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Blind faith

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A busy narrow street in Seoul circa 1910-1920s. Robert Neff Collection
A busy narrow street in Seoul circa 1910-1920s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

In the latter part of the 1890s, the authorities in Seoul began a campaign to curtail or even eliminate the activities of mudangs (shamans) within the city and its vicinity. Shamanism was viewed by many Korean progressives (and, of course, Christians) as a relic from the past and a means for some to exploit the superstitious beliefs of the common people to fill their own pockets.

A mudang, according to one contemporary writer, was considered to be of the lowest social status for "besides an entire lack of character she is supposed to have commerce with the evil spirits" that haunt places and people. It is "through friendly intercession" that the mudang convinces the evil spirits to cease their possession. The writer concluded, that "few women in Korea are more depraved than the mudang."

The campaign was fairly successful.

In June 1896, The Independent (an English-language newspaper in Seoul with a strong bias favoring Christianity) "congratulated the authorities on the faithful manner in which the law had been enforced" and noted the shamans "of Seoul and the vicinity have been pretty well suppressed."

Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jai-pil), the newspaper's editor, called upon the authorities to next target the "blind fortune-tellers and blind devil chasers" whom he felt were "just as bad, as if not worse, than [the shamans], and as a rule they play a larger game of deception among the poor people."

A street in Seoul in the 1890s. Robert Neff Collection
A street in Seoul in the 1890s. Robert Neff Collection

He was not the only one to share these negative views. Years later, the editor of The Korea Review wrote:

"In Korea there are many blind people and not a few of them make a living as exorcists. If an inmate of a house is sick someone will run for a blind exorcist who will come and drive out the evil spirit which causes the disease. But men are not the only ones who ply this curious trade. Any Korean blind woman, no matter what her rank, can become an exorcist. A lady exorcist, as might be expected, is in demand among the upper classes almost exclusively. Korea is the fortune-teller's paradise. Superstition is so prevalent that scarcely any undertaking is begun without first consulting the fortuneteller. Fully as much of this is done among the upper classes as among the lower, for the former can better afford the luxury. Indigent ladies do not hesitate to enter the ranks of the fortune-tellers. It is an easy, graceful, lucrative form of labor and carries with it an element of adventure which probably appeals strongly to some natures."

Despite being a Christian, The Korea Review's editor acknowledged "the p'an-su or blind exorcist" was "the enemy of evil spirits" and was able, "by a superior power," to drive them away.

Jaisohn's (as well as others') call for action was apparently heard. In March 1897, police arrested two shamans and three blind fortune tellers on the slopes of Namsan while they were "offering sacrifices to the devil spirit." They were not the first or the last to be arrested.

In August, of the same year, The Independent reported that a blind fortune-teller living in Jongno took to the street in front of his home denouncing the former chief of police "for the stringent manner in which [he] stopped devil worship in the city." The fortune-teller insisted that he had the power to ensure the ex-police official would receive no more positions in the government.

Noticing the disturbance, a young Korean policeman appeared and told the fortune-teller to go home and be quiet but the blind man refused and instead scolded the young police officer for interfering and then threatened to have him fired ― apparently the fortune-teller was "very intimate" with a "certain lady" that could arrange the officer's dismissal.

Isabella Bird Bishop described them as:
Isabella Bird Bishop described them as: "[Relics] of the very early days of Korean Buddhism, when men were religious enough to toil at such stupendous works and to represent the male and female elements in nature." Circa 1890s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The police officer, tired of the disrespect and threats, tried to usher the man away, but the fortune-teller, through "the effective use of his stick" and probably to the amusement of the crowd of on-watchers, managed to fend off the young man's attempts. Finally, the fortune-teller was disarmed and taken to jail ― what was to be his fate was only known to the judge and him (if he truly was a fortune-teller).

Anyone who has spent more than a couple of days in Seoul during August can attest that the sauna-like heat and humidity are almost unbearable (especially without air conditioning). Crazy things tend to happen.

One night, in early August 1898, a blind fortuneteller named Whang boldly made his way through the streets of Seoul to a house near the West Gate. He pounded upon the door with his walking stick and demanded entrance. The owner of the house, a young widow, was startled by Whang's sudden appearance and demanded to know why he was disturbing her and her family in the middle of the night.

Whang stepped into her humble dwelling and then solemnly informed her that before the end of the 7th moon (within the month) two of her sons would be dead ― victims of a dark malevolent evil that hid within her dwelling. The widow asked how he came by this dire knowledge and he told her that the great stone Buddha in nearby Paju had told him about it in a dream. Whang felt compelled to aid the widow out of the friendship he once had with her late husband. However, compassion was not the only motive; he also wanted the princely sum of $80 to protect her sons and rid the house of the evil presence.

It is said that women once came here so that they would be blessed with a son. Yongmi-ri in Paju in 2018. Robert Neff Collection
It is said that women once came here so that they would be blessed with a son. Yongmi-ri in Paju in 2018. Robert Neff Collection

The widow protested she had no money but Whang ignored her and began wildly gesturing, dancing and shouting ― much to the amazement and terror of the poor woman. Suddenly, Whang stopped and pointed to the porch and told the widow to look beneath it for "the evil thing." The widow did as he commanded and found "a piece of dog bone and a bunch of human hair put in a little bag of sack cloth."

Whang then held out his hand for his payment but the widow reiterated that she had no money. Enraged, Whang began smashing things with his stick and denouncing the woman for her ingratitude. A policeman, attracted by the yelling and smashing of goods, promptly appeared and demanded an explanation for the disturbance. The widow quickly explained and the policeman ― upon examining "the evil thing" and noting it appeared to have been placed there quite recently ― arrested Whang and took him in for interrogation. Whang confessed he had placed "the evil thing" as part of a scheme to swindle the widow out of the little money she possessed. The Independent's editor ― sarcastically remarked that Whang was now able "to commune at leisure in the jail with the stone Buddha of Paju."

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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