Abracadabra! Dump that guy; I can see he’s a loserEven as high technology propels their nation forward, Koreans are looking to the past to make the future perfect, which in some cases leads to major misgivings.
Take the recent case of a Korean man engaged to marry a Chinese-American woman. Everything was going fine. The bride-to-be came to Seoul in July this year to meet her prospective parents-in-law. They liked her, and she liked them. Then there was a slight problem. A cloud of doubt descended on the couple after the mother of the groom visited a fortune-teller who said the couple should marry this December, not in the summer of 2004 as had been planned. That would leave only six months for preparations. The eager bride hesitated, then decided to take the advice. “Only to show understanding of my fiance’s mother’s beliefs,” she now says.
Over the next three weeks the couple ran around town and searched the Internet to make arrangements. They sent e-mail, telling friends to mark their calendars. Then there was another delay resulting from several more peerings into the unknown.
“We were mentally prepared to get married this year until my fiance’s mother told us she had seen six other fortune-tellers and the majority of them said we should get married in two years, not this year,” the woman says. “The fortune-tellers said waiting two years to marry would be beneficial to my fiance’s career. There was no mention of my own career. I was told that what happened to me was my family’s responsibility and we should consult our own fortune-teller.”
Delaying a wedding, a date with destiny, cannot be lightly dismissed. And when the reason is based on frivolity, or even worse, the ignorance perpetuated by the practitioners of a widely disdained pseudo science, people are expected to be confused and angry.
“I did not want my wedding date or my future to be dictated by a fortune-teller’s musings,” the woman says, recounting the arguments she had with her boyfriend and his family. “My partner and I are frustrated by these fortune-tellers. We do not want to have to believe what they say, yet we fear that we will somehow subconsciously fulfill the prophecy if we do not.”
According to a recent survey by Sunwoo, a matchmaking agency, up to 66 percent of unmarried couples believe gunghap, an ancient tradition of gauging compatibility, can effect a marriage.
Forty-nine percent of men said they have consulted a fortune-teller to determine whether they were in a good match, compared with 41 percent of women who said they did likewise. In the survey, 34 percent of the respondents said they would even end an engagement to marry if the match foretold an ominous future.
Can fortune-tellers make or break a relationship? In Korea, the answer seems to be “yes,” but not always because of what they see in the proverbial crystal ball. Sometimes they just sow enough uncertainty that couples fail to reconcile an engrained dubious practice with their hopes for the future.
Gunghap, which includes assessing sexual compatibility, is based on the ancient tradition of measuring the suitability of a match by evaluating the number of brush strokes in the couple’s names and the time, day, month and year of their births. Depending on the results, fortune-tellers select an auspicious year, month, day and hour for their wedding.
Part of the theory behind the practice is that every human being is born under the influence of the elements wood, fire, earth, gold, water. Ancient Koreans believed that knowing a person’s exact birth date could help determine destiny and the right match.
For example, the theory says men with strong earth elements and women with strong water elements make an ideal pair, guaranteed to have abundant wealth and bright children. But historians say that such concepts are based on the fears of Korea’s agricultural past, where a shortage of water often led to famine.
Men with strong wood elements and women with gold were often blocked from marrying by the groom’s family. The reason: The pairing was seen as being the most ominous, because gold stood for metals and the combination of gold and wood suggested a metal ax cutting into a tree, meaning the man would be under the constant assault of the woman’s energy.
The basic belief behind gunghap is that a marriage is a “union of two names,” or two families. Originally, gunghap was a ritual performed by aristocratic families during a time when marriages were randomly arranged by elders through matchmakers and the families of the groom and the bride knew little about each other. Gunghap served as one of the few ways for families to predict the success of the couple’s match.
Historians assume that gunghap was likely used to ease a couple’s resistance to an arranged marriage. Today gunghap is still seen by many couples as a necessary, if not indispensable, procedure to gauge the likely fruitfulness of their union. The growing accessibility of these services -- street vendors, tarot card cafes and Internet sites -- has added to the popularity of the practice.
Contrary to what might be expected of a technologically advanced country, this superstition is becoming more popular, spurred by telecommunication companies’ gunghap services that allow Internet consultations. Street gunghaps are located in every large city and small town in Korea. But the heaviest concentration is in neighborhoods near universities, catering to a population among which dating is an important activity. Furthermore, students are at the forefront of the information revolution. The distance from a fortune-teller’s street stall to an online site is a small step.
More than 200 gunghap Web sites offer services to couples wishing to determine the apropriateness of their match. One site, gunghapnara.com, receives about 400 visitors a day. Half of them are site members who regularly use its paid service, which costs 10,000 won to 50,000 won, or $8.70 to $43.50, for an evaluation.
The ubiquitous cell phone has also fueled the industry’s growth. Too busy to visit a fortune-teller either on the street or online? Just enter the required information through a mobile-phone keypad. A few hours later a voice mail or text message from the fortune-teller arrives detailing your chances of success with your mate. The industry has embraced WiFi, which allows wireless Internet. Magic N, a subsidiary of KTF, began offering gunghap through wireless Internet consultations earlier this year.
These digital offerings have boosted an industry that according to the National Tax Service posts 130 billion won ($113 million) in revenues a year. The service reports 450,000 fortune-tellers in Korea of which only 50 percent are registered with the Korea Fortune-teller Association and pay taxes.
The soaring of the fortune-teller industry on the wings of telecommunications underscores sociological theory that modernization increases anxiety. Kang Jin-gu, a professor of media studies at Handong University, says the popularity of gunghap lies mainly in two factors: the lack of confidence about a relationship and cultural change. According to Mr. Kang, the growing reliance on gunghap stems from a social atmosphere in which people increasingly base their judgement in choosing partners on exterior conditions, such as economic capability and academic background. And jitters are not unwarranted. As recently as a decade ago divorce was a rare thing in Korea. But a recent study shows the nation ranking near the top among members of the Organization for Economic Coperation and Development in failed marriages.
“On one side we assume our partners satisfy the list of conditions we look for in marriage,” Mr. Kang says. “But then with soaring divorce rates we realize that all this can eventually change. So we demand a source that supports our basis of judgement for marriage. In a way we are living in a society where we are not able to make a judgement on what it takes to be married to someone.”
Jung Gu-hye, a 35-year-old advertising executive who decided not to consult a fortune-teller for her wedding, is skeptical about the gunghap tradition.
“I understand why couples who have met through a matchmaker and have little time together try to get their match results,” she says. “But I think if you want to marry somebody it is better not to find out. If the fortune-teller says just good things it will be fine. But what if it is not? What if the fortune-teller says one of them is going to die early in the marriage? Then what do you do?”
Lee Dong-ryeol, a professor of psychology at Ehwa Womans University, sees a positive side to the proliferation of these services. He contends that gunghap is more easily integrated into the lives of young Koreans now than in the past simply because they have enough confidence to take others’ advice as a casual amusement. In other words, they are not taking all the abracadabra seriously.
“What was largely considered a superstitious tradition in the past is now dressed in the cloth of occult culture, which has become a hip thing among younger Koreans due to the influx of Western culture and complicated social structure,” Mr. Lee says.
The Chinese-American woman, who has now pushed back her wedding until 2005, offers a mixed view on the issue.
“Even though I don’t necessarily believe in these fortune-tellers,” she says. “I do admit that it would put me at ease to get married on a day that at least one of them says is favorable.”
by Park Soo-mee