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

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byYun Heunggil

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 takes place was the rational modern world, then a snake would be viewed as a disgusting animal. But both grandmothers regard the snake as the reincarnation of a person.

In this novel, the shamanistic worldview is delineated as an all-encompassing faith that can even embrace the conflicting ideologies that have divided up North and South Korea. As the title indicates, The Rainy Spell has its philosophical roots in human virtue, which can resolve even a tedious and grueling internal feud.

Inclusion of Christian Motifs: Hwang Sun-Won’s Descendants of Cain

Hwang Sun-Won’s novel Descendants of Cain takes its title from the name of the very first murderer in human history, according to the Bible. But the novel does not have a Christian message or explicitly express its tenets. As is well-known, Cain, who was a farmer, is enraged by God who does not gladly accept his gift, and he subsequently kills his younger brother, Abel, the shepherd. The murder shows the conflict between siblings who came from Adam and Eve. In Descendants of Cain, a similar situation arises in which normally amicable villagers suddenly turn against each other as a result of ideology. Their clash reaches its peak when the landowners are executed after a Communist people’s trial.

That Cain was a farmer and the characters in the novel were involved in a battle over farm land is not a coincidence. In the Bible, Cain relocates to east of Eden after murdering his brother, to a place called Nod, which in Hebrew means to wander, if not, to drift. Cain, who was uprooted and had to keep drifting, is also a portrait of the Korean people who after the Korean War lived lives much like the descendants of Cain. In the latter half of the book, the protagonist, who was the landowner, stabs an old man who was his sharecropper as well as the father of his lover. The protagonist’s life resembles Cain’s in that after he causes physical harm, he ends up wandering; in this case, it is a region that is now in North Korea.

In Search of Love: Lee Seung-U’s The Reverse Side of Life

Lee Seung-U’s novel, The Reverse Side of Life, shows a transcendental awareness after Christianity took root in Korean society. The book is written in a unique manner in that an anonymous narrator seeks to investigate the life of a male writer whose name is Park Bu-gil. The book has the format of a meta-novel. A novel called Food for Earth, written by the character Park Bu-gil, is embedded in the book.

Bu-gil believes himself to be an orphan and grows up as the adopted son of his uncle. A strange man who lives in the back of his uncle’s house catches his attention in a peculiar way. One day, this crazy man calls out his name very tenderly, and asks him to bring nail clippers. Not long after that, what the boy discovers is the body of the crazy man who had killed himself by slitting his wrist with the nail clippers. This man turned out to be Bu-gil’s biological father. That he killed his own father corresponds to the Christian doctrine of original sin. After this tragedy, Bu-gil departs from his village for Seoul.

Bu-gil’s father is dead and his mother left him long ago to start another family, leaving him an orphan. Bu-gil, who witnessed during his school days the political repression of a dictatorial regime, questions what true salvation is and seeks redemption for his existence, which he finds in love. Bu-gil who could not tolerate the darkness within him so wished to find someone like him, encounters a woman who plays the piano at church. This much older woman is a devout Christian who graduated from a seminary. She wishes to be the wife of a minister, and to become the man she desires to marry, Bu-gil also goes to a seminary.

He looks for salvation in her, and through their union, he tries to fulfill his existential yearning. But their relationship comes to a disastrous end as a result of a trivial misunderstanding and jealousy on Bu-gil’s part. When he catches her talking to a male professor and student at his school, which was also her alma mater, he is overcome with rage and strikes her, calling her a whore. He, who had so ardently yearned for salvation, comes to a realization that a human relationship is as frail as human existence—that eros is not something that can be a substitute for agape.

After the failure of love, what saves Bu-gil is the desire to write. Ferociously working on a novel in a room that is even darker than his interior life, he at last finds the strength to live again. That Bu-gil becomes a writer instead of a theologian or a minister shows the transcendental relationship of Korean literature and religion. A writer is not simply an intermediary host, but rather someone who constructs a domain of love and pain with the freedom of unlimited language. There are no narrative events in a writer’s life that are devoid of meaning. The writer should not be afraid in the event of what might seem to be something like a curse or catastrophe. Veritably, Korean literature will be even more finely attuned to sin and evil, and rejoice in the realm of love because of Bu-gil’s passion that was essential to the maturation of his integrity as a writer.