Hyanok Kim was one of my mainstays during my tenure as professor in S. Korea, a dancer who blends eastern and western training. She introduced me to Kim Keum Hwa, Korea’s most famous shaman.
The following excerpt from Ginseng Tango, my as-yet unpublished book on my life in Korea, chronicles my visit to her spiritual center. Several weeks later, Kim Keum Hwa asked me to dance for one of her ceremonies. A document of that visit was published in Shaman’s Drum.
Hyonok agreed to go with me to Kanghwado Island, about thirty miles northwest of Seoul and a few miles from the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, an area 2.5 miles wide and 151 miles long that separates north from south. No people are allowed entry into this heavily guarded area, the reason why wildlife, including rare plants and animals, flourish. Here, as close as she can get to her birthplace in the North, lives Kim Keum Hwa, the country’s most powerful shaman. Hyonok agreed to introduce us, but at the last minute is requested to attend a meeting on campus, so alone I ride the subway downtown to the hi-speed KTX train to Seoul where I take a taxi, express bus, then another taxi. Seven hours after I’ve left my apartment, my taxi turns up the steep mountain driveway of Ms. Kim’s retreat center, a neo-traditional, two story building constructed of wood, mud, sliding doors, and heated floors. I step out of the vehicle to the sight of a dead pig in an aluminum pot, the sound of drumming, and uncertainty about which wooden door to enter.
As my stay in this country lengthens, I’ve gotten accustomed to strangeness and risk. I enter cars and trains with recent acquaintances to sightsee or attend an event in an unfamiliar city, not sure about what to find or how to return to my apartment. So far no one has held a knife to my throat or dumped me in a ditch. Violence here is limited to suicide and traffic fatalities, Korea receiving the unwelcome honor of ranking at the top in each of these categories worldwide. Fearfulness and a closed heart are more common in Americans, not these people who readily greet you with an affectionate smile and insist upon sharing a meal and a song. With this in mind, I remove my shoes and add them to the lineup on the steps. A hand opens the door to welcome me in.
Inside is a large hall with more than a dozen people standing in traditional, deeply hued silk hanboks. Mandarin oranges, apples, bananas, kiwis, and colored rice cakes crowd a counter the length of the room, the wall above covered in water colored renderings of animal guides and Bodhisattvas. Small tables contain brass ornaments, bottles of soju, and other food offerings intended for the spirits summoned for the occasion. A woman escorts me to a side room. She slides open the rice paper paneled door and there in front of a vanity sits Ms. Kim, a slender, robust 79 year old, hair pulled back into a bun, her face etched with a history of a divided country, communications with spirits, and stories that challenge many a western imagination. “An yang haseyo,” hello, I say, then hand her a note from Hyonok that contains my introduction and reason for my visit. She reads the note, looks me over, and invites me to sit with her for lunch.
I follow her back to the hall, now lined with meal tables. She motions for me to sit beside her, across from a smiling elderly man who I learn is her ex-husband from forty years ago.
Ms. Kim is one of about 300,000 mudangs, shamans, a third of which live in Seoul. About 90% of mudangs are women, male mudangs primarily living south on Cheju Island. That the profession is primarily women is no coincidence. The first documented mudang dates back to 19 BC when the king of Koguryo requested a healing. Buddhism arrived about 400 years later, then Taoism in the 7th century, both traditions influencing shamanic practitioners. All changed, however, with the arrival of Confucianism in the Yi Dynasty in the 13th century, its successors remaining in power for 500 years.
Confucianism is patrilineal and patrilocal. Not only did men hold government jobs and other positions of authority, but all ritual centered on them. Women were subordinated to serving the needs of the husband, raising the family, and preparing and cleaning up meals. Strict guidelines, many of which still hold today, determined status and behavior based on age, gender, and profession. Shamanism, concerned with nature, less important than culture and ideas, the domain of men, was pushed from the public sphere. Women welcomed the practice with its focus on rituals for restoring the health of family and members in the community as a source of power and expansion of their domestic duties. This role continues to this day, mudangs also sought as beneficent presences at ground breakings for new homes and businesses.
Ms. Kim had no intention on becoming a mudang, but destiny had another idea in mind. To escape the fate as a comfort women to the Japanese who occupied the country, her mother quickly married her at age 14 to a boy a few years older from a nearby village. She went to live with his family who treated her as a servant, the mother-in-law often beating her as punishment for faulty knitting and cooking skills. After several months, fearing for her life, she ran away back to her family. At the time, her village was plagued by typhoid which she contracted. Highly contagious, she never returned to her in-law’s home.
More and more frequently, she exhibited signs of sinbyong, the illness associated with the call to a mudang’s life. She suffered from headaches, uncontrollable screaming bouts, tinnitus, frightening premonitions, and disconcerting visions which she couldn’t discern as real or not, like people riding tigers. Her grandmother, a mudang herself, recognized that the gods had chosen her granddaughter to be a mudang. She escorted her to Jung Waltaepo, an important ceremony marking the first lunar moon of the year. For the first time in years, Ms. Kim’s debilitating symptoms disappeared. Her parents opposed the vocation for their daughter, but eventually yielded to the inevitability of fate.
When her grandmother’s health weakened, Ms. Kim apprenticed herself to another mudang for the next eight years. It was then, she met her neighbor, a man whose wife of six months suddenly died. The two eventually married and moved south to Incheon when the war broke out.
By the 60’s, S. Korea was westernizing. The military government prohibited the ancient practice and burned whatever shrines and ritual items they found. Arriving Christian missionaries and Jehovah Witnesses vilified mudangs regarded as witches and consorts of the devil.
Ms. Kim was adamant about continuing the practice while her husband, unable to cope with public scorn, pled with her to give up the profession. She refused, which put tremendous pressure on their relationship, and eventually he had an affair which brought about the demise of their marriage. He married this woman but she died after several years. Then his business failed and his children estranged themselves from him. He blames his bad luck on abandoning Ms. Kim and has since returned to receive her forgiveness.
The three of us eat in quiet. She grabs mackerel, kimchee, and boiled peanuts with her chopsticks and pushes her bowl of rice toward Mr. Kim for him to finish. Cho, a film maker and main drummer for this kut, ceremony, squats beside me and invites me upstairs. “I try to be with her as much as possible,” says Cho who considers Ms. Kim his spiritual teacher. We come to a sizeable hall with a huge bay window overlooking the surrounding mountains. At the far end of the room is Ms. Kim’s private alter with her personal pantheon of helpful spirits, paintings of tigers, rabbits, Buddha, Confucius, Zeus, General MacArthur, and others. Bells, knives, and other ritual trinkets rest on a shelf near three fur coats hanging on the wall.
“Ms. Kim is very powerful,” explains Cho. “From an early age, she could balance barefoot and dance on knife blades. Not every mudang can do this.” He has witnessed her do this many times without losing a drop of blood.
“Oh,” I say as if the feat relatively normal, an extreme sport like bungee jumping.
“Why do this,” I ask, recalling drips of my precious fluid while cutting cucumbers for a salad.
“Proves her strength to the spirits,” he answers. Apparently, vengeful spirits are intimidated by shamans who can enter a trance deep enough to reach benign spirits who spare her from slicing the skin of her feet. Always good to have friends, I think.
We return downstairs, the hall once again turned into a space for ritual. I lean against a wall and watch as woman after woman, all disciples of Ms. Kim, take turns standing and dancing before Cho and four other musicians. The women cry out freely, sometimes mumbling, and turn to the woman sitting quietly beside me. A shaman herself, she lost her life purpose on moving to Japan with her husband and requested this kut. Ms. Kim tosses a knife to a doorway, the blade’s direction determining the day’s luck. I can’t see if it points to the door or kitchen, but the lack of alarm in the room portends promise. She then cuts the air with a sword, followed by the waving of flags. The eldest woman, perhaps ninety, joins Ms. Kim to spin, then grabs a pitch fork. An explosion of sound, shrill horns, clanging cymbals, and an insistent drum beat accompany their moves and shoves my usual calm outside the hall.
Throughout the ceremony, various people pass through the hall as if what’s taking place is nothing more than folding laundry. At one point, the flutist takes a break to thumb through a store catalog. A woman in the corner files her nails. Ancient and modern Korea collide with exquisite invisible circuitry when a friend from Daegu text messages me: “What are you doing?” I don’t hesitate to type: “Watching a shaman stab a pig,” then hit Send.
After the initial stab, the elder mudang stands the pitch fork on end. Fellow mudang skewer hind quarters, forelegs, chest and other parts of the pig’s carcass on the teeth of the fork, the head mounted last, the snout open and stuffed with 10,000 won bills.
There are a few breaks during this several hour ceremony. As I drink green tea during one, an elder shaman approaches me. “America?” she asks. I nod. “You very sensitive. Have shaman energy,” she says with a grin before walking away. During another break, I step outside to feel the blaze of sun on my skin and breathe air that is free of exhaust fumes so common in Daegu. I walk down the driveway past an amphitheater for outdoor ceremonies to two janseung, twelve foot high carved wooden totem poles who guard the property from demons. Cho joins me.
“The ceremony bores you,” he asks. He witnessed me earlier go from sitting upright to sprawling on the floor. Traditional Korean homes and retreat centers have no chairs or couches, and hours of floor sitting pain my back. “Not boring at all. My back started hurting.”
“Your back?” he repeats.
“You are resisting the spirits. Many shaman feel it right here.” He points to a spot on his back, the very place of my pain. A week earlier, an acupuncturist identified the spot as yung dae, the place where my spine is most curved, also the acupuncture point that, if energy is blocked, produces asthma and struggle with spiritual faith, both, yes, part of my history.
Ms. Kim invites me to stay the night. I go for a short walk along the road with Hyonok who arrived late in the afternoon. I see stars for the first time in months. We walk past barbed wire fences and military outposts. Frigid air turns my exhales into vapor. I make rings with my breath and wonder about the number of N. Koreans trapped along the DMZ by the barb wire, shot as they tried to escape south. Ms. Kim arrived before the fence posts, but what anguish did she suffer or witness as she risked her life for freedom? The silence of the night, punctuated by a single dog barking, shares no details.
When we return to the retreat center, Cho leads me to the upstairs hall where everyone has spread out their bed rolls for the night. I unroll mine, slip inside, and await sleep. It’s possible that Tiger Spirit or Buddha roamed the hall that evening, but if they did, the ceaseless snores of mudangs blanketed any audible evidence.
Below is a video from when Ms. Kim invited me to participate in the ceremony. I had already been dancing for several minutes but the musicians cued me to continue.