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Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF

South Korean Popular Religion in Motion

Laurel Kendall

Publication Year: 2009

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

In the late 1970s, I lived in a Korean village and wrote about a shaman I call “Yongsu’s Mother” and her colleagues and clients. In the intervening decades South Korea became an urbanized, high-tech, and relatively prosperous place, and all of us got older. This book contains observations on a changing world of shaman practice in the years before and after the turn ...

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pp. xiii-xv

A project of long duration engenders enormous debt. My gratitude to “Yongsu’s Mother,” her colleagues, and the many other shamans and their clients who took the time to talk to me and allow me to observe their rituals goes without saying. The knowledge, energy, and insight of my field assistant from 1994 to 2005, Kim Sung Ja (“Ms. Kim” in the text), made this ...

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Introduction: Shamanic Nostalgia

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pp. xvii-xxviii

When I asked the shaman Yongsu’s Mother how things had changed, she time of the Korean War, the mountains’ power was fierce! If we tell us everything. If our gods told us today that a certain person arrive, just as they’d said. And if some polluted person came to clear. That’s how it was. Nowadays, we have to make a thousand ...

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1: Shifting Intellectual Terrain: "Superstition" Becomes "Culture" and "Religion"

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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 ...

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2: Memory Horizons: Kut from Two Ethnographic Presents

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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 generate Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits. In that ...

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3: Initiating Performance: Chini's Story

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pp. 66-101

The three shamans meet again in Chini’s dank little rented room on the day before her kut, filling their student’s cramped quarters with drum and cymbals, cheap vinyl suitcases bulging with the gods’ costumes, and the flurry...

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4: The Ambiguities of Becoming: Phony Shamans and What Are Mudang After All?

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pp. 102-128

The stakes were high and Chini had failed, failed to gain sufficient inspiration during her kut and 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’s kut, asking what it means to become a shaman in the present Korean moment. I am ...

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5: Korean Shamans and the Spirits of Capitalism

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pp. 129-153

The flavor of the new Korea burst upon me one autumn day in 1989 when Kwan Myôngnyô arrived at a kut in 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’s kut that the supernatural Official who governed her shop’s prosperity wanted a drink of wine. The sister was instructed to fill a ...

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6: Of Hungry Ghosts and Other Matters of Consumption

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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 of kut resonant with the emotions and...

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7: Built Landscapes and Mobile Gods

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pp. 177-203

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. ...

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pp. 205-206

I began this account of a changing South Korean shaman world with Yong-su’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 ...


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pp. 207-220


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pp. 221-244

Index and Glossary

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pp. 245-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860899
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824833435

Publication Year: 2009