The traditional sounds and Han of “Seopyeonje”

Written by on April 4, 2013 in Arts

Seopyeonje, the changgeuk. Photo courtesy of the National Theater of Korea.

Some words are impossible to translate. It’s usually not the meaning itself which is untranslatable; it’s usually the subtle nuances that get lost on the way. For example, the Korean word “푸르다” can mean either blue or green, young, fresh, but the emotion it conveys is what the heart feels about nature in its green splendor of spring and summer, or the brilliance of the sea, or contrarily, the chill of a dark night. “푸른 날” can sound poetic, but in English, “Green/Blue Day” just sounds like a day for eco-consciousness or depression.
But that’s a word for a color. When we’re talking about words that actually deal with emotions, it gets trickier. You’d think that the scope of human emotions would be identical in no matter what language, but this is where history and cultural differences come into play.
That long preamble leads to the theme for this post: 한(han). In English, han is usually translated as “sorrow” or “pain” or “agony”. Another translation which I’ve seen and don’t quite agree with is “grudge” or “resentment”, but han is more complex, and directed inwards than outwards against something/someone.
Han is deep. It’s very deep. It is a result of sorrow (for lack of a better word) burrowing into the core of your soul; it changes who you are, how you think, what life represents for you.
I grew up hearing stories of personal han from people who went through the colonial era and the Korean War, but han dates back much further than that. If you look at Korea’s long history, it’s understandable how Koreans can be very familiar with han; han consumed the whole nation at times. It’s not only historical circumstances, though. Although very expressive, we Koreans have learned to internalize personal sorrow and pain, to do so is a virtue; this mentality has been prevalent for an extremely long time.
Because han is such an essential part of the Korean psyche, its presence is inevitable in our culture: art, literature, music, dance, the performing arts. It is particularly noticeable in the Korean music genre of pansori (판소리), a vocal performance by a solo singer accompanied with a drummer. Pansori is storytelling through song. It can last for hours, depending on the story, which are mostly popular folk tales such as “Simcheong” (심청).

Dongho, Songhwa, and Yubong during happy times. Photo courtesy of the National Theater of Korea.

There are three main types of pansori: Seopyeonje (서편제), Dongpyeonje (동편제), and Junggoje (중고제). Seopyeonje and Dongpyeonje are named as thus being different divided by the Seomjin River (섬진강), Seo (west) and Dong (east). Dongpyeonje is solid with clear diction; Seopyeonje is softer and has a more melancholy edge. The lesser known Junggoje is sung in the regions around Seoul, with emphasis on differentiating between high and low notes.
However, pansori can be quite tedious to the modern ear. It’s quite difficult to decipher the words at times, and since it is all done by one singer, it can also be difficult to differentiate between the characters. Thus comes in the changgeuk (창극).
Changgeuk was developed in the end of the Joseon Dynasty when the National Theater of Korea was established. It is basically chang (singing) in a geuk (play), expanding the roles of the solo pansori singer into several singers and adding a theatrical element, making it easier to understand.
To be frank, however, there wasn’t much popular interest in pansori (or changgeuk) in modern times until the movie “Seopyeonje”was released in 1993. Directed by the famous director Im Kwon-taek and based on the novel by the prominent writer Lee Cheong-jun, the movie was an immense hit, and made an impact on Korean cinema.

Seopyeonje (Sopyonje), the movie. Photo courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.

The story centers on the pansori singer Yubong(유봉) and his passion in teaching this tradition to his adopted son and daughter in the early 1960s. The daughter Songhwa(송화) sings and the son Dongho(동호) accompanies her on the drum. But lack of general interest in pansori and the extreme poverty makes Dongho run away, and the story truly begins to unfold.
Seopyeonje is a compelling story, it is a story about han. In fact, han is mentioned by the principal character several times, how it is the essence of pansori, how one has to have a profound sense of han to become a true pansori singer. Simple sounds become more than sounds when seeped in han. Songhwa learns not only lessons in pansori but also in han, which is absolutely heart wrenching. (I won’t spoil it further for those who haven’t seen it.)
So “Seopyeonje” is a story about pansori. And when Seopyeonje becomes a changgeuk? It’s a changgeuk about pansori, and pansori is an element of changgeuk, and changgeuk is derived from pansori, so in the end, it all becomes so meta, it cannot be anything but intriguing.

The pansori singers/actresses portraying Songhwa. Photo courtesy of the National Theater of Korea.

The National Changgeuk Company of Korea put on a changgeuk version of “Seopyeonje” the last week of March, 2013, starring the renowned pansori singer Ahn Suk-seon (안숙선). Songhwa was portrayed by three different pansori singers in various periods of her life; Ahn took on the mature role, after Songhwa realizes the han and pansori in life.
The stage took on the four seasons of Korea, from the brilliant pink blossoms of spring azaleas to the subdued hues of snowy winter. Graceful traditional dancers took on the movements of cranes in the mountain valleys, although in no way too contrived or deliberate; they blended in naturally with the ambiance and rhythm of the narrative. In whole, the director was light in his touch dealing with traditional elements, it was the foundation but not the main focus – that belonged to the main characters, as it should be.
There were additional lighthearted elements, a pansori contest within the play, performances of traditional dances within that contest, but as I mentioned before, without the sense of being inserted for being inserted sake.

Ahn Suk-seon puts on a great performance. Photo courtesy of the National Theater of Korea.

Being a fan of “Seopyeonje” and Ahn Suk-seon, I knew I would like the changgeuk but didn’t realize how emotionally charged it would be. Seeing and hearing something live is such a special experience. Even with limited knowledge of pansori, you just know how incredible Ahn is in her art; she is truly of a different league.
I went on opening night and it was attended by numerous students from schools of traditional arts and I have to say that added to my enjoyment as well. Their reactions led the sometimes clueless audience (especially in the applause department) and it was refreshing to hear in what usually is considered a “serious” traditional performance.
Although it is now off stage, I’m hoping that the public’s positive reaction would make this changgeuk a part of NCCK’s regular repertoire and be shown again. I must add that English subtitles were available on screen on both sides of the stage; not as exact in nuance as I would’ve hoped, but enough to fully understand the story. (I check subtitles out of occupational habit.)
Not only for “Seopyeonje”, if you want a taste of traditional Korean performances and you’re not sure whether you can sit through a complete performance of pansori, changgeuk is definitely worth a try.
As for “Seopyeonje”, if you liked the movie, I highly recommend the changgeuk. And you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend watching it, if only for a glimpse into what han can be. The movie in its entirety can be found on the official channel of the Korean Film Archive. (All movies on their channel come with subtitles.) The movie is listed with the spelling “Sopyonje”.

More Information

National Theater of Korea
The Korean Film Archive
Movie “Seopyeonje” at the Korean Film Archive

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul