Religious Transcendentalism: From Fate to Free Will, a Continuous Tension

Human beings have a fundamental longing for the sacred. Religion is the institutionalized result of this longing. A culture without a systematic religion or faith probably does not exist on earth. Korean culture is no exception. Unlike Western civilization, which has been based on Christianity since its inception during the Roman Empire, Korean culture has leaned toward polytheism. Until recently, shamanistic tendencies have been predominant in Korean culture. A major turning point in the religious history of Korea came at the end of the 19th century when Christian missionaries from the West arrived in Korea. Christianity, as a monotheistic religion, rejected polytheism and naturally clashed with Korea’s indigenous shamanism.

A Minor Religious War: Ulhwa by Kim Tong-ni

Ulhwa is a full-length novel written in a tragically lyrical style by Kim Tong-ni about the fundamental changes that took place in Korean culture between the pre-existing shamanism and the new religion, Christianity. In Ulhwa, which is an adaptation of a short story, “The Portrait of a Shaman,” the conflict between the protagonist, Ulhwa (who represents shamanism) and Young-sul (who embodies the Christian faith) is shown by way of a dramatic narrative. Ulhwa’s birth name before she was initiated into shamanism was Ok-seon. Ok-seon has a baby son, Young-sul, who is the result of her secret relationship with a young man in her village. After her son is healed through a shamanistic ritual, she is inflicted with a shamanist ailment (mubyeong). In the end Ulhwa is initiated as a shaman and worships a female deity called Seondosan as her house deity. In both names, Ok-seon and Seondosan, one can see a Taoist influence.

Young-sul, whom Ulhwa sent away to become a Buddhist monk, returns home after undergoing a Christian baptism. He tries to proselytize not only to his mother, but also his stepsister, Weol-hee, who has a different father. Ulhwa, a guardian of shamanism and Young-sul, a Christian apologist, provide different explanations about Weol-hee, who cannot talk. To Ulhwa, her daughter is a princess who ascended from the Taoist heaven, and the fact that she cannot speak the earthly language is analogous to a foreigner who cannot understand the language spoken in an alien place. Young-sul, on the other hand, views Weol-hee akin to someone in the New Testament who has been possessed by an evil spirit. He insists that once she is freed from her bondage, she will then be able to speak.

What adds a theatrical element to Ulhwa is the shamanist ritual and the Christian method of prayer. The novel also provides a glimpse into a transcendental world that a reader can by no means perceive in its entirety. The novel is replete with episodes of a ferocious spiritual warfare, such as pictures of Jesus as a ghost all in red, which are done by Weol-hee, who can draw well with the help of her mother’s spell and Ulhwa’s shamanistic ritual in which she condemns Jesus and burns the Bible. When her son tries to stop her, she ends up stabbing him with a kitchen knife. The microcosmic religious feud that takes place within a family is but a fierce battle between the old world as represented by Korea and the new continent, as well as the warfare between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

1. The Rainy Spell
Yun Heunggil, Jimoondang Pub, 2002

2. Ulhwa, La Exorsista
Kim Tong-ni, Editorial Complutense, 2000

3. Les descendants de Caïn
Hwang Sun-Won, Zulma, 2002

4. The Reverse Side of Life
Lee Seung-U, Peter Owen, 2005

The Shamanistic Reconciliation: Yun Heunggil’s The Rainy Spell

In shamanism, people endeavor to placate and supplicate a deity in order to obtain a desired goal. Fear of hardships is only natural, and therefore human beings try to appease the deity to avoid misfortune and attain fortune. Shamanism is close to mythology in that people have devised it in order to protect their fragile selves.

The novella The Rainy Spell by Yun Heunggil adopts Korean shamanism as a possible solution to a conflict. The paternal and maternal sides of the family of a little boy, who is the protagonist of this book, feud about their ideological differences. The boy’s maternal uncle is a highly learned and refined man who was a member of the South Korean army during the Korean War when he was killed. The boy’s paternal uncle, in contrast, is not very educated and has a volatile temperament. He worked as a forced laborer for the North Korean army during the Korean War, and then suddenly disappeared. The boy’s maternal relatives freeload off the paternal relatives, and the two parties have a tension-filled relationship concerning the survival of their sons.

The boy’s paternal and maternal grandmothers, who are the actual heads of their respective families, both believe in shamanism. That is why the boy’s maternal grandmother believes her son has died after she dreams about it, whereas the boy’s paternal grandmother listens to a blind fortuneteller and prepares a feast for the return of her son. A large snake however is what actually shows up on the said day. If the milieu in which the story The Rainy Spell t...