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The Korean Traditional Sound, Dangchui and a Bearer of It, Monk Beopsang

Goguryeo Dangchui is a traditional art of Korean people from the Goguryeo era, which combines primal sounds with Beompae, music for rituals in Buddhism. It can be recognized that Dangchui is the only clue that gives information about history of Korean songs and dances, and that Korean ancestors’ spirit and their vigor are high. Dangchui consists of 108 sounds of a drum, six basic sounds which include five sounds people can voice and one sound of nature, and 24 traditional dances. It expresses our ancestors’ spirit with lyrical or dynamic and ways. Someone came to Dongguk to give information and spread Dangchui, which is part of Korean cultural heritage, to lots of people. He is a Buddhist monk Beopsang, who started his undergrad in 2011 in the Department of Buddhism. He is the only male monk who has got through the training of Dangchui for three years under the Buddhist monk Hyoseong, who let the legacy continue. The Post met and talked with him.

The Post: What is the historical background of Goguryeo Dangchui?

Beopsang: In the era of the Three States, the Koryo Dynasty, and the Joseon Dynasty when the way of politics was royal authority, it was needed to strengthen royal authority. Therefore, there was the military and the system of the secret society to strengthen royal authority. The secret society lived a life in seclusion, in traveling theater form and in the Buddhism. This secret society was formed in the Goguryeo era and it created a traditional culture like songs and dances. Also, the flow of traditional art of Korea can be divided into three parts. First is the flow of art in the royal family which was conducted at national level. Second, there are songs and dances which conducted in one-to-one or small groups. Third is Dangchui, which brought the two flows together.

The Post: How has Dangchui faded away but yet the flow continued until now?

Beopsang: Dangchui was naturally mixed with rituals of Buddhism but, the policy which suppressed Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty and annihilation of Korean ethnic culture in the Japanese colonial period made Dangchui disappear. Fortunately, however, when the 1988 Olympic Games was held, Korea could be an independent sovereign nation in the true sense of the word by registering Korea in the UN. Then, according to this flow, Dangchui also began to breathe again and the Buddhist monk Beopwoo followed by monk Hyoseong have worked to preserve Dangchui. In addition, I learned about how to play a drum and how to sing the songs of Dangchui, and now, I am making an effort to convey the culture of Dangchui.

The Post: You said that Dangchui cannot be explained without drum sounds. Then, why are drum sounds important in Dangchui?

Beopsang: The sound of drums is very similar to sound of heart beating, so it is the sound of life. Also, in practical terms, when our ancestors rode horses in large fields, they had to communicate with other people who are at a great distance. Therefore, it should be loud and a drum is suitable for that situation. Particularly, during the Goguryeo era when our ancestors dominated large parts of the continent, the drum was helpful to concentrate people’s mind on war and to not escape in battlefield so, it helped the Goguryeo era rulers win the war. In this sense, I said that drum sounds are very important.

The Post: I could know that drum sounds are important then, why is this drum sound the basis of Dangchui?

Beopsang: Drum sounds include a wide variety of different sounds, that is, instruments such as the janggu, a double-headed drum with a narrow waist in the middle and the kkwaenggwari, which is a type of gong, are all drum sounds. Therefore, drum sound becomes the basis of other sounds. Also, there is another reason. In the past, Korean has had group culture. Lots of people gathered together in large places, thus the loud sound of drums was needed to make communication possible, and drum played a role as a control instrument.

The Post: Are there memorable stories for you while learning Dangchui under the Buddhist monk Hyoseong? 

Beopsang: To begin with, I would like to say that beginnings are always hard. The monk Hyoseong did not teach me Dangchui right away when I requested. He does not trust others because he himself is very sensitive to surroundings around him and privately had suffered from political problems several years ago. So, he does not teach his skills easily to anybody. However, crucially, there was an event that served to change his mind. Before I became a monk, I used to make my living moving around from construction site to construction site doing manual labor. As a result, I am good at manual labor. At that time, the monk Hyoseong built his house with his own money in Uljin. But a fire started in his house three times. The first happened because of stray bullet from the Reserve Forces Training Center behind the house. The second fire broke out while making a fire in the furnace. When I got there, the third fire had just occurred. After a serious of unfortunate fires, the monk Hyoseong was stuck with losing lots of money for the repair of his house, and was discouraged at the situation. Do you remember what I said before that I am good at manual labor? I told him that I wanted to help him to repair the house by providing my skills from my various manual job experiences. Thus, with the financial aid from an acquaintance of him, we could finally fix the house, after eight months of work. So far, the house has no problem. In the process, the monk Hyoseong praised me as a true architect and engineer in Korea. It was the beginning that helped me gain his confidence. It was not until that time that I could study the sound waves of Dangchui under him. Second, surprisingly, after learning Dangchui, arthritis that was induced by long-time hard manual jobs completely disappeared. Also, I have learned how to understand my heart, so when I am in trouble, I do not blame someone else for something I have done. I just assess what is going on and prepare an appropriate countermeasure by myself. Therefore, I am sure that learning Dangchui has had good effects on both my mental and physical health.

The Post:  To spread awareness about Dangchui, what are you working on now at Dongguk University?

Beopsang: Now, there are no places that students could hear Dangchui. In this school, I am planning to create a club called Buksori (drumbeat in English) to help students become more aware of its existence. The application has already been completed and my team members are waiting for the result. We hope to see good results. Through the club activities, I will show off a variety of performances and try to lead the students to participate in singing Dangchui.

The Post: What does Dangchui mean to you?

Beopsang: First of all, I consider that Dangchui is a symbol of our country. Now, we live in an age of rapid electronics and high technical advances. Maintaining a personal touch is important in this age, when people feel as if they are communicating with machines, rather than human beings. It can lead to dehumanization and to put it extremely, if people continue to emphasize technology as much as they do now, people will eventually stop having a one to one communication with each other. In addition, the younger generation is gradually estranged from the family values and traditional culture of the society. In other words, with a gradual disintegration of traditional moral values such as filial piety and family responsibility, people’s morality has become paralyzed.
To rectify these situations, we need to be more concerned about our nation’s traditions like Dangchui to provide the younger generation with morals and values in this rapidly secularizing age. That is the only way we can break down the interpersonal barriers that prevent the reconciliation from person to person. In that sense, Dangchui can be one of our traditions that can be conducive to making a better society for all. 

The Post: What is next for you?

Beopsang: I would like to go the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) where North and South Korean soldiers are standing off each other. There, many lives have been lost in the ravages of war, but until now, no one has conducted a ceremony to bring the souls of the dead to salvation. I am serious about the duty. Through that, I want to help them to find a peace of mind and depart this life. Additionally, regardless of religion, I hope that these rewards extend to all the people as well as souls of dead soldiers.

During the interview, his face was full of pride that he introduces Korean tradition, Dangchui, to a lot of people. Also, it is vivid that he would give of himself on his present work. Dangchui sounds a bit odd at first. But when you keep hearing it, you can feel Korean ancestors’ presence and realize their wisdom. The Post hopes that the day will come as soon as possible when many people can proudly say, “I enjoy Dangchui!” as his dearest hope.

Kim Yu-young, Sim Su-ji  tbfor700@dongguk.edu, suji306@dongguk.edu

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