[INTERVIEW] Feminist, queer shaman reads fortunes to challenge prejudices - Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] Feminist, queer shaman reads fortunes to challenge prejudices

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Feminist and queer shaman Hong Kali poses at her
Feminist and queer shaman Hong Kali poses at her "Kali Temple" located in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Oct. 5. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

'I'm not so different,' says 30-year-old shaman Hong Kali

By Park Han-sol

When one speaks of a "mudang," or Korean shaman, what immediately come to mind are a dizzying array of colors and the sounds of swinging bells. Wearing a flamboyant hanbok costume and makeup, the stereotypical mudang portrayed in the media sits in an equally colorful temple reading the fortunes of embattled souls, who often break down in tears or gasp at the clairvoyant's piercing stares.

Hong Kali, a 30-year-old shaman, believes mudangs don't have to be confined to such images. She opts for a pair of jeans or cotton pants instead of a brightly colored hanbok, and sits at a cafe, sipping a steaming Americano, to read her clients' fortunes either via KakaoTalk messenger or in person.

After seeing an average of five visitors each day, she spends her time working on a cartoon series she posts to Instagram, called "Shaman Diary," which details her everyday life, emotions and meaningful encounters with clients. She also produces videos of herself reading a weekly (now monthly) horoscope for Chinese zodiac signs on YouTube for her 36,000 subscribers.

Hong is one of a growing number of contemporary shamans who have diverged from the visual and cultural stereotypes that have been typically associated with their practices, as they prefer to communicate through social media platforms and public appearances.

One other well-known figure is "Ssangmun-dong Baby Shaman," who has garnered more than 270,000 subscribers on YouTube. Although she mostly uploads videos about the nature of fate, fortune and the four pillars of destiny, her channel is also sprinkled with "mukbang" (eating videos), accompanied by the casual story of her life as a mudang, as well as a dance cover of BTS's megahit song, "Butter."

Another shaman, Haehwa-am, appeared as a special guest docent at the exhibition, "Fortune Telling," held earlier this year at the Ilmin Museum of Art in central Seoul. There, she shared her own views of each work, reinterpreting the concept of cosmological destiny as a potent artistic tool.

"I think it's a positive thing that shamans are communicating with others through different channels. It allows the voices of diverse speakers to be heard in various forms," Hong told The Korea Times in a recent interview.

"Just as how women or members of the LGBTQ+ community, who previously lacked mainstream means to present their stories, have found social media platforms and YouTube, the same thing can be said for mudangs."

On the surface level, the status of these modern-day shamans seem to be an improvement from that of their historical predecessors, especially during the neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty, when practicing Korea's oldest folk religion was taboo and suppressed as "primitive" and "backward."

Hong sits next to her shrine at the
Hong sits next to her shrine at the "Kali Temple." Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Biased views

But despite their seemingly increasing visibility in present-day Korean society, Hong notes that they are still subject to one-dimensional portrayals in mainstream media, as shamans featured in occult-themed films, dramas and TV shows tend to be of a specific age range, gender, personality and backstory.

Such limited representations then end up perpetuating age-old, "wrongful" notions of shamans as either mystical psychics to be worshipped or superstition-obsessed beings to be looked down on, she argued, instead of as any other regular working members of society with complex cultural and historical backgrounds.

She ran into these preconceptions herself many times after she underwent a "naerim-gut," an initiation ritual performed for would-be shamans, in the summer of 2019 at Mount Gyeryong in South Chungcheong Province. Oftentimes, when she reveals her job to others, she is either treated as an object of pity who had no choice but to walk such a precarious path in life, or a possessed fanatic of a pseudo-religion.

This treatment is widely different from the experiences she has had in India, Peru, Nepal and Egypt, where many would welcome her with open arms.

The cover of
The cover of "The Spirit is Watching Us" by Hong Kali / Courtesy of Wisdom House
Feeling the need to strip away the prejudices surrounding shamanism in Korea, Hong recently published an autobiographical essay collection, titled "The Spirit is Watching Us."

"My biggest goal was to write essays in a way that would demystify shaman's way of being," she said. "Because I wanted to convey that the readers of this book and I were not so different, I focused on writing down the details of my everyday life and thoughts."

As a result, the book is far from being supernatural or otherworldly. The pages are instead filled with the author frankly recounting her teen and early adult life ― her disillusionment with the Protestant church, which she attended all her life, as it spread discriminatory rhetoric, her love life, her experiences with an abortion and bipolar disorder, as well as other physical and economic difficulties.

The series of pains that came to her all at once led Hong to seek a more autonomous, alternative interpretation of life, one that doesn't resort to yet another form of misogynistic prejudice against her experiences and identity ― such as the suggestion that marriage is the be-all and end-all solution to her problems, or that she needs to "keep her temper in check" in order to find a better man.

She found the answer by studying shamanism, the four pillars of destiny and astrology. After determining that she was experiencing "shin-byeong" (a spiritual ailment), in 2019, she formally underwent the initiation ritual and became a shaman herself.

Hong performs under the theme of
Hong performs under the theme of "Spiritual Cleansing" at the Himalaya Butoh Festival held in Dharamshala, India, in the summer of 2019. Courtesy of Hong Kali

Feminism and veganism meet shamanism

Hong often refers to herself not just as a shaman, but as a shaman who is feminist, an aspiring vegan and genderqueer (existing outside the conventional gender binary). She is also an artist who continues to express herself through writings, paintings and dances.

The reason for adding such modifiers during her self-introduction, she explained, was that they have many things in common with shamanism.

"In the past, the only jobs women could have where they could speak, sing and dance freely in front of men were either mudang or 'gisaeng' (professional female entertainers)," she stated.

"Mudang could hold gut, or rituals, to console the souls who had remained voiceless and had been pushed aside within the patriarchal order, thus creating a space of liberation. The fact that shamans could help these suppressed voices get heard makes them feminists."

Lit candles and distinct aroma fill Hong's shrine. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Lit candles and distinct aroma fill Hong's shrine. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

This belief is also reflected in how she reads fortunes for her clients.

"The clients come to us because they want to listen to an alternative, new interpretation of their lives and concerns. But if shamans themselves resort to stereotypes and prejudices that have been perpetuated by the existing social system, that could be a dangerous thing."

In fact, nearly 90 percent of Hong's clients are women, many of whom who have been hurt before by the inconsiderate, androcentric words of other fortune tellers.

So, when Hong looks at their fate, she makes no distinction between the "male version" and "female version" of a reading ― a long-held customary practice.

For example, her book explains that the characters for "Sanggwan," meaning "to subvert the existing system or organization" used to be interpreted differently based on the client's gender. In the male version of the reading, it could be read that he will resist the current order like a revolutionary social activist; however, in the female version, it was interpreted as her defying her husband's authority, thus being destined to "eat him up," as the woman's ego destabilizes the usual familial order.

She also always tries to ask visitors their gender identity and sexual orientation before proceeding with a session.

For Hong, veganism is another element that shares common traits with shamanism. Two years ago, when she visited one ritual site where another mudang was comforting the spirit of the deceased, she saw a severed pig head on the memorial table and felt ill at ease.

Although its inclusion as a sacrifice to prevent bad luck is a widespread tradition, she felt that the pain the animals must have experienced all their lives growing up in a factory farm only to be butchered have gone unspoken for too long.

Because shamans believe that spirits reside in all living and non-living things on Earth, including in a single grain of rice, Hong considers it her duty and right as a mudang to comfort the souls of the animals in any way possible, including through veganism.

When she holds a ritual, her table is filled with fruit and dishes of seasoned vegetables in lieu of any pig or cow head.

Ahn Eun-young, a high school nurse featured in
Ahn Eun-young, a high school nurse featured in "The School Nurse Files," with a toy sword in her hand / Courtesy of Netflix

'There are many more diverse shamans in Korea than you think'

A character portrayed in the media that Hong sees as one fresh version of a contemporary mudang is none other than Ahn Eun-young (played by Jung Yu-mi), a high school nurse character featured in the Netflix Original series, "The School Nurse Files," an adaptation of Chung Se-rang's novel of the same title.

Ahn tries to protect the students and purify the school from invisible "jellies" lurking in every corner that can possess people with an unlikely set of tools ― a multi-colored toy sword and a BB gun.

"She comforts the soul of her late friend who tragically died in an industrial accident. She also takes care of Hye-min, a girl whose fate of having to eat a swarm of mite jellies to stop them from spreading misfortune to others cannot be understood by anyone else," Hong said. "Such actions made me feel like she was a shaman."

Ahn's shrine, tucked inside the nursing office locker, is haphazardly filled with symbols of various religions, including a cross, a dream catcher, a shamanisic talisman, a Korean Hahoe mask and a Buddhist sculpture.

It is interestingly reminiscent of Hong's own shrine, which is equally full of objects and artifacts with different spiritual origins: a statue of the Virgin Mary, an ancient Mayan calendar, a large painting of the Hindu goddess Kali and a Vairocana Buddhist statue, in addition to countless shamanistic items.

Hong's shrine inside the
Hong's shrine inside the "Kali Temple" is filled with objects with different spiritual origins. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

While "The Spirit is Looking after Us" is focused on Hong's personal life as a mudang, her next book project will involve interviewing different shamans across the nation: retired, transgendered, disabled or vegans who hold memorial ceremonies for animals' souls.

"After I published my essay collection, many people approached me saying that they have never seen a shaman like me. But in reality, there are many more diverse mudangs out there than they think," she said. "I hope to write about their existence from a three-dimensional point of view, one that hasn't been captured that well in the mainstream media before."

박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

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