A Guide to the Hahoe Masks

Written by on September 28, 2012 in Arts

Masks for sale in Hahoe Village

For the upcoming Andong International Maskdance Festival, tourists are going to be flocking to Korea’s spiritual capital for a variety of mask-themed performances from around the world and all across Korea. The headlining act of the festival, though, is from right in Andong, the tiny traditional village of Hahoe.

The Hahoe Maskdance Drama (하회별신굿탈놀이) traditionally features eight madangs, (acts or perhaps skits), which incorporate music and dancing, but also slapstick and satire. It is told from the perspective of the Joseon Dynasty’s commoner class, which offers a great opportunity to learn about history as told by powerless peasants.

Rather than portraying supernatural beings, almost all of the masks depict a class of Joseon society embodied in human — albeit grotesque — form, most of which are called out on their hypocrisy. They were originally used in shamanistic ceremonies that lambasted the empowered in Joseon society. The plays were full of sex, violence, and nongak (farmers’ music), and the content is not too far removed from modern-day celebrity tabloid scandals.

The Hahoe masks themselves are carved from wood, unlike most other Korean masks which were made of paper or gourds which were immediately burned after use. Hahoe masks, in contrast, were considered sacred and were intended for reuse. They were stored in a box, and many performers before taking it out would offer a sacrifice. It is said that, due to their unique design, when an actor wearing a mask smiles, the mask smiles too, and when the actor gets angry, the mask gets angry too.

Having recently visited Hahoe Village where I toured the Mask Museum and witnessed the Hahoe Maskdance performed live, I realised how helpful it is to study up before seeing the performance. But due to how hard it was for me to find information about all the Hahoe masks, I offer a guide to the Hahoe masks, their historic meaning, and their role in the maskdance plays.

The Mask Museum in Hahoe is worth a look through in order to understand what’s going on at a maskdance performance.

Yangban (aristocrat)

This is probably the best-known of the Hahoe masks, a symbol which is often used to represent Andong or even Korea. It has a wide nose with big nostrils and gentle, flowing lines for the eyes and eyebrows, indicating a generous yet arrogant character. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Yangban mask is the detached jaw, held together by a piece of string at each end. It allows the performer to change facial expressions: looking up creates a broad smile as the lower jaw separates, and bowing one’s head forms a menacing grimace as the upper and lower lips are pressed together.

I’ve heard the Yangban mask likened to a Guy Fawkes mask (the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions). Actually that’s not an unfair comparison, at least in the intentions behind the masks. Actually the Yangban mask represents a twisted, grotesque reflection of Joseon’s aristocratic class.

Like any feudalistic society, the commoners held a great deal of resentment toward the Yangban, and found it difficult to approach the Yangban to address problems that needed solving. Thus, using this mock Yangban figure was an easy way to engage with and also tear down the Yangban’s high position. The main message of the maskdance was for the ruling class to reconsider its role in society.

Yangban and Bune dance together.

Bune (woman)

The Bune mask is famous alongside the Yangban mask, often depicted side by side in folk artwork. Sometimes they are compared to the Comedy and Tragedy masks of English theatre, although neither Yangban nor Bune represent such abstract ideas.

Bune is depicted with an ovular face, small mouth, high nose, and makeup, and the mask represents the standards of classical beauty in Joseon society. The mask has at times in its history represented a widow, a concubine, a gisaeng (Korean version of the Japanese geisha), or a mistress to either the Yangban or Seonbi.

In the maskdance play, Bune is flirtatious with both Yangban and Seonbi, never saying a word but massaging Seonbi’s shoulders and picking lice from Yangban’s hair. They compete for her attentions, driving themselves to more absurd actions and statements.

The maskdance performance seems to suggest the hypocricy in her character, which mimics chastity but barely conceals wanton sexuality.

Gaksi (Bride)

A Gaksi mask has very small eyes to show a shy personality and a small mouth with firmly set lips to show that she doesn’t speak much (at all in the play). She is serene and far less over-the-top than the other masks.

Remember how I said almost all of the masks represent a human, and most of them are exposed as hypocrites? The one big exception is the Gaksi mask, who represents the village goddess. She appears three times throughout the play: once in the beginning where she is carried in on the shoulders of an unmasked man, once later to collect donations from the audience alongside the Halmi character, and a final time as a bride. Her character is the only one that could be seen to represent a supernatural character, and she is never played for comic effect.

If you’re a fan of Korean dramas, you might be aware of the period drama based on a comic book Gaksital, although they use a different style of mask not from Hahoe. I imagine it would be pretty tough fighting Japanese occupational forces wearing a Hahoe Gaksi mask.

The Gaksi character helps collect money from the audience during the Halmi Madang.

Seonbi (scholar)

With a gaping smile and wide-open eyes, the Seonbi mask is full of dignity mixed with arrogance and a know-it-all attitude. It has bulging eyes to indicate excessive reading, a characteristic of someone who intentionally suffers due to his complex thoughts. Its close resemblance to the Yangban mask indicates the aristocratic origins of the Seonbi, and the two characters are depicted as rivals in the maskdance.

In the Joseon Dynasty, a Seonbi was a scholar, usually of noble heritage, who was in preparation for the civil service examination. Many Seonbis took the exam but then did not take a position in the government, becoming a sort of rogue scholar. They earned a reputation for integrity and incorruptibility, in contrast to the mainstream Yangban class.

In the Yangban Seonbi Madang, the Seonbi and Yangban banter and squabble with each other over which one has the higher status, competing for the affections of the Bune. The real-life rivalry between the ruling Yangban class and the neo-Confucianist Seonbis led to a power struggle in the government which resulted in four Seonbi purges over a 47-year period spanning the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Seonbi character in the Hahoe maskdance is not sympathetic, depicted as equally petty as the Yangban.

The Seonbi enters the stage.

Jung (monk)

The Jung mask also bears the hinge-jaw of the Yangban and Seonbi. This mask is squinty, sly, and the features are more scrunched together, showing the lecherous character of the monk. The lump on his forehead (shared by the Baekjeong mask) is a symbol of a gloomy and threatening character. He is a wandering monk, trained at a Buddhist temple but now roaming around fulfilling his earthly desires.

During the Pagyeseung Madang, he pervs on Bune, spying on her urinating and then after she leaves getting way too excited by the scent. At the performance I attended, I saw a bunch of kids leave at this point. Probably a good idea, because next he abducts her and runs off. His dance consists of slight, jerky steps to highlight his deceitfulness and cunning.

This character is intended as a criticism of the hypocrisy of religious corruption and the lifestyle of monks.

The Jung is way too excited by Bune.

Imae (village idiot)

This mask bears more than a passing resemblance with the other hinge-jawed characters, except for the lack of a lower jaw. The reason for this is quite an interesting story.

In the twelfth century, the gods ordered craftsman Heo to create twelve masks, and he was to avoid contact with others until he was finished. Just as he was finishing the final mask, a girl peeked into his workshop, and he fell down dead. His final mask–Imae–was left incomplete, missing a lower jaw.

Usually Imae is translated as fool, but I think a more suitable English term is village idiot. His expression is far more good-natured and benevolent than the other characters, but his asymmetrical eyes and crooked nose show he is deformed. I admit that this mask–and the staggering limp dance of the Imae performer–first made me uncomfortable because it seemed to be making fun of the disabled, but many Korean masks depict a variety of illnesses and deformities.

Imae is the servant of the Seonbi, and it is implied that his deformities are the result of the Seonbi’s harsh temper. He is never depicted as malicious, but only the target of malice. The Imae belongs to a servant class called hain, which unlike Choraengi’s class allows upward mobility, but the Imae is held back by his own simpleness.

The Imae’s dance is characterised by an exaggerated limp.

Choraengi (servant)

The Choraengi mask is smaller and pointier than most of the other masks, and his slanted mouth shows off his reluctant obedience and disrespect of his master, the Yangban. Like the Halmi mask, the hollow cheeks depict a life of poverty and the pointed chin indicates a hardened worldview.

In the maskdance narrative, Choraengi has a lot to do, cementing his reputation as a busybody. He first spies on the Jung with Bune, then he gossips about it to the Imae, the Seonbi, and finally to his own master the Yangban. Later during an argument between the Yangban and Seonbi, he embarrasses his master by claiming to know the six “gyeongs” (which I won’t get into at this time).

The Choraengi spends a lot of time during the performance gossiping.


Halmi (old widow)

One of the three female masks, Halmi has a shriveled brown face with a pathetic facial expression depicting a life of hardship out under the Sun.

She (often portrayed by a male actor) enters the play lugging an elaborate prop, a wooden hand loom. While sitting at the loom working, she informs the audience she was widowed only three days after her wedding at age 14, and has led a life of begging and hunger. She then begs the audience for money. Later, she returns to the stage at the end, where she is pushed away by both the Seonbi and the Yangban.

Through stooped posture, shambling dance steps, a pitiful backstory, and of course the Halmi mask, the Halmi Madang depicts the hardships of the common people.

The Halmi shambles along the audience, begging for money.

Baekjeong (butcher)

With a coarse and heavily lined face, the Baekjeong mask appears cruel and bloodthirsty, but also grinning and victorious. The Baekjeong mask at first glance bears a passing resemblance to the other hinge-jawed masks, but represents an entirely different part of Joseon society.

Baekjeong was the lowest class in Joseon society, the untouchables. They were originally nomads, and it is theorised they were Khitans from Mongolia and Manchuria, who were stuck in Goryeo following Goryeo’s victory and the Jurchen conquest of their homeland. They brought with them a taste for meat, which was uncommon on the Korean Peninsula at the time, as well as a skillset of hunting, butchering, skinning, and leather-tanning. For centuries they were spread across the Korean Peninsula, hunting and marauding rather than settle down and integrate. They became the lowest class of Joseon society, which may sound bad but also exempted them from military service, forced labour, and taxes, and they also set up a comfortable monopoly in their vocations.

During the Goryeo Dynasty they were often used as executioners, called huigwangi. The Baekjeong in this play is depicted as a destroyer of life who once felt remorse, but finally went mad during a thunderstorm.

The Baekjeong character in the Hahoe play is essentially a wandering butcher who enters carrying the tools of his trade. He encounters a bull, and in one of the most physical moments of the Hahoe maskdance they battle, with the Baekjeong brutally killing his foe. After, he cuts out its heart and testicles, which he offers to the audience. He returns later to sell the testicles to the Yangban, who is eager for any competitive edge over the Seonbi in the affections for the Bune.

The Baekjeong’s inclusion in the ritual performance satirises the attitudes of the ruling class towards Korea’s untouchable caste, and he is intended to be a sympathetic character in the eyes of the audiences.

The Baekjeong dances holding an axe and a knife after killing the bull.

Originally, Heo created twelve masks, but unfortunately three have been lost to time: we don’t know what they looked like, but we know they were called Byeolchae (tax collector), Ttoktari (servant), and Chonggak (bachelor). Actually, it’s very possible that this is the Byeolchae mask, recently put on display in Japan. Are the others out there? I’d love to think so. See you in Andong!

National Treasure 121: Hahoe masks

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats