Korean shamans especially are reputed to possess the skill of dancing on a sharp blade and driving out evil with animal blood. These mysterious occurrences can happen only when the shaman is in a state of trance or possession, but the trance itself is not the ultimate goal. It is a way to lead shamans to a state that enables them to contact souls and gods.
During the ceremony, firstly, the Shaman calls down the God who is the object of the ritual by singing an invitation to worship. Then the Shaman starts to sing and dance to a special tune and rhythm accompanied by instruments playing Shaman music to please the God who is invited. The pace of the singing and dancing increases until it reaches a frenzied point and the Shaman goes into trance. In this ecstatic state, the Shaman is in direct communion with the God and conveys the words of the God to those watching the ceremony. Those words may be warnings or commands, or they may be promises of blessings to be received. When this is over the Shaman sends the God back to its place by singing songs of praise and by dancing. It should be noted that the medium of direct communication with the Gods is that of song and dance. Entrance to the world of the spirits is through rhythms of the body, not through meditations of the mind. The structure and principles of Shamanism involve balance. The objective of the kut is to restore balance through the unification of heaven, earth, and people.
Trance is generally induced by hypoglycaemia, brought on by fasting, sensory deprivation, isolation, mortification or hallucinogens. Ecstasy and possession originate from a trance leading to an altered state of consciousness. Ecstasy is a means of communication between the Shaman and spirits in this altered state of consciousness. Possession indicates that there is an exchange of spirits, concerning the Shaman’s body, during the trance.
From another perspective the role of frenzying percussion instruments is the only tool for a mudang to achieve trance supplanting drugs or hallucinogens used in other societies’ rituals. In addition, loud music or the loud noise induced by instruments is commonly believed to keep away malignant spirits.
—Koudela and Yoo (5)
The sound of the demonstrators’ drums urging the people to shake off their submission to the oppressors and to take to the streets, makes all minjung blood boil. The beat of the drums sounds louder when exploitation and oppression are more severe, or when the minjung’s forced silence is long. To the guilty oppressors’ ears, the drums sound like the beginning of their end.
Darkness fell. In one corner of the square, a high school girl began to sing in an immaculate voice, “Our Wish Is National Reunification.”
Our wish is national reunification
Even in our dreams, Our wish is reunification
With whole dedication, reunification
Let’s fulfill reunification
The girl’s voice flowed into the crowd. Finally the song echoed throughout the square.
Reunification that revives this nation
Reunification that revives this country
Reunification, come true soon
Reunification, come true
—Lee and Mamatas (135-136)
The story is that one of those young men composed a song during his imprisonment, and as he trudged slowly up the Hill of Ariran, he sang this song. The people learned it, and after that, whenever a man was condemned to die he sang this in farewell to his joys or sorrows. Every Korean prison echoes with these haunting notes, and no one dares deny a man’s death-right to sing it at the end. The “Song of Ariran” has come to symbolize the tragedy of Korea. Its meaning is symbolic of constantly climbing over obstacles only to find death at the end. It is a song of death and not of life. But death is not defeat. Out of many deaths, victory may be born. There are those of us who would write another verse for this ancient “Song of Ariran.” That last verse is not yet written. We are many dead, and many more have “crossed the Yalu River” into exile. But our return will not be long in the future.
—Kim San (59)
There now remains one fundamental question. What is the relationship between the struggle, the political or armed conflict, and culture? During the conflict, is culture put on hold? Is the national struggle a cultural manifestation? Must we conclude that the liberation struggle, though beneficial for culture a posteriori, is in itself a negation of culture? In other words, is the liberation struggle a cultural phenomenon?
—Frantz Fanon (178)
Cultural synthesis is thus a mode of action for confronting culture itself, as the preserver of the very structures by which it was formed. Cultural action, as historical action, is an instrument for superseding the dominant alienated and alienating culture. In this sense, every authentic revolution is a cultural revolution.
—Paulo Freire (180)
All rise. At once. One by one. Voices absorbed into the bowl of sound. Rise voices shifting upwards circling the bowl’s hollow. In deep metal voice spiraling up wards to pools no visible light lighter no audible higher quicken shiver the air in pool’s waves to raise all else where all memory all echo
—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (162)
With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode on his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories. After years of unreality, after wallowing in the most extraordinary phantasms, the colonized subject, machine gun at the ready, finally confronts the only force which challenges his very being: colonialism. And the young colonized subject who grows up in an atmosphere of fire and brimstone has no scruples mocking zombie ancestors, two-headed horses, corpses woken from the dead, and djinns who, taking advantage of a yawn, slip inside the body. The colonized subject discovers reality and transforms it through his praxis, his deployment of violence and his agenda for liberation.
—Frantz Fanon (20-21)
My whole life has been a series of failures, and the history of my country has been a history of failure. I have had only one victory—over myself. This one small victory, however, is enough to give me confidence to go on. Fortunately, the tragedy and defeat I have experienced have not broken but strengthened me. I have few illusions left, but I have not lost faith in men and in the ability of men to create history. Who shall know the will of history? Only the oppressed who must overthrow force in order to live. Only the undefeated in defeat who have lost everything to gain a whole new world in the last battle. Oppression is pain, and pain is consciousness. Consciousness means movement. Millions of men must die and tens of millions must suffer before humanity can be born again. I accept this objective fact. The sight of blood and death and of stupidity and failure no longer obstructs my vision of the future.
—Kim San (315)
In 1970, South Korean military dictator Park Chung Hee launched the Saemaul Undong, or New Village Movement, an expansive, all-encompassing indoctrination program best described as a capitalist ‘cultural revolution’ intended to rapidly remold the rural Korean worker into a diligent cog in the new Korean industrialization and development machine. Trumpeting three ‘Saemaul Spirits’—“diligence, self-help and cooperation” (Sonn and Gimm 26)—Park’s New Village Movement sought to forcibly eliminate all mental and cultural aspects of Korean society that were seen as impediments to capital, targeting everything from gambling and alcohol consumption to everyday work attire (Sonn and Gimm 27). Invoking a non-existent monolithic Korean ‘essence,’ Park defended his program by claiming that, for centuries, Koreans “were never enterprising,” and were also quite defeatist (Sonn and Gimm 27)—an interesting way to frame decades of colonial subjugation under Japan, coming from a seasoned killer and collaborator who sharpened his military and governing strategies in Imperial Japanese military academies; it is no coincidence that the ideology behind the New Village Movement is “modeled on Japanese-occupied Manchuria,” involving “militarized control of slave labor, state-corporatist monopolies, industrialized sexual slavery, and an absolute command economy, resulting in a monstrous, ‘necropolitical’ state” (Noh).
A key enemy to this ‘enterprising’ spirit was the ‘superstitious’ shamanic religion of Korea and its countless ceremonies, rituals and traditions; accordingly, a fundamental component of the New Village Movement was the violent suppression and erasure of these practices, via the Misin Tapa Undong, or Movement to Defeat the Worship of the Gods (Min). Shamans “were harassed and their temples, houses, and shrines systematically destroyed” (Min), government agents incinerated village shrines and “fined or imprisoned” shamans (Kendall 10), totem pole-like guardians that were central to communal rites were toppled (Walraven 14), and important family rituals—seen as “wasteful and extravagant” (Sorensen 27)—were regulated and stripped to their bare essentials according to the government-issued Standard Rules for Family Ceremonies (Sorensen 27). Behind these destructive initiatives lay a reactionary, nationalist narrative: we Korean workers must “cooperate [with our managers] and live in harmony; disruptions in production are a help to our enemies and a blow to our national goals. Therefore cooperate, work hard and endure for the sake of the nation” (Ogle 56). The literal and metaphorical bulldozing of these traditions and practices led to “the rapid demise of traditional village ceremonies that…created village solidarity” (Sorensen 27), paving the way for the individualistic, anti-communal mindset that capitalism both requires and fosters.
What, then, are we to make of the Taehan Sunggong Kyoungshin Yonhaphoe—The Korean Shaman Association for Victory over Communism—a nationwide network of shamans founded in 1971, just one year after the New Village Movement, whose members helped “capture North Korean agents involved in espionage in South Korea,” requiring them to “report their findings to government authorities,” often during “pilgrimages to sacred places deep in the mountains” (Seo 114-5)? The idea of a shamanic secret police explicitly working with a government hellbent on destroying the Korean shamanic tradition seems deeply contradictory. But a deeper examination of the history of Korean shamanism reveals that this is not a contradiction at all (Walraven 21): the Korean state has, in the 20th century, carefully constructed a nationalist narrative and version of shamanism that serves its ardently militarist and capitalist ideology—“cooperate, work hard and endure for the sake of the nation” (Ogle 14)—divorced from both the actual history of Korean shamanism, which is rooted in a deep identification with the resistance of the oppressed masses and the everyday reality of the shamans themselves. Thus, it actually makes perfect sense that the government at once called for the eradication of shamanic practice in the countryside—since these ‘superstitious’ and community-oriented habits impeded maximum capitalist productivity—while encouraging the growth and cooperation of a network of nationalist, anti-communist shamans that could carry out reactionary state-led initiatives on both a political and cultural front.
As Korean shamanism and its practitioners are not monoliths, in shifting social, economic and political circumstances, shamans—as cultural workers—are pushed and pulled in different directions, and split between different, contradictory camps: hence, in 1971, one shaman could be imprisoned, their shrines immolated, while another shaman could be a member of the government-led psychic CIA. Though there is historical evidence that Korean shamans once held significant social and political power in society, from around the 14th century onwards shamans have mostly suffered from deep oppression, occupying the lowest rung of Korean society alongside butchers, sex workers and other “outcasts” (Fenkl). But, with Korea’s violent capitalist enterprise post-1945 Liberation from Japan and the aforementioned state-led nationalist development initiatives, Korean shamanism has ascended in the Korean public consciousness and social structure, rising from national embarrassment to national pride.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, dissident Koreans—in the name of the minjung, or ‘the masses,’ the oppressed people of Korea—attempted to reclaim the shamanic tradition for the oppressed against the state-sanctioned version, constructing a new ritual shamanic practice that was intended to lay the mental and cultural foundation for revolution and national reunification. Though the minjung played a key role in the ‘democratization’ of Korea—which began around 1987—in the 1990s it eventually dissipated, stopping short of its goal: revolution. Today, Korean shamanism—though in static and stilted form—is still officially accepted and funded by the government as an essential expression of Korean heritage and culture, though a stigma remains within the general Korean public: shamans often practice “privately but not secretly” (Seo 118).
Beyond the state-approved shamans, there is a thriving contemporary shamanic practice, notably in urban areas, that has rapidly adapted to Korea’s neoliberal present, post-IMF crisis in 1997, and become a potentially profitable career in its own right, marketing itself as something of a spiritual ‘therapy.’ Clients have ranged from, notoriously, Park Geun Hye—the impeached president of South Korea and daughter of Park Chung Hee—to struggling petit-bourgeois small business owners still devastated by the 1997 financial crises and the damaging ‘reforms’ the crises brought. There are now “more than 100,000 practicing shamans” in existence, “almost five times more than in the 1950s” (Mazariegos).
Though this could be seen as a linear success story with a mostly happy ending—an oppressed tradition finally getting its due—a closer examination of shamanism in the latter half of the 20th century reveals a more tortuous, contradictory path. Today, we find ourselves with three ‘versions’ of the shamanic tradition that claim authenticity: (1) the state-sanctioned version with its ‘Intangible Cultural Assets’ and cultural propaganda mobilized in defense of a violent capitalist system; (2) the vestiges of the student movement’s reclamation of the shamanic tradition, which are still seen and heard in the basic protest and direct action practices of the contemporary Korean labor movement; (3) the ‘actually existing’ version, practiced by actual, self-proclaimed shamans, which, though still often grounded in its ancient religious philosophy and history, has largely, by economic necessity, become a ‘market-oriented’ practice that, post-IMF, serves to placate the fears of the Korean petit bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie in their business ventures and personal lives.
Rather than attempt to argue for the ‘authenticity’ of one of these strands, a somewhat surface-level act of categorization, I want to: first, outline, through the lens of political power and resistance, the fascinating trajectory of shamanism throughout Korean history and all the co-optations, diversions, and splits that have resulted in the contradictory situation we find today; and, second, examine this story, primarily focusing on the successes and failures of the minjung reclamation of shamanism in the latter half of the 20th century, as a way to honestly interrogate the relationship between cultural work and revolutionary political work, and examine, based on this specific history, the possibility of the former truly influencing the latter in a material way, and the various pitfalls that present themselves in attempts to carry out this task. Ultimately, though the minjung reclamation of shamanism was as close to a revolutionary synthesis of cultural and political work that could actually bring about radical change as we have seen in recent memory, for many reasons—internal and external, subjective and objective—that will be outlined below, it never reached its ultimate goal of revolution. Rather than dismiss outright their efforts as doomed from the start, or venerate their efforts beyond the point of historical reality, we must, as Fanon said, “shed the habit of decrying the efforts of our forefathers” (145), while still honestly criticizing their mistakes so as to better orient our work today.
[The bulk of this historical overview is drawn from Namhee Lee’s The Making of Minjung, Chungmoo Choi’s The Minjung Culture Movement and the Construction of Popular Culture in Korea, Jinseok Seo’s The role of shamanism in Korean society in its inter- and intra-cultural contacts, Hagen Koo’s Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation, and Laurel Kendall’s Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion.]
Though there is much debate around this categorization, Korean shamanism can be considered an “indigenous pre-historic religion” (Min). Additionally, the practice has played a significant role in government and state power throughout Korean history. There are records from the Three Kingdoms period (57BC-668AD) detailing “lavish state-sponsored shaman rituals and ‘shamanistic’ warrior cults,” as well as other archaeological indications that ancient monarchs employed shamanic powers (Fenkl). There is also evidence of “institutionalized, official shamans who often served the Royal Family” during this period (Mazariegos); the government even taxed some shamanic rituals, thereby “acknowledging (and benefiting from) their economic significance” (Fenkl).
At its core, the Korean shamanic tradition is centered on an act of mediation through suffering: shamans are chosen by spirits due to a shared trauma or pain, and that deep emotional connection allows for the shaman to “understand, hear and translate [the spirits’] words to the living” (Min). Accordingly, the idea of “identification with a larger community” is central to the tradition; just as they are mediators between the spirit world and the material world, shamans are also mediators between “family members, community and ancestors” (Seo 30). Through this central, foundational social role, shamanism has “acted as a womb for art…literature…personal relationships, for society, education and healing” (Seo 22). An ever-shifting practice, whenever Korean shamanism, as Jeong Jinhong argues, “faced the possibility of extinction,” its practitioners have always used “innovation as a way of asserting its right to continued existence” (Seo 22).
These key traits—community orientation and constant adaptation—define the historical trajectory of Korean shamanism, through its heydays and nadirs. From official state religion in the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC-668 AD), shamanism came up against the new influence of Buddhism in the sixth and seventh centuries (Fenkl) and Confucianism in the fifteenth century. The latter marked a critical shift in shamanism’s social standing in Korean society: the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) made Confucianism its primary state philosophy, leading to a general “disdain” by the Korean aristocracy for shamanism—a primitive “stratum of Korean religiosity” (Seo 24)—and a push for the state to “erase the tradition” and degrade “shamans to the lowest classes” (Seo 24). As a result of this reversal, Korean shamanism lost its state-sanctioned legitimacy and would spend the following centuries attempting to regain it.
In the late 19th century, when foreign powers attempted to ‘open up’ the ‘Hermit Kingdom’—leading to violent imperialist incursions like the 1871 massacre of hundreds of Koreans on Ganghwa Island by American soldiers, the first of countless American war crimes on the Korean peninsula—Western ‘modernity’ began to supplant Confucianism in the Korean state and public consciousness, with Christianity quickly becoming a formidable influence in society. However, this changed very little for the shamans; Western missionaries “criticized the mudang no less fiercely than the Confucian scholars had done,” and journalists and reformers “urged the police not to flag in their persecution of the mudang and incited citizens to join in the battle against superstition” (Walraven 8), attacking medical and healing practices perceived as backwards, such as acupuncture as well as the entire shamanic tradition.
It is no surprise, then, that as Korea fell prey to foreign military and economic powers, and the shamanic tradition continued to be oppressed both by imperialists and aristocratic Koreans, that Korean shamanism evolved into a tradition of resistance to oppression. Even in its philosophy, the shamanic tradition “pursues reconciliation and harmony among sky, earth, and people to gain heavenly blessing and to find equality with others,” and in its ritual practice the “shamans and the ordinary people are not separated or classified with hierarchy” but are rather “acting together” (Seo 40). This emphasis on harmony and equality “provided an ideological basis for the struggle against absolute power and state authority” and meant that, during this period, Korean shamans, a newly oppressed group in society themselves, “always stood on the side of the suppressed and subdued classes like paupers, women, serfs, and farmers, and encouraged the Korean people to endure anger and to share social benefit with neighbours at critical moments” (Seo 40). Once identified with the highest powers in Korean society, shamans now occupied its lowest rung, facing an active erasure of their tradition, history and, practices.
As the Japanese Empire tightened its grip on the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century, the shamanic tradition morphed from a generalized ‘resistance to oppression’ into a specifically Korean nationalist practice: facing a complete erasure of Korean culture by Japanese colonists, shamanism “began to appear in a different light” (Walraven 10) to Koreans, as a symbol of a threatened Korean ‘essence’ rather than an outdated, superstitious religion (Seo 44). As shamanism took on a more nationalist character, the colonists realized that it could play a significant role in the anti-colonial resistance, as well as a hindrance to their economic plunder of the peninsula (Walraven 9); accordingly, colonists prohibited shamanic ceremonies for “communities or villages in fear of motivating solidarity with the Resistance,” though Korean shamans continued to hold private rituals that strengthened and consolidated this new Korean nationalism, constructing the idea of “Koreanness” of which shamanism was its strongest manifestation (Seo 39). In the context of brutal colonization and oppression, the shamanic tradition was plucked from the garbage heap of history and venerated as the truest expression of a new Korean national identity.
Korean ‘intellectuals’ during this period also explicitly linked the new nationalist shamanism to the concept of class struggle by the oppressed: one of the most prominent thinkers, Son Jin-tae, solidified the notion of shamanism as national culture and essence of the masses. Although Son did not “directly refer to Marx and Engels” in his work, Dong Kyu Kim argues that Son, as “a student in Japan in the 1920s,” could “hardly have been unaware of Marxism,” and that “Marxist ideas of class struggle as the engine of historical change” seem to have “played an important role in establishing [his] interpretive framework” for contemporary Korean shamanism, which centered on a “common people’s culture which was differentiated from the aristocratic culture” (Kim 93-95). Ultimately, Kim argues that Son’s thought formed the beginning of the conception of Korean shamanism as a “socialist worldview,” with “the common people [as] the subject of history as well as the transmitter of Koreanness,” and shamanic rituals in particular “a representation of the Korean common people’s consciousness of community and resistance” (Kim 95). Broadly speaking, with Son’s thought as just one example, this new Korean nationalist scholarship could be called a self-exoticizing search for the ‘primitive,’ where Korean scholars perceived shamanism as something stuck in the past and ‘far removed’ from the present reality, and simultaneously a “symbol of the essence” of Korean culture (Walraven 9). This seemingly paradoxical approach actually makes perfect sense: framing shamanism as something ‘stuck in the past’ or ‘from a distant era’ made it much easier to shape and revise it into whatever form necessary in the current moment—in this case, an expression of a nationalist Korean ‘essence’ in opposition to Japanese colonization.
It is somewhat ironic that, given the Korean shamanic tradition’s newfound legitimacy and importance in Korean society during this period, the actual practitioners of shamanism themselves remained at society’s lowest stratum. Rather than universally becoming single-minded nationalist warriors alongside the new Korean ‘intellectual’ resurgence, shamans remained a diverse, contradictory and still-oppressed group in society. While many shamans performed private acts of resistance against Japanese rule—like serving Japanese police officers spicy food (Kim 272) and holding community rituals at risk of violent suppression and execution by the Japanese police and in an attempt to “challenge official power” via a collective narrative-making and airing of grievances (Kim 264)—others “seem to have made their own accommodations with the colonial police” (Kendall 8). However, at the end of the day, the expansive and unrelentingly brutal methods the Japanese colonists used in their suppression of the ‘backwards’ shamanic tradition—not to mention all of Korea—left very little room for shamans to freely practice resistance; as the tradition was erased, the strong communal bonds in shaman-centered Korean villages disintegrated, allowing for the fullest possible exertion of Japanese military, economic and cultural power (Kim 278).
By the time of the Liberation from Japan in 1945, the systematic erasure and suppression of Korean shamanism—even with the new Korean reevaluation of shamanism as a symbol of national essence and resistance—meant that this “liberation…did not bring much relief to the mudang. Prejudice against them remained very strong and the police often interfered with their rituals. The activities of the mudang were by many regarded as something shameful, to be hidden from outsiders” (Walraven 12-13). The effects of Japan’s project of utter cultural annihilation—including Japanese ‘scholarship’ on Korean shamanism, which framed the practice as a useless, backwards tradition—remained, and shamanism still remained stigmatized within Korean society. It certainly didn’t help that ‘Liberation’ was not a liberation at all: the United States took Japan’s place, establishing a military government that kept many of the same Korean collaborators with the Japanese colonial rulers in power, and installed a puppet dictator, Syngman Rhee, as the first ‘president’ of the new Republic of Korea. Through genocidal war, government and US-backed massacres of leftists, and an ardently pro-American and anti-communist South Korean state that championed many of the same ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ ideas as the Japanese colonists, the shamanic tradition continued to wane, and in the cities, it seemed to have “disappeared” altogether (Seo 114).
When Rhee was overthrown by the Korean people in 1960—in what is known as the April Revolution—a new popular mood of, in Chungmoo Choi’s words, “romantic nationalism” permeated Korean society, in which, as Dong Kyu Kim argues, “the victory of the folk or minjung over the hegemonic power also meant Korea’s independence from the dominant Western culture and economy” (Kim 99). Even today, some patriotic shamans “commemorate the (April) revolution with the inclusion of ‘those yongsan (ghosts) who fell bleeding by the despot’s guns’” (Hogarth 344)—a continuation of the anti-Japanese shamanistic nationalist consolidation in a new historical context, this time from the perspective of the oppressed Korean people versus the oppressive Korean state.
The victory of the April Revolution was short-lived; Park Chung Hee seized power in a military coup in 1961, ushering in an era of military dictatorship, capitalist development in the name of ‘modernization,’ massacres, violent suppression of labor movements—and an increasingly consolidated state-sanctioned Korean nationalism. Though shamanism was still stigmatized during this period as a barrier to ‘modernization’—with rituals almost nonexistent in public places by 1968 (Hogarth 344)—the government simultaneously began to realize that the shamanic tradition, though perhaps an impediment to capital on an individual and village level, could actually serve a larger political role: reifying a reactionary, nationalist Korean ‘essence’—its prime symbol and pride being the loud, colorful shamanic practice—in service of anti-communism, rapid industrial development and cultural propaganda. Accordingly, the government launched many cultural initiatives during this period, with its Ministry of Culture laboring to “record and protect” (Kendall 19) the shamanic tradition in the 1960s—one landmark being the 1962 ‘Cultural Properties Protection Law’ which allowed for the designation of traditional performing arts and rituals as “intangible cultural heritage[s],” (Kendall 19); essentially a way to pick and choose shamans loyal to state and capital and mark them as the true bearers of “authentic shamanic culture” (Kim 102)—while Park’s agents torched the shrines and totems of other, less special shamans in the countryside in the 1970s. As Kim argues, the Cultural Properties Protection Law was enacted during “the critical formative period” for the new military government, which above all needed to legitimize the power it had violently seized; accordingly, the Law became an effective means of doing so by portraying itself as “conforming to the image of a legitimate ruler as … protector of Korean traditional culture” (99-100).
As part of this project, “revivalist folklorists,” musicologists and students of the 1960s and 1970s also began to apprehend Korean traditions “across a memory horizon of colonial, wartime, and more recent industrial dislocations, against rural mass mobilizations and urban development projects [the New Village Movement], and against the seductive power of Western (in those days largely American) culture” (Kendall 19), realizing that “shamanism was not only worth studying, but also formed an important part of Korean culture” (Walraven 14). While this second approach to the shamanic question at first seems to represent a dissenting voice—attempting to preserve the shamanic tradition ‘against’ government-led initiatives like the New Village Movement as well as Western encroachment—it ultimately overlapped in ideology with the directly state-led movement, displaying, as Chungmoo Choi argues, “little awareness of the need to mount a critique of the dominant [state-led] construction of culture” (111). Just like the government’s cultural initiatives, this early scholarship was largely inspired by the Japanese suppression of Korean culture and a new nationalist desire to reclaim that culture; but, as Choi argues, it was “precisely this criticism of colonial erasure that was the selling point of the cultural policy of the military government” (111).
These ‘folklorists’ were mostly “institutional”—state-funded and recruited—rather than “dissident” (Lee 189), watering down and altering traditions to align with government-led initiatives, and using these criteria to determine what was “worth preserving” (Walraven 17). Post-Liberation in 1945, these government-approved ‘institutional’ Korean folklorists, emerging from decades of Japanese colonizers’ far-reaching attempts to completely eradicate Korean culture, “participated eagerly” in consolidating a new Korean cultural nationalism (Lee 189), carefully constructing a caricatured, static and primitive ‘Korean culture’ that expressed an everlasting ‘Korean essence’ and identity, drawing upon nationalist mythology in the form of Korea’s mythical founder Tan’gun, the “archetypical shaman” (Fenkl). Practitioners altered their rituals and stripped them of many critical religious and cultural elements in order to receive recognition and funding from the government (Walraven 17), and the venerated ‘Human Cultural Treasures’ were required to “conform to government criteria for teaching and performing” (Lee 190); there were even instances of people tricking the government into protecting certain local shamanic traditions that they otherwise would have ignored or suppressed (Walraven 16). The use of shamanism as cultural propaganda and as an artificial example of ‘national heritage’ formed one wing of the same nationalist, capitalist project with the violent eradication of ‘superstitious’ shamanic beliefs that impeded the freest possible flow and development of capital forming the other. Hence, the Korean Shaman Association for Victory over Communism, rather than a contradictory aberration, was the logical extension of this reactionary ideological climate; originally conceived by founder Ch’oe Nam-Ok as a way to “improve the image and status of kangshinmu (shamans)” given that they were “generally ostracized by the community,” the timing was such that he was able, within six months, to “create an organization in South Korea with more than one hundred branches” (Seo 114).
Once regarded as “embarrassing evidence of rural backwardness,” by the early 1970s, with Korea’s capitalist development advancing at full steam, shamans were beginning to become “cultural icons,” funded, boosted and applauded by the government that had very recently sought to destroy them (Kendall 20). Shamans were welcomed into the fold, so to speak, by the South Korean government, to be used as pawns in a long-term war on the cultural front, culminating in propagandistic extravaganzas like the 1988 Seoul Olympics—South Korea’s “triumphant entrance into the ranks of the newly developed nations”—where the shamanic tradition was framed as “part of the national essence that had enabled Koreans to endure adversity and triumph” (Kendall 20). Of course, this blatant, shameless co-optation conveniently papers over the decades of abstract ‘adversity,’ which were actually decades of breakneck capitalist development, military dictatorships, massacres, union-busting, and other horrifying acts of violence and terror—including those specifically directed against shamans and their traditions. Again and again, shamanism was conveniently rehabilitated to justify and obscure the heinous crimes committed in the name of capitalist development and anti-communism: in a particularly disgusting example, in May 1981, military dictator Chun Doo-Hwan staged a “Grand Festival of Traditional Culture,” where “6,000 students from 198 universities and 7,000 citizens” participated in a five-day “celebration” of Korean national folk culture—evaluated by a “symposium of Korean folklorists” the following year as “a fabricated or manipulated folklore” used to “rationalize the unjust regime” (Seo 37)— almost exactly one year after gunning down, with US backing, dissident students and protesters in Gwangju.
Fanon wrote of the ecstatic rituals performed by the colonized:
Another aspect of the colonized’s affectivity can be seen when it is drained of energy by the ecstasy of dance. Any study of the colonial world therefore must include an understanding of the phenomena of dance and possession. The colonized’s way of relaxing is precisely this muscular orgy during which the most brutal aggressiveness and impulsive violence are channeled, transformed, and spirited away. The dance circle is a permissive circle. It protects and empowers. At a fixed time and a fixed date men and women assemble in a given place, and under the solemn gaze of the tribe launch themselves into a seemingly disarticulated, but in fact extremely ritualized, pantomime where the exorcism, liberation, and expression of a community are grandiosely and spontaneously played out through shaking of the head, and back and forward thrusts of the body. Everything is permitted in the dance circle. The hillock, which has been climbed as if to get closer to the moon, the river bank, which has been descended whenever the dance symbolizes ablution, washing, and purification, are sacred places. Everything is permitted, for in fact the sole purpose of the gathering is to let the supercharged libido and the stifled aggressiveness spew out volcanically. Symbolic killings, figurative cavalcades, and imagined multiple murders, everything has to come out. The ill humors seep out, tumultuous as lava flows. One step further and we find ourselves in deep possession. In actual fact, these are organized seances of possession and dispossession: vampirism, possession by djinns, by zombies, and by Legba, the illustrious god of voodoo. Such a disintegration, dissolution or splitting of the personality, plays a key regulating role in ensuring the stability of the colonized world. On the way there these men and women were stamping impatiently, their nerves ‘on edge.’ On the way back, the village returns to serenity, peace, and stillness. (19-20)
In his framing, the superstitious communal rituals of the colonized allow for an ultimately nonviolent diversion or dispersion of their potentially violent rage against the colonizer, a ‘spiriting away’ that serves a “regulating role” in “ensuring the stability” of the colony. When the liberation struggle reaches a certain terminal velocity, faced with the multiplying, unrelenting violence of the colonizer, there is “a singular loss of interest in these rituals”:
With his back to the wall, the knife at his throat, or to be more exact the electrode on his genitals, the colonized subject is bound to stop telling stories. After years of unreality, after wallowing in the most extraordinary phantasms, the colonized subject, machine gun at the ready, finally confronts the only force which challenges his very being: colonialism. And the young colonized subject who grows up in an atmosphere of fire and brimstone has no scruples mocking zombie ancestors, two-headed horses, corpses woken from the dead, and djinns who, taking advantage of a yawn, slip inside the body. The colonized subject discovers reality and transforms it through his praxis, his deployment of violence and his agenda for liberation. (20-21)
The practical task of revolution by any means necessary disperses these mythic rituals; the “ill humors,” instead of dissipating in the midst of the dance circle, are sharpened and directed towards building the revolution:
We have seen that this violence throughout the colonial period, although constantly on edge, runs on empty. We have seen it channeled through the emotional release of dance or possession. We have seen it exhaust itself in fratricidal struggles. The challenge now is to seize this violence as it realigns itself. Whereas it once reveled in myths and contrived ways to commit collective suicide, a fresh set of circumstances will now enable it to change directions. (21)
While Fanon initially seems to be arguing against the weaponizing of culture in the revolutionary struggle, seeing it as a diversion of the colonized’s precious energy and time, later in Wretched of the Earth, in the chapter “On National Culture,” he actually argues for the critical importance of subjective, cultural work and the consolidation of an anti-colonial national culture in the revolution. The “colonized intellectual,” galvanized by the ongoing struggle, begins to produce “combat literature, revolutionary literature, national literature,” and feel the urgent need to “proclaim their nation, to portray their people” in defiance of the colonizers (159), emerging from the black hole of total cultural death that colonizers impose on the colonized. Later in Wretched, Fanon asserts that through this newly vibrant cultural work, the colonized subject “restructures his own perception. The world no longer seems doomed. Conditions are ripe for the inevitable confrontation” (176).
However, Fanon is adamant that the cultural worker must understand that “nothing can replace the rational and irreversible commitment on the side of the people in arms” (162), and that “in order to secure hope, in order to give it substance, he must take part in the action and commit himself body and soul to the national struggle…muscle power is required” (167). Cultural work, though critical to the struggle, must be grounded in practical revolutionary work: “One cannot divorce the combat for culture from the people’s struggle for liberation…The Algerian national culture takes form and shape during the fight, in prison, facing the guillotine, and in the capture and destruction of the French military positions” (168). Ultimately, Fanon believes that revolution and national liberation, “the conscious, organized struggle undertaken by a colonized people in order to restore national sovereignty constitutes the greatest cultural manifestation that exists”:
It is not solely the success of the struggle that consequently validates and energizes culture; culture does not go into hibernation during the conflict. The development and internal progression of the actual struggle expand the number of directions in which culture can go and hint at new possibilities. The liberation struggle does not restore to national culture its former values and configurations. This struggle, which aims at a fundamental redistribution of relations between men, cannot leave intact either the form or substance of the people’s culture. After the struggle is over, there is not only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized. (178)
In arguing that practical revolutionary work in the “conscious, organized struggle” is “the greatest cultural manifestation that exists,” Fanon is not at all arguing for the reverse, that cultural work is automatically practical revolutionary work; rather, the subjective cultural work and the objective political work are dialectically linked, and the former must be grounded in the latter, in active revolutionary practice and struggle. As Freire put it: “Subjectivity and objectivity thus join in a dialectical unity producing knowledge in solidarity…one cannot conceive of objectivity without subjectivity. Neither can exist without the other, nor can they be dichotomized” (38). So, far from arguing that cultural work is a waste of the colonized’s time, Fanon argues for a grounding of the subjective work in objective political work, where both subjective and objective factors are critical to achieving liberation, and neither aspect can achieve that goal without the other. Against a mechanistic rather than dialectical conception of revolution, Freire further elaborates: “‘Cultural revolution’ takes the total society to be reconstructed, including all human activities, as the object of its remolding action. Society cannot be reconstructed in a mechanistic fashion; the culture which is culturally recreated through revolution is the fundamental instrument for this reconstruction” (158).
History has shown that the communal ritual, more than being a simple ‘emotional release,’ can actually play a practical role in liberation struggle: as just one example—as Hyun-key Kim Hogarth points out—in the 1960s and 1970s, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) “received the traditional spirit mediums’ approval and assistance, which helped them gain the support and assistance of the peasants. The young guerrillas were legitimated as the returning ancestors by traditional spirit mediums, by observing the ritual rules set by them” (337). In Korea, too, while the government twisted the shamanic tradition into a tool of nationalist propaganda, workers, students, and the oppressed majority of Korean society—categorized at the time under the broad umbrella term minjung—also weaponized shamanism and its rituals in service of practical, popular revolt and resistance in the 1970s and 1980s.
Though the minjung culture movement played a critical role in the mass Korean dissident and labor movements of the latter half of the 20th century, culminating in the end of military dictatorship in the 1990s and the ‘democratization’ of Korea, they never achieved their goal of revolution. As will be seen in their struggle, though there was a significant and often effective political element to the movement that bolstered the broader labor and democratization movement, and the movement inarguably, as Chungmoo Choi argues, “left an indelible mark on modern Korean history…because it opened up an alternative epistemological space [where] a large number of elite and members of the oppressed class found common ground for solidarity in the name of cultural nationalism [and] mobilized massive numbers from the middle class” (117), it ultimately remained at the stage of a ‘spiriting away’ of energy through cultural work that encouraged ‘collective ecstasy,’ but was less sure of how to channel and sublimate that ecstasy towards the primary task of the “transformation of [the] nation” (117). As Choi asks: “What good is resistance without anticipated transformation?” (118)
A brief survey of thought from the minjung culture movement is directly reminiscent of Fanon’s passage on the cathartic, but ultimately, lacking a concrete, ongoing basis in practical struggle, politically insufficient ‘ecstatic rituals’ of the colonized:
Kim Yolgyu had argued that during the shamanic ritual-festival, community members experience shared ecstasy; following this idea, Ch’ae Hui-wan asserted that, through this collective ecstasy, members of the community achieve not only a sense of communal solidarity but also the energy to struggle together against the exploitative ruling class.
Noting that ecstasy is quintessential to the shamanic transformation, Kim applied the notion of collective ecstasy to the ideas of minjung culture as a principal force of transformation. Through collective ecstasy, the oppressed people reach a certain state of communitas; in this state, a collective will to struggle is formed, and energy is drawn to break through the social and political impasse—a revolution.
Paek Kiwan, director of the National Unification Research Institute and a presidential candidate during the 1987 national referendum, is also an adviser to the National Kut (shamanic ritual) Association. Paek expands the meaning of ritual to encompass the people’s struggle to overcome and transcend national conflicts. To put it simply, the kut is a metaphor of the struggle for national unification. He maintains that unification can be achieved through collective ecstasy.
Ecstasy, Paek continues, is a momentum through which each individual experiences true transformation of self. It becomes an aesthetic moment when individual experience merges with social praxis. Ecstasy in this sense should become the very momentum from which history “develops.” Paek suggests that shamanic ritual is a historical experience through which one learns the history of a people’s struggle and revolution. (Choi 115-117)
Here, the dangers of the subjective simply becoming the objective, rather than being dialectically linked to, but qualitatively different from, the objective, become clear: though the “kut is a metaphor of the struggle for national unification,” Paek somehow “maintains that unification can be achieved through collective ecstasy”; in collective ritual, a subjective “will to struggle is formed,” whose “energy”—vaguely defined—can somehow be “drawn to break through the social and political impasse” in the form of revolution. Ultimately, this is, as Choi argues, “the limitation of the politics of aesthetics and, to a large extent, of critical thinking without an informed agenda” (118): the intoxicating, exciting, and, yes, critically important subjective work made it easy to believe that the objective work would simply spring from the former, or, as Freire says, “divert the recognition of oppression into patient waiting for oppression to disappear by itself” (50).
Minjung was “a political term used by both nationalists and leftists during the colonial period and in the post-war years” (Koo 143), and had a strongly nationalist character; it was also a relatively vague term that did not correlate with the more precisely defined proletariat or lumpenproletariat, and during this period was led by what can best be described as the Korean petit bourgeoisie—university students and ‘intellectuals’—in coalition with the Korean proletariat. The minjung activists found threads in the shamanic and broader folk traditions that aligned with their revolutionary philosophy: the ‘communal’ spirit found in rituals, where “there is no fixed stage, no separation of the performers and audience, and no strict following of the written script,” and active audience participation, in which “performers and audience join together to dance with a heightened spirit of joy and release,” leading to feelings of “spontaneity, naturalness, and a communal feeling of solidarity” (Koo 145). As a result, shamanic rituals became “strategic tools of mobilization” in the broader labor and democratization movement: the extremely loud drums and gongs of the typical shamanic ritual “played an effective role in student gatherings, stirring up the collective mood for a violent confrontation with the police” (Koo 145). Shamanic rituals were also used to recruit “passive ordinary workers” (Koo 148) into the militant labor movement, with the robust national network of cultural activities and performers allowing for mass political education, a general sense of “togetherness” that broke down “psychological or social barriers among workers” and the ability to cultivate “close ties across firms and geographic areas” between labor organizers (Koo 149). At the labor movement’s height, there was “hardly a sit-in or strike in the 1980s” (Koo 149) that was not accompanied by the clashing, clanging sound of traditional gongs and drums; the “sonic associations with dissent” were understood by “ordinary citizens,” establishing a kind of “Morse code for movement or action” (Lee 198). The dizzying, visceral and politically awakening effect of these protest rituals can be felt in this passage from the biography of Jeon Tae-Il, a labor organizer who self-immolated in 1970 in protest of abusive working conditions, becoming an icon of the modern Korean labor movement:
The sound of the demonstrators’ drums urging the people to shake off their submission to the oppressors and to take to the streets, makes all minjung blood boil. The beat of the drums sounds louder when exploitation and oppression are more severe, or when the minjung’s forced silence is long. To the guilty oppressors’ ears, the drums sound like the beginning of their end. Therefore the oppressors are keen to crack down on demonstrations, or sometimes make concessions to the demonstrators. This is how all historical “concessions” of the oppressors and the minjung’s “peaceful victories” have been achieved…Demonstration is not an act to appeal to the power holder’s conscience, mercy or sympathy. It is a threat to the oppressors by showing the demonstrators’ counter power. This can take many forms, including voting in an election, violence, or the influence of public opinion. Therefore, to demonstrate is not to beg those in power to “do something,” but rather to threaten: “Do this or you will be in trouble.” (Cho 291)
What was once a more-or-less one-sided cultural assault—the government’s violent co-optation of shamanic tradition in service of nationalist capitalist ideology—had evolved into a cultural battle, in which opposing forces sought to weaponize the shamanic tradition to serve their own aims.
On the ritual level, the minjung’s use of shamanic rituals could be described as “political theater,” (Sorensen 3) where the purpose is to “affect consciousness” by penetrating “directly to the emotions” to “rouse the spectator to action,” presenting “political issues on a personal level that taps the emotional memory of the spectators and connects this memory with political symbols” (Sorensen 5). At its core, this new weaponizing of shamanic tradition sought to shift the act “from drama (the spectacle observed) to ritual (transformative participation in the event),” and “to transform the audience from detached individuals into members of a collective who affirmed a shared vision of a new political and cultural community and participated in it” (Lee 203). Ultimately, the expansive scope and scale of this new practice formed “a non-market-oriented cultural space,” and “an alternative way of living and working in the dominant capitalist system…challenging the boundaries between labor and leisure, producer and consumer, bourgeois and worker” (Lee 188).
The fact that this movement ultimately centered on a new ‘cultural space’ raises the tension between subjective, individualist drive towards ‘self-discovery’ and ‘self-expression,’ and the objective, daily task of fighting the capitalist police state tooth and nail. Beyond the aforementioned concrete practical uses of shamanic rituals and folk performances—acting as ‘strategic tools of mobilization,’ an effective way to harness collective anger and discontent, a way to recruit passive workers into the movement, and a way to form and maintain national lines of communication between labor organizers—the ‘cultural’ aspect of the movement meant that, for many practitioners, folk performance was “initially not so much a political vehicle for opposition or resistance against the state or dominant culture but rather a way to recover individual and national identity” (Lee 192). In the words of one practitioner:
To perform mask dance is to search for myself.
We found in folk culture the direction we have to go and we have recovered the meaning of the past in the present; we have found a way of reflecting upon ourselves.
We have [until now] indiscriminately accepted Western culture, forgetting our own sense of beauty; we have to cure this disease with our own sense of mirth.
We are not saying that Korea’s folk culture is the most sublime…We are saying that it is something we feel close to and something that moves us profoundly. (Lee 192)
The practitioners ultimately aimed to “change the real world by inducing transformations in the world of symbol and rite” (Lee 203). Though this interior work of self-discovery is of critical importance in anti-colonial resistance movements, where colonists attempt to eradicate every vestige of the colonized’s culture, it risks becoming an end in itself rather than one component of many in the process of total liberation: what role does the “world of symbol and rite” play in, as Fanon put it, the “practical tasks people are asked to undertake in the liberation struggle” like “Giving food to the mujahideen, stationing lookouts, helping deprived families and taking over from the slain or imprisoned husband” (19)? The minjung always emphasized the “cathartic effect” of their practices, which “encouraged the audience to question the socio-political system” at the same time as it “allowed the audience to release its own grievances in the controlled framework of the dramatic performance” (Lee 209). This ‘catharsis’ centered on the concept of han, a contentious and often-misused term, described by minjung activists as “the pain of the politically and socially oppressed Korean masses” stemming from “bitter national experience, colonization, national division, fratricidal war, military occupation, and economic exploitation” (Kendall 22). This han was ‘released’ via the shamanic rituals where performers “invoked and comforted the souls of students and workers who had died in the cause of social justice as ‘martyrs for democracy’” (Kendall 20). Though the fact that this new movement, as discussed, extended far beyond ‘cathartic’ street performances and purely cultural work to issues of political education and agitation, mass strikes and protests, and, yes, mutual aid and support in the practical day-to-day struggle, the cultural aspect of the movement always left the possibility of a deviation towards bourgeois individualism rather than revolutionary communalism: a constant ‘spiriting away’ of pent-up grief, rage and anger—han—into the ether that becomes a self-justified practice rather than just one component of many aimed at revolution.
These tensions can be seen in examining the minjung’s interactions with the venerated shamans themselves, whose traditions and practices formed the critical, foundational pillar of the entire movement. Many of the activists were students who, “having been born and raised in urban settings, have lost direct contact with traditional village life” (Sorensen 28); in fact, Clark Sorensen argues that this fundamental separation was the “essential condition for the revival of the village ceremonies…Were they still villagers, appropriation of folk forms would indelibly mark students with low class status and ignorance—the antithesis of the qualities that make their demonstrations legitimate” (29). Without establishing a crude ‘both sides’ argument here—the Korean government was a fascist military dictatorship, and the minjung activists fought it from beginning to end—it can still be pointed out that this divide between the students and the countryside allowed for a similarly convenient ability for them to ‘construct’ a new, supposedly ‘authentic’ shamanism, just as the government did; Dong Kyu Kim argues that their method extracted and emphasized “only a few aspects of shamanism” (104).
To their credit, many minjung activists “did not hesitate to serve apprenticeships under shamans who were considered the transmitters of genuine Korean traditional arts and spirit” (Kim 95), and the movement “brought socially marginal shamans into close contact with university students and dissident intellectuals who sought them out and studied their chants and dances in order to perform more authentic protest kut” (Kendall 22). However, the response from the shamans to the minjung movement was varied and contradictory:
Many of the older shamans, long wary of government harassment and protective of their newly favored status, avoided involvement with the students, but younger shamans welcomed the attention of their more privileged age peers. Some continued their own practice with an expanded political consciousness, while others came to feel exploited and disillusioned with students who, rather than using the kut to comfort their fallen comrades and their own turbulent hearts, seemed to use the shaman as a mouthpiece for political slogans. (Kendall 22)
Thus, the minjung version of shamanism—based on limited experience with the actual rural lifestyle that they upheld as representative of an authentic ‘Koreanness’ threatened by ‘modernization’ and Westernization—was often criticized as, in Kim Seong-nae’s words, “an ideological construct” (Kim 97), or an “invented tradition” rather than a “‘real tradition’ sanctioned by transmission from time immemorial” (Sorensen 3). By introducing an explicitly contemporary political element into this new shamanic practice, which addressed “virtually every social issue, from Korea’s dependence on the United States and Japan to the suppression of workers’ rights, freedom of the press, pollution, urbanization, and the forced removal of urban slum dwellers” (Lee 204), the minjung activists, though they sought to and often successfully did address “the everyday lived experience of the people” (Lee 204), still were not merely “interested in a mere preservation of the rituals of the so-called authentic mudang” (Walraven 20). Rather, they, in their own words, “firmly reject[ed] the current imperialistic view which looks down on the kut of our people as superstition or wild ravings…and advocate[d] the total rehabilitation of our kut as a way of struggle to break the shackles of the oppression of our nation and our people’” (Walraven 20). In the process of this ‘rehabilitation,’ they shaped and altered the existing shamanic tradition to their own ends, sometimes—as Ju Gang-hyeon and Cho Hung-yoon point out—even criticizing the latter and its private rituals as not embodying “the authentic nature of Korean shamanism” but rather just “a corrupted and vulgar form of it” (Kim 97).
This established a complex dynamic in which, on the one hand, though the activists idealized the rural peasant life as symbolic of an authentic Korean ‘essence’ being erased by capitalism and imperialism, it could be argued that, ultimately, through this often-fetishistic objectification, they actually connected the shamanic tradition with the ongoing concrete political reality of their surroundings: through abstraction, they engaged directly with the concrete. And, on the other hand, the typical shaman of the period that didn’t engage with, or criticized, the political aspects of the minjung movement, and practiced shamanism mostly via private rituals that the minjung criticized as being ‘inauthentic’ compared to their own community-oriented version, engaged in a daily, concrete shamanic practice, and upheld it as representative of the true ‘essence’ of shamanism—a timeless abstraction that had to be protected against interested parties like the government and the activists who would twist and warp the tradition to their own ends: through the concrete, they reified the abstract.
The movement, though it produced critical, real ruptures in state power and authority in its activity, was ultimately ‘arrested’ at this intermediate stage of intellectual, ideological, cultural and political development, leading—with the help of constant police repression and state violence—to its eventual dissipation.
The minjung project, though critical to the militant uprisings and labor movement in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually reached a dead end as some of their demands were met by the government, which began ‘democratizing’ after the Great Worker Struggle of 1987. Though the movement was broad and encompassed a wide social and political spectrum, as a whole, Namhee Lee argues that it ultimately “never categorically disavowed the modern notion of nation-state or capitalist development,” usually acting in terms of a “binary opposition to the state” and portraying themselves as “nationalistic and true inheritors of the nationalist legacy” (154). On the one hand—there having been many communists in the movement—this preoccupation with the state is in line with the Marxist-Leninist idea of revolution, where, during the transitional socialist phase, the state plays a key role in suppressing the bourgeoisie after the proletariat seizes power, paving the way for the eventual ‘withering away’ of the state apparatus entirely. And nationalism, though reactionary ‘in the abstract’ and in the bourgeois context, does play a key role in anti-colonial liberation struggles. On the other hand, as soon as the “bad dictatorship” was exchanged for “good power” in the form of a parliamentary democracy (Lee 297), the movement disintegrated, caught up in a complex relationship with Korea’s newfound prosperity ‘won’ with the blood of countless Korean workers at the hands of the fascist government (though this was by no means the end of state violence). As soon as the conditions of daily life began to improve, the activists—suddenly finding themselves at the tail end of Korea’s violent capitalist developmentalist enterprise in a nominal ‘democracy’ with unprecedented economic power and stability relative to the destitution of the majority of its 20th-century existence—as Lee argues, “found it difficult to extricate themselves from the double nature of modernization and economic growth” (298), especially given the deeply nationalist and state-focused trappings of their movement. Though this is the subjective, internal element in the disintegration of the minjung movement, the decades of brutal suppression and massacres by the military dictatorships won a bloody war of attrition against the possibility of any remotely dissident or ‘left’ movement beyond the new parliamentary democracy; state weapons like the National Security Law, which still exists today—not to mention the wholesale massacres of leftists like those at Jeju and Gwangju—made any remotely anti-government activity punishable by ostracization, imprisonment or execution for most of South Korea’s history.
In this new context, many Koreans in the 1990s—especially those in the countryside—“distance[d] themselves not only from the military authoritarian culture of the recent past but also from the righteousness and drama of dissent—from the totalizing projects of both the Left and the Right” (Abelmann, 231):
Recalling the 1980s, what comes to people’s minds are the infringements on personal life imposed by both military authoritarian rule and the culture of dissent. People remember: when urban spaces were consumed by the violence of demonstrations and their suppression; when the government demanded sacrifice and restraint in the name of political stability and economic development; and when the moral prerogatives of the Left made those with progressive inclinations feel guilty that they could not do more. (Abelmann 231)
Far from making an equal implication between the government’s crimes and the actions of the minjung, this general attitude is more a reflection of the former’s ideological victory through protracted violence (the aforementioned war of attrition), a general exhaustion at the seemingly endless wars, upheavals and bloodshed that characterized Korea’s entire 20th century, and, in comparison to the outright violence committed by the state until the late 1980s, a feeling that democracy had finally arrived and that life could finally go on as usual. It certainly didn’t hurt that South Korea had, by this point, become a global economic powerhouse, even though this meant very little for the vast majority of Koreans still oppressed under a capitalist system.
As capitalism, by its very nature, works in cycles of breathless booms and devastating crises, Korea’s breakneck development was bound to come to a brutal and violent end. In 1997, the Korean economy—built on a foundation of chaebols, or massive national conglomerates with monopoly power over all key industries, run as nepotistic dynasties, with roots in collaboration with the Japanese colonizers—tanked, eventually leading the government to ask the IMF for a multi-billion-dollar bailout package. Of course, the IMF, being a crucial weapon of international capital that forces open new territories to plunder under the guise of ‘assistance,’ demanded vast structural ‘reforms’ that devastated the Korean working class; its apocalyptic effects are still felt today, as the South Korean state, even with the most nominally ‘progressive’ president in years, populous unions, and one of the world’s most militant labor movements, continues to wage war on workers: many are reduced to unemployment or precarious, often deadly temporary work with no benefits or liability (Choi), and the chaebols still rule—now side-by-side with the flood of international capital post-IMF. A passage from Laurel Kendall illuminates this reality:
Like old ghosts from another time, images of unemployed men sleeping in public parks, abandoned children, and suicides haunted the media and nearly every conversation. While no precipitous disaster had as yet befallen my immediate contacts, everyone seemed to have been affected in at least some small way. The struggling shopkeeper or restaurant proprietor found it difficult to muster even a scrap of optimism for better times, the cab driver sat idle for hours in a queue of empty vehicles waiting for a fare, the dance instructor’s long-standing classes for bank employees were cancelled for lack of funds, the civil servant wondered if he would still have a job after the next anticipated round of layoffs. While the reforms imposed by the IMF had been touted as ushering in a new era of transparency and accountability in the banking and corporate sectors, for people on the street, the future was illegible…“IMF” had become “a household word symbolizing economic difficulties and national disgrace,” the shorthand for a climate of despair, a climate in the sense of a force of nature, invisible in its onset but devastating in its consequences. (Kendall 145)
In this dire climate, as Korea’s ruling class began to ‘recover’ from 1997’s crisis, the government, with much of the manufacturing sector still devastated, increasingly turned to culture and entertainment, observing “the growing interest in South Korean films, dramas, and popular music” internationally, and “supported the development of the South Korean cultural industry as a new economic policy” (Lee 66) in what is now popularly known as Hallyu or the Korean Wave. It is not difficult to see this as an extension of the shamanic culture war as outlined above: the state weaponizing culture, making it somehow representative of an intangible ‘Korean essence’ that allows for earthshattering achievements like ‘The Miracle on the Han River’—better known as decades of brutal capitalist development that left thousands of bodies in its wake—as a way to distract from its ongoing abuses and acts of violence. The lineage holds when examining shamans as an actual group in contemporary Korean society; just as the state historically oppressed the vast majority of shamans and their practices, allowing a select loyal few into the fold while championing their practices as the most precious and priceless example of Korean heritage, shamans today—as before, with the exception of a few state-sanctioned ‘Intangible Cultural Treasures’ and, with the advent of the Internet and social media, ‘superstar’ shamans—operate as still-stigmatized cultural workers forced to adapt to the brutality of post-IMF Korea.
One shaman listed her previous jobs before becoming a successful shaman: “I held various job titles and worked in almost any place you could imagine, ranging from modeling (for three years in the early 1990s) to cooking staff at a pizza joint” (Chung). Established shamans—the vast majority of whom are women—if married, typically support their families and have husbands who “cannot or [do] not earn an adequate income” (Fenkl), and shamans often cater to the middle and upper classes for economic reasons, sometimes charging “exorbitant fees and piling up excesses of offering food” (Kendall 131), invoking gods like “the Spirit Warrior of Business, the Spirit Warrior of Commerce, the Electrician’s Spirit Warrior, [and] the commerce Official of the XX Flower Shop” (Kendall 139). Far from indicting this contemporary shamanism as completely morally bankrupt or greedy, the fact that its rituals are oriented towards ‘commerce’ exemplifies the fragmented and contradictory trajectory of the shamanic tradition as a whole; as Kendall argues, an “active shamanic practice that grapples daily with business risk has left the minjung far behind,” and their practices, “no less than those of the peasants, miners, and proletarians described in other places, are a means of apprehending, of attempting to exert some control over seemingly arbitrary market motion” (152). One observer, Jorge Mañes Rubio, found, in speaking with shamans in 2018, that rather than continuing to “sing the same songs they sang 300 years ago” and “follow the same rules” like government-approved cultural treasures, many shamans today “don’t agree with only maintaining tradition,” and believe that “every ritual should be different, and should be flexible and modified according to the needs of the client,” seeing their role as “someone who establishes or restores balance to people’s lives” (Eng). In uncertain social, political and economic times, post-IMF shamanism attempts to soothe crippling anxieties stemming from these conditions, and to offer the ‘catharsis’ of the minjung rituals on a smaller, more personal scale.
On the client side, post-IMF shamanism has evolved into a kind of ‘therapy’ that addresses the ills of capitalism, where the ritual has a “healing function” that “reduces anger and sorrow with psychotherapeutic techniques” (Fenkl)—an important social function given the daily economic struggle, which manifests, for the majority of clients, who are petit bourgeois business owners, in “bad debts, thieving employees, fraud, and the fluctuations of the overheated market, both local and global” (Kendall 143). Shamans see “clients who had lost their jobs, clients at risk of losing their jobs, clients at risk of losing their businesses, clients at risk of losing their investments because they could not meet their payments, clients who had taken defaults on the credit they had extended to family or friends, clients experiencing domestic violence as a consequence of economic stress, and suicides” (Kendall 147). The clients range widely in occupation, but are largely middle and upper class due to the cost of rituals; one investigation found clients as mostly “proprietors of small factories (for stainless steel and for quilt stuffing), a mushroom-importing business, restaurants, and shops to a freelance furniture mover, the proprietress of a hole-in-the-wall bar, and an electrician” (Kendall 138), and many “prominent industrialists and politicians” also participate in shamanic rituals to bestow good luck on their financial and political ventures, though they do so privately so as to avoid being stigmatized (Kendall 138).
On a broader political level, contemporary shamanic practice is fractured and not necessarily politically engaged, but largely nationalistic and anti-communist when it does engage in politics. Various shamans count among their gods General MacArthur—who many in the South see as a war hero and savior, even though he planned to drop 26 nuclear bombs on the North in order to “win” the Korean War (Cumings 750)—Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and even Park Chung Hee. And, though it is common to see shamans performing rituals at the foot of Baekdusan—a sacred, highly symbolic Korean mountain located in the North (Min)—shamans often pray for the reunification of Korea in terms of “South Korea ‘conquering’ North Korea” (Seo)—long-separated siblings ‘conquering’ siblings. Decades of violent capitalist development and anti-communist propaganda are still deeply felt, even in this ‘spiritual’ realm.
Today, the trifurcated, fractured Korean shamanic tradition is actually a dark reflection of the wider political state of things: a few state-sanctioned treasures sit at the top, reaping the rewards of national and international fame and acclaim; the vast majority of practitioners scrabble through the neoliberal wasteland, finding economic stability in soothing the Korean bourgeoisie—the very bourgeoisie that created these hellish conditions in the first place—in their business ventures and tending to the psychic and economic wounds of their fellow petit bourgeoisie, still unrecovered from the IMF crisis and endless decades of bloodshed and war; the Korean working class, though one of the most militant in the world, carries the ghosts of the mass movement of the 1970s and 1980s in its ritual protest practices, but still battles to the death on a daily basis against capitalism and the increasingly perilous conditions of existence under a neoliberal state, with no revolutionary rupture in sight.
While the balance of power between the minjung movement and the state was by default completely tipped in favor of the latter, and the objective conditions under a brutal, fascist military dictatorship are difficult and incredibly dangerous, the minjung movement, though it at points came close to presenting the actual possibility of a revolutionary rupture in Korean society, ultimately suffered from internal contradictions and confusions as can be seen above. Ultimately, my goal in presenting this fascinating and at turns heartbreaking and inspiring story of resistance and, yes, failure—which has been told by many before me, and whose work I am basically summarizing in the telling of this history—is to illuminate our task today, which extends far beyond Korea, and more properly and concisely orient our work, rather than treat it—whether by uncritically venerating, or carelessly denigrating it—as a bygone, outdated history with no contemporary relevance. In the words of Korean communist Kim San:
…death is not defeat. Out of many deaths, victory may be born. There are those of us who would write another verse for this ancient “Song of Ariran.” That last verse is not yet written. We are many dead, and many more have “crossed the Yalu River” into exile. But our return will not be long in the future. (59)
My whole life has been a series of failures, and the history of my country has been a history of failure. I have had only one victory—over myself. This one small victory, however, is enough to give me confidence to go on. Fortunately, the tragedy and defeat I have experienced have not broken but strengthened me. I have few illusions left, but I have not lost faith in men and in the ability of men to create history. Who shall know the will of history? Only the oppressed who must overthrow force in order to live. Only the undefeated in defeat who have lost everything to gain a whole new world in the last battle. Oppression is pain, and pain is consciousness. Consciousness means movement. Millions of men must die and tens of millions must suffer before humanity can be born again. I accept this objective fact. The sight of blood and death and of stupidity and failure no longer obstructs my vision of the future. (315)
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