Pansori and bibimbap – fusion in Korea’s cultural content

by Peter Corbishley on 3 October, 2008 updated 25 August, 2017

in Conference reports | Event Notices | Event reports and reviews | Hallyu | Korean traditional music

By Peter Corbishley

Last Thursday and Friday 24-25th September an itinerant band of Pansori sellers displayed their wares at the Korean Cultural Centre (KCC) and the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The main event was Yonsei University’s (Institute of Media Art) Jeong Taeg Lim and Jung A Huh’s talk on ‘The Aesthetic modernity of the traditional Korean music drama “Pansori”’ as part of the joint Institute for Germanic and Romance Studies (IGRS) & Institute for Musical Research conference on ‘Opera, Exoticism and Visual Culture’ mistress-minded by another Korean, Dr Hyunseon Lee of IGRS. The hors d’oeuvre (almost literally as the main focus was on ‘bibimpap’ as a metaphor for fusion in Korean culture) on the previous evening at the KCC was rather meagre fare. Chunhyang’s hanbok, feisty personality and diet, (presuming she ate bibimpap), present, so it was asserted, a rich mix for Korean authors and an exemplar for Korean women. Yes, well! A bit more evidence or analysis would have been handy. But perhaps Korean practioners of ‘media art’ are not aware of the anthropological of the parallelisms between food, dress and societal attitudes found other cultures, including Britain.

A pansori performance of Chunhyang

A pansori performance of Chunhyang

The ‘Pansori’ performance was much more meaty fare with a very strong claim for the uniqueness of Korean Pansori vis-à-vis Western opera. Not all agreed on the uniqueness (including one Korean) but the talk was certainly to be valued for its description of the impromptu interplay between drummer, singer and audience characteristic of Pansori. Also on sale for academic participation by Professors (at Goldsmiths and elsewhere) was Yonsei University’s “Technology – Imagination – Future” Project – apparently ‘bibimpap’ also provides food for thoughts on the extensive use of mobile phones in South Korea. Is Nam June Paik turning in his grave?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Philip Gowman October 3, 2008 at 5:36 pm

Thanks for this Peter. Having attended the Thursday evening talk I really couldn’t work out what to say about it. It’s easier to respond to what you have volunteered!

I’m sure there’s a lot more detail underneath the very sketchy outline we got, but at the end of the session I felt less than satisfied – a couple of mandu rather than the full bibimbap. One thing that I thought was interesting was the different interpretations of Chunhyang

  • The traditional Confucian view of her as the ideal faithful woman, loyal to just one man
  • The romantic view of her, sticking to her love through all the trials in her path (including the class divide)
  • The view of Chunhyang as class warrior resisting the social system.

There was a fourth interpretation which I didn’t quite catch.

The discussion of the creation of the Chunhyang legend over time, incorporating different elements from other stories, and elements of humour, I think then developed into the bibimbap discussion: Chunhyang specifically and modern Korean culture more generally being underpinned by the concept of mixing things together. The food metaphor I didn’t find very helpful. Bibimbap stimulating the five senses, the sum of the parts exceeding the whole – it all sounded a bit, well, like no other country has four seasons like there are in Korea.

I’m not sure how we got from bibimbap to My Sassy Girl changing shoes with her boyfriend, but there was a second lecture which seemed to be embedded in the talk, a lecture about how the presentation of women in Korean film has changed over time. There was definitely the theme that My Sassy Girl can become liberated only because of Korea’s economic advancement, while beck in the sixties and seventies women in films were bar hostesses, factory workers or restaurant cleaners. But the closing message, that laughter and bibim are the propulsive forces in Korean cultural content, didn’t seem to me to be established by what had gone before. We needed more than the half hour or so devoted to this talk.

What I found most interesting about the whole thing was that this very disparate, multi-disciplinary group of academics had been assembled for a ten year project at Yonsei University. I spoke to Prof Lim Jeong-taeg afterwards, and he confirmed what I suspected: that his project is affiliated to the Grand Culture project – Korea’s massive investment in cultural content.

Peter Corbishley October 4, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Korean Fives

Well, Philip, the four ‘aspects’ of Chunhyang – according to my notes – are woman as a faithful wife, woman as an idealist/romantic, woman as emancipated and woman as rebel. So I took the parallelism to be that Chunhyang is a mixture, a fusion, a bibimpap of these different elements. Fusion creates, that is, a harmony between contradictory elements, and hence an expression of the Korean imagination. However, as was said, traditional clothing has 5 colours – white, black, red, yellow, and blue – as bibimpap has 5 colours creating a fusion to stimulate all the five senses. These colours also represent the five directions: east, west, north, south, and centre of Korean cosmology, and there was an unexplained diagram on the board which could have matched the colours of bibimbap to these directions. The writing on the squares here was in Hanja, but this diagram alongside the picture of bibimpap was not gone into. But the 5 colours – green, yellow, red, black-blue, and white – of bibimpap were on this diagram. The five flavours of Korean cooking – sweet, salty, bitter, hot, and sour – also were not mentioned as such. And there was some reference to the five elements of yin and yang: wood, fire, earth, water, and metal. But from my point of view for the parallel between Chunhyan and bibimpap to begin to work we would need Chunhyang stories also to portray 5 traits / elements / characteristics. Perhaps the fifth element could have been her smile – remember the masks from Andong with their comical expression as an account of the Korean smile of recognition. But this comparison wasn’t made explicitly. However, the presenters apologies for their level of English and this factor may well have affected the confidence and depth of the explanation. Some of the Q&A IN Korean went into matters in a bit more detail.

I referred to other anthropological accounts of meals, and principally has in mind Mary Douglas ‘Deciphering a Meal‘ which gave rise to a number of other studies cf http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80632e/80632E0l.htm Given studies like these, and others referred to on this site about ‘nutritional anthropology’, and the fact that the publication of the book on nutritional anthropology was by the UN in 1989 (although true in Japan) one could have hoped for a bit more from the lecture. Similarly from around that time is Vol. 9 in the collected works of Mary Douglas, is entitled Food in the Social Order from 1984. For references to Levi Strauss, Norbert Elias as well as Mary Douglas, a few other ghosts from my academic past who have worked on the anthroplogy/sociology of food cf http://www.arasite.org/mennl1.htm I wouldn’t want Yonsei University to go too far down all those routes but the world doesn’t have to be re-invented.

Philip Gowman October 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Thanks Peter – your note-taking was far more diligent than mine!

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