Shamanism in the Fiction of Hwang Sun-Won

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byHwang 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 of questioning: What is the source of the protagonist’s loneliness that he feels is inescapable, and how can he ease this loneliness? Hwang contrasts this series of questions with a myth about the Bull Prince circulated among butchers. The Bull Prince Myth, based on the popular deification of cattle, was passed down through the generations by those in the butcher caste, who gave it a unique narrative structure so that, over time, it changed in form until it even came to include the function of a shamanist ritual.

The Bull Prince Myth can be classed as a monomyth, with the hero’s departure, initiation, and return constituting its basic structure. The Prince is the son of the Heavenly King, and he is raised within the order of the Celestial Kingdom. Viewed in terms of his noble status, we can see that the protagonist fits the characteristics of the hero of a monomyth. Being sent to the world below to toil for humans as a punishment for breaking the rules of heaven is analogous to the hero’s setting off on adventures in order to fulfill his great destiny. Likewise, the prince’s return to heaven after giving up his labor and life for humans is comparable to the hero overcoming adversity and achieving his intended goal.

This myth of the Bull Prince forms the structural motif of Sunlight, Moonlight, Hwang’s novel about the spiritual journey of a protagonist who undergoes deep-rooted suffering as he discovers he is descended from butchers, and his path towards alleviating it.


Contrasting Shamanism with Christianity

In The Moving Fortress, the factors controlling Koreans’ deep consciousness and surface consciousness, namely, shamanism and Christianity, are pitted directly against each other, and through this technique, the author lays bare the confused structure of the Korean psyche. In the course of Christianity’s coming to Korea and taking hold, it became mixed with shamanism, losing its essence and becoming distorted. In other words, the novel adopts a neutral perspective to criticize the negative way in which shamanism and Christianity have affected one another.

For this project, the writer incorporates a vast amount of cultural historical research on shamanism, a belief system that has been deeply rooted in the people’s psyche since ancient times, and he comes to grasp its true nature, as well as its present reality and limits. He criticizes shamanism from an objective perspective, contrasting it with Christianity, and suggests the possibility of transcending its limits.

In the novel, Hwang explores the spiritual world of Koreans through the lives of three characters: Jun-tae, an agricultural engineer who claims that Koreans are by nature a nomadic people, and who lives and dies a nomad of this type; Seong-ho, a pastor who has borne the weight of something like original sin since having an affair with his teacher’s wife as a young man, and has gone on to embarace all kinds of hardships while walking a path of contrition in search of truth; and Min-gu the folklorist, a pragmatist always able to change religious or scholarly convictions for his own profit, who becomes deeply immersed in the study of shamanism.

Today’s Korean Christianity, like shamanism, takes on a sickly and abhorrent aspect if viewed from Hwang’s perspective: it is like “a moving fortress” adrift on a shaky foundation. The writer says that if we are to restore the foundation to its original state and build a proper stronghold, then we should walk along a road like Seong-ho’s: the road of perceiving God in His truth, and putting pure faith into action. 


by Kim Juseong