Fans of Korean dramas are familiar with the many tropes that characterize that particular genre of storytelling. One of the most common involves the mother of a young woman who goes to see a shaman for help with her (typically) career-oriented daughter who just does not seem to want to find a husband. The daughter is perceived to have an abrasive and disagreeable personality and is quickly ageing out of what her mother deems “marriageable age.” The mother visits a shaman or a fortuneteller to beg for news on prospective marriages that may be on the horizon, or to ask what she can do to “fix” her wayward daughter. The shaman prescribes a cure, to which the daughter unhappily submits, even though she is a modern woman who no longer believes in shamanistic rituals. Despite her modern misgivings, she is likely a filial daughter, but even if she is not, her mother is not above blackmail or bullying, so there is no point in resisting (although there is usually some form of light protest). This is typically followed by a series of comically disastrous blind dates (set up, undoubtedly, by the mother), which result in a temporary estrangement between the two. Reconciliation occurs only when a romance develops between the daughter and (presumably) the only male on earth her mother finds unsuitable for one reason or another (usually economic, but sometimes related to some other type of status), as the mother will not remain silent in the face of the “ruin” of their family.
However, the audience already knows that the mother will eventually accept the unsuitable male, if only because he is her daughter’s “last hope”, though it is also standard that he actually had the aforementioned wealth and status all along. This information will only be revealed to the mother at the last minute (as this is what generally drives the narrative), though the audience likely knew about it the whole time. By the end, they all realize that everything the shaman initially predicted came true, though not necessarily the way they wanted or expected. This story has variants, of course. Sometimes the mother is visiting the shaman for a wayward son, for example. In this variant, the son may also be career-driven, but his inability to find a partner is almost never regarded as the result of his disagreeable or abrasive personality, even in cases when he actually is decidedly both disagreeable and abrasive. Sometimes it is the girlfriend or the boyfriend visiting the shaman for their partner, though in this variant, the shaman is more likely to predict or uncover something unexpected. In one memorable drama, for example, a goblin who remembers all of his past lives, portrayed by the highly regarded actor, Gong Yoo, goes to a shaman with his (much younger) wife. The shaman proceeds to tell him about his past lives, but not the ones he remembers. Rather, she describes several of Gong’s previous roles. While the characters all scoff at her supposedly “incorrect” readings, the audience is aware that the shaman has been right all along. Importantly, regardless of the angle the drama takes, the shaman, though often used as a comedic interjection into the story, is always correct in the end.
Another common trope in Korean dramas involves the process of preparing the traditional ancestral rites, or jesa. These ceremonies, which are ancient rituals practiced as part of a Confucian patriarchal framework, are regularly held in honor of the dead in Korean households. There are three main variants of jesa rituals. Koreans typically hold one ceremony on the anniversary of the family member’s death, usually the paternal grandfather of the eldest son in a family. The paternal grandmother would be honored at that time as well if she has also passed, but she would not get her own ceremony. Families also hold tea ceremonies to honor their ancestors up to five generations back during the four major Korean holidays, and there is a third ceremony that honors ancestors beyond five generations. The important thing about jesa ceremonies is that the rules are complex, the preparation is excessive and tedious, and men are the main focal point. However, in this highly patriarchal system, the women of the family do the majority of the work. Therefore, media and entertainment portrayals of jesa rituals will often highlight the woman’s frustration with her husband for either expecting her to do the work in the first place, or not standing up for her and instead allowing her mother-in-law to bully her into doing all of the work. As this is a common source of family and marital discord in many actual Korean households, drama viewers generally understand why the wife is upset, even if the drama is not explicit in portraying her reasons. Unlike the portrayals of shamans described above, most of the enactments of jesa rituals in dramas are taken more seriously, though there are occasions when the opposite is true. Still, whether used as a comedic interlude or as a somber and important part of a storyline, these ancient shamanistic rituals and Confucian folk traditions play an important role in Korean media today, despite the efforts of other religious organizations, most notably Christian religions in recent years, to end the practices in Korea. I will apply two anthropological approaches, specifically structuralism and feminist anthropology, to determine how we might analyze the phenomenon of the continued practice of shamanism and folk religion in Korea and why it remains popular, particularly in the media, despite efforts to eradicate it.
The religions and religious traditions that are considered native to the Korean Peninsula have deep roots and ties to the Korean political landscape. The earliest known religious tradition in Korea is a founding myth describing the life of Tan’gun, a mythical king who was said to have ruled over Korea for 1500 years, and who established morals and traditions that continue to be practiced to this day. Early Koreans believed in a form of animism in which all objects and living things have a spiritual life force. These beliefs led to regionally focused folk religions that engage the spirits of the Korean ancestors, and over time transitioned into what we generally refer to as Korean shamanism today (though not all of these traditions involve shaman). As Laurel Kendall describes, “Broadly speaking, shamans are religious practitioners who engage the spirits on behalf of the community, either through encounters during soul flight or by invoking the spirits into the here and now of a ritual space, conveying the immediacy of these experiences with their own bodies and voices.” (Kendall, 2009, pg. xx) Most Koreans regard shamanistic folk religions as the traditional religion of Korea, but while remnants of shamanistic practices remain in most households, the majority no longer practice it extensively or exclusively. Today, South Korea is considered a secular nation, with approximately slightly more than half of its population claiming to practice no religion at all. The rest of the country is divided similarly between Christianity, Catholicism (which is viewed as something entirely different from Christianity, a distinction that is significant in Korea), Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, and a handful of other religions and spiritual traditions as well. (Koreanet) This diversity is not a current development, as the Korean religious landscape has a history of being both extremely diverse and uniquely harmonious. The introduction of other religious traditions in Korea happened early and often, and as shamanism in Korea has never been particularly organized or uniform, the practices and ceremonies they perform today have been highly influenced by, and ultimately integrated into, practices of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. This is largely due to prolonged and repeated interaction, often in the form of conflict, with other people from the Asian continent. Although the popularity of traditional shamanism and other folk religions have slowly but steadily declined over time, even agnostic and atheist Koreans continue to observe certain relics of these ancient practices. An example of this is the aforementioned Jesa rituals. Most Koreans, regardless of their faith, continue to observe their ancestral rites, although many of them admit that they no longer adhere to all of the original, complex rules, and many Korean Christians have switched to merely holding a Christian memorial service (Kim, 2015).
Buddhism, which grew a following in Goryeo during the Three Kingdoms period (when the three kingdoms of Silla, Goryeo, and Baekje were each ruling over different territories on the Korean peninsula, not to be confused with Unified Silla or the Goryeo Dynasty), came into prominence after the Silla dynasty conquered Goryeo and Baekje and created Unified Silla. During this time, the Silla kings made Buddhism a state religion and the people equated their kings to the Buddha himself. The reasons for this were largely political rather than religious, as Buddhist ideology was more supportive of the concept of a strong, centralized government than Shamanism. The Silla kings recognized the potential of Buddhism to help them strengthen their claim on the peninsula. “This is the origin of the well-known Korean Buddhist tradition of hoguk pulgyo; literally, State-protective Buddhism” (Chung, 2017). As Buddhism became stronger and more complex throughout the Silla Dynasty, multiple schools of Buddhist thought, collectively known as O’gyo, emerged. While many of the different schools of Buddhist thought had strong followings during this time, the ones that allowed for continued shamanistic practices were the most popular. This may have been the reason why Sŏn Buddhism ultimately emerged as the dominant school of Buddhist thought on the Korean peninsula, but regardless of why, it is still the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Korea today. Buddhism continued to thrive on the Korean Peninsula even after the fall of Unified Silla and the establishment of the Goryeo Dynasty. Remarkably, Buddhists in Korea had built several large temples and monuments and had even established their own thriving economy. This strength and financial independence gave the Buddhists political power that transcended the Silla Dynasty and lasted well after its downfall.
The establishment of the Goryeo Dynasty did not immediately have an impact on the influence of Buddhists in Korea. As I previously mentioned, Buddhists were financially independent from the state, and their membership was high. Confucianism’s influence in Korea emerged initially as a philosophical tradition, and its early sphere of influence in Korea was largely tied to the thought and practices of the Korean government. (Grayson, 2002) Buddhism and Confucianism co-existed with relatively little conflict for the early years of the Goryeo Dynasty. However, this began to change as the aristocrats in the government, who were almost all influenced by Confucian thought and ideals, began to feel threatened by the continued presence of Buddhist thought in the government. This conflict came to a head during the reign of King Kongmin, who had come under the influence of a Buddhist monk named Sindon. The conflict led to the death of Sindon, and after Kongmin also died, the government was in a state of turmoil that ended the Goryeo Dynasty and resulted in the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty. During this time of upheaval and conflict, Confucianism began to take hold of more than just the government. “The supplanting of Buddhism by Confucianism was part of this socio-cultural trend and continued throughout the first century of the new state. Although changes took place gradually rather than abruptly, by the end of the fifteenth century a new Confucian state and society had emerged” (Grayson, 2002). The first king of the Joseon Dynasty, T’aejo, was an adherent to Confucian ideals, but he did not actively suppress Buddhism in Joseon. After T’aejo’s abdication, however, his son T’aejong began shutting down Buddhist temples and seizing property. T’aejong’s successor, his third son, Sejong, was widely considered one of the brightest and best Korean monarchs. He was a strict adherent to Confucianism who carried on and increased the suppression of Buddhism that had begun during his father’s reign. Despite his Confucian beliefs, however, Sejong returned to Buddhism at the end of his life, dying in a Buddhist temple that he had built within the walls of his royal palace. Confucianism continued its dominance over the religious life of Koreans until the end of the Joseon Dynasty in the 19th century, though it was in decline for a long time along with the government (Grayson, 2002).