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Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF

Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion

Laurel Kendall
Copyright Date: 2009
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    Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF
    Book Description:

    Thirty years ago, anthropologist Laurel Kendall did intensive fieldwork among South Korea’s (mostly female) shamans and their clients as a reflection of village women’s lives. In the intervening decades, South Korea experienced an unprecedented economic, social, political, and material transformation and Korean villages all but disappeared. And the shamans? Kendall attests that they not only persist but are very much a part of South Korean modernity. This enlightening and entertaining study of contemporary Korean shamanism makes the case for the dynamism of popular religious practice, the creativity of those we call shamans, and the necessity of writing about them in the present tense. Shamans thrive in South Korea’s high-rise cities, working with clients who are largely middle class and technologically sophisticated. Emphasizing the shaman’s work as open and mutable, Kendall describes how gods and ancestors articulate the changing concerns of clients and how the ritual fame of these transactions has itself been transformed by urban sprawl, private cars, and zealous Christian proselytizing. For most of the last century Korean shamans were reviled as practitioners of antimodern superstition; today they are nostalgically celebrated icons of a vanished rural world. Such superstition and tradition occupy flip sides of modernity’s coin—the one by confuting, the other by obscuring, the beating heart of shamanic practice. Kendall offers a lively account of shamans, who once ministered to the domestic crises of farmers, as they address the anxieties of entrepreneurs whose dreams of wealth are matched by their omnipresent fears of ruin. Money and access to foreign goods provoke moral dilemmas about getting and spending; shamanic rituals express these through the longings of the dead and the playful antics of greedy gods, some of whom have acquired a taste for imported whiskey. No other book-length study captures the tension between contemporary South Korean life and the contemporary South Korean shamans’ work. Kendall’s familiarity with the country and long association with her subjects permit nuanced comparisons between a 1970s "then" and recent encounters—some with the same shamans and clients—as South Korea moved through the 1990s, endured the Asian Financial Crisis, and entered the new millennium. She approaches her subject through multiple anthropological lenses such that readers interested in religion, ritual performance, healing, gender, landscape, material culture, modernity, and consumption will find much of interest here.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6089-9
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Shamanic Nostalgia
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    When I asked the shaman Yongsu’s Mother how things had changed, she said:

    Nowadays the mountains just don’t have the same power to give us inspiration [myŏnggi] anymore…. Back around the time of the Korean War, the mountains’ power was fierce! If we shamans went to pray on the mountain, then the gods would tell us everything. If our gods told us today that a certain person would visit us tomorrow, then sure enough, that person would arrive, just as they’d said. And if some polluted person came to us [for a divination], if a woman was worried about her...

  6. 1 Shifting Intellectual Terrain: “Superstition” Becomes “Culture” and “Religion”
    (pp. 1-33)

    Modernity, Nicholas Dirks suggests, is a story that a people tell themselves about themselves in relation to Others, history mobilized to distinguish the present from the past (Dirks 1990; Rofel 1992, 1999). Shamans have figured in Korean modernity’s story, but in inconsistent and sometimes contradictory ways. This chapter takes shape around three Korean encounters: with a village policeman, with the organizers of a revivalist folk arts performance, and with a would-be shaman, bringing local voices and experiences into a discussion of shamans and their work as “superstition” (misin), “culture” (munhua), and “religion” (chonggyo). As part of a modern Korean lexicon,...

  7. 2 Memory Horizons: Kut from Two Ethnographic Presents
    (pp. 34-65)

    At the end of March 1977, angry spirits accosted a certain Mrs. Min and drove her mad. Shamans labored throughout a chilly spring night to save her life and restore her sanity, and I took fieldnotes. This experience accosted my own ethnographic imagination and pushed it in some of the directions that would generateShamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits. In that work, I make only passing reference to these events, but an early description was the substance of an obscure publication, my first (Kendall 1977a). I have used descriptions of the “crazykut(mich’in kut)many times to teach...

  8. 3 Initiating Performance: Chini’s Story
    (pp. 66-101)

    Kendall: They say a shaman’s initiation is the most difficultkutof all.

    Young shaman: It’s hard on the disciple and hard on the teacher. The gods keep coming in and going out again, and hiding themselves, and then restless ancestors come in and interfere with things.

    Experienced shaman: If it goes well, the initiate speaks the true words of the spirits. A lot of people come, and they all receive remarkable divinations, that sort of thing, proof that the initiate has really become a shaman. If she fails, then no one takes her seriously.

    The three shamans meet again...

  9. 4 The Ambiguities of Becoming: Phony Shamans and What Are Mudang After All?
    (pp. 102-128)

    The stakes were high and Chini had failed, failed to gain sufficient inspiration during herkutand failed at the expectations of apprenticeship, losing her nerve and fleeing her teacher. This chapter continues the discussion of inspiration and skilled performance that began with Chini’skut, asking what it means to become a shaman in the present Korean moment. I am picking up a thread from Yongsu’s Mother’s observation that although there are more shamans now than ever before, they lack the old shamans’ power of inspiration, or as she put it on another occasion, many of them “don’t know front...

  10. 5 Korean Shamans and the Spirits of Capitalism
    (pp. 129-153)

    The flavor of the new Korea burst upon me one autumn day in 1989 when Kwan Myŏngnyŏ arrived at akutin a state of great laughter and excitement. Kwan’s sister, who runs a clothing shop in the South Gate Market, had been told at one of Kwan’skutthat the supernatural Official who governed her shop’s prosperity wanted a drink of wine. The sister was instructed to fill a cup for him when she returned to her shop late that night. As Kwan Myŏngnyŏ tells the story:

    She had intended to pour the wine and set it down right...

  11. 6 Of Hungry Ghosts and Other Matters of Consumption
    (pp. 154-176)

    This chapter extends the shamans’ observation that “money makes nobility.” It explores as contradictory impulses the desire for and the moral disdain of new wealth and what it can buy. Shamans, gods, and ancestors enact this contemporary paradox through the medium of material goods, as well as words, making the business ofkutresonant with the emotions and experiences of clients like the struggling but optimistic entrepreneurs described in the last chapter. We have already encountered ritual play with things, gods cackling appreciatively over tubs of steamed rice cake that they hoist triumphantly to their heads, contemptuously scrutinizing a pig’s...

  12. 7 Built Landscapes and Mobile Gods
    (pp. 177-204)

    This story falls somewhere between a field anecdote and a fairy tale. As anecdote, I have reconstructed it from my fieldnotes, transcripts, and memory without conscious embroidery, elaboration, or fabrication. As fairy tale, it resembles a genre of stories sometimes attributed to Buddhists or Taoists where illusions are at play and a lesson may be learned by confronting them. Such tales were very much with me as these events unfolded.

    In the summer of 1994 a blind diviner mentions an old shrine in the far southeastern corner of the city. I am intrigued, and Ms. Kim, my field assistant in...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 205-206)

    I began this account of a changing South Korean shaman world with Yongsu’s Mother’s nostalgic observation that Korean mountains have less power to inspire shamans than in the past, that war and precipitous real estate development drove gods down from the mountains and into people, creating an overabundance of lackluster shamans. In the final chapter, I returned with her to her own sacred mountain, where she had occasion to observe that when we placed our offerings in an inappropriate place, the rain forced us to remove them and then stopped with uncanny precision. Nostalgia is a commonplace of modern life,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 207-220)
  15. References
    (pp. 221-244)
  16. Index and Glossary
    (pp. 245-251)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 252-252)