Songs of Belligerent Harmony: In Korea, While the Cranky North Threatens a Nuclear Crisis, the South Delves into Its Folk Heritage for New Stage Innovations

Article excerpt

Communing with Ancestors

Barefooted, she scans the crowd in search of an audience representative for the next kut (shaman ritual) she is about to perform. Our eyes meet. She squints. Pursing her wrinkled lips, she lifts a stanch finger. The exorcist has chosen me.


The black tote bag parts company from my grip. A soft wind lifts my heavy body from the rock-cut seat and drops it at the center of her brightly plumaged altar, bedecked with stacks of rice cakes, hard candy, pears, apples and folk decor all meant to call forth the agitated spirits of a variety of Korean gods. The shaman, or mudang, is an intercessor, usually a woman, the voice of the ancestors among the living.

Perhaps she saw the beads of worry on my face. Several episodes of the kut ago, she told me that bad luck may happen in the next lunar year of the Korean calendar. During the ceremony, I had pulled first a blue flag and then a white flag from her divining hand. According to an interpreter, blue is a "cold color," signifying that one will meet an ancestor. On the upside, white portends that the following year looks hopeful. Ill fortune will pass. Of course, at the precise moment that the mudang selects me, my mind is dwelling on bad omens. How does one ward off evil? Did it happen already, unnoticed?

Twilight is creeping. The world around me--the wasps scurrying in the humid air; the drooping trees, ginseng crops and verdant mountains of Kanghwa Island in the Yellow Sea; the 11 singers and musicians seated on rugs playing their drums, cymbals, horns and brass instruments; the parking lot below where one can glimpse two buses that carried a group of skeptical theatre critics, mostly Westerners, to this shaman's temple on a steep hill--all this seems to recede from the edges of eyesight. The younger female shamans and male assistants, all wearing traditional Korean garb in flowing pink and cotton white, huddle around me. With nary a word uttered, I'm instructed to help them hold the elder shaman aloft.

After singing an exultant prayer, executing another dance and running her tongue on a double-bladed sword, the shaman climbs up the ladder. She hoists herself on top of a giant cylindrical platform to stand above a wooden box filled with rice grains. To keep her balance, she grips two long bamboo poles at either side, one of which touts the banner of the Republic of Korea.

Every autumn and spring, the mudang Kim Keum-Hwa chants, sings and dances her body into a trance to petition the blessings of the gods and to grant safety and prosperity to regular Koreans. Designated by the state as a living national treasure--Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 82, for her preservation and mastery of Paeyonsin Kut (a ritual for a good fish haul) and Daedong Kut (a ritual for the happiness of a village)--she is a seer, a mystic poet, a classical performer and an intermediary who practices the techniques of ecstasy to communicate with unseen worlds. Once persecuted by Confucian rulers, denounced by Christian missionaries and driven underground by the Japanese and post-war military regimes, mudangs like Kim are today paid subsidies for life as holders of such intangible cultural assets. At age 12, she was initiated into assuming her dharma by a North Korean grandmother from her mother's side--the Great Master Kim Chun II--after suffering a mysterious illness, known as sinbyong, which indicated that a wandering spirit had possessed her. She is, in short, one of the chosen ones.


An extended rite similar to a dramatic performance, the kut has many faces. It can expel devils. It has been known to cure the sick. It can help escort the souls of those who died into the next world. And it involves many phases. Structurally, each kut follows several cycles, with food and wine handed out. Once the situation is assessed, the mudang conducts the appropriate purification ceremonies to rid the participants of unwanted spirits. …