Japan from the inside out

A Seoul performance of the palilmu

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 9, 2008

HERE’S A SERENDIPITOUS FIND: While looking for something else, I ran across a snippet in the Korea Times about the palilmu performance in Seoul last Sunday. The palilmu is a dance performed on the first Sunday in May by 64 women divided equally into eight rows. (It’s a yin and yang thang!)

The dance was brought from China and first performed in Korea in 1116 during the Goryeo dynasty. During the Joseon dynasty, it was incorporated into the Jongmyo Daejae, or Royal Shrine Ritual, a rite to honor the ancestors of the royal family. (The Jongmyo is the royal shrine.)

It used to be a common sight once upon a time, as it was performed five times a year (the first month of each season and in December), but that ended when the Japanese arrived. The performances resumed in 1965.

The word palilmu is derived from pal, or the number eight, and ilmu, which is a line dance. The entire ritual includes other ceremonies, music, and dance, and is conducted according to Confucian practice. That’s not surprising, because Confucianism has been a strong influence in Korea, much more so than in Japan.

After watching the video here, which supposedly has explanations in four languages, I was struck by the similarity of the music with that of gagaku, or the ancient ceremonial music of the Japanese court. (Not the instrumentation, but the underlying music itself.) Like palilmu, gagaku music and dance originated in China (with some performances also coming from Korea), and neither are performed in China today.

There are two varieties of palilmu: munmu and mumu. The women perform munmu in the first part of the video, with three-holed bamboo flutes in their left hand and a wooden bar adorned with pheasant feathers in their right. The latter part of the video shows the mumu, which is a military dance. The dancers in the first four rows wield wooden swords, and those in the last four rows hold spears.

The ceremony has been designated a Korean intangible cultural asset, and (not that it makes any difference) part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage of the world. (Here’s the explanation on the UNESCO site.)

I would have loved to have been there to see it, but the video’s the next best thing!

Postscript: Here’s a YouTube clip of a gagaku dance for comparison. Keep in mind the form also includes other dances and music unaccompanied by dance.

2 Responses to “A Seoul performance of the palilmu”

  1. Hyung Lee said


    I am a publisher of THE EAST; the only English newspaper, which is mainly focused on the East Asian information (at the beginning of every month, more than 12,000 free copies are distributed throughout the London area, particularly, where East Asian Networks are established).

    I looked at your blog the other day and have been wondering if there would be any chance that we could publish some of your interesting articles on the paper.
    We think some of your blog articles should be very helpful to the Westners who are interested in Asian Culture.
    The East cannot afford to pay for your articles right now (as we are non-profitable organisation). However, if you wish, we can still offer you:
    1. Advertising space
    2. Link to THE EAST web site blog section

    We look forward to hearing from you shortly.

    Many thanks and kind regards,

    Hyung Wook Lee

    THE EAST, The East Asian Monthly Business Newspaper,
    Elephant Consulting Limited, 37 Charter Court, Linden Grove,
    New Malden, Surrey, KT3 3BN, UK
    Tel : + 44 (0) 7912 608 321 / Web site: / E mail :
    Registered in England & Wales, Company No. 6254454

  2. Ken said

    There is said little document of historical evidence in Korea.
    One of rarely exsisting record is telling only peerage was allowed to wear colored clothes, Chogori?.
    I wonder if there were so many peers like dancing in above photograph.
    Also I have read the less he/she moves, the higher he/she is in the peerage.

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