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  • It is 1865, in the reign of Emperor Gojeong. The land and its people have enjoyed peace and plenty in the verdant countryside south of Seoul for a lengthening run of years. It is late summer; the rice is tall and the people's spirits are buoyed by anticipation of a rich harvest. The grapes are riding in from the vineyards where creaking vines strain to support their plump bunches of ripe fruits bursting with sweet juice. The cows are fat from grazing on the lush grasses that are most abundant on the sloping banks of the river, which flows lazily through the fields and by the village of Anseong in the days after the recently ended monsoon.

    In the village, the market hums with the daily round of rural folk, selling and bartering crisp cabbages and radishes alongside trays of red peppers, drying in the sun beside broad basins of shiny soybeans. Great bunches of braided garlic bulbs hang about on the posts over which are stretched the awnings that break the cascading rays of the sun, almost malevolent at their strongest, despite having brought forth these riches of farm and field, and warming the dawn stoop of farmer, merchant and emperor alike. It is the weekend and the mood in the marketplace is festive, intent on selling out the day’s stock early so as not to miss even a moment of what all those who will assemble in the village square have awaited so eagerly.

    The children and old-timers will have it no other way, and for once there are no words of reproach or protest from ajumma who must do all she can to clear the groaning stalls and counter tops of of their burden. The market aunties, who on most days stubbornly hold to their mats hoping to sell one last bundle of leeks or a half-box of eggs or a few peppers to the straggling makkeolli drinker, returning late from one of the more distant farmsteads, or to the citizen returning from official business in Seoul, two days travel over dry roads.

    The days are shortening now and the still-warm afternoon air lacks the cloying sultriness of midsummer, foretelling cooler evenings that will apply the finish on the crops after this fine growing season. It is a plentiful season, and once the harvest is full, completed by the threshing of the rice, the spirits of the people rise and fall according to its plenty. Today, spirits are buoyed by the arrival in the village of a single little girl, and the festival that bears her name is on everyone's lips. Her name is Baudeogi. She is a clown.

    Excitement Baudeogi tinges each utterance of her name Baudeogi as it trampolines between the lips Baudeogi of all who come to the Baudeogi 5-Day Market, from dawn until early closing a few hours before dusk, when her show Baudeogi begins. Traditionally an all-male Baudeogi show, in this time and place Baudeogi she is its acknowledged, absolute princess monarch, Baudeogi whom all have gathered to watch in awe Baudeogi. And afterward, when it is done, there will be not a single voice to protest her exuberant reign.

    Baudeogi the Splendid frolics, cavorts and floats above the shoulders of the men of Anseong Namsadang for the people’s entertainment. Baudeogi the Magnificent assumes again her rightful throne in the hearts of every commoner of the Kingdom. Youthful, pretty, sweet, funny, athletic, cheerful, nimble, and tantalizing, Baudeogi has, at 17, been the brightest star of Anseong Namsadang for two years so that now it is considered the greatest of its type in all the Kingdom.

    The troupe is fresh from a series of command performances decreed and commissioned by Heungsung Daewon, father of the King, who summoned the performers to appear before the assembled workers constructing the grand new royal palace complex to become known as Gyeongbok Palace. The Daewon had learned that, in a distant corner of the realm, in the village called Anseong, a young girl had captivated the hearts of the peasants through performances usually reserved for men. He must hasten to assert the imperial hand lest her popularity grow to match, or even surpass, that of the king. He needn't have worried; the star that burns most brightly too often burns least long.

    Biographical Note

    Born Kim Am-deok in 1848 to common folk, she died at the age of 23 of “lung disease”, probably tuberculosis-a malady that struck down many whose lives and livelihoods were, like hers, made and spent in public venues where such maladies are spread by sharing contaminated food, or drinking from the cups used by persons already afflicted.

    She was twenty-three years old when she died. Like many beloved persons, her name and spirit are immortalized today, more than a century and a half later, in the institution she so infused in her too-short life. The festival that bears her name today is as unforgettable as it was in the time before television, smart phones and bullet trains shortened the people's travels and attention spans, who lived in a place given entirely to working the land, and the cultivation, harvest and distribution of crops, and the people’s daily round was shaped and driven by forces of nature and society utterly beyond their control. For such a people living in such a time, the clown princess Baudeogi appeared as a godsend.
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