The shaman controversy continuesLEE KYONG-HEE
The author is the head of the Innovation Lab of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Dangun or Chachaung — names of kings in ancient Korea — meant “shaman.” In the ancient times, rulers legitimatized their political power through the authority of shamanism. As Buddhism and Confucianism rose to dominant religious status consecutively, shamanism lost its power in public and political fields. In the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a list of shamans was compiled every three years for the court to collect tax from them to suppress shamanism.
The Sarim faction, armed with Confucian ideology who rose to prominence in the 16th century, advocated the abolition of the shamans. Collecting tax practically recognizes shamanism as a proper profession, but making it illegal would eradicate it. The tax on shamans was finally scrapped in the 1895 Gabo Reform. The Japanese Government General of Korea during the Japanese occupation only recognized Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity as religions and defined others as “quasi-religious beliefs,” providing a basis for the crackdown. After a movement to break down superstitions began in earnest with the Saemaeul Movement in the 1970s, many shaman shrines were destroyed and village shaman rituals disappeared.
The state-initiated effort to bring down shamanism has a long history. But it never completely rooted it out. The folk beliefs such as worshipping the village guardian of mountain gods penetrated Buddhist temples and was integrated into other religions. The folk beliefs that once led states and communities seem to remain in the private and subconscious realm of Koreans, praying for good luck and getting their fortune told.
The National Folk Museum’s “Korean Folklore Beliefs Dictionary” states that shamanism is a religion with a positive view on the present world, which pursues a healthy and rich life in this world and plays a certain role as a survival-oriented religion today. It could be more urgent to ordinary people to pursue existential values rather than moral values and to resolve challenges they face at the moment rather than seeking salvation in the afterlife or realizing higher ideals. It seems to fit well with the contemporary value of YOLO — you only live once.
With the March 9 presidential election approaching, shamanic controversy is stirring up the campaign. Some shamans testified that they told a candidate and his spouse’s fortune by physiognomy and offered fortune-telling. According to Statistics Korea’s survey on the service industry, there were 10,745 people working in fortune-telling and related services in 2019 with their average per-person annual sales being mere than 16 million won ($13,300). Most shamans run their business by themselves. If a candidate is running for president, he should worry about the future of these struggling small businesses rather than asking the shamans about his fate.