- Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox
Chongho Kim had a difficult time in the field. Working with Seoul shamans who charged millions of wŏn for ineffective cures, enduring cramped quarters, the shamans' cigarette smoke, and a maggot-ridden outhouse, he decamped in disgust after two months and tried again in the rural village of Soy. Here the local shaman used him as her personal chauffeur, had him assist her in assembling "trashy" paper flowers for which she overcharged her clients, kept him out late in the icy November wind, and offered him a filthy blanket to sleep on. His first landlady threw him out because she disliked shamans. His neighbors considered him a spy and threatened to turn him in to the authorities. His wife questioned his "shamanistic" point of view, his beloved mother-in-law held a kut but did not tell him about it, and his family badgered him about reaching the age of forty without having secured a position. How would he recoup on these miserable experiences? Perhaps he could enhance his reputation by attacking an established [End Page 144] scholar "whose works have attained considerable popularity" (p. xiv) but got it wrong, a romantic feminist and a foreigner besides. Guess who?
Because much of The Cultural Paradox is a critique of my own first book, Shamans, Housewives, and other Restless Spirits (University of Hawai'i Press, 1985), I find it impossible to discuss Kim's work without reference to my own. Kim is correct to fault me for overgeneralizing shamanic practices as a domain of "Korean women." As he justly notes, his wife and many other Korean women have little knowledge of or association with them. In his own writing, however, he is all too keen to replace one generalization with another. In Kim's view, all Koreans regard shamans with disgust because shamans deal with "the field of misfortune," the ominous, the dangerous, the things people don't like to make public; this is the paradox of his title, and a productive, but partial line of inquiry. Kim conveniently ignores the range of rituals that shamans perform and the range of spirits they manifest, not only ominous ghosts, but also powerful gods. Instead, he offers us the emotional responses of a cultural insider who felt during his fieldwork: "hatred for my research" (p. 2), "a feeling of repulsion" (p. 53), "shamanism looks like a poisonous creature" (p. 56), "like the smell from the toilet" (p. 181). This is a unique perspective, distinct not only from my work, but from the many Korean scholars who have written literally shelves of books about shamans. One wonders if Kim is not viewing this world though his own darkly colored lenses? Indeed, he betrays a profound ambivalence that is nowhere resolved in his own writing, on one page quoting informants who denounce shamans as "unscientific" and on the next, describing his own youthful case of spirit possession and seemingly miraculous cure, all the while eschewing any sense of polyphony that would get him out of this hole.
There are some good descriptions of ritual exchanges between shaman and client and some detailed interview data, but despite Kim's frequently repeated claim to focus on "ordinary people" there is relatively little ethnography in The Culture of Paradox. Readers unfamiliar with Korea might not realize that Soy, like other rural communities, has been largely abandoned by the younger generation. There is little of substance about women's lives in Soy beyond the cliché that daughters-in-law have a difficult time in Korea and some village men abuse their wives. Christianity, which might account for some of the negative responses to shamans in Kim's interviews, is not discussed until the penultimate chapter, where we learn that several of the village women where ardent Christians. Kim is similarly disingenuous in his selective use of quotes, for example ignoring Youngsook Kim Harvey's Christian background when invoking her childhood experiences. He ignores the work of several authors to take personal credit for...