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Korean Religion


KOREAN RELIGION . The earliest religious practice of the peoples of the Korean peninsula is a form of Siberian shamanism, or musok in Korean. Neolithic archaeological excavations on the peninsula have produced pottery with geometric designs identical to those found in regions of Siberia, Manchuria, and Mongolia, suggesting that Koreans of the Neolithic period (beginning around 4000 bce) can be traced back to the same ethnic stock. The label shamanism as the native religion of Korea has encountered some definitional problems, however. Mircea Eliade supplied the essential definition of shamanism as the technique of ecstasy, or the separation of the soul from the body to journey to heaven or to the underworld. Modern Korean shamans do not undergo such flights of the soul. Instead, they become possessed by spirits, who "descend" into the shaman and speak through her. Ethnographic data contravenes the definitional problem, however, by attesting to the inherent diversity of shamanic practice even within central Asia itself. In central and eastern Siberia, for example, the possession séance predominates, as in contemporary Korea, whereas the soul flight is more typical to the western and northern regions.

Although musok is the most native and persistent form of religious practice in Korea, surviving into the contemporary era, its position in Korean society experienced a sharp reversal between the ancient era and the advent of Chinese cultural influence upon the Korean peninsula. In the earliest period, shamans (mudang, from the Mongolian/Tungus utagan ) were males closely aligned to ruling powers, and shamanism was integral to the establishment of sacred kingship. During the unified Silla, Koryŏ, and Chosŏn dynasties, musok was regarded by ruling elites as a form of superstition and was similarly disparaged by Christian missionaries and Japanese colonists in the early twentieth century. Today, mudang s are primarily women from reduced economic and social circumstances. They are held in low esteem by the general population, but their services are nevertheless sought out by people of all classes who struggle with inexplicable illness or misfortune.

Shamanism's persistence as a Korean religious practice can be attributed to the basic nature of its ritual objectivesthe bringing of good fortune and the warding off of ill via the manipulation of spiritsand its tremendous adaptability to cultural change, particularly to the introduction of other religious systems. Its pantheon of gods, its mythology, and its rituals have been augmented throughout the centuries by the rise of more organized religious traditions passed on by China: Buddhism, Confucianism, and to a lesser extent, Daoism. One might reverse this picture, however, to also observe that the success of these foreign traditionsparticularly Buddhismwas a function of their ability to accommodate the primary practice of shamanism. The success of Christianity in Korea beginning in the late nineteenth century can be described in the same manner.

Shamanism and State Formation

The history of the Korean peninsula can be traced back to about 4000 bce, with the Neolithic peoples. They lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering and began the shift to agriculture in the third millennium bce. The basic social unit consisted of the clan, or consanguineous social groupings that occupied distinct territorial regions, and they differentiated among themselves through totemic practices. As the population increased, tribes were created through the merger of clans, primarily through marriage.

The metallurgic technology of the Bronze Age spread down through the Korean peninsula between the first millennium and 600 bce and was brought by the Tungus, a separate racial stock originating in central and southeastern Siberia. The merger of the two peoples led to an increase in political stratification, as the superior weapons of the Tungus led to the domination of the Neolithic inhabitants. Bronze implements, such as the mandolin-shaped dagger and the knobbed mirror, were emblems of this new authority. The construction of dolmen tombs in this era also testifies to the ability of new leaders to command vast labor sources.

During this era, distinct states evolved from tribal leagues and established themselves throughout the peninsula and present-day eastern and southern Manchuria. They include the Puyŏ, in the region of the Sungari River (present day Manchuria); the Koguryŏ, just to the south, in the region of the Yalu River; the Okchŏ and Tong-ye, in the central peninsular region between the Taedong and Han Rivers; and the three Han tribesMahan, Pyŏnhan, and Chinhansouth of the Han River in the southern tip of the peninsula. The strongest and most evolved "state," however, was that of ancient Chosŏn, in the northwestern region of the peninsula closest to China. The chieftan of this tribal confederation adopted the title of wang, or king, emulating the northern Chinese state of Yan during the decline of the Zhou dynasty. The dates of ancient Chosŏn largely parallel the Warring States period of China (403221 bce).

During this era in which political organization became more complex, shamanism manifested itself as an intimate aspect of state formation. Shamans were males who possessed political as well as ritual power. With the development of hereditary rulership, the exercise of power maintained its religious dimension by expanding the animistic belief system of shamanism into ancestor worship and a belief in divine kingship.

Shamanistic belief fundamentally entails the idea that all natural objectsmountains, rivers, trees, the sun, as well as human beingsare animated by a soul, or spirit. These spirits are divided between those that bring good fortune and those that bring ill. Human ancestors can be benign or troublesome, depending on whether or not they have been properly dispatched into the spirit world. In all cases, spirits are forces that can be propitiated and controlled through the technology of ritual. In the southern regions, "heavenly princes" (ch'ŏn'gun) engaged in ceremonial dance and chanting to do their work. Chinese historical sources also attest to ancient Korean tribal festivals uniformly associated with points in the agricultural calendar such as the sowing and harvest seasons. These celebrations entailed sacrifices to heaven on mountaintops or sacred groves. The use of drums and bells at these festivals is characteristic of Siberian shamanic practice. The drum, in particular, was an important instrument in creating the ecstatic trance that enabled Siberian shamans to journey to heaven. Besides mountaintops, sacred groves marked off by a bell and drum signified the presence of spirits and functioned as ritual sites.

The belief in heaven, and a ruler of heaven (hananim or hanŭnim ), was the by-product of nature worship, particularly that of the sun, and was the basis for narratives about divine kings who descended from the upper realm. A legend from the state of Koguryŏ, for example, attests that its founder, Chumong, was conceived by the rays of the sun and finally born of an egg. Each foundation myth of the ancient states establishes the principle of sacred kingship by tracing the ruling clan to a progenitor who is of heavenly origin. One of the most complex, and certainly the most historically significant, of these foundation myths is the story of Tan'gun, who is the progenitor of the state of ancient Chosŏn. Through an analysis of this myth, one can discern the relationship between shamanism and kingship in the early period of Korean history, as well as the evolution of this relationship into the political phenomenon of national identity in more recent eras.

The myth of Tan'gun

It is recorded that in ancient times, the king of heaven (Hwanin) had a son who wished to descend into the world of men. The king descended onto the three great mountains, and finally chose Mount T'aebaek (presently in North Korea) as the site of his son's domain. With three thousand spirits, the son descended onto Mount T'aebaek via the path of a sandalwood tree, under which a sacred altar was established. The realm was called the Sacred City, and the son was known as the Sacred King (ch'ŏnwang). With the ministers of wind, rain, and cloud, the king ruled the people.

At that time a tiger and a bear petitioned the king to be made human. The king gave them mugwort and garlic as their food and instructed them to live in a cave for one hundred days. The tiger failed to follow these instructions, but the bear succeeded, and it was rewarded by being transformed into a woman. The king married the Bear Woman, and she gave birth to a son named Tan'gun. Tan'gun established the nation of Chosŏn and ruled for fifteen hundred years, until King Hu of Zhou (China) enfeoffed the nation to Kija. Tan'gun departed for some time but then returned to Chosŏn and became the Mountain God.

The myth of Tan'gun is a synthesis of political and shamanic narratives. The story explains the divine origins of the founder of ancient Chosŏn. In addition, the story moves beyond mythic time into historical time, which is signified by reference to the Chinese state of Zhou. The historical aspect of the narrative accounts for the ultimate displacement of the Tan'gun dynastic line. The mythical portion of the narrative is replete with shamanistic symbolism. Tan'gun appears to be cognate to the Mongolian tengri and other central Asian terms for heaven. The descent of the heavenly king Hwanin, his son, and the three thousand spirits into the human world evokes the primary aspect of shamanic practice, which is the descent of spirits. Mount T'aebaek, the sandalwood tree, and the sacred altar signify cosmic axes through which spirits descend and attest to the shamanic practice of sacrifices on mountaintops and sacred groves. The three ministers of wind, rain, and cloud are nature spirits that shamans propitiate for the purpose of bringing good fortune, particularly by making rain.

The tiger and the bear, particularly the latter, function as totem spirits in Siberia. The marriage of the king with the Bear Woman indicates the alliance of the solar clan with the bear clan in the creation of the dynastic line. The connection between political power and shamanic power is clearly denoted by the successful transformation of the bear into a woman: the conversion suggests the shaman's initiation, which is enacted as a rite of death and rebirth signified by the eating of special foods and submersion into the womb of a cave.

Besides the ingredients of the Tan'gun myth itself, the preservation and use of the myth has maintained the connection between shamanism and the state. The Tan'gun myth was recorded in the thirteenth century by the Buddhist monk Iryon (12061289), who compiled the miscellany of legends and folklore known as the Samguk yusa. This unofficial compilation is one of the earliest sources available on Korean history and culture. Part of its title, samguk, refers to the Three Kingdoms period, when the states of Koguryŏ, Paekche, and Silla emerged in the fourth century as the most powerful states on the peninsula. The era endured until the late seventh century, when victorious Silla emerged as the first unified Korean state. The Samguk yusa, however, does not confine itself to the period of the Three Kingdoms. It begins with the founding myths of the earliest states, such as ancient Chosŏn, and proceeds through the united Silla up until its fall to the Koryŏ dynasty in 935.

A centrally important fact about the Samguk yusa is that Iryon compiled it during the Mongol rule of Korea, which commenced with the invasions of 1231 and 1254 and which solidified with the formal proclamation of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1271. The political and cultural humiliations that Koreans endured under Yuan rule yielded a literary bounty of prose tales, anecdotes, and poetry that aimed to preserve and enhance a sense of native identity. Not only do these sources appear in Samguk yusa, but the compilation of the Samguk yusa itself was the result of this cultural preservationist impulse. The myth of Tan'gun, in particular, emerged into broad social consciousness and functioned as the foundation myth of all of Korea. This conceit solidified most completely during yet another period of foreign rulethe Japanese colonial era of the twentieth century (19101945). After independence, the new Republic of Korea adopted a calendar based on the purported year of Tan'gun's ascension to rule, in 2333 bce. This calendrical system remained official until 1961, when it was abolished by the military regime of Park Chung Hee.

The survival of Tan'gun mythology into the modern period can also be credited to actual musok practices. From the beginnings of the Chosŏn dynasty (13921910), Tan'gun shamanism was expressed most directly in the reascension of Tan'gun as a shamanic spirit. The precedent for this is given in the original myth, where it is recounted that after Kija took over the rule of ancient Chosŏn, Tan'gun became the Mountain God. In actual practice, however, Tan'gun became the most prominent member of a "holy trinity" (samsŏng) that includes his father, the Sacred King, and his grandfather, the Heavenly King. Tan'gun is to this day an important member of the shamanic pantheon and is pictured as an old man of a decidedly Daoist flavor, mounted on a tiger. In October sacrifices are offered to Tan'gun on mountaintops, the most significant one being Mount Mani on Kanghwa Island. Interestingly, the "holy trinity" is augmented by five historical kings and fifteen culture heroes in the Mani shrine. All of these individuals, dating from the earliest period of Korean history up to the twentieth century, are recognized as culture heroes. The shamans who deify them and petition them for national security and prosperity carry on one of the oldest functions of shamanismthat of protecting the state.

Shamanism in Transition

The period of the Three Kingdoms, briefly mentioned above, was characterized by inner struggles for political domination and union of the peninsula, particularly by Koguryŏ in the north, Paekche in the south, and Silla in the southeast. In 475, the forces of Koguryŏ sacked the Paekche capital, forcing the latter kingdom into an alliance with Silla, its eastern neighbor. Silla in turn seized most of Paekche's territory in the Han River Valley, as well as tribal territories along the Naktong River. By the seventh century, Silla was ready to challenge Koguryŏ. The Chinese unification under Tang rule (618907) provided Silla the needed ally to thwart its northern rival, which posed a threat to China's own northeastern boundary. By the end of the 660s, both Paekche and Koguryŏ collapsed under combined Tang-Silla attack. Silla then drove off the Tang forces from the Korean peninsula, finally establishing its northern border at present-day P'yŏngyang.

The pivotal role of China in the dynastic union of Korea under Silla rule was only one result of the opening of the Korean peninsula to relations with the Chinese. From the fourth century on, Korea states were increasingly drawn into the Chinese cultural sphere, primarily through the adoption of the Chinese written language, Chinese Confucian texts, and with that, Chinese statecraft. Buddhism was introduced during this period as well, and regular pilgrimages by Korean monks to China, as well as to India, elevated Korea into a new epoch of transregionalism. In the sixth century, Korean monks from Paekche carried Buddhist texts to Japan, the most famous being Hyeja, who served as tutor to the crown prince Shōtoku Taishi (574?622?). Paekche monks served as the primary transmitters of Chinese Buddhism and Chinese culture to Japan. Along with Buddhist scriptures and Buddhist art, Korean artisans were sent to aid in the construction of Buddhist temples. In return, Japanese monks traveled to Paekche for study.

The Impact of Buddhism

Buddhism was formally recognized by Koguryŏ in 372; by Paekche in 384; and Silla in 529. These dates parallel the timing of each respective kingdom's establishment of formal contacts with China. In this respect, not only was Buddhism a cultural import but, more importantly, it functioned as a vehicle of political relations. The Samguk yusa relates that the Chinese missionary monk Sundo arrived in Koguryŏ during the reign of King Sosurim (r. 371384), bearing scriptures and religious images. Sundo was sent by King Fujian of the Former Qin (351394), who had defeated the Former Yanan enemy of Koguryŏ. Hence, Sundo was an envoy-missionary who came to cement political relations between the two states. The ambassadorial nature of the visit is indicated by the fact that King Sosurim made the extravagant gesture of meeting Sundo at the city gate.

The political import of Buddhism in Koguryŏ is augmented by the fact that Chinese Buddhism had already set the precedent for close relations between kings and Buddhist clergy, in the belief that the magical powers of Buddhism were capable of protecting the state. State interest and royal patronage explain the rapid establishment of Buddhist temples and the intense evangelization of the population. The large numbers of Korean monks who traveled to China for study and to Japan as missionaries during this early period was yet another facet of state patronage.

The transmission of Buddhism into Paekche came at the hands of the Serindian monk Mŭlŭnanda, who arrived via the Chinese state of Eastern Jin (317420). It is similarly related that the Paekche king greeted the monk at the city gate. In Paekche, too, Buddhism was established initially as a royal cult. The arrival of the first Buddhist monks in Silla (from Koguryŏ), on the other hand, was met with suspicion and persecution on the part of the ruling elitesperhaps in part because of their origins from a rival state. When a monk cured King Nulchi's (r. 417458) daughter of an illness, however, the royalty was converted. This story suggests that the success of Buddhism in Korea hinged on its ability to replicate key functions of shamanism. The curing of illness is the central element here, and the establishment of Buddhism as a state religion replicates the close ties between kingship and shamanism in the pre-Buddhist period.

Throughout the unified Silla (668935) and Koryŏ (9181392) dynasties, Buddhism maintained its status as a state religion, and in this capacity it displaced the function and prestige of the mudang. As a direct result, the mudang 's social and political standing became decidedly ambiguous. The dynastic records of Koryŏ describe the presence of mudang s (who appear to have been primarily female) in the palace and the fact that some court ladies and officials deferred to them. On the other hand, the records also detail the persecution of mudang s by other officials and royal proclamations against "licentious" musok festivals within the city walls. The levying of taxes on mudang also suggests that the court sought to discourage people from taking up the shamanic calling. The records paint a picture in which most individuals still adhered to the traditional cosmology of spirits and believed in the efficacy of the mudang, but in which the rise of an official and elite ideology led to the repression of musok as superstitious and morally corruptive.

On the other hand, it is interesting to note that in overtaking the role of state protector, Buddhism took on the very same ritual tasks so central to musok. The P'algwanhoe, a ceremony first performed in 572, was a state-sponsored Buddhist festival that ostensibly encouraged lay people to adhere to the eight ascetic precepts (p'algwan ) of the monk. The most significant aspect of the ceremony, however, was the prayers for the state, which consisted of spirit propitiation as well as supplication of the Buddha. The Heavenly spirit, mountain spirits, river spirits, and Dragon Spirit were regularly recognized in the annual festivals of the Koryŏ era. The other significant aspect of these festivals was their gaiety, being an occasion for singing, dancing, and feasting. Following musok custom, entertainment was considered integral to the task of pleasing the spirits and sending them on their way.

It might very well be claimed that the P'algwanhoe is simply a case of native shamanic practice in Buddhist garb, but the more significant point is that the garb of official choice had direct, negative consequences for the continuing practice of musok. From its close association with kingship, still symbolically visible in the royal regalia of Silla kings, musok became the province of peasants who augmented their profession with fortune-telling and sorcery. To be sure, Buddhism stretched its ideology in order to accommodate the native Korean spirit world, and musok in turn incorporated Buddhas and bodhisattvas into its pantheon. Beyond this, however, Buddhism ultimately trumped musok because of its political support and because of the plasticity and sophistication of the Buddhist belief system.

These latter qualities are particularly visible in Buddhism's dissemination into the larger populace. The practice of mortuary rites provides the best illustration. The aforementioned P'algwanhoe, from its early sixth-century origins, functioned as a feast for the dead, particularly for the spirits of men fallen in battle. From the early Koryŏ period, the festival of Manghon-il (Day of the Dead) was celebrated on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, and it had the same function of propitiating the spirits of the dead. This festival, however, was quite explicitly enveloped in a Buddhist scriptural and ritual web, and it demonstrates the deftness with which the pervasive concern with ancestral spirits was integrated into the Buddhist worldview.

Manghon-il derives from the Chinese "ghost festival," which emerged during the Tang dynasty. The festival got its charter myth from a popular tale about Mulien, a disciple of the Buddha, who journeys to the lowest of Buddhist hells in order to rescue his mother. The tale fuses the Buddhist cosmology of rebirth and the Chinese value of filial piety, testifying to the manner in which the ghost festival allayed the charge that Buddhist monasticism was antifamily. The festival celebrated the emergence of the monastic community from its rainy season meditative retreat. By making donations of food, clothing, and other necessities to the monastic community at this time (which also coincided with the harvest season), the laity reaped the benefit of the heightened ascetic and religious power of the monks, which translated into significant karmic merit. This merit in turn was dedicated to the lay ancestors for the purpose of ensuring their favorable rebirth.

The Chinese ghost festival was a significant community celebration that operated with the financial assistance and ritual participation of the emperor. The Chinese Buddhist canon acquired two sūtras (Yulanpen and Offering Bowls to Repay Kindness ) that narrate how the historical Buddha himself founded the ghost festival and that emphasize the key role of monks as intermediaries between ancestors and descendents. The festival and the texts demonstrate how Buddhism was able to mythically and ritually co-opt the native Chinese worship of ancestors. Transmitted to Korea, which also received the tale of Mulien, the Buddhist belief in rebirth finessed the more fundamental fear of malicious spirits and the need to properly dispatch them from the world of the living. The P'algwanhoe reflects the idea that those who die violently or unexpectedly come back as disgruntled spirits who harass the living through illness and misfortune. Aside from the annual festivals, Buddhist monks were steadily employed to offer sūtra readings at private funeralsa practice that continues into the present day. The ability of Buddhism to usurp the function of spirit propitiation was a key element in the spread of Buddhism among the masses.

The mortuary rituals of musok may have remained competitive with Buddhist ones, but its cosmological beliefs were simple in contrast to the great metaphysical and doctrinal systems of Buddhism. During the united Silla, the rise of Buddhist doctrinal schools and renowned monks such as Wŏnhyo (617686) and Ŭisang (625702) established a learned religious tradition that was kept vibrant by frequent travel within an international community that included not only China and Japan but also India and Central Asia. Particularly in its missionary travels to Japan, Korean monks acted the role of conduits of culture from the West. The full emergence of Korea into the international scene bred an elite culture and learned community that grew increasingly unkind in its view of the native tradition of musok.

The ChosŎn Era (13921910)

When the military general Yi Sŏnggye (13351408) betrayed his Koryŏ king to establish the Chosŏn dynasty (as King Taejo, r. 13921398), he chose Confucianism as the new state ideology. Buddhism curried the favor of kings throughout the previous Koryŏ period, but by the end of this era, the cultural and religious vitality of Buddhism had dissipated from privilege and came to pose an enormous financial burden on the state. Taejo looked, as in previous eras, to China for a model of state, but this time to Confucianism, paralleling China's own ideological shift. Integral to the new state was a system of learned Confucian scholars who functioned as ministers and advisors to the king. Hence the official learning of the land became Confucian, although Buddhist learning and piety was never fully abandoned by the aristocracy (and royalty). Buddhist monasteries, however, were banished beyond the capitol to remote mountains, and monks were reduced to the status of pariahs. In a sense, monks joined the ranks of mudang, and the intermingling of Buddhism and shamanism at the popular level allowed Confucians to dismiss both as "super-stition."

Official ideology, however, tends to paint a picture far simpler than the richness and ironies of actual life. Chosŏn kings and queens lived by the Confucian institutions that maintained the statesuch as the Confucian education system that supplied the court with its scholar-officials. These same kings and queens, however, routinely turned to Buddhism in their private lives, particularly when vicissitudes in the exercise of power brought home the Buddhist message that all worldly gains are ultimately empty. Taejo himself bestowed the title of "Royal Preceptor" (wangsa ) on the Buddhist monk Muhak (13271405), who functioned as his confidante and spiritual advisor. King Sejong (r. 14181450), considered to be the most illustrious of Chosŏn kings, vigorously suppressed Buddhism but turned to it at the end of his life, going so far as to build a temple within the palace precincts. King Sejo (r. 14551468), who ruthlessly assumed the throne by murdering his nephew, the boy-king Tanjong, also turned to Buddhism in the course of his reign.

Chosŏn dynastic history is replete with royalty who not only embraced Buddhist piety but who also shaved their heads and put on Buddhist robes in the final chapter of their checkered lives. These tendencies were shared by the ministers and officials, who were also vulnerable to swings in political fortune. The evidence of this appears in literary works that gave voice to personal feelings. The longing for nature and retirement from political life was a persistent Buddhist-Daoist theme in literati poetry, for example. Kim Sisŭp (14351493), Hŏ Kyun (15691618), and Kim Manjung (16371692) are some of the better known literati whose lives and works of fiction testify to Buddhism's continuing centrality to the way Koreans understood the world. Buddhism's cultural presence straddled the social hierarchy, reaching down to the peasants. Pure Land Buddhism and the cult of Amida (Sanskrit: Amitābha) promised rebirth in the Western Paradise to all, and the compassion of Bodhisattva Kwanŭm (Sanskrit, Avalokiteśvara) promised intercession in a variety of life's difficulties.

If the fortunes of Buddhism officially waned during the Chosŏn, the fate of musok was consistently dire, with its rites routinely referred to as ŭmsa, or "obscene." Like Buddhism, however, these ritual technologies maintained a secure place on all levels of Korean society, and the tradition of musok formed the most basic substratum of folk religion. The musok rite, known as Kut (Tungus, kutu ), means "happiness" and "good fortune," and it was performed for private individuals and families, as well as for the community. The basic categories of Kut, which continue to the present day, were mortuary rites for ancestors, healing rites, and good-luck rites that invoked heavenly and natural spirits, as well as village tutelary gods. Significantly, mudang maintained their presence even in the Chosŏn palaces, where special buildings were prepared for them. The mudang who had access to these residences were known as kongmu, or "national shamans."

From the Confucian perspective, the most offensive aspect of Kut was perhaps its liminoid qualities, in which uninhibited dancing and singing induced frenzied trance in the mudang and the abandonment of decorum by everyone else present. This is the reason behind the designation ŭmsa, or obscene rites. The strict rules of relation between parents and children, mothers-in-law and daughters in-law, and village hierarchies were temporarily suspended for cathartic celebrations in which spirits and humans enjoyed themselves and entertained each other into a renewed harmony. Unlike Confucian ancestral rites, in which social order and familial obligations are sanctified, musok rites were dramatic, improvisational affairs in which personal feelings and grievances are aired by humans and spirits alike.

The significant difference between the Confucian concept of ancestors and the human spirits propitiated by Kut bears elaboration here. The basic purpose of Confucian ancestor worship is to define and revere the family line, which is traced through the male side. The continuity of the clan is maintained through marriage and the birth of legitimate male offspring. Firstborn sons carry out the ancestral rites, which pay homage to agnatic ancestors who have bequeathed property to the descendents. This selective definition of ancestors not only excludes collateral family members, such as second-born sons, daughters, secondary wives, and concubines, but also eliminates anyone who has died a violent or unnatural death. Musok, on the other hand, is attentive to these very ancestors who have reason to be restless and troublesome to the living. In addition to those who die before their time, there are others whose lives are "incomplete," such as females who never marry and mothers who fail to bear legitimate heirs. In addition, there are those who are disgruntled simply because they are ignored by their descendents. It is these "polluted" ancestors to which musok attends, not with the formality and decorum of Confucian rites but with complete abandon to interpersonal drama.

The inherent drama of the Kut, with its tradition of music, song, and dance, is not limited to family affairs. Shaman songs (muga ), particularly in the southern region of Korea, took on the form of epic recitations that recount creation myths and the stories of heavenly gods. The function of the recitation was to summon the spirits to the Kut. From a purely cultural perspective, muga has become the repository of folk literature that exhibits popular Buddhist and Confucian worldviews as well as shamanic beliefs. In the "Ballad of the Abandoned Princess" (Pari kongju muga ), for example, a filial daughter travels to the underworld in order to fetch medicine for her parents, in a tale quite reminiscent of the story of Mulien. The saga is populated by bodhisattvas, as well as the Buddha himself, and the plot is driven by the law of karmic retribution. The princess's parents fall ill due to their sin of abandoning their daughter, but the princess's Confucian piety drives her to save her parents, nonetheless. She is rewarded with deification, and her sons become the Ten Kings of the underworld. This muga is recited during mortuary Kut s to assist the dead safely through the underworld.

A cultural legacy of muga is a form of oral performance and storytelling called p'ansori that formed in the early eighteenth century. P'ansori is secular entertainment that arose among the lower classes but that grew popular across all levels of society. Its limited repertoire of stories derives in part from muga. The tale of Simchŏng, in which a filial daughter saves her blind father by sacrificing herself to the Dragon King, survives both as a p'ansori tale and muga recitation. The most popular of p'ansori talesthat of Chunhyangalso expresses the prototypical elements of the oppressed or socially disadvantaged female who preserves her familial devotion (in this case, to her husband) despite severe trial, and who is rewarded in the end. The prominence of female protagonists certainly reflects the preponderance of female mudang s, who are also lowborn and socially disadvantaged. The plight of such women in these tales, however, came to represent all of those who suffer from social inequity, includ-ing, at times, the entire peoples of Korea under foreign domination.

P'ansori performances are given by a single storyteller, the kwangdae, who narrates and acts out the characters. Much like the mudang, who summons a pantheon of spirits for the assembled participants, the kwangdae enlivens the tale's dramatis personae for an audience. A good performing voice is a requisite for both mudang and kwangdae, both of whom are accompanied by the all-important drum. The kwangdae 's only prop is a fan, which can stand for any object, and it is a standard implement (among many others) of shamanic Kut. The most compelling aspect of p'ansori performance is the kwangdae 's ability to improvise upon a standard oral text and to customize it in interaction with the audience. The livelihood of the mudang, too, rests upon her ability to negotiate the Kut and bring her clients and spirits into a communication that is satisfying and therapeutic.

The Modern Period

Korea's modern era begins in the late nineteenth century, when Japan, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, broke down the barriers of the "hermit kingdom" by insisting upon trade treaties. This enforced internationalization showed up the internal weaknesses of Korean society, particularly of its rulers, and the outcome was loss of self-rule to the Japanese between 1910 and 1945. Even after liberation from colonial rule, Korea's dependency on foreign powers led to the north-south division of the country under Soviet and U.S. patronage, respectively. On June 25, 1950, the communist north launched an attack on South Korea, creating the civil conflict that concluded three years later with the north-south division firmly reinforced.

The transmission of Christianity

The opening of Korea to the West also meant the advent of Christianity. Jesuit missions in China in the seventeenth century led to a modest infiltration of Catholicism into Korea. Although missionary attempts to gain entry into Korea largely failed, Jesuit tracts on Christian doctrine found their way in. In the eighteenth century, these pamphlets drew the interest of politically disenfranchised aristocrats. Members of the namin ("southern") faction, in particular, formed themselves into a church after Yi Sŭnghun (17561801) received baptism from a priest in Beijing and returned to Korea to evangelize. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, the Korean court suppressed Catholicism, in part due to fear of the namin, in part because of the importation of the rites controversy from China. The major reason, however, was the association of Catholicism with the aggression of Western powers against Korea. During this period, Catholicism lost its foothold within the aristocracy and shifted largely to petty bureaucrats and peasants, whose persecution made them particularly receptive to a theology of suffering as represented by the Passion of Christ. The Catholic population numbered around fifteen thousand in 1857 but was cut nearly in half by the Great Persecutions from 1866 to 1871, in which eight thousand Catholics were executed.

The story is quite different for the Protestant evangelization of Korea, which began even while Catholics were suffering martyrdom. The seminal event was the arrival in Manchuria of the Scottish Presbyterian missionary John Ross (18421915) in 1874. From there Ross succeeded in publishing a Korean translation of the New Testament, as well as a dictionary and grammar of the Korean language. Hence, even before the arrival of official missionaries to Korea, a Protestant Korean community existed in Manchuria, and the circulation of the Bible and native evangelization had begun in Korea itself. Before the end of the century, an array of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican missionaries from Europe and America established themselves. When the American Presbyterian Dr. Horace Allen saved the life of Prince Min in the wake of a palace coup in 1884, Western medicine and Protestant missions received sanction from the Korean king and queen. Dr. Allen's petition to establish a Western medical institutionthe Kwanghye-wŏnwas readily granted and opened the following year.

The social and altruistic outreach of Protestant missions was a significant factor in their missionary success. In addition to hospitals, Protestants established the first modern schools in Korea, creating the foundation for the contemporary educational infrastructure, in which forty universities and nearly three hundred schools are of Christian provenance. By the first decade of the twentieth century, seminaries were opened to train native clergy, and the first generation of Korean ministers was ordained prior to the Japanese annexation in 1910, when the Protestant population had already reached 1 percent of the country. Protestant Christianity was the welcome harbinger of progress and new learning, and the Korean court and aristocracy looked increasingly to the West for aid and even personal protection.

The phenomenal success of Protestantism made Christianity respectable overall, and by the turn of the century, the fortunes of Catholicism had also improved. By 1880 the persecution of Catholics had tapered off significantly, and by 1900 there were ten native Korean priests. After surviving the suppressions of the Japanese colonial government and the persecutions by the communist north, Korean Christianity in the Republic of Korea entered a period of uninhibited growth in the 1960s. The gap in Protestant and Catholic success maintained itself, however. According to the 1995 national census, self-identifying Catholics numbered almost three million, whereas Protestant adherents reached nine million, representing 20 percent of the population.

The extraordinary growth of Protestantism in the twentieth century can be attributed initially to the goodwill generated by its philanthropic and social activism. But with the parity of the Catholic Church in these respects since the Second Vatican Council (19621965), other factors appear to be at play. Protestantism was from the beginning comparatively more open to native Korean culture, hence encouraging deeper implantation. It translated the Bible into the Korean han'gul script, whereas Catholicism favored Chinese translations. It chose the native Korean musok term hanŭnim for God, whereas Catholicism favored the Sino-Korean ch'ŏnju, which imports a set of Chinese meanings. The explosion of evangelical Protestantism since the 1960s is notable for its emphasis on faith healing, with its obvious parallel to musok practice.

Like Buddhism, Christianity swept into Korea with a wholly new and sophisticated complex of beliefs, rituals, and institutions. The dramatic ascendance of a new religion in Korea seems to rely upon a combination of such innate complexity, which inspires conversion and adherence, on the one hand, and an ability to adopt or equal key paradigmatic functions of Korean religiosity, on the other. The history and evolution of the syncretic religion known as Ch'ŏndogyo ("Heavenly Way Teaching") offers an interesting counterexample. Ch'ŏndogyo initially began as the Tonghak ("Eastern Learning") movement led by Ch'oe Che'u (18241864), who was executed for being a Catholic. Tonghak was actually a mixture of Christian, Buddhist, and Daoist elements with a strong nationalist overlay. Its primarily characteristics, however, are a belief in a supreme heavenly ruler and the practice of healing. In spite of these central religious elements, the numbers of followers have dramatically declined in the course of the twentieth century. This suggests that Ch'ŏndogyo is fated to be an epoch-specific movement that could not long survive the death of its charismatic founder nor compete against the doctrinal and infrastructural sophistication of Christianity.

The survival of musok

The advent of Christianity in Korea, as with the arrival of Buddhism in an earlier age, has not spelled the demise of native shamanism. To be sure, the modern age produced new adversaries of musok Christians, Japanese colonialists, and communists alike vilified the persisting tradition as an ancient superstition in need of eradication. On the other hand, foreign aggression toward Korea, as well as the north-south national division, spurred both scholarly and popular interest in musok as the survival of a united folk (minjung ) culture. As a result, in the twentieth century Korean and Western scholars devoted serious attention to musok and mudang s, providing detailed ethnographic accounts of contemporary practice.

A notable feature thereof is the existence of two distinct kinds of Korean shamans, the charismatic kangsinmu, who predominates in the northern and central parts of Korea (but who can be found throughout the peninsula), and the hereditary sesŭmmu, who are found in the southern Chŏlla and Kyŏngsang provinces. These latter mudang are also known as tan'gol mudang, named for the regional districts (tan'gol s) over which they preside, and they can be distinguished from the simbang of Cheju Island (located off the southern coast of Korea), which forms a distinct shamanic region. Both tan'gol and simbang mudang s are sesŭmmu who inherit the authority to preside at shamanic rituals, but quite distinctively, they do not experience the descent of spirits into their bodies. Their primary role is to entertain the gods with songs and dances, but they do not interact directly with the spirits.

True to the dynamic of institutional charisma, the hereditary shamans inherit their spiritual authority and maintain it through their ritual expertise. Shamanism in this instance is a family profession, and the personal history of the shaman is not at issue, nor is her ability to be possessed by the gods. Personal contact with the gods, and their inherent power, are in fact of secondary importance relative to the power of the ritual itself. As an institutionalized form of musok, hereditary shamanism functions as a cultural performance that is as artistic as it is religious. The evolution of p'ansori from the mythic recitations of sesŭmmu demonstrates how musok has expanded into a broader cultural tradition.

Kangsinmu, on the other hand, keeps alive the tradition of spirit possession that is at the center of shamanic practice. Rather than inheriting their role, these mudang s typically exhibit symptoms of "spiritual sickness" that can last for years until they are initiated as mudang s through an exorcism Kut. The illness is believed to be caused by spirit possession, and the subject's descent into physical and mental illness can only be cured by a shamanic ritual in which she identifies the god inhabiting her body. From there on, the subject apprentices herself to a senior mudang in a spiritual mother/daughter relationship until she becomes a fully initiated shaman. If the subject gives up this function as a mudang for a prolonged period of time, the spiritual illness returns.

The overwhelming majority of kangsinmu are female. The female-to-male ratio of mudang s is estimated to be between 80 to 20 and 70 to 30. The term mudang is now reserved for female shamans, generally, and male shamans are known as paksu. Although the ritual authority of sesŭmmu is passed down through the male line, women also play the dominant role (except on Cheju Island), marrying into shaman families and apprenticing with the mother-in-law, who passes on her ritual expertise. The son/husband learns how to sing and play instruments for the purpose of assisting in the mother's/wife's rites.

The gender disparity has led observers to note that musok is a religious and cultural realm that empowers women, particularly of the lower class. The informal, improvisational, and intuitive qualities of shamanic rituals (particularly of the kangsin variety) also suggest a female domain in contrast to the formal and male-centered rituals of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Kut is most often sponsored by a family or village in the event of misfortunetypically diseases but also natural disasters, accidents, and deaths. Before a full-scale Kut, which can last up to three days, is determined to be necessary, the mudang will perform divination to determine the cause of the misfortune and the necessary extent of the remedy. Most often, possession by troublesome spirits who have been neglected or ill-treated are the culprits. These ancestral spirits or gods are placated by prayer and ritual offerings and then driven out, often through a sacrificial scapegoat such as an animal or a doll.

A full scale Kut is performed in the event of grave and prolonged disease, assuming the adequate financial resources of the sponsoring family. Its central element consists of the descent of the spirit into the mudang. The identity of the spirit is determined through divination, and the possessed mudang proceeds to talk, cajole, complain, cry, dance and otherwise interact with the assembled participants. The spirit's presence through the mudang 's body allows family members to address departed relatives, often on matters of unresolved grief or misfortunethe deceased's suicide or untimely death, for example. The outpouring of tears, resentments, and feelings address not only past history and suffering but ongoing conflicts between living family members and/or neighbors.

Musok still has its image problems, particularly among the educated adherents of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The press toward modernization in South Korea since the 1960s, moreover, condemned shamanism as irrational and regressive. It is interesting to note, however, that at the end of the twentieth century, barely half of the population self-identified with the three aforementioned "great traditions." Although musok was not classified as a religion with which to self-identify, its persistence is evident in its rehabilitation as native minjung culture. Since the 1980s South Korea's emergence as a global economic power has expressed itself through the state's rapid westernization, on the one hand, and through the self-conscious formation of a unique national identity, on the other. Hence, while private Kuts have been banned for being too noisy in urban areas such as Seoul, public performances routinely sponsored by cultural centers and universities have taken their place. Accordingly, even Koreans who do not partake of Kut in a religious vein nevertheless affirm it as an important cultural performance.

For their part, mudang s quite consciously embrace the role of preservers of Korean culture and identity. The alliance between musok and Korean nationalism took on an explicit political dimension with the formation in 1971 of the Korean Spirit Worshippers' Association for the Victory over Communism. The anticommunist sentiments of mudang s can be traced back to their persecution under the North Korean regime. This experience has spawned fear for their fate in the event of a North Korean takeover of the South. The response has been to enhance the traditional role of the mudang as a protector of the state. The modern musok pantheon includes not only Tan'gun as the progenitor of the Korean peoples but also military heroes who have defended Korea's sovereignty in the past. Kut s often include a portion known as the "state Kut " in which the mudang prays for the welfare of the Republic of Korea and its president.

In the meantime, musok 's presence finds inroads even into the newest of the great traditionsProtestant Christianityin the form of minjung theology. Like liberation theologies around the world, minjung theology speaks directly to the suffering of the ethnic and national community, caused by centuries of political and social misrule, both foreign and domestic. In underscoring the people, or minjung, as the primary theological entity, this indigenized Christianity parlays biblical narratives of emancipation and salvation into the story of the Korean people. In defining the people, minjung theology looks in particular to cultural performances such as musok, as well as to other folk traditions, as its locus.


The history of religions in Korea is characterized by both innovation and conservatism. As a small peninsular state subject to the presence and influence of much mightier nations, Korea has embraced a steady flow of religious innovation in the forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. These new traditions have been adopted with a sense of ownership that at times sees itself as the most faithful bearer of the originally foreign religion. In this respect, one can note the relative absence of xenophobic rhetoric against these adoptive traditions, in contrast to the history of, say, Buddhism in China and Japan.

It is this same faithfulness that has preserved and perpetuated the native shamanistic religion of musok throughout the periods of religious innovation. Although it has been vilified since the establishment of Buddhism, mudang s have provided a fundamental technology for dealing with the basic predicaments of illness and misfortunepredicaments that visit the privileged and the educated as well as the poor. While lacking in doctrinal and metaphysical sophistication, musok conveys a therapeutic, interpersonal, performative, and communal value that accounts for its longevity and pervasiveness.


The most general introduction to Korean religions is offered by James Huntley Grayson's KoreaA Religious History, 2d ed. (New York, 2002). Its attention to Korean shamanism is relatively brief compared to other religions, but it nevertheless offers a comprehensive survey of Korean religious history. Grayson's Early Buddhism and Christianity in Korea (Leiden, Netherlands, 1985) considers more closely the factors that led to the implantation of these religions in Korea, and his Myths and Legends from Korea (London, 2001) deals with native Korean materials, such as the Tan'gun myth.

English-language scholarship on Korean shamanism by Korean scholars has proliferated in the past few decades. Monographs worthy of mention begin with Kim Tae-kon's Korean ShamanismMuism (Seoul, 1998), which focuses on contemporary rituals, beliefs, and social organization. Hyun-key Kim Hogarth's Korean Shamanism and Cultural Nationalism (Seoul, 1999) consists of the same general introductory materials but includes a useful discussion of the Tan'gun myth in relation to Korean national identity (chapter 6). Hogarth's Syncretism of Buddhism and Shamanism in Korea (Seoul, 2002) consists primarily of separate discussions of the history of these two traditions but offers useful considerations of contemporary syncretic practices. Her full translation of three popular muga, or shamanic epic songs, is of particular value, but the analysis is limited to literary and structural interpretation. A study of the historical evolution of the oral storytelling tradition of p'ansori from the synthesis of Buddhist narrative elements and shamanic performance has yet to be written. Both the Hogarth titles and the Kim title are published in the Korean Studies Series of Jimoondang Publishing Company of Seoul. These monographs consist to a large degree of the personal reportage of the authors, who are cultural insiders and who are aligned with the contemporary native view that musok embodies an enduring cultural tradition.

Ethnographic studies of mudang s, particularly in terms of their experience as women, have been the norm of scholarship based in the West. Standard titles include Youngsook Kim Harvey's Six Korean Women: The Socialization of Shamans (St. Paul, Minn., 1979), which analyzes the life histories of kangsinmu ; and Laurel Kendall's Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits (Honolulu, 1985), which frames mudang rites and beliefs in relation to the social realities of Korean women. Kendall followed up this work with The Life and Times of a Korean Shaman: Of Tales and the Telling of Tales (Honolulu, 1988). Roger L. Janelli and Dawnhee Yim Janelli detail the structures of Korean family, kinship, and class in relation to ancestor rites in Ancestor Worship and Korean Society (Stanford, Calif., 1982).

A number of articles deal with the rise of folklorism in South Korea since the 1960s and the way musok, and peasant culture generally, have become the idealized foci of an antiforeign minjung ideology. Kim Kwang-ok's "Rituals of Resistance: The Manipulation of Shamanism in Contemporary Korea," in Asian Visions of Authority, edited by Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall, and Helen Hardacre (Honolulu, 1994), looks at how Kut rituals have been adapted by university students into dramas of political protest against the state in the 1970s and 1980s; and Chungmoo Choi's "Hegemony and Shamanism: The State, the Elite, and Shamans in Contemporary Korea," in Religion and Society in Contemporary Korea, edited by Lewis R. Lancaster and Richard K. Payne (Berkeley, Calif., 1997) traces the emergence of a culture industry in which media, scholarship, and political conflict drive the rise of superstar shamans who function as culture specialists and performers.

Two articles on Christianity in the previously mentioned volume, Religion and Society in Contemporary Korea, are worthy of mention. Kwang-ok Kim's "Ritual Forms and Religious Experiences: Protestant Christians in Contemporary Korean Political Context" links the explosion of evangelical Protestantism in the 1970s and 1980s with its political conservatism and its alliance with the government, and looks also at its indigenous, including shamanistic, elements. Donald Clark's "History and Religion in Modern Korea: The Case of Protestant Christianity" looks particularly at the development and beliefs of minjung theology and the question of its relation to shamanism. A native voice that clearly affirms the relationship can be found in theologian David Kwang-sun Suh's Theology, Ideology, and Culture (Hong Kong, 1983), in which he invokes the hybrid category of the "Christian mudang."

Francisca Cho (2005)

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