Secret Agency-less Men: Part III

In post I of this series I tried to go through the historical reasons that Korean fiction lacks agency, and completing my argument backwards, in post II I attempted to show that Korean fiction in fact does lack the kinds of agency one routinely sees in Western fiction. At the end of that post, I suggested at least three philosophical histories that also militated for reduced agency in Korean modern literature: These were shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In this post, I will try to sketch out what I see as the role of shamanism.

First, a quick overview of the impact of Shamanism. Ehwa University says:

believe that Shamanism is an outdated religion that does not match well with today’s modern world. If these perspectives are correct, however, Koreans are faced with various inexplicable social phenomena. First, why are there so many mudangs, or shamans, in Korea? No one really knows the exact number of shamans in Korea since there is no formalized order in Shamanism. A conservative guess estimates the number to be about 40,000, whereas a more liberal guess puts it to be around 200,000 to 300,000.

And walking the streets of any major or minor city in Korea you will see the reversed swastikas that mark the home of a mudang (Shaman priestess).

What has Shamanism’s impact been on literature? Similar to its effect, paradoxically, on Christianity or television. Some scholars argue that the singing and dancing form of the shamanist gut (the core ritual of the religion) is direct precursor to the Korean love for singing and dancing that is consistently demonstrated on Korean television. Similarly, one of the reasons that Catholicism overtook Protestantism in Korea, was that Catholicism was much more sympathetic to Shamanism than was Protestantism (the Protestants also made the mistake of formally declaring Shamanism an enemy). The Catholic revival service, with its glossolia, dancing, and singing, is very close, in many ways to elements of Shamanism.

All, of course, was not peace and love, and the tension between Catholicism and Shamanism and Shamanism’s “formal” defeat was explored in Kim Dong-ni’s The Tableau of the Shaman Sorceress (1936) which tells a contentious tale. A Shaman who lives with her deaf and mute daughter is re-united with her son, now Catholic and they fight for religious supremacy. In the end, attempting to wrestle a Bible away from her son, the Shaman stabs him, and he eventually dies. The Shaman, then, in her final Shamanistic performance, drowns herself by disappearing into a lake. This is in interesting image, as it can also be read to describe the ‘submerging’ of Shamanism, which is pretty much what happened.

And, yet… when Kim Tong-ni rewrote this story as a novel (Ulwha) the mother did not die, as though Kim recognized that the traditional Korean influence could not be so easily killed. Shamanism’s life was also to be evident in other works.

In Lee Dong-ha’s A Toy City, starving families are driven to the church for food. There, they are also introduced to Christianity, or a form of it. In one scene the narrator’s mother asks how one prays in Christian manner:

“Reverend, will my boy’s father and sister be able to come home if I believe in Jesus?” This was her last wish.

I clearly heard Reverend Cha’s easy answer. “Yes. Just pray to Jesus. Then the day will come when the entire family can live together.”

Mother asked again, cautiously, “How does one pray, Reverend?”

Reverend Cha replied breezily, “Do it like you would to the Wise Old Goddess of Maternity.” *
A rather casual (note ‘breezily”) reference to using the protocols of a preceding religion.

The Gypsy Scholar notes, about this that it is “A fascinating reply, for it not only assumes that the mother will know exactly what this means but that such a pagan prayer to a goddess can provide an appropriate model for a Christian prayer to Jesus.”

That Shamanism was at worst submerged is made clear in other works as well, In Park Wan-suh’s Who Ate Up All The Shinga, Park’s grandfather yells at here for clumsy ice-skating, “Don’t you realize you’re humiliating the entire family?” he yelled. “And a girl, at that? Don’t you have any better games to play than imitating a shaman’s blade dance?” (89)

So, why would it be, that Shamanism would be an influence that would stifle the creation of the western hero? In what ways is it different from western religions. First and foremost, I think, it is that it is a mediated religion. It is an unusual mediated religion in that Shamanism focuses on the religious power of women (all mudang are female), but it is nonetheless mediated, and mediated religions focus more on channels of access. Animists, or animatists, had direct access to whatever it was they wanted to contact in the spirit world. Similarly, the gods and goddesses of the west have generally been available on a direct basis, from the Greek gods to the current church. Christians may, as Elvis Costello notably recognized, “pray to the saints and all the martyrs, for the secret life of Frank Sinatra,” but that relationship is unmediated, and the mendicant chooses the contents and terms of the interaction. Shamanism, on the other hand, requires intercession and prolonged ritual by the intercessory party (guts could last all day). It is interesting, if somewhat obvious, to note that exactly what Shamans do, primarily intercede between ‘conflicts’ of the living and the dead is a group endeavor in itself, and this suggests that the group orientation preceded even shamanism.
The implications of all this are that Korean society, from the outset, would work through channels and cooperatively. Thus, less focus on individuality.

Given that Shamanism was the first step of Korean religio-philosophical develop it seems fair to assume it was one of the first steps towards literary culture, and notion of collective agency.

Next: Buddhism

NOTE: This has been updated to reflect the fact that I incorrectly identified the specifically “Catholic” church as the general term “Christian” in several instances.

8 thoughts on “Secret Agency-less Men: Part III

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  2. Some scholars argue that the singing and dancing form of the shamanist “gut” is direct precursor to the Korean love for singing and dancing that is consistently demonstrated on Korean television.

    Shamanism, on the other hand, requires intercession and prolonged ritual by the intercessory party (“gut”s could last all day).

    With these two sentences, is the “gut” a korean word, isn’t it?
    I thought if it means exorcism which is expressed “굿” in Korean, then you should mention that. People who have never heard of “굿” can get confused. I think everybody who visits this blog is not familiar with traditoinal Korean culture. I also fisrt mistook it for a “gut” word in English, even though I’m a 100% native Korean.
    Or am I wrong?

  3. In my previous reply, I had some mistake in writing my opinion in English. “I think everybody who visits this blog is not familiar with traditoinal Korean culture.” This is a wrong written sentence. “I don’t think everybody who visits this blog familiar with traditional Korean culture” This is the correct one.” And FYI,it means there are biginners or novices who just try to understand Koran culture.

    I’m not an expert at Engish at all. I had just studied English in this country, not overseas, and still have been studing. So, please understand even if my writing is poor. ^^

  4. LOL.. I think that is a good point Gon, I’ll change that – probably should italicise it as well…

  5. Hi Charles, thanks for the excellent and quite thought-provoking post. I really like this idea of the origins of Korean group culture.

    I’ll just offer a quick response to the above commenter first that a Kut (굿) shouldn’t really be called an exorcism in English. This is the word that comes up in Korean-made Korean-English dictionaries, but isn’t exactly accurate. It’s just the name given to a shamanistic rite, ritual or ceremony. We don’t really have shamanism in the English speaking world (shaman is a borrowed word anyway), so there is no direct translation into English unfortunately.

    Also, not all shamans are female; there are a few males, although they’re not supposed to be called mudang, the proper term is a paksu – 박수. I wrote a detailed post about Korean Shamanism on my blog if anyone’s interested:

    I was also a bit confused by your references to Christians and Protestants. Surely Protestants are Christians? Did you mean Catholics and Protestants?

    I really like this series, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it!

  6. Seamus,

    LOL.. my irreligiosity reveals itself.. I did mean Catholic.. Change noted and made…

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