Opening a New Chapter in Pansori History
Pansori is a traditional form of narrative music performed by a singer accompanied by a drum. There are a number of famous pansori singers. When legendary pansori artist Yi Nal-chi(이날치) sang his ‘bird song,’ it is said that a flock of birds actually flew to the performance site. Another pansori master Jeong Chun-pung(정춘풍) learned to sing while wandering from place to place, even though he had passed the state exam for public office. Singer Yi Dong-baek(이동백) was able to secure a government post solely through his singing talent, while Yim Bang-ul(임방울) consoled countless people through his great pansori performances during the dark period of Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War.
Hundreds of singers appeared in the 300-year history of pansori. Some of them overcame their difficult lives and survived rigorous training to reach musical enlightenment and become one of the most celebrated singers of their time. Of course, they were all men.
But a prominent female pansori singer appeared during turbulent times when traditional culture was waning. Her name is Jin Chae-seon, the first female pansori singer in Joseon.
Shin Jae-hyo’s pupil
Jin Chae-seon was born in 1847 in a fishing village in Gochang, North Jeolla Province. Her mother was a shaman and her father was an entertainer who used to only perform in the local village, as he couldn’t learn music systematically despite his great musical talent. Because of her father’s influence, Jin dreamed of becoming a singer ever since childhood. In the late 19th century, Jin sang a song during the Jeonju Daesaseup(대사습) Festival, a traditional music and performance competition where some of the best singers from all around the country came together to compete.
At first, the reaction of the audience was indifferent. They dismissed Jin’s performance as ‘woman’s song’ and they wouldn’t even listen. But Jin didn’t care about the audience and continued singing. Gradually, people began to pay attention to her beautiful voice, one after another and eventually, the audience members all applauded the female singer’s powerful performance. Seeing this, noted pansori composer Shin Jae-hyo approached her and adopted her as his pupil.
Woman whom Daewongun Loved
Shin was a researcher and patron of pansori during the late Joseon period, who compiled six pansori works. Thanks to this pansori teacher who recognized her talent, Jin was able to fully showcase her ability.
Jin was good at traditional vocal music and dancing. With her rich and powerful voice, she stood out among Shin’s pupils. In 1869, when she was 22 years old, she was invited to a royal banquet at Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Prince Regent Heungseon Daewongun(흥선대원군), the father of King Gojong, invited famous singers from all over the country to celebrate the reconstruction of the palace. Representing the Gochang region, Jin joined the feast and sang pieces of pansori such as (성조가) and (춘향가), which were composed by her teacher Shin. The entire audience was fascinated by her beautiful look, dazzling dance skills and excellent singing.
Daewongun asked her who her teacher was and appointed Shin as junior military officer. Jin was deeply loved by Daewongun and began to live in Unhyeongung(운현궁) Palace.
However, Jin pined for her teacher and longed for a free life as a singer. When Daewongun fell from power four years later, she returned to her hometown and to her teacher.
A Singer by Nature
Unfortunately, Shin had been hovering between life and death due to a disease. He was 35 years older than Jin was. After he passed away in 1884, grief-stricken Jin mourned for three years before disappearing without a trace. Her whereabouts were unknown, but there were unconfirmed rumors that she joined the priesthood at a small Buddhist temple somewhere in Gimje(김제), North Jeolla Province, and died a lonely death.
That may be the way Jin faded into history, but she contributed to the emergence of other female singers such as Heo Geum-pa(허금파) and Kang So-chun(강소춘), and many more female pansori artists today. Jin joined the ranks of top performers in the male-dominated world of pansori with her exceptional enthusiasm and talent. She overcame social restrictions as a woman and crossed the barrier of her humble origin to become the first female pansori singer in Joseon. Thanks to this master singer, pansori has become unfathomably deep and profoundly rich.