Throughout the colonial period, Japanese traditional performing arts impacted the sound, performance, and presentation of Korean folk music. Even after liberation, decades of strong nationalist propaganda and censorship of Japanese cultural expressions did little to erase the iconic standards that they set. In response to the colonial experience, Koreans long maintained Japanese standards as their benchmark.

The Korean cultural preservation system has nurtured Korean national pride and benefited from it. Even the desire of performers of intangible cultural properties to adapt their art to changing sociopolitical and economic conditions can benefit the system and help them maintain their relevance. The degree to which the system achieves this will remain the subject of debate, but the alternative, a perfectly preserved set of cultural activities, would likewise require regular adjustment of the public information that promotes the significance of such activities, as well as many efforts to secure their transmission. Nevertheless, the many developments in Korean society have arguably led to less desirable changes in folksong traditions, such as those in which personal status, commercialism, or loyalty to peers have come into play. Many of these factors are not new, but they are playing out in novel ways and are often exacerbated by the preservation system. It could, therefore, be useful to distinguish which major forms of change were induced or implemented by the preservation system and which were not. In order to determine the most significant factors, one must go back to the end of the nineteenth century. The personal stories of the holders I have related show that several factors that affected the folk performing arts around that time continued to effect change in Important Intangible Cultural Properties at the time they were appointed.

From the turn of the nineteenth century, Seoul began to rapidly grow and modernize. Urbanization led to the demise of many folk genres that could only be performed in marketplaces and village squares. As opportunities for folksong singing decreased, songs were adapted to suit indoor stages and to fit the limited six-to seven-minute recording time of gramophone records. In the 1920s and 1930s, gramophones and the radio served to widely promote individual singers. While the technology remained ill-suited for group performances such as Sant’aryŏng, it allowed Kyŏnggi minyo and Sŏdo sori to be turned into two of Korea’s primary music genres.5 Some singers, such as former kisaeng Kim Okshim and Muk Kyewŏl, were therefore able to make a living as recording artists, while Sant’aryŏng singer Chŏng Tŭngman had to continue to support (p.151) himself working as a gardener for Japanese clients. The medium of film affected the professional folksong landscape as well. By being performed in the final scenes of Na Un’gyu’s 1926 controversial silent film of the same name, a version of the song “Arirang” gained such popularity that it became an integral part of the repertoire of Kyŏnggi minyo singers in the later years of the colonial period, and of that of the genre’s eventual holders.

The colonization by the Japanese had a significant impact on Korean folk performers and their art. While slowly removing all symbols of the Korean traditional hierarchy by way of an extensive cultural policy that laid down the foundations for Korea’s own system of cultural preservation, the colonial authorities promoted the notion that Koreans were now important subjects of a new order. They ushered in several new media, but maintained control of both their content and consumption. They also established local subsidiaries of major record companies and set up a radio network for Japanese and Korean listeners. Responding to the growing presence of Japanese, schools for young female entertainers taught both Korean and Japanese forms of music and, on occasion, Western music,6 and it is likely that some blending of styles occurred. Although regular schools would eventually teach pro-Japanese popular songs, the Japanese had little interest in meddling with Korean folk music. Since radically changing existing forms of Korean music merely to meet Japanese standards would jeopardize their commercial potential, especially among Korean consumers, the colonial authorities sometimes relied on their censorship apparatus to weed out subversiveness. A few of the later holders of folksong traditions, such as An Pich’wi, Kim Chŏngyŏn, and Yi Ŭn’gwan, managed to make the best of the new order, though they were ordered by the Japanese to perform for troops around the time of the Pacific War.

The print and broadcast media contributed to performing arts becoming standardized and associated with a certain style of representation and performance. When Kyŏnggi minyo was finally designated as a genre in 1975, for example, it was in principle open to both male and female singers, but it had in the previous decades become an exclusively female domain, as shown by the large number of female solo recordings released from the 1940s to the 1960s. During those decades, many record jackets showed a Korean woman singing, seated on the floor with her hair tied up and dressed in a colorful traditional costume. The image was reminiscent of Japanese geisha, a likely inspiration, because when the songs first appeared on recordings in the 1930s not only were virtually all record labels Japanese owned, but Japanese comprised a significant percentage of the kisaeng’s clientele. Maintaining such an image would allow Koreans to compete with the internationally dominating cultural icons of Japan,7 a factor that may have led those involved in the designation of Kyŏnggi minyo to give preference to female singers.

(p.152) The fact that the official recognition of folksong properties boosts the status of the designated traditions and that of its main practitioners can have undesirable results. It can grant someone like Yi Ŭn’gwan great liberty to improvise, despite criticism. Like other holders, he became the arbiter of authenticity. Practitioners of Kyŏnggi minyo, Sŏnsori sant’aryŏng, and Sŏdo sori have all begun to use the transcriptions published by the first-generation holders Yi Ch’angbae (1976; first published in 1959), Hwang Yongju (1993), and O Pongnyŏ (1978). Yi Ŭn’gwan finished his musical and lyrical transcriptions of Sŏdo sori in 1999, and they too will likely become the standard for his students for the foreseeable future, at least lyrically. In his own compendium of songs, he includes many new compositions, most of which are fairly unknown, except “Changhanmong” (Long sorrowful dream), which has existed at least since the 1940s.8 Because the compendia are comprehensive, they assume a certain authority that the holders’ successors may never transcend. Another negative outcome of the elevated status is the pressure it exerts on those senior practitioners hoping to become professionals. Since there are very few enviable positions to award, competition among performers is fierce. As shown, the importance of the special status may have even led to Kim Okshim’s death back in the late 1970s. Still another problem is that intangible cultural properties can overshadow folksongs that have not been designated, or even others that have. Kyŏnggi minyo exemplify this. The genre has become so popular that holders of Sŏdo sori and Sŏnsori sant’aryŏng spend a considerable amount of time teaching Kyŏnggi minyo. They may never turn away students of their own genres, but such a situation cannot be conducive to either style of singing taught.

Because of their increasing prominence in everyday life, it seems that most intangible cultural properties are successfully promoted. Despite the success of Korea’s preservation scheme, however, it is difficult to compete with the lure of popular culture. The popularity of folk music as the main attraction has waned. Usually several folk performing arts are combined as part of a show or offered as accompaniment to a fancy dinner or fine arts exhibition. The younger generations, in particular, show little interest. In addition to promoting them as intangible cultural properties, the government has therefore included many folksongs in school music books since the 1970s.9 In 1997, the National Gugak Center produced an elaborate folksong music book for elementary and secondary schools that included working songs from all regions in South Korea.10 At public schools, folksongs now make up a considerable part of the music curriculum. Because the government recognized that to teach traditional music often requires special skills,11 a 2007 revision of the school curriculum incorporated new methods for teaching traditional music. It compares Western and traditional Korean musical notation and emphasizes, among other things, the importance of involving physical movement for working songs. Some problems (p.153)

ConclusionMimicry and Adaptation

Pak Chunyŏng and his teaching assistants perform Sŏdo sori at a retirement home in Incheon on September 29, 2009.

persist, in part due to the pervasiveness of Western music and the negative effect it can have on students becoming acquainted with the grammar and sound of traditional Korean music.12

In addition to schoolteachers, the broadcast media have also been urged to help sustain the popularity of folk music. In 1973, the Korean government revised broadcasting legislation in order to improve the quality of programming. The new law stipulated that no less than 30 percent of a broadcast station’s radio and television programs had to be dedicated to education, and so in 1974 the Korean Broadcasting System dedicated 49.1 percent of its radio programs to culture and education, while commercial stations allotted an average of 35 percent. Korea was a military dictatorship at the time, and so it was obviously considered better to be safe than sorry. A survey conducted in 1975 by the Committee on the Ethics of Broadcasting pointed out, however, that the programs were usually broadcast at times when only very few people were tuned in.13 The policy regarding folk music did not change much throughout the 1980s, but in 1989 the Munhwa (Culture) Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) commissioned the Great Compilation of Korean Folksongs (Han’guk minyo taejŏn) series. According to producer Ch’oe Sangil, the aim was to record as many folksongs as possible to prevent them from being lost. He said he initiated the series because he believed that neither the efforts made by private scholars nor those prompted (p.154) by the Cultural Properties Protection Law would prevent a vast number of folksongs from disappearing. Ch’oe’s recordings were broadcast daily on MBC radio for several years. In addition, books with lyrics, photos, and maps with geographical detail accompanied CDs provided to museums in Korea and overseas. But the listener ratings were low. In 1995, no more than 2.5 percent of the population listened to the program.14 The continued lack of interest in traditional music led the government to set up a separate channel dedicated to traditional Korean music in 2001, Kugak FM. At the time, many of my peers in Korea argued against the move, fearing that it would not serve an educational purpose: only those who already wanted to listen would tune in to the station, while others would simply ignore it.

The lack of an audience for traditional music as a form of entertainment has also affected the size and composition of audiences. At the 1995 National Folk Arts Contest in Kongju City I noticed that on the first day the half-filled stadium was made up of mostly middle-school students who were required to attend. Pictures of the contest in other years sometimes show an even smaller audience, and an equally large proportion of students.15 Although the printed program of the 1995 contest includes a picture of a packed Kongju Stadium, the event shown is not actually one of the National Folk Arts Contests, but the 73rd National Athletics Contest (Chŏn’guk ch’eyuk taehoe).16 At other events in 1995, at several of the regular Saturday after noon performances of Korean music and dance that I observed at the National Gugak Center, young students were standing at the exit collecting the used tickets for their friends as “proof” of their obligatory concert visit. The interest in folksong performances has not much improved since then. Folksong groups continue to perform around the country, as well as abroad, but the number of special concerts of traditional folksongs for paying audiences has dwindled. Most of them are sponsored by the government and are part of gratuitous festivals that include other forms of folk art as well.

Even so, folksongs still constitute a successful element of the Korean heritage management scheme, and they remain a source of entertainment for many. Despite the dominant presence of other forms of music in everyday life, a large number of people enjoy folksongs for their music, their lyrics, and their expression of emotions. Because folksongs are not appreciated as much as they were in the past, they have lost their direct commercial value. But they serve other important purposes: they offer diversity and remind people of what it means to be Korean. They also support the Korean Wave, and not only by featuring in some of the related products. Because folksongs by definition represent the common folk, as well as the people’s diversity and unique history, they offer an important contrast to the image of South Korea as a highly competitive, economically powerful, high-tech nation geared toward global expansion. The fact that the traditions have under gone changes does not, therefore, affect their national (p.155) importance—and provide an incentive for the government to intervene—as long as they serve those purposes. Indeed, although Sant’aryŏng and Kyŏnggi minyo have, among other things, become almost exclusively female genres, while Sŏdo sori is now represented exclusively by people born outside the genre’s native land, to resist change would ultimately result in the traditions’ absolute demise, making the compromises not only understandable but ultimately unavoidable as well.

I have pointed out that a few of the decisions made by those involved in the preservation of intangible cultural properties have been unjustified. The appointment of only women for Kyŏnggi minyo, for example, and the passing over of several performers cannot be justified on the grounds of the successful candidates having superior performing talent or teaching skills. What is more, in a few cases, the appointments may arguably lead to a further loss of authenticity. Although the government affected both the state and the scope of Korea’s intangible cultural properties when it first selected them, I have shown that it has allowed them to be subjected to some degree of adaptation since. It is possible that a number of adaptations are nevertheless reversed in the future: Sant’aryŏng may, for example, become represented by a majority of men again; and although it is not likely, Sŏdo sori may again be performed by people born in the tradition’s native land. A drive toward greater authenticity could, on the other hand, lead to unwelcome changes. True authenticity cannot be achieved; the responsibility to make changes for specific older versions of songs would lie with a small minority of performers who would perform in front of very different audiences from those of old. Because the look and sound of many early versions of folksongs have now been recorded on audiovisual media, this information will be available for people wishing to revisit them. The thorough collecting and reporting by people such as Ch’oe Sangil and former Cultural Properties Committee member Yi Sora have been of great importance. Ko Chŏngok once put forth a plan to establish a “museum” for all folksong-related materials, a plan that was promoted again by Im Tonggwŏn.17 But although the vast collection of materials currently held by the Cultural Heritage Administration would provide fertile soil for such an undertaking, a museum has yet to be created. The collection of field recordings is often considered to be of the utmost importance in preventing folksongs from disappearing forever, but in Korea we may have already arrived at a point where the songs most lively in the minds of old people are the songs that were the most popular at the end of the colonial period, the genre of popular songs called yuhaengga. On December 24, 1995, Han Ch’anggi, founder of the aesthetics magazine The Deep-rooted Tree, told me, “As for the spread of mass culture, we are slaves of what we see most, repeatedly: Western notation, pop songs [yuhaengga]; Western singing is easy. I believe in cultural saturation. If I have had a full dinner I can eat no more; there’s a limit. The same (p.156) thing happens in culture. When I sing pop music I forever lose the chance to sing a traditional song.”

Modern Korean pop is making ample use of the sounds and images of traditional folk music. The sampling and borrowing of folksongs, as well as their use in popular entertainment, will help expose them to a wider audience. The idea of allowing a small degree of change in folk music properties on the basis of enabling singers to appeal to con temporary audiences need not and should not be promoted, because adaptations will occur regardless. It is important to recognize the challenges folk music faces in trying to regain the appreciation of people whose palates have come to expect different flavors, but society will continue to affect what folksongs represent and how they are performed. Because folksongs can no longer strongly reflect the conditions that originally gave them their significance, they are appreciated less for their music and lyricism. That their appeal has come to rely more strongly on their visual presentation and nostalgia may be regrettable, but it is an unavoidable development; and it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of folksongs being popular with audiences on account of those particular qualities in the past. Folksongs belonged to specific social groups, and they had strong regional characteristics and associations as well as applications. They were a kind of outlet as much as they were forms of entertainment, often as part of special occasions. Preserved folksongs retain some regional elements, but they are promoted as the valuable property of all rather than of a particular social or regional community. They can still summon feelings of belonging, just like they did in the past, but as Korea becomes demographically more diverse and the memory of the social conditions and native lands fades, the reasons for people to preserve the traditions will change. The songs will only maintain their use as expressions of postcolonialism as long as personal aspirations or Korea’s position in the region demand it.

It is possible to compare the role of the Korean government in the institution of folksong properties with that of the entertainment companies behind the majority of today’s K-pop idols. The two institutions play a major role in the representation and promotion of their acts, but must carefully adjust their approaches to the sociopolitical and economic status quo. Those factors remain of foremost importance as they affect the preferences and opportunities of both the performers and their audiences. As the realm of popular culture increases, so does the prestige of traditional performing arts, irrespective of their alleged authenticity. Developing the broken voice of professional Korean folksong singers requires years of practice and hard work (and many a coarse throat). The considerable personal investment necessary and the timbre it produces serve to shield the traditions from the perception of being broken themselves. It is ironic, perhaps, that although K-pop dominates domestic entertainment with its strong reliance on celebrity, individualism may be more strongly associated with folksong (p.157) traditions. And yet, the beauty preserved in the folksongs and their musicianship is lost on many Koreans today. Although they once made up a genre of music by and for the people, the metaphor “broken” now applies to some degree to the direct relationship between the song and the singer. The traditions still captivate, but for arguably less practical and more political reasons, such as tourism, nostalgia, and community pride. Folksongs that were once meant merely to entertain or serve as an outlet of emotion have thus gained broader significance, undoubtedly to the delight of both professional performers and policy makers. (p.158)


(5.) Michael Robinson notes that Sŏdo sori was among the folksong genres favored by the radio station dedicated to Korean listeners in the late 1920s and early 1930s (“Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony,” p. 65).

(9.) Ch’oe Chongmin, “Kwangbok 50-nyŏn kugak kyoyug-ŭi hyŏnhwang-gwa munjejŏm” (The present state and problems of the education of Korean traditional music 50 years after liberation), p. 53.

(10.) See Kungnip kugagwŏn, Kugak kyoyug-ŭi iron-gwa shilgi (Theory and training of Korean traditional music education). Ch’oe Chongmin, one of the book’s contributors, notes that the transcriptions of a song’s music and lyrics constitutes only one version of many; the transcriptions are to be used merely as the basis from which to improvise (p. 3).

(12.) Sŏng Kiryŏn, “2007-nyŏn kaejŏng kyoyuk kwajŏng-e ttarŭn minyo kwallyŏn chido naeyong koch’al” (An inquiry into the guidelines for folksong teaching on the basis of the (p.209) Revised Curriculum of 2007), pp. 188–189, 192–194, 218. A recent approach to young children’s traditional music education proposes simple physical jumping games to familiarize students with the various rhythmic patterns (Kwŏn T’aeryong, Kwŏn Ŭnju and Ko Yŏnghŭi, Ŏrini kugak kyoyuk [Korean traditional music education for children], p. 61).

(13.) Yersu Kim, Cultural Policy in the Republic of Korea, p. 52. Sungmun Kim argues that this was mainly due to a lack of finances, as a large number of stations had to rely heavily on advertising (Die Geschichte, Struktur und Politische Funktion der Koreanische Medien [The history, structure and political function of the Korean media], p. 57).

(14.) Interview with Ch’oe Sangil, August 26, 1995.

(16.) Ibid., p. 12.