The Shaman Painting

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byKim Tong-ni
A Moment’s Grace: Stories from Korea in Transition.
Tr. John Holstein


Just as in the past, ancient frogs and other creeping things prowled the entangled weeds in Mohwa’s yard. Now that Woogi was gone the house was back to normal.

But Mohwa was not performing any rites in public now and spent all day every day banging away on her gongs and dancing with her spirits in her decaying, dilapidated house in the weeds, and people were saying she had gone mad. Her kitchen was now a perpetual ritual site, hung with five-colored streamers and Nangi’s ritual paintings of the Mountain Spirit, Seven Stars Spirit and many others. She had stopped eating, as if she had forgotten how, and her face turned sallower day by day even as the flame in her eyes burned hotter. And every day the spirits that possessed her ranted and raged to the furious beat of her gongs.


Going, Jesus demon, 10,000 li back to the west.

A ball of fire on your tail,

A bell on each ear ding-a-ling-a-ling.

Shoo demon, off with you.

And if you don’t go I’ll wrap you and all your descendants in the hide of the White Horse Spirit,

throw you into an ash briar patch,

into a boiling cauldron,

into the blue sea fifty fathoms deep.

Shoo, demon! Shoo-o-o-o!


Once in a while a neighbor, remembering how much Mohwa used to enjoy drinking, dropped by with a jug of wine. “How you can bear such a loss, that dear boy . . .” To which Mohwa would only mumble, “Taken off by that Jesus demon . . . ,” and put an end to the conversation with a long sigh.

Her neighbors mourned that she had completely lost her mind. “She was so good. Will we ever see her do another rite?”

Before long, though, word spread throughout the area: Mohwa was going to conduct one more rite, her last. The daughter-in-law of some rich gentry family in the county seat had thrown herself into the river, where the current had carved a deep pocket in its bed. Legend had it that the black fathomless depths of these slowly turning waters that locals called Yegi Pool took for themselves one person every year without fail, and deep in the bowels of this pool quietly stewed the sufferings and secrets of generations. The family wanted to send the tormented soul on to her rest, so they had pressed Mohwa with two silk outfits to use in conjuring up the soul, and she had consented to do just this one last service. At the same time, the rumor went, Mohwa was going to restore her own daughter’s hearing.

“Hmph. Now we’ll see who’s for real—that Jesus demon or the spirits,” she asserted.

The rite was to be held on the sandy beach near the pool where the young woman had drowned herself. The big night finally came, and the people turned up in droves, out of both curiosity and expectation. They came from over the mountains and across the river with a mixed sense of excitement and nostalgia.

The beach swarmed with taffy vendors, rice cake vendors, drinking stalls and food stalls equipped with their awnings and their mats, and in the center of this was the big canopy where Mohwa would summon her spirits to help rescue the young woman’s lost soul. Silk lanterns like green, red, yellow, blue and white flowers had been strung all over the tent, and lined up under these lanterns was an array of offering tables, one for each spirit that would be called upon. There was the table for the Host Spirit, with its rice cake steamer, jar of wine, and carcass of a pig. There was a table for Chesŏk, guardian spirit of the drowned woman’s family, with its bowl of uncooked rice, spool of thread, plate of tofu, and skewer of dried persimmons. There was a table for the Maitreya Buddha with apples, pears and mandarin oranges, snowy white rice cake, cooked vegetables, vegetable soup, salted fish, and hard honey cakes. There was a table for the Mountain Spirit with twelve kinds of wild herbs, a table for the Dragon Spirit with twelve different seafoods, and a table for the Lanes Spirits with one dish for each of a variety of foods. There were a few more large and small offering tables, and a table for Mohwa, with just one bowl of plain water.

Tonight Mohwa’s face was suffused with a dignified and serene countenance that had not been there before. People gabbed how, for a woman who was mourning her son as if he had died only the day before and was at the same time bearing every abuse and insult imaginable from these Christian interlopers, she had assumed quite an air of dignity. This was the face they knew from long ago, of that shaman ennobled by a few nights’ vigil under the light of the moon. She did not gad about and fawn over everyone as she used to, nor did she make a big fuss about every detail; she only stood there quietly, waiting. At one time, surveying the sumptuous offering tables with contempt, she sniffed at her assistants, “Lowlifes, thinking a few offering tables is all you need.”

When the women who gathered there saw this new Mohwa they started whispering that a new spirit possessed her.

“It’s the spirit of that young lady,” they grudged.

“Will you just look at that stoic composure, so demure— kind of prissy if you ask me—and when was Mohwa ever that pretty. That young woman’s spirit has got into her all the way.”

Others gossiped among themselves of how tonight Nangi would speak again, and still others debated the rumor that Nangi was with child, whoever the father was. And all of these women were eager to get answers tonight to all these questions buzzing about.

Mohwa’s spirit began by recounting, in a more plaintive voice than anyone ever heard from her, all that had happened to Lady Kim from the day she was born till the day she drowned in Yegi Pool. Then the sorceress moved into a frenzied dance accompanied by the fiddle, flute and bamboo oboe, and it was not too long before she lost herself to an ecstatic trance steeped in the anguish of the dead woman’s soul. Her human body metamorphosed into pure rhythm, uninhibited by skin or bone, only a phantom of fluid motion. The blood of the mesmerized spectators pulsated in harmony with the folds of the shaman’s mantle undulating in tempo with her racing blood. The stars turning in the heavens and the water flowing in the river paused in witness.

Yet, as the night wore on, the young woman’s soul was not responding to Mohwa’s invocation. Her male assistants and her apprentices had tied a rice bowl to the spirit line made from pieces of the young woman’s clothes, thrown it into the pool, retrieved it a few times, but in the bowl they could not find the strands of hair that would announce the soul’s recovery.

With an anxious look one of Mohwa’s assistants whispered in Mohwa’s ear, “We can’t fetch her spirit. Now what?”

Mohwa showed no concern at all. As if she had expected this she calmly took up her spirit pole and walked to the edge of the pool. The male shaman with the spirit line maneuvered the rice bowl here and there in the water in the directions indicated by Mohwa’s spirit pole. Mohwa called to the dead soul.


Rise, rise up,

thirty-year-old wife of Master Kim from



She stirred the water with the spirit pole and continued in a voice now husky with emotion.


When you were born under that auspicious star,

offerings were made to the Seven Stars Spirit.

You came into existence like a flower blossom,

and you were cared for like a precious gem.

But then you jumped into these dark waters,

deserting your parents, your infant child,

so even the Dragon Spirit turned from you.

When your skirt ballooned ’round you as you hit the water,

what on earth were you thinking?

That you were mounting a lotus blossom?

That you would float on to eternal life?

Oh no, you’re just a water demon,

hair let down like a scraggle of hemp.


Mohwa followed the spirit pole a little deeper and then a little deeper into the river. The turning water took one fold of her mantle and twisted it round her, left the other bobbing on the surface. The dark waters covered her waist, covered her breasts, rose higher, and higher . . .


Going, I’m going now,

a farewell cup of white dewdrop wine and I’m gone.

Young lady, gone before me, call me to you.


Her voice began to fade and her thoughts seemed to stray.


Nangi my daughter, dressed in your mourning white,

when it’s spring on the river’s bank and the peach blossoms bloom

come and ask after me.

Ask the first branch how I am,

ask the second . . .


And that was the last anyone could make out, because the pool took Mohwa, along with her song, to itself.

Her mantle floated on the surface for a while, but soon that was gone too. Only the spirit pole floated there, turned a while, then flowed on with the river.


Ten days after Yegi Pool took Mohwa, a small man said to be running a seafood shop in a back lane in a town on the east coast came up to the old goblin house, riding a donkey. Inside he found Nangi lying in bed, eyes sunken in her ghost-pallid face, still suffering the agonies of the shaman initiate.

The little man made her some rice gruel. It was not until she had eaten a spoonful that she fully recognized him, and uttered, “Fa . . . Father . . . ?” Whether Mohwa had actually given the girl her speech back, as the rumor had prophesied, this was the first time in years that anyone heard the girl speak anything that could be understood.

Ten more days passed. Out in the yard the little man pointed to his donkey. “Up you go now.” Nangi silently did as her father bade her.

After the man and his daughter left the house, no one came there again. And now, at night, in that jungle of weeds, those swarming mosquitoes are the only sign of life. 

pp. 40-46


Translated by John Holstein
Excerpt from A Moment’s Grace: Stories from Korea in Transition.
Copyright © 2009 by John Holstein.
Reprinted with the permission of Cornell University East Asia Program, Ithaca, New York.

Author's Profile

Kim Tong-ni (1913–1995) was a doyen of Korean literature whose notable works include the short stories “The Shaman Painting” and “Tungsin-bul,” and the novels Ulhwa the Shaman and The Cross of Shaphan. Translations of Ulhwa have been published in the US, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Ulhwa, “Stroller,” and “The Cry of the Magpies” have been adapted into movies. He received the Freedom Literary Prize, National Academy of Arts Award, Samil Prize, Seoul City Cultural Prize, and the Order of Civil Merit - Moran Medal.