Phansori, the Art of Storytelling

Phansori is Korea’s still thriving storytelling tradition. In phansori a singer, who employs stylised speech, expressive declamation and heartbreaking singing, narrates well-known epic stories accompanied by a drummer. Originally, phansori artists were men, but nowadays female singers are also more common.

Like storytellers in general, phansori singers also create intensive contact with the spectators, who may shout comments and approving comments during the performance. The drummer too has active contact with the performer. The only prop that the singer handles is a large fan.

The History

The early form of phansori was the creation of public entertainers, called changu. During the middle part of the Choson Dynasty (1392–1910) they also added sung storytelling as a kind of comical interlude to their repertoire of music, dance and acrobatics.

In the 18th century phansori was also accepted by the educated elite. During that time the phansori repertoire consisted of various stories, many of them derived from Chinese folklore. The patronage of the upper classes gradually influenced the development of phansori.

Phansori’s “low” or comic elements were reduced while vernacular, epic stories were established as its repertoire. The music became more complex, combining the slowest and quickest tempos of Korean music, and the phansori singing gained its extremely expressive style.

Thus phansori evolved from street entertainment towards an established form of “chamber art”. Commercial phansori performances became common in the 19th century when it found its way to small theatre houses. At the same time female phansori singers established their popularity.

The Repertoire and the Performance

At the moment the phansori repertoire consists of five vernacular epic tales: The Song of Hungbu (Hungbuga), The Song of the Underwater Palace (Sugungga), The Song of the Red Cliffs (Chokpyokka), The Song of the Chunhyang (Chunhyangga), and The Song Simchong (Shimchongga). Although the stories are Korean folk epics, they often emphasize Confucian virtues, such as filial piety etc.

Video clip: Phansori performance the Song of Heungbo Veli Rosenberg

As often in the art of storytelling, the phansori singer acts as the narrator and also takes the roles of the various characters of the story. A full phansori performance may last as long as six hours; it, of course, demands of the performer an exceptional memory, stamina and technique.