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[Herald Interview] Untold story of pansori master Lee Nal-chi comes to life

March 25, 2023 - 16:01 By Hwang Dong-hee
"Lee Nal-chi: A Turbulent Life" (Book Recipe)

In 2020, the traditional Korean music-inspired band Leenalchi took the nation by storm with its music for a series of tourism promotion music videos, “Feel the Rhythm of Korea,” created in collaboration with Ambiguous Dance Company and Korea Tourism Organization. The band has since also gained a global fanbase, completing an international tour last year.

What most fans may not know, however, is that the band is named after Lee Nal-chi, a pansori master and "jultagi (tightrope walking)” performer of the 1880s, during the late Joseon era (1392-1910).

In fact, little is known about this pansori master.

Born as the son of a servant, he went on to join a troupe of street performers known as “gwangdae." Lee was famous for his tightrope walking, which earned him the nickname “nalchi,” which means “flying fish.” He then started pansori at the age of 30, which was considered late at the time.

“Even though the social class system was fluid during the late Joseon period, it is clear that there must have been a tumultuous journey to overcome fate and achieve his dream, which cannot be fully expressed through words,” author Jang Da-hye said in a written interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday. Jang currently lives in France.

"Tangeum: Swallowing Gold" (Book Recipe)

After her successful debut with the mystery thriller novel “Tangeum: Swallowing Gold,” Jang recreated the mysterious pansori master’s life in her latest book “Lee Nal-chi: A Turbulent Life” (working title), published on Feb. 7.

Jang said she was actually reluctant when she first heard about the idea from her publisher Book Recipe.

“I hesitated because records on Lee Nal-chi were very scarce, and the burden of dealing with a real-life person was daunting,” Jang said. “But while researching this path, I just knew I had to write about him.”

Jang said she focused on creating a story that was more realistically believable.

“I put in a lot of effort into building this character -- his appearance, his personality and also his voice -- so that his life could be delivered more vividly.”

Jang raked through meager records about ordinary Joseon people, archives of the time period and “namsadangpae,” or traveling entertainers’ troupes -- but what helped her the most were ancient records of old pansori masters in the 1900s.

“According to records, Lee Nal-chi had a voice that was hoarse but rich in volume. I listened to ancient pansori masters’ recordings, which inspired many stories.”

Set in the Joseon era, where there was a strict class hierarchy, sometimes characters cannot act of their own accord, but are rather forced to act due to their circumstances.

But Jang said she wanted her characters to have moments where they could overcome their fate.

“I think artists in ancient times felt a burden and resentment that they had to carry, like fate. I wanted to depict Lee Nal-chi’s story as one which advances the idea of ‘persistence, nevertheless.’”

Jang studied and worked in hotel management in France and the UK. She began writing lyrics in her 20s, and essays in her 30s. She debuted as a novelist in 2021 with “Tangeum: Swallowing Gold,” a mystery thriller about a family that become rich merchants through the art trade in the late Joseon era.

The webtoon “Tangeum” is in production and is expected to be released around spring next year, while its drama adaptation is in the casting stage. “Lee Nal-chi” is also being adapted into a drama series.