Things I learned at #AAS2017, part2 (Friday, 17 March)

St James in the morningThis year’s conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto (March 16–19), the first one I ever attended, was enormous. Still overwhelmed by the experience, I publish some of my notes on the various panels I attended and presentations I heard, interspersed with tweets I posted during the conference. Due to the volume, I organise the material in daily installments – meaning that each post focuses on one conference day, I probably won’t be able to keep up a daily posting rate. In my listings, presentations in bold are those I heard myself, while those in italics refer to situations where I couldn’t hear a presentation as I had to leave early or came late.

This is the second part of my thoughts about the presentations I attended at AAS 2017 in Toronto earlier this month.

Things Fall Apart: Material Religion and the Problem of Decay with examples from Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar

President’s Address, Fri, March 17, 9:00 to 10:15am, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Grand Centre

Presenter: Laurel Kendall, American Museum of Natural History


Things fall apart, but they do not do so at the same rate or in the same circumstances. Sacred images decay at different rates depending on their own innate material properties and as they interact with air, water, earth, fire, and with the variables of local practice—incense smoke, libations with ghee, the rubbing of human hands. The disintegration of a sacred image may be precipitated by human agency (iconoclasm) or postponed by it (acts of care and restoration). In recent writing, the instability or “vibrancy” of matter engages the attention of socio-cultural anthropologists (Tim Ingold) archeologists (Ian Hodder) and philosophers (Jane Bennett). In my own research on ensouled images—Korean shaman paintings, temple statues in Vietanm, and nat images in Myanmar—I encountered decay as a spectral presence. It lurked behind questions of how images are fabricated, why particular materials are selected, the relationships and obligations assumed by the human caretakers of sacred images, the different protocols for disposal, and the resuscitation of some discarded things to second lives as art commodities.
I am not offering a controlled comparison much less an argument for a particularly “Asian” approach to the dissolution of religious images. I am suggesting that when we draw the specter of decay out of the shadows it leads us to some local insights on how local actors navigate the inevitable deterioration of material things through their own understandings of the agentive spirit entities that sometimes inhabit them: What are the cautions that inform the refurbishment of statues in spirit medium temples in Vietnam? How is the relatively rapid deterioration of a Burmese nat image linked to Burmese understandings of nat-ness in relation to Buddhahood? How has the Korean shaman’s desire to give her deities a clean and pure seat abetted and frustrated a market in antique shaman paintings?

Laurel Kendall’s talk offered an engaging approach to the emphemeral material culture associated with religious acts in different Asian countries (Vietnam, Korea, Myanmar). With regard to Korea, she mentioned “ambiguous” aspects of shamanic rituals – on a given occasion, the gods may arrive or not, still the mansin (만신 萬神, a female shaman) acts as if divine intervention was imminent. The paper images she discussed also counter the gravitas of the situation. I’d be interested in a discussion of the performative aspects of these rituals and the roles that “props” play.

Hidden Traces of the Repertoire: Reconstructing Chinese Theatre Practice in the Maoist Period

Panel 66, Fri, March 17, 10:30am to 12:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Chestnut East

* Siyuan Liu (University of British Columbia), “Eliminating Scenario Plays in China in the 1950s”
* Anne Rebull (University of Chicago), “How to Act: Emboldening Theatricality in 1950s Performance Practice”
* Maggie Greene (Montana State University), “Navigating Bureaucratic ‘Gusts of Wind’: The Shanghai Theatre World, 1949-1966”
* Tarryn Li-Min Chun (University of Michigan), “Sent-Down Plays: Yangbanxi and Rural Performance in the Chinese Cultural Revolution”
* Discussant: Xiaomei Chen (University of California, Davis)

I don’t know much about theatre in China, and (almost) all I know I learned from two books… and these four presentations, that were enlightening in a very tangible way, by using much archival evidence.

All four presentations dealt with differents forms of theatre that were performed around the same time, during the years following Mao’s civil war victory in 1949.

  1. Tigangxi (“scenarios plays”), performances by improvising virtuoso actors based on roughly drafted “scenarios” (both in spoken and sung theatre, wenmingxi and xiqu) that gave way to director-centered productions of didactic drama under state ownership after 1949 (Siyuan Liu)
  2. Kunqu (崑曲), also known as “Kun opera”, a traditional performance genre; the highly successful production Fifteen Strings of Cash (1956) became a starting point for discussions on aesthetic aspects of “traditional” sung (kunqu, a form of xiqu, “Chinese opera”) and “modern” spoken theatre (huaju), popular and political drama (Anne Rebull)
  3. Yangbanxi (樣板戲) “model operas”, tradional music theatre about “revolutionary” themes, made as a replacement of traditional styles in the Cultural Revolution (1966–76); model operas were performed by stately sponsored troupes, following detailed model books, went on tour and performed under less than ideal conditions in the countryside (Tarryn Li-Min Chun, homepage)

Maggie Green (homepage), who studied archival records on theatre in Shanghai from 1949 to 1966 for alternative sources, highlighted the benefits of quantitative methods in comparison to typical genre distinctions. She noted a difference between the theatre discussed by contemporary activists and scholarship on the one hand, and actual performance attendance on the other. Evidence on the latter suggests that “traditional” performance styles dominated stages until well into the 1960s, while official records suggest otherwise.

This tour-de-force through a highly exciting era of Chinese theatre was just great – I learned so much in the short timeframe of a panel (unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the discussion). A similar in-depth, comparative, and evidence-based discussion of theatre in post-war Korea would make a very interesting panel – or book!

The next panel offered a glimpse on this possible project:

Entertainment in the Aftermath of the Korean War

Panel 88, Fri, March 17, 12:45 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 2nd Floor, Elgin

* Benoit Berthelier (Yonsei University), “The North Korean Cultural Revolution: Popular Culture and Class Relations in North Korea (1945-1955)”
* Roald H. Maliangkay (Australian National University), “Occupied Korea Has Talent: Entertaining Americans in the Aftermath of the Korean War”
* Yunji Park (University of Southern California), “Masculine Girl Prince and the Sexual Transgressor in 1950s South Korea”
* Yusuke Wajima (Osaka University), “The Fake Sport by the Fake Japanese? (Trans)Nationalism and Americanization in Professional Wrestling in Japan and Korea”
* Discussant: Suk-Young Kim (University of California, Los Angeles)

A Korea-focused panel on things performative – wonderful! It was a tough decision, but I skipped the panel on food culture and identity (that took place at the same time across the Mezzanine) and went for the whole thing. First, Benoit Berthelier’s analysis of gendered construction of class-consciousness (spoiler: “male” workers, “female” farmers) through collective cultural activities in North Korea. A highlight was the evaluation sheet for literature reading circles, with empty fields for pre-scribed “opinions”.

Then the fascinating story of Rikidōzan or Yeokdosan in Korean (역도산 力道山), a professional wrestler from Korea who made it big time in Japan, as a “national hero” beating up Americans. Yusuke Wajima discussed several aspects of Rikidōzan’s career, including his fame as the “Hero of Plaza Viewing”, promoted in public viewings, his role in the pro-wrestling logic of “local hero vs. travelling villain”, and the respective reactions to his successes in both North Korea (an ethnic hero) and South Korea (a symbol of anti-communist-lead normalization with Japan). The eponymous 2004 movie by Song Hae-sung (성해성) might give another post-IMF-perspective on this border-bending performer – or a “Mystery File” (미스테리 사건파일) episode on his murder

Yusuke Wajima on Rikidōzan

Yusuke Wajima on Rikidōzan

Next, a topic that I’m particularly interested in: Gender transgressions in popular yeoseong gukgeuk (여성국극, “female national drama”) in the 1950s. I’ve read about this all-woman version of pansori-based changgeuk (창극, also formerly known as 국극, i.e. “national drama”) mostly in Killick’s In Search of Korean Traditional Opera]( (Univ. of Hawai’i Press 2010) and had seen one performance years ago on a Dano Festival at the Gugak Center. Park Yujin’s talk discussed some interesting predecessors (besides the obvious pansori-changgeuk-trajectory), such as “girls music plays” (sonyeo gageuk 소녀가극, see a paper by 백현미 on DBpia) in colonial Korea and the ongoing Takarazuka Revue founded in 1913 in Japan.

Finally, Roald H. Maliangkay’s talk on hired Korean musicians performing at US camps in post-war Korea – with castings, coversongs, and imported guitars – gave a good idea of the environment where later stars like the Kim Sisters or Shin Jung-hyeon (신중현), “godfather of rock”, took their first steps.

A common point between (at least three of) these topics is their celebration of “fake” acts: staged fights, women impersonating men, and Korean musicians standing in for American pop acts to expensive to be flown in. In any case, with their different implied Utopian dimensions, these popular practices are more than mere means for profit, but highly political. A performative perspective – e.g. on the undeniably enjoyable tension between performer and role (or phenomenal and semiotic body, see my take on the Cumberbitch-phenomenon) – might be another fruitful approach to these entertaining imitations and simulations.

Afterwards, I made a brief visit to the following panel, where I heard only the first presentation:

Cosmopolitan Configuration: “The World” in Korean Visual Culture

Panel 123 Fri, March 17, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Cedar

  • Christina Klein (Boston College), “Theorizing/Historicizing Cold War Cosmopolitanism”
    * Hyun Seon Park (Yonsei University), “The Return of a Cosmopolitan Subject: Encountering the World of Violence in Ha Kil-chong’s 1970s Films”
    * Yun-Jong Lee (Dong-A University), “A Lonely, Struggling Cosmopolitan: Bae Chang-ho and the Global Cinema in the 1980s”
    * Sohl Lee (Stony Brook University), “The Global Circulation of Korea’s Democratic Avant-Garde Art in the 1980s: The Triad of Seoul, Tokyo, and New York”
    * Discussant: Steven Lee (UC Berkeley)

Christina Klein discussed the role of the Asia Foundation, a “CIA front” that was involved in cold war cultural politics, for example by attempting to integrate Korea into (non-Communist) “free Asia”. The Asian Film Festival, for example, sponsored artist travels and cultural exchange and promoted the resulting movies. A result of this meeting of US cold warriors and Korean cultural producers is the movie Because I love you (사랑하는 까닭에, directed by Han Hyeong-mo 한형모, 1958) that Klein discussed in detail. Interestingly, this “Korea-Malaysia friendship tourist film” features extensive scenes of traditional Korean dance, staging a spectacle of intercultural friendship among allies.

I know that in the world of Korean theatre in the 1950s and 60s, the Rockefeller Foundation played a similarly foundational role, for example by sponsoring artistic exchanges, academic publications, or infrastructure in Korea, maybe most prominently the Drama Center in Seoul. Different from the first and foremost commercially driven sphere of entertainment directly after the Korean War (see last panel), here cold war policies seem to have had the upper hand.

After I slipped out of the panel, I made at round at the book stands and met Barbara Wall from Hamburg, who had just arrived and was to host a cross-country panel soon:

The Construction of East Asian History on Screen

Panel 148 Fri, March 17, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 2nd Floor, Dominion Ballroom North

* Jose Montaño (Rikkyo University), “The Chrysanthemum and the Laugh: Questioning Japanese History through Contemporary Jidaigeki Films” (video presentation)
* Le-Na Dao (Vietnam National University), “National Identity in Conflict: The Reconstruction of King Ly Thai To on Vietnamese Screen”
* Barbara Wall (University of Hamburg), “The Construction of Crown Prince Sado as Symbolic Victim in the Fight against the Establishment in Films and TV dramas”
* George Guo (Royal Holloway, University of London), “From Serious History to Time-Travel TV: A Critical Study of Time-Travel Television Series on Contemporary Chinese Television” (canceled)
* Discussant: Donald L. Baker (University of British Columbia)

Unfortunately, two of the panelists could not attend, but at least one of them (Jose Montaño) had prepared a video presentation, a slightly ironic take on recent parodies of the samurai film genre.

Then Barbara herself presented her take on different depictions of crown prince Sado (사도 세자, 1735–62), from historical records to a memorial mural along Cheonggyecheon, as well as in different movies and drama series (The Throne 사도, Secret Door 비밀의 문). From a murderer to a victim, later to a rebellious reformer, the ways Sado has been interpreted often reflects the specific circumstances of the reception of this enigmatic character, making it difficult (or impossible) to distinguish between fact and fiction in retrospect.

Barbara also mentioned a play that deals with the Sado-plot and I vaguely remembered that Oh Tae-suk (오태석) had written something similar. Indeed, his 1987 play Intimacy between Father and Son (부자유친 父子有親) tells the well-known story from a close-up, intimate perspective. The play has been translated into English by Ah-Jeong Kim and R. B. Graves (in The Metacultural Theater of Oh T’ae-sok, Univ. of Hawai’i Press 1999) and into German (as “Nähe von Vater und Sohn”) by Lee Kyungboon and Kai Köhler (in Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke, Edition Peperkorn 2013)

I couldn’t find any other plays that deal with this famous – and highly dramatic! – historic episode. It would be interesting, though, to compare different productions of Oh Tae-suk’s classic, for example before and after the IMF-induced reorientation of cultural policies. I’m quite sure, though, that other dramatizations of this plot exist…

Le-Na Dao’s talk on cinematic representations of Vietnamese King Lý Thái Tổ was a great complement to Barbara’s. Le-Na discussed how famous acts of the first Emperor of the Lý-dynasty – such as moving the capital to today’s Hanoi and promoting Buddhism –, as well as legendary attributions (e.g. a dream of a golden dragon) are depicted in different movies. Interestingly, she also stresses the use of traditional arts as a means to evoke a national spirit.

Le-Na Dao on representations of King Lý Thái Tổ

Le-Na Dao on representations of King Lý Thái Tổ

Donald Baker, the discussant of the panel, stressed that movies, like (academic) historiographies, oversimplify matters – only to a higher degree. It is certainly true that movies, TV shows, and plays (as well as productions thereof) are a product of their time, thus more valuable as a historiographic source on the time they are produced than the time they depict.

Korea Foundation reception

Korean Foundation Reception

The day ended with some reception hopping (from AAS to Korea Foundation to University of Hawai’i), rushed buffet dinner, some old friends, some new ones, and a late-night meeting of the Committee on Korean Studies, on top floor (or so it seemed).


— 17 March 2017 (金)

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Things I Learned at #AAS 2017, part1 (Thursday, 16 March)

Sheraton Centre Toronto copyThis year’s conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto (March 16–19), the first one I ever attended, was enormous. Still overwhelmed by the experience, I publish some of my notes on the various panels I attended and presentations I heard, interspersed with tweets I posted during the conference. Due to the volume, I organise the material in daily installments – meaning that each post focuses on one conference day, I probably won’t be able to keep up a daily posting rate. In my listings, presentations in bold are those I heard myself, while those in italics refer to situations where I couldn’t hear a presentation as I had to leave early or came late. On my own presentation about “Pansori and Brecht” and our panel (“Koreanness on Display”), see my pre-conference blogpost.

After standing in line for my badge (and the fancy “panelist” add-on), my conference started with a lunch-meeting: Indian food with Siyuan Liu (editor of the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre and author of Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, see also his interview on the Theatre History Podcast), whom I first met in person, and CedarBough Saeji, host of our panel on “Koreanness on Display” (and author of the blog Footnotes).

Piying xi (Shadow Puppet Show) “Shadow/Point Whitesnake”

Then we headed to a performance of the Story of the White Snake (Bái Shé Zhuàn 白蛇傳), a famous Chinese legend, to which Siyuan had invited us. The performance was part of the Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature (CHINOPERL) that took place in conjunction with the AAS-conference. Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-yu Fong of Chinese Theatre Works from New York City presented a “mobile” version of their theatrical production of White Snake, “a unique, solo spectacle that fuses music, Powerpoint projections, and traditional shadow puppetry into a performance style that is ephemeral in form, flexible in scale and suitable for any sized performing venue.”

This is the description of the work I found on Chinese Theatre Works’ homepage:

The well-known romance of Whitesnake (a magical snake spirit who takes on human form and is a gifted healer, lover, mother and fierce warrior) is a favorite in every genre of Chinese literature, stage performance and opera. CTW’s production uses a live storyteller, flanked by projections of over 200 brilliantly colored images (based on antique Chinese leather shadow figures) translates this ancient legend for contemporary American audiences of all ages.

Still a bit jet-lagged, I enjoyed the multimedial spectacle with Stephen Kaplin’s engaged narration as a chance to learn more about theatre from China (about which I know virtually nothing – there were more chances to make up at AAS, though!). This video which I took from the third row gives you an impression of the performance. (An excerpt of the “original”, a combination of Kun Opera and Shadow Puppetry, is available on Youtube, see also a brief review in the New York Times.)

Later that afternoon, I met Haeree Choi (최해리) of Yonsei University, the discussant of our panel. We briefly talked about the presentations and then headed to the first “official” event:

Asian Studies, Interdisciplinarity, and Comparative Work (Longxi Zhang’s keynote address, 18:00–19:00)

Keynote address, Thu, March 16, 6:00 to 7:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Lower Concourse, Grand Ballroom East


In today’s global interconnectedness, no one can overlook the significance of Asia for the West and the other parts of the world, and this is the result of many changes that have taken place over several decades in the recent past. In this lecture, the speaker will briefly discuss several important works that have contributed to our understanding of the interrelations between Asia and Europe, East and West, and then will comment on the interdisciplinary nature of Asian Studies and the importance of a comparative perspective in understanding different cultures in both their similarities and their differences. Asian Studies, he will argue, provides an excellent forum for the discussion of human diversity as well as what binds humanity together despite linguistic, cultural, historical, social, and political differences. As scholars in Asian Studies and as comparatists, we are witnessing some significant changes in our world today, and we should face the challenges and contribute to a better and more peaceful way of living in our world for all humanity.

Longxi Zhang copyThe keynote address was delivered by Longxi Zhang (City University of Hong Kong), author of From Comparison to World Literature (SUNY Press 2015). Prof. Zhang discussed different perspectives on China from the West. These included also Adolf Reichwein’s 1923 dissertation China und Europa: Geistige und künstlerische Beziehungen im 18. Jahrhundert, published only two years later in English (if academic publishing were this swift today…) as China and Europe: Intellectual and Artistic Contacts in the Eighteenth Century (London, New York 1925, available in full online). Zhang argued against an “othering” based on the old dichotomy of Western individualism and Eastern collectivism, and instead suggested to differentiate within and between cultures, in interdisciplinary dialogue aiming at mutual understanding. His piece of advice that reading more discourages dichotomizing certainly rings true. His final slide – “bridges, not walls” – was encouraging, given the current political climate, yet bears the question of who provides the bricks. In the following days, this question was answered by many inspiring – and rarely dichotomizing – presentations and talks.

An interesting comment mentioned Suzhou, often referred to as the “Venice of the East”, and questioned the motives of such cross-cultural comparisons. I can relate very much – every time I hear about “the Korean Robin Hood”, “the Korean Romeo & Juliet”, or “the Korean Shakespeare” (see a blogpost that provides one “candidate”.), I wonder if this is directed at those who live there or more of a promotional method. In fact, there are many places called “Venice of the East”, according to Wikipedia (still I found the “Naples” of Korea for Tongyeong more fitting…).

Remembrance of Neighborhoods Past: Preservation of Historical Memories in Seoul’s Urban Regeneration

Panel 16, Thu, March 16, 7:30 to 9:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Birchwood Ballroom

  • Soyoon Choo (University of Southern California), “Urban Preservation: Lessons or Legacy of the Urban Past? Understanding the Dynamics behind Seoul’s Preservation-Based Shantytown Revitalization”
  • Hyunjoon Shin (SungKongHoe University), “Betwixt and Between Urban Regeneration and Industrial Displacement in a Former Industrial Town: The Case of Guro (Seoul, Korea)”
  • Pil Ho Kim (Ohio State University), “In the Liberation Village: The Cinematic Landscape of an Early North Korean Refugee Settlement in Seoul”
  • Discussant: Kelly Y. Jeong, University of California, Riverside

The very first panel presented three takes on urban redevelopment and revitalization in different neighborhoods in Seoul: Baeksa Maeul (백사마을), Seoul’s “last shantytown” (마지막 달동네) in Nowon District (Soyoon Choo), Guro Digital Complex (구로디지털단지) in Guro District (Hyunjoon Shin), and Haebang-chon (해방촌) in central Seoul (Pil Ho Kim). The presentations include fruitful comparisons of municipal planning and the realities of one of the last remaining shantytowns, between romanticized retro-imagery for members of a young “Instagram”-generation and communal nostalgia of older generations; area-branding following transformations from industrial to “digital” areas; and cinematic depictions of the recent post-war past in movies (all of them available on Youtube thanks to the Korean Film Archive) such as Mr Park (박서방, 1960, Youtube), A Coachman (마부, 1961, Youtube), Bloodline aka Kinship (혈맥, 1963, Youtube), and Aimless Bullet (오발탄, 1961, Youtube). (See Darcy Paquet’s Korean Film-page for reviews of A Coachman and Kinship.)

Hyunjoon Shin copy

Among other things, I finally learned why the district cultural center of Guro-gu is called “Art Valley”: It seems to be a reference to the “G-Valley” branding (in analogy to Silicon Valley).

When Pil Ho Kim talked about the movie Bloodline, I was reminded of the eponymous play I saw last year at the Myeongdong Theatre (the official English translation of the title is Bloodline). It was a new production of Kim Yeong-su’s (김영수) classic play by Yun Gwang-jin (윤광진). Besides the tagline – “This is not a place for people. This is hell.” (at least on the English page, the Korean one seems to stress family values a bit more) – the production used a “historical realism” for nostalgic scenes of love among the lumpenproletariat. (See the production’s “highlights clip” for some impressions.) It would be interesting, though, to consider how different productions of this play diverge in their depiction of the foundational post-war era.

Pil Ho Kim copy

Un/Popular Sound in Colonial Asia

Panel 4, Thu, March 16, 7:30 to 9:30pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Pine East

  • Fritz Schenker (Washington University in St. Louis), “’Manila Bandsmen’: Musical Migrations and Imperial Histories”
  • Laura Jo-Han Wen (Washington University in St. Louis), “Cinema, Gramophone Records, and Sonic Modernity in Colonial Taiwan”
  • Hye Eun Choi (University of Wisconsin-Madison), “Munye-bu and Korean Record Production in the 1930s”
  • Jennifer Hsieh (Stanford University), “From ‘Noisy Disturbances’ to ‘Noise Control’: Acoustic Modernity in Colonial Taiwan”
  • Discussant: E. Taylor Atkins (Northern Illinois University)

On the next panel, hosted by E. Taylor Atkins, a noted expert on colonial culture (see his Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910–1945, U of California P 2010), I originally wanted to hear Hye Eun Choi’s talk on the music industry in colonial Korea. Her presentation seems to relate closely to her ongoing PhD-project “The making of the Recording Industry in Colonial Korea, 1910–1945” (University of Wisconsin – Madison). While early records appear to be a relatively established field of research in Korean-language scholarship, a comprehensive English-language account would certainly be appreciated, especially as Choi’s dissertation promises “a multilayered cultural history” that includes “transcultural adaptations, negotiations, and co-productions” and locates “the Korean recording industry squarely within not only the regional history of the Japanese empire but also the history of the global recording industry”. Looking forward to this dissertation!

Instead, I heard Jennifer Hsieh on noise control, on how metaphorical treatment of noise turned towards more scientific ways of dealing with it, and how the judiciary regulation of urban sound in colonial Taiwan related to the Japanese metropolis and Western models.

The recent edited collection Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Critique (edited by Ronald Radano, Tejumola Olaniyan, Duke UP 2016), which I briefly browsed in the book section of AAS the following day, might give some ideas for such an approach. Exploring “empire as an audible formation”, the book seems to focus mostly on Africa and Latin America, though, apart from two chapters on China.

Another thought I had: The recent revival of the “Insa-dong Street Soripan” (인사동 거리소리판), an outdoor concert for bypassers performed by a group of pansori singers in downtown Seoul, wasn’t met with universal applause. A shop owner complained about the noise, seemingly afraid that the singing might disturb their customers (see my report for details). This seems to be an ongoing problem with busking performers, so not specific to traditional music, nevertheless I found it interesting how the pansori voice, evocative of the (pre-colonial?) past, is perceived in the staged environment of a “traditional” tourist shopping street.

The day faded away – after the buffet at the graduate student reception – with some preparation for our panel’s presentation.

– 16 March 2017 (木)

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The Bard in Korea #ShakespeareWeek

Shakespeare Week is almost over, nevertheless: Here are some links to blogposts I wrote on Shakespeare in Korea – let’s make it an international celebration!


Original Image via WikimediaCommons, Library of Congress (public domain)

Original Image via WikimediaCommons, Library of Congress (public domain)

First, a commented bibliography on book chapters on Shakespeare in Korea: “Some More Shakespeare in Korea”

I wrote that post as an update on a paper on Lee Yun-taek’s production of Hamlet, which I presented back in 2009 at the German Shakespeare Society and published the following year. The paper is in English, though, and you can find the link and some context here.

I should update the bibliography sometime – besides numerous texts in Korean, some English-language writings that would have to be included are:

  • Chapter 5 (“Conceptualizing Korean Shakespeare in the Era of Globalization”) of Hyunjung Lee’s Performing the Nation in Global Korea: Transnational Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), 93–126 (publisher, Google Books)
  • Cho Seoug-kwan’s PhD-dissertation “Shakespeare and the South Korean Stage” (University of Warwick 2014) (repository, available from April 7, 2017), which promises “a comprehensive synoptic historical and theoretical approach” to the history of Shakespeare in Korea and includes discussions of some recent productions
  • “Korean students’ Shakespeare”, reflections by Sarah Olive on her research project
  • Anything else? Please let me know!


Next, short reviews of Taroo’s “Pansori Hamlet Project”, which began with two showcases (in the basement of Doosan Art Center, 2012; in the lobby of Seoul Theater Center, 2013) and continues with a feature-length production (2014–). I wrote a comparative review of Taroo’s project and ensemble Tuida’s Hamlet Cantabile: “A Tale of Two Hamlets”, Borrowers and Lenders X.1, 2016. One chapter of my dissertation (submitted but not defended yet) deals also in detail with performative aspects of the whole project.


A short post on Benedict Cumberbatch’s body and his performance as Hamlet at the Barbican


Some pieces of evidence for what might have been the very first low-key “performances” of Shakespeare’s plays in Korea!


A list of productions planned for the Quattrocentennial in 2016 (some were added during the year; full disclosure: I missed all of them, but finally saw the classic “Koreanized” Hamlet by Lee Yun-taek and Ensemble “Georipae”, a truely spectacular midnight-show in Miryang, see picture)

연희단거리패, 햄릿, 연출: 이윤택, 제16회 밀양 여름공연예술축제, Aug. 6, 2016

연희단거리패, 햄릿, 연출: 이윤택, 제16회 밀양 여름공연예술축제, Aug. 6, 2016


As an addendum: The first full set of Shakespeare’s plays in Korean based on the Oxford Edition (instead of Arden, see “Arden vs. Oxford-threads on Librarything and Reddit) just came out (translation: Lee Sang-seop). The new edition is just one volume – a blue tome of nine pounds!

셰익스피어 전집 이상섭 역, 문학과지성, 2016 BHere are the full bibliographic details: 셰익스피어 전집, 옮김: 이상섭, 문학과지성 2016, 1808쪽, 정가: 120,000원; Moonji Publishing, Kyobo, Aladin

An English announcement in the Dong-a Ilbo notes that with this publication, the Korean Complete Shakespeare “has become independent from the influence of the Japanese edition by Shoyo Tsubouchi, the first to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Japanese”.

Some more facts on the current state of complete editions of Shakespeare (셰익스피어 전집) in Korea from a review by Choe Jae-bong in Hankyoreh (최재봉, 한겨레, 2016–12–01):

  • The first translation of Shakespeare’s complete works, by Kim Jae-nam (김재남) from 1964 (Shakespeare’s 400th birthday), is out of print
  • The only complete works available was Sin Jeong-ok’s (신정옥) popular paperback translation from the 1980s (전예원)
  • Kim Jeong-hwan (김정환) began a 40-volume translation in 2008 but since volume 23 (2013), the project has been on halt (아침이슬)
  • Choe Jong-cheol (최종철), student of Lee Sang-seop, began a new translation in 2014, but will take some more time until completion (민음사), as does a similar project by the Korean Shakespeare Society (한국셰익스피어학회)

Lee Sang-seop attempts to make a translation that is “performable” (see Susan Bassnett’s paper on “Translating for the Theatre” on this issue), in other words, “concise and harmonious enough to be used on stage”, as he writes in his introduction, good to pronounce rather than exact to the source. The article provides Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be”-soliloquy as an example:

존재냐, 비존재냐,?그것이 문제다.
억울한 운명의 돌팔매와 화살을
마음속에 참는 것이 고귀한 일인가,
만난의 바다에 팔을 걷어붙이고
저항하여 끝내는 것이 고귀한 일인가?
죽음은 자는 것, 그뿐이다. 잠으로써
육체가 이어받는 아픔과 온갖 병을
끝낸다 할진대, 이는 진정 희구할
행복한 결말이다. 죽음은 잠자는 것.

Let’s just say that the opening is at least uncommon – a rather simple style that seems to follow at least partly the rhythm of the original. I will write a bit more on variations of these famous lines in an upcoming post, the second part to my overview of Korean-language Hamlet-translations. Soon more!

– 24 March 2017 (金)

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Talking about Brecht and Pansori in Toronto #AAS 2017

The conference program featured a Korean mask! (Association of Asian Studies 2017)

The conference program featured a Korean mask! (Association of Asian Studies 2017)

I’m preparing my presentation on “The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre” (Towards a More International ‘Koreanness’?), to be held in a week at the Annual Conference of the Association of Asian Studies in Toronto. I’m very happy to be part of what will certainly be an exciting panel – number 227:

“Koreanness” on Display

From the Museum to the Musical Stage

From K-Pop to K-Drama, cuisine to cinema, it is difficult to find a Korean cultural product untouched by national branding, often under the banner of “Koreanness.” Loosely defined as “things unique to Korea,” this concept permeates presentations Korean arts, and has been repeatedly leveraged by cultural institutions, media, academia, and government agencies. This panel explores displays of “Koreanness” in order to understand how this essentializing concept has been re-framed in response to different cultural and political discourses, aiming to set Korean arts apart and market them both domestically and abroad. Four case studies examine the ways “Koreanness” is displayed and critically reconsider the underlying discourses in cultural display: first, by a government funded musical company working to nationalize the citizenry in the 1960s; second, in recent performances of pansori-theatre that combine Brechtian and traditional Korean methods and material to rebrand their image as uniquely Korean; third, in newly created performances for tourist audiences that commodify a traditional façade yet do not deeply engage with the source material; and finally, by the National Museum in recent exhibitions that show contestations seeking to define “Koreanness” in Korean art. Through investigating different ways that discourses of “Koreanness” have been used, we hope to spark dialogue illuminating how these discourses have changed over time, as the intentional vagueness of the concept both motivates a national response and attract non-Koreans seeking exposure to or engagement with Korean arts.

Chair/Session Organizer: CedarBough T. Saeji (University of British Columbia)


  • Seungyoun Choi (Korea University)
    “Koreanness” and Nation Building: Yegrin Musical Company’s Representation of the City and the Country in Ggotnimi Ggotnimi Ggotnimi
  • Jan Creutzenberg (Freie Universität Berlin/Sungshin University)
    Towards a More International “Koreanness”? The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre
  • CedarBough T. Saeji (University of British Columbia)
    Dynamic Korea on Display: Commodification of Tradition in Performances for Tourists
  • Young-Sin Park (Binghamton University, SUNY)
    Representing “Koreanness” through the Exhibitions of the National Museum of Korea

Discussant: Haeree Choi (Yonsei University)

The panel will take place on Saturday, March 18, from 10.45am at Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Chestnut East. Looking forward to meet you there!

What follows is the abstract of my own paper, a short preview (actually a recorded test-run of the introduction) plus the firs slides of my presentation, and some resources for anyone interested in more detail on the productions I discuss.

Towards a More International “Koreanness”?

The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre

Pansori is a quintessential icon of “Koreanness”. The singing style is unique to Korea, the canonical stories are often deeply rooted in Korean localities, and its registration as a UNESCO intangible heritage of humanity makes it an important asset in cultural branding and oversea marketing. In the last ten years, however, the monolithic connection of pansori to Korean heritage has been challenged and diversified. Creative performers, directors, and producers experiment with new forms of pansori-theatre and use unorthodox sources. Young ensembles stage new works that directly deal with subject matters of contemporary relevance. The productions of the National Changgeuk Company of Korea court audiences with nostalgic and spectacular stage adaptations of traditional pansori works and at the same time experiment with Western classics, musicals, and movies. German playwright and drama theorist Bertolt Brecht is a favorite reference for attempts to “internationalize” pansori, not least due to earlier scholarly attempts to link the Korean tradition with his concept of “epic theatre”. This paper explores the role that references to Brecht play in the “re-branding” of pansori and changgeuk, often by expanding the notion of “Koreanness” with a critical twist. Based on performance analysis and reviews of four recent productions, I will consider the ways associations with Brecht’s theories and adaptations of his plays transform the potential of pansori both as traditional heritage and as contemporary art for international audiences.

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The title image shows Ahn Suk-seon (안숙선), performing Heungbuga (흥부가) for the World Library and Information Congress at COEX, Seoul, 2006 (Photo by Brian Negin, via Flickr, CC; Brecht’s portrait is public domain).

Resources on my Presentation

The four productions I compare are as follows:

  1. Mr Rabbit and the Dragon King (Sugung-ga, 수궁가)
  2. The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Kokaseoseu-ui Baek-muk-won, 코카서스의 백묵원), both by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea (NCCK, 국립창극단)
  3. Song of Sichuan (Sacheon-ga, 사천가)
  4. Song of Courage (Eokcheok-ga, 억척가), both by Pansori Project “Za” and Lee Jaram (판소리 만들기 “자”, 이자람)

First, some videoclips that give you a first impression of these productions:

  1. Mr Rabbit and the Dragon King: Five excerpts that give a good idea of the general visual style of the production (via Youtube). part1, part2, part3, part4, part5, part6; impressions from an exhibition by Achim Freyer with sketches, stage design, costumes etc. used in the production process (via Youtube/Koreanisches Kulturzentrum Berlin)
  2. The Caucasian Chalk Circle: various videos that show some scenes of the production. Making of (via National Theater), TV-coverage in Korean (via YTN News), TV-coverage in English (via Arirang TV)
  3. Song of Sichuan: Several scenes with English subtitles (via Youtube)
  4. Song of Courage: Some scenes with promotion for a guest performance in France (via Youtube/Théâtre National Populaire)

Plus: excerpt of a TED-talk by Lee Jaram with English subtitles (via Youtube/Korean Culture Center UK)

Now some links to related material on this blog:

Additional literature on changgeuk and Lee Jaram’s Brecht-Pansori includes Andrew Killick’s standard In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’anggŭk (Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2010), as well as Performing Korea by Patrice Pavis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) that dedicates a chapter to Lee Jaram’s Eokcheok-ga and the question “Is Modernized Pansori Political?” (the book just came out and I haven’t come around to read it in detail). There are many papers in Korean that deal with either topic, but one of the few that combines a discussion of recent interest in Brecht among makers of traditional Korean theatre is 장은수, “포스트서사극시대 우리 전통극의 새로운 가능성” (Jang Eun-soo, “New Possibilities Of Korean Traditional Theatre in the Era of Post-epic Theatre”), 세계문학비교연구 51 (2015), 403–22.

Finally, two of my publications that relate to the topics discussed here:

  • Jan Creutzenberg (2013), “From Traditional Opera to Modern Music Theatre? Recent Experiments in Ch’anggŭk”, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch 88, pp. 87–102. publisher
  • Jan Creutzenberg (2011), “The Good Person of Korea: Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga as a Dialogue between Brecht and Pansori”, Brecht Yearbook 36, Storrs, CT: International Brecht Society, pp. 225–238.

Any comments and questions, on the presentation or related matters, are more than welcome!

— 12 March 2017 (日)

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One Swallow a Day (Heungbu and Nolbu)

As I learned today, the Korean postal service uses the swallow (jebi, 제비) as its symbol, maybe because it is commonly considered a harbinger of good news.

korea-post-2017-02-28But: One swallow doesn’t a spring make, knew already Aristotle. For Heungbu, on the other hand, a swallow made his day, and all the others. Poor Nolbu, on the other hand… The story of the two brothers Heungbu and Nolbu, in its pansori-version known as Heungbu-ga or Heungbo-ga (흥부가 / 흥보가, please tell me if you know the difference!), is a classic fable about the triumph of altruistic over selfish action (read it in Korean and English, if you haven’t yet – thanks to the unfortunately short-lived blog “Asian Story Translations”). It was also adapted as the very first Korean feature-length puppetry stop-motion movie in 1967 (directed by Gang Tae-ung 강태웅), long before Tim Burton and Wallace and Gromit, as the comment to the movie on Youtube proudly notes.

I didn’t see a swallow today, but a magpie, omen for good luck in Korea and a beautiful thief in Germany (and other places, I suppose). Although the lightness of the day – five years and 330 pages later – might not last, I’m still quite happy, having sent it off, for today, till summer. May the new year begin!

— 28 Feb. 2017 (火)

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Best of Blacklist? (Attendum to “Best of Korean Theatre 2016”)

Now the (lunar) year is almost over… I did not mention an important aspect when writing about last years “Best 3” and “Best 7”: The stand they represent against politically motivated censorship, which has been a major issue during the last two years.


In the light of events, it is notable that Kunhyung Park’s All the Soldiers are Pathetic (박근형, 모든 군인은 불쌍하다) appears on both lists, as this is the production that triggered the censorship (검열) scandal in that extended to the world of traditional music and was rekindled by the leaking of the names of almost 10,000 artists blacklisted by official authorities in October 2016.

Kunhyung Park seems to have evoked the wrath of cultural politics with his production of The Frogs in 2014 (I saw the production back then, unfortunately the only piece of the National Theater Company’s Aristophanes-trio). The production features an obvious satirical depiction of former dictator Park Chung-hee and, more importantly, his daughter and (back then) ruling president Park Geun-hye. (As some English-language news-outlets were quick to remark, despite their similar common surname, director Park and president Park are not related – also notable is the consistens misspelling of the play’s title as Frog.)

Arguably as a result of his open criticism of the two Parks, funding for his next piece (All the Soldiers) was denied or, as testimonies suggest, Park was pressured into revoking his application for funding. Subsequently, an engagement for directing a piece at the National Gugak Center (국립국악원) was cancelled in a similar manner in October 2015. (The gugak-magazine Lara provides a good overview in English.)

To no one’s surprise, Park’s name featured prominently on the blacklist leaked in 2016 (a partial list with about 6,000 names is available via Hankyoreh). Another piece (or rather a site-specific performance festival), the “Camino de Ansan 2016” that is conceptualized as a memory-walk for the victims of the Sewol ferry-disaster (potentially critical with regard to the government’s reactions, is also awarded. The selection shows that theatre critics (who also did rallies and public statements when the issues were hot) do not bow to cultural – and in extension – national politics.

Most recently, South Korea’s culture minister Cho Yoon-sun has been arrested in relation to the blacklist. Facing censorship, theatremakers keep on making theatre, so much is clear. Last fall, a Tumblbug-crowdfunding campaign by a cooperation of various ensembles under the title “Project for Right” (권리장전) was successful (the project is also mentioned in a review of 2016 by Jiyoung Jang, translated by Walter Byongsok Chon, via Theatre Times, the expanded Korean original is available online, too, in the webzine Must by Chungmu Art Center). At Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, where theatre is presented in a tent, blacklisted artists also protested with black plastic bags (images via Hankyoreh) It remains open, though, how the art world at large will deal with a situation where those who followed politically motivated directives still remain in numerous positions of power.

Happy New Year!

PS: A good (English) summary of the situation as of last November, with some images of protests in front of the Korean Cultural Center in London, is available on London Korean Links

– 27 Jan. 2017 (金)

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Best of Korean Theatre 2016 (part1): Official Rankings

As this crazy year draws to an end, as usual the best theatre productions in Korea have been selected and awards are handed out. Two of the most important selections are the “best 7” by the monthly journal Korean Theatre Review (월간 한국연극, “2016 공연 베스트 7”) and the “best 3” by the Association of Theatre Critics (한국연극평론가협회, “올해의 연극 베스트 3”). (Various press sources – the official websites are a bit late in this regard – can be found, for example at Munhwa News (문화뉴스), by using the following links: best 3, best 7)

The “best 7” considers all performances shown in the greater Seoul region between Nov. 2015 and Oct. 2016. In the category “premieres” (초연), four works were chosen:

  • Twelve Angry Men (12인의 성난 사람들) by Sansuyu Theatre (극단 산수유), directed by Ryu Ju-yeon (류주연) play by Reginald Rose
  • All the Soldiers are Pathetic (모든 군인은 불쌍하다) by Golmokil Theatre (극단 골목길), written and directed by Kunhyung Park (박근형), co-produced by Namsan Art Center (남산예술센터)
  • Bethany House (베서니 집) by Dong Theatre company (극단 동), directed by Ryang-Won Kang (강량원), play by Laura Marks
  • Sunshine Warriors (썬샤인의 전사들), a play by Kim Eun Sung (김은성), produced by Doosan Art Center (두산아트센터)

Additionally, productions in three other categories were awarded:

  • revival (재공연): “Camino de Ansan 2016” (안산순례길 2016), a multi-site-specific project in the city of Ansan, in memory of the victims of the “Sewol” ferry-disaster
  • children/young audience (아동 청소년극): We are Friends (우리는 친구다, original: Max und Milli, by Volker Ludwig) by Hakchŏn (극단 학전)
  • foreign production (해외공연): Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Ein Volksfeind, 민중의 적) by Schaubühne Berlin (샤우뷔네 베를린), director: Thomas Ostermeier, guest performance at LG Arts Center

For the “best 3”, all performances shown from Dec. 2015 until Nov. 2016 are eligbile. Two of the three also appear in the “best 7”:

  • All the Soldiers are Pathetic (모든 군인은 불쌍하다)
  • Bethany House (베서니 집)
  • Goebbel’s Theatre (괴벨스 극장) by ensemble Watchman (극단 파수꾼), directed by Yi Eun-jun (이은준), play by Oh Se-hyeok (오세혁)

Although aware of some of these productions, I wasn’t able to see any of them – besides teaching, wrapping up my dissertation kept me at the desk. I planned to see the guest performance of Ein Volksfeind, too, about which I had heard a lot, but then didn’t find the time, unfortunately. I would have loved to hear how the mid-play discussion among the audience developed. (Some videos – all in German, though – give an idea of the tour and include statements from the discussion: a mini-documentary, a videocast by actor David Ruland, and a report by Deutsche Welle.)

But being busy doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a minute in the theatre. Follow up for some thoughts about my own top 5 or something, hopefully before the end of the year…

– 22 Dec. 2016 (木)

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