Lacking vision, but seeing the futureIn the Miari area of northeastern Seoul, a couple of streets are lined with houses bearing such signs as Yeeonga (Prophet), Cheolhakwon (Philosophy House) and Jakmyeongso (Name-Making House).
The area is rather dreary. That may be simply because it is poorer than other parts of Seoul, or because it was the site of a cemetery during Japanese colonial rule and was the first place in Seoul to be invaded by the North when the Korean War began. Miari Hill used to be called the “Hill of Tears” because of the historical traumas it suffered.
Now, these streets have become a “fortune tellers’ village.” Yet, what particularly sets them apart is that all of the fortune tellers there are blind.
Lee Do-byeong, 63, was the first one to settle in the area. “I lost my vision when I was only two years old, from cataracts. I met a teacher who taught me how to read Braille and how to predict people’s fortunes, when I was 15,” he says. After completing his lessons, he moved to Miari and opened a fortune-telling business in 1966. “The rent was cheap, since the area was not so popular,” he says.
Mr. Lee became well-known, and the number of customers rose. “Since I became famous, more blind people gathered in the area and started the same business,” he says.
There were more than 100 fortune tellers in the area in the 1980s, when the economy was booming, but the number has dropped to around 60 now, and they find making a living much more difficult.
Demand for fortune-telling services traditionally grows in the spring and fall, when many people marry or move. Around the time of the College Scholastic Ability Test in the fall, the fortune tellers used to see as many as 10 customers a day, Mr. Lee says. Now, he scarcely has one customer a day, regardless of the season, because of the weak economy.
“Usually, a bad economy increases the number of customers, who want to know when the situation will improve,” he says. “But the economy has been stagnant for so long, people don’t want to spend money that way.”
The growing number of “modern” fortune-telling shops in other areas of Seoul, such as Sinchon and Apgujeong, does not help the situation either, he says.
A serious financial struggle
Mr. Lee adds that life as a blind person involves serious financial struggle. “In Japan, the United States and Europe, the blind receive decent financial support from the government. In Korea, only extremely poor ones without any family members to support them get about 400,000 won ($380) a month.
“That money is not enough to make a decent living, and it is not so easy to get it,” he adds. Therefore, fortune telling is a way for blind people to earn a living.
The fortune tellers in the area use books called “Cheonseryeok (Life Map)” and “Jakmyeong (Name-Making Book),” written in Braille, and a calculator or abacus to forecast a client’s fate. “The books come from ancient China and were written based on the belief that humans have cycles and seasons just like nature,” Mr. Lee says.
“When you were born you received a certain energy, based on the time, date and year of your birth. They determine your physical and mental tendencies and strong and weak points.” he says.
Even though society has modernized and relatively few young people follow these customs, fortune telling persists, and the reasons for visiting fortune tellers are as varied as the people who go to them.
According to Lee Seon-bok, another fortune teller in the area, some customers seek guidance about their jobs, life goals or the overall blueprint of their future. Mothers ask about how well their children will do on tests. Single women ask about when they will meet “Mr. Right,” and some couples come to seek the best name for their newborn baby because it has been a traditional Korean belief that a person’s name affects his destiny.
One of the most common questions, says Ms. Lee, is about gunghap, or “marital harmony,” often asked by single people who want to know whether their boyfriend or girlfriend would make a good spouse. Since some Koreans are strong believers in destiny and fortune telling, there are even cases of people who break up with their partners after getting a negative prophecy, she says.
Destiny can change
Ms. Lee says a person’s destiny can change if he knows when to be careful and when to be bold. “My prophecies might not be 100 percent accurate either, because there are too many factors that affect people’s decisions,” she says. But some people are surprised at how accurate the fortune tellers are, and keep coming back to them, she adds.
Kim Min-jung, 26, who lives in Suyu-dong, said she went to a fortune teller in Miari recently. “I went with a friend, and the fortune teller described each of our jobs correctly. There was no way that he could have guessed by observing us, because he was blind. He told us the specific names of our jobs, not a broad category. I'm still waiting to see if his prophecy on my future will be correct, as well.”
Han Min-gyu, 39, who lives in Sinchon, said he went to one of the fortune tellers in the area a few years ago. “At that time I was planning on opening a business. The fortune teller said that my business would go very well, ‘like fire on a match.’”
Soon, he started the business he planned. “Even though I didn't believe what the fortune teller said entirely, things seemed to be going perfectly at first. But I later went bankrupt, after extending my business too much.”
Mr. Lee notes that fortune telling has been a part of Korean culture throughout history.
“Fortune telling started in the Goryeo Dynasty a thousand years ago, and became very common among blind people in the Joseon Dynasty,” he says. “But under Japanese rule, fortune telling was considered to be merely ‘superstitious.’”
Mr. Lee says he has learned wisdom in life through fortune telling.
“My predictions may not be correct all the time, but I’m sure about one thing through my experience,” he says. “When you are going through a bad time, it means you possess too many unnecessary things. You have to be extra generous to others in order not to get ill.
“When you are sick, get involved in charities, or start giving what you have to others,” says Mr. Lee. “You will get better after that.”
by Choi Sun-young
A visit to a Miari fortune teller costs around 30,000 won ($28). The village is about a five-minute walk from Sungshin Womans University subway station on line No. 4, exit 7. No reservations are needed.