Book Review: Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition: Development, Authenticity, and Performance History by Yeonok Jang

Yeonok Jang: Korean P’ansori Singing Tradition: Development, Authenticity, and Performance History.

Lanham MD: Scarecrow Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8108-8461-8 (cloth), 978-0-8108-8462-5 (ebook).


Not so long ago, Korean music was the preserve of a few little known scholars, with the non-Koreans by some curious twist of fate concentrated in Britain (Jonathan Condit, Keith Pratt, Robert C. Provine); today, the concentration in Britain continues, with our Japanese and Chinese musicology friends feeling somewhat overwhelmed. It is splendid to be able to report just how well Korean music is now represented in publications, indicative of the visibility that Korean music now has. Indeed, Yeonok Jang’s volume on p’ansori is, so far as this reviewer is aware, the sixth title to have been published since 2012. Dr Jang completed her PhD at SOAS in 2000, and this volume is a revised and updated version of that thesis. Where once p’ansori was a challenge to find out about, we now have a very reasonable choice of titles, running chronologically according to their dates of publication from Marshall Pihl (1984), through his student Chan E. Park’s idiosyncratic account (2003), the volume edited by Lee Yong-shik (2008), and Andrew Killick’s thorough exploration of Korean opera (2010), to the new volumes by Um Haekyung (2013) and Yeonok Jang. Back in the early 1980s, I glossed p’ansori somewhat contentiously as ‘epic storytelling through song’ for my audience that was largely unfamiliar with it; the familiarity that the genre now has, as a Korean Important Intangible Cultural Property (No.5) and as a UNESCO ‘Masterpiece in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ (these days subsumed within the UNESCO representative list of intangible heritage), means that Jang needs no gloss but can simply refer to ‘p’ansori’.

Each of the English-language accounts we have is distinctive in one or more ways. Jang is particularly good at exploring the Korean literature, addressing its shortcomings and arguing the merits of particular perspectives about history, repertory, and performers. This mirrors how p’ansori is perceived and taught in Korea, except that Jang supplements her account with references to ethnomusicology, literary theory, and points about oral epic poetry. Occasionally, she is challenged as she attempts to find alternatives to dominant theories, since she has to work with the same historical documentation as others. In Chapters 1 and 2, she explores the development of p’ansori. The different theories, based on source materials, terminology, and oral history, are given in the first chapter, while the second zooms in on the genre’s musical development, using the scholarship of the late Paek Taeung as its starting point and developing an argument about changing vocal style over time—her comment that p’ansori was sung using ‘vocal cords’ in the eighteenth century but came to use the ‘throat to produce sounds’ (page 57) begs the question of how else one can sing except using both cords and throat, and there is a somewhat strange use of ‘ordinary people’ and ‘dominant group’ to stand for Korea’s hierarchical society (presumably for sangmin and yangban; page 56), but otherwise her exploration of techniques and styles works well.

Chapters 3 and 4 take the chronological account forward. She considers what was actually performed by the late nineteenth century, around the time that the lyrics for 12 repertories were written down, and how performance contexts began to change with the growth of urban society and the beginnings of theatres. In the early twentieth century, p’ansori began to be reinterpreted as a staged form, leading to groups of singers, each giving performances of excerpts and episodes—which Jang terms t’omak sori. This was exemplified in the rise of what later became known as ch’anggŭk, which was destined in post-liberation times to abandon narration, one of the three integral performance aspects of p’ansori proper. It was also encouraged by the rise of the recording industry. Jang’s discussion sets up a specific argument about decline, which is developed in Chapter 5 with a consideration of how p’ansori has come to be revived and valued in recent decades. In discussing ch’anggŭk, Jang does not reference Killick’s 2010 book (in fact, throughout the volume she omits much that has been published in Korea or abroad in the last decade, the most notable omissions concerning the development of theatres, concert culture, and the recording industry) but has in mind Killick’s earlier articles in which he challenged the dominant Korean account of its development. He asked, in what remains no-go territory for most Korean scholars, whether Japanese theatrical forms influenced the development of staged versions of p’ansori. Jang concludes that, since the first mention of Japanese theatre she can find in a Korean newspaper dates from 1907, that Japan was a later influence rather than the initial stimulus for the transformation of p’ansori.

Chapter 5 moves into the contemporary, considering p’ansori since the 1970s. Here, Jang makes considerable use of personal interview material with scholars, aficionados and performers, and provides detailed discussions of Korea’s intangible cultural property system and of the landmark film, Sŏp’yŏnje. Both, though in different ways, have made p’ansori familiar to the Korean public in recent decades. Linking to her discussion of mode in Chapter 2, she looks at how the so- called ‘Western’ style of p’ansori was initially preferred, but that the rise of nostalgia was accompanied by a revival of interest in the so-called ‘Eastern’ style. She notes how today’s urban audiences no longer discriminate quality, but that connoisseurs remain, congregating for the annual Chŏnju p’ansori festival. The result is that while many she has talked with feel p’ansori is still declining, it is actually thriving, though not always in ways that traditionalists will celebrate. Intriguingly, in her exploration of how scholars and performers see the present and future of the genre, one Kim Myŏnggon is quoted, who Jang describes as a ‘young singer’—I note that his recent forays into politics have given him a rather different reputation.

Chapter 6 offers a comparison between two particular p’ansori styles of performance, each related to a lineage: Tongch’oje, developed by Kim Yŏnsu and analysed through a performance by Kim’s disciple O Chŏngsuk, and Posŏng, from Chŏng Ŭngmin, as performed by Sŏng Ch’angsun. The comparison shows distinctiveness as well as variety; O and Sŏng are today ‘holders’ of p’ansori as an Intangible Cultural Property. The extensive notations appear to be accurate, but, and as with all the illustrative material, they have been produced at a low resolution that significantly reduces their clarity. Biographies for the main singers considered are outlined in a useful appendix. Overall, then, this is a highly informative book that mixes interview data with a thorough account of the existing literature. It explores in detail the decline and revival of p’ansori during the twentieth century, and offers a nuanced take on the specific schools and styles of performance that together go to make up the genre as it is celebrated today.

KEITH HOWARD, SOAS, University of London