Shamanism in the Fiction of Hwang Sun-Won

An overview of Hwang Sun-Won’s fiction

Hwang Sun-Won (1915-2000) is one of the great Korean authors of the twentieth century. Hwang started writing in 1931, publishing his first poem, “My Dream,” at the age of sixteen, and by June 1936, he had published two volumes of poetry. But with the publication of a collection of short stories in 1937, he started anew as a writer of fiction. Since that time, immersing himself in the writing of fiction for over fifty years, Hwang managed to avoid being caught up in fashions of the times and stayed consistently true to the course of literature, creating his own distinctive fictional universe. During this period, he released 104 short stories, seven novels, and one novella.

     In his early period as a writer, Hwang usually depicted folk customs in his works. He devoted himself to the sensuous description of human interiority, and showed great affection for sentiments native to Korea and the people’s traditional spirit. Traditional farm towns or mountain villages serve as the stage for stories of the kind described above, stories such as “Cock Ritual” (1938), “Stars” (1940), “Children of the Mountain Village” (1940), and Serenade” (1943), in which Hwang portrays the lives of poor yet simple people, and the beauty of their powerful, primal will to live.

     After 1950, Hwang sought to portray the ideal of mother love through a variety of female characters. In stories such as “Cranes” (1953) and “Rain Shower” (1953), his short fiction reached full maturity. Meanwhile, in great novels such as Living with the Stars (1950), The Descendants of Cain (1954), Trees on a Slope (1960), Sunlight, Moonlight (1962), and The Moving Fortress (1973), he explored in great depth the question of eternity and the problem of existential solitude and alienation.


Shamanism in Hwang’s fiction

One of the defining aspects of Hwang’s works— from the short stories of his early period to the novels he wrote towards the end—is the original way in which shamanistic elements are incorporated. Shamanism originated along with Korean history itself. Deeply rooted in the life of the people, it formed the substratum of traditional culture and was passed down from generation to generation. Hwang suffused the short stories of his early period with elements of this traditional belief system, which bore with it the heritage of native sentiments and traditional spirit. In the case of these early stories, set in farm towns or mountain villages – “Cock Ritual,” “Stars,” “Children of the Mountain Village,” and Serenade” – a chain of shamanistic elements comprises the narrative development and also acts as the medium for important thematic imagery. Examples of this include the slaughter of the rooster in “Cock Ritual” as the motif of a sacrificial rite; the magic of the curse in “Stars” the folktale in “Children of the Mountain Village” as the motif of the rite of passage; and the story about the shaman in “Serenade” that functions as a metaphor for the darkness of the times.

     In the novels he wrote from 1950 until 1970, besides painting the palette of Korean sentiments, Hwang devoted attention to the problem of social change and the fundamental question of human existence. In the course of doing so, he continued to incorporate shamanistic elements in a number of the works. In the novels Sunlight, Moonlight, and The Moving Fortress in particular, the world of shamanism is foregrounded and fully realized, and it functions as the core motif of thematic representation and plot development.

In Sunlight, Moonlight, the narrative structure consists of a line...