In a single generation, South Korea has matured from a poor agrarian backwater to a flashy economic powerhouse. In less time than it took the Americans to go from the muscle car to the Prius, the Koreans went from the ox-and-plow to the bullet train. But Korea’s rapid transformation is not without growing pains. Canadian writer and teacher, Gord Sellar, explores the traditions and tendencies in a country whose past looks very little like its future.


Seated on the crowded cement steps of an outdoor amphitheater, I waited for the old woman to cough and spit the burning cigarette from her mouth; to cry out in pain and flee the stage… but she simply danced and danced and danced as the mudang (shaman) is expected to do.

Finally, extending her tongue out slowly, she plucked the cigarette from it and took another drag. The crowd cheered as she puffed out white smoke: her parlor trick complete. But I wondered if she was perhaps teasing the invisible ghosts and ancestral spirits who were supposedly crowded around her.

It was my first shamanic ritual, or kut, for shamanism was already rare by the time I’d arrived in South Korea a few years earlier–now a decade ago. Yet to my bewilderment, I found this bizarre performance had triggered the oddest sense of déjà-vu. The mudang hid her face behind a fan momentarily before hollering in a baritone voice that should have been impossible for her slender, old body to produce: now, she was possessed by some male martial spirit from among the supposedly 10 thousand who are known to shamans. This only made it all seem more familiar, until a group of masked dancers joined the old mudang onstage and broke the spell.

Hours later, arriving at home, I headed straight for my apartment balcony window. My building stood across a tiny parking lot from a tiny Presbyterian church. They were holding one of their notorious Wednesday night prayer meeting just then, and through the church windows, I glimpsed the now-familiar spectacle of a few dozen Koreans, wild-eyed and howling in tongues, with impossibly strangled voices, to Heaven. Their prayer leader tottered from side to side with steps that could have been stolen from the mudang’s dance, as the ecstatic crowd clutched occasionally at their faces with fingers spread wide, as if to recall the frames of paper fans.

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Traditional mudang dancers

Superficially, it seems like shamanism has all but disappeared in South Korea: jettisoned, like Korea’s traditional music, mythology and so much else of Korea’s indigenous culture. South Korea has developed, at least superficially, into a fully modernized society clad in baseball caps and American blue jeans and red-soled Louboutin knockoffs, sporting 4G smartphones and Louis Vuitton purses, surfing the waves of ubiquitous broadband wifi.

Although cultural time moves more quickly than geological time, all this has happened (relatively speaking) overnight. Just a couple of generations ago the Korean peninsula was essentially a semi-feudal, agrarian monarchy. While Europe tumbled through the shocks of colonial expansion, the Enlightenment, industrialization and the scientific revolution, Korea had remained a land of farmers and scholarly elites who were ruled by a king. Although the government changed in 1905, when Japan annexed the peninsula, in technosocial terms things stayed approximately the same for the majority of Koreans until the mid-1950s or so. The South found itself newly independent, half a country ripped apart by one of the hottest flareups of the Cold War, and bereft of the industrial centers of the North. As a result, the agrarian Southern half of Korea picked itself up off the ground, dusted itself off, and went in search of its fortune.

The best way to understand what followed is to imagine that someone had read Isaac Asimov (Pebble in the Sky, perhaps) and decided that this economic basketcase — poorer at the time than almost anyplace else on Earth — ought to be transformed into a spacefaring empire as rapidly as possible. Somewhere along the way, the stuff about spacefaring empires got forgotten, so Korea just ramped up the “transforming-as-quickly-as-possible” part.

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In this shorthand version of post-war South Korean history, the man who made that decision (sans Asimov, undoubtedly) was Park Chung-hee, and the accelerated self-transformation was termed “The Miracle on the Han” (which far outstripped its namesake, the German “Miracle on the Rhine”). But while Korea isn’t space-bound anytime soon, it’s instructive to ask yourself what would happen if you took a bunch of peasant farmers, stuffed them into a spaceship, and sent them off to a colony planet?

The answer to this question depends on how long the voyage is, of course: Europe’s peasant farmers had hundreds of years to adapt to the heady shocks of their already-present, unfurling future; to rework their culture again and again until the notions of democracy, statecraft, rights and freedoms and public discourse had percolated (however watered-down) throughout the various cultures.

In Korea’s case, the spaceship launched in 1963 and it flew much faster, and arrived (in economic terms, at least — the only terms apparently relevant to Park) sometime around 1995 or 1996, disgorging most of the same passengers who’d first boarded it (plus their kids) into an alien world. In less time than it took Americans to go from the first muscle car to the Prius and the Humvee, Koreans went from ox-and-plow to bullet train; from mountaintop signal fires to cell phones and free webmail.

Dongdaemun Gate in Jongno-gu, Seoul
Dongdaemun Gate in Jongno-gu, Seoul

Confronted by this reality, Westerners routinely — and understandably — find much in South Korea anachronistic, and mutter to one another about how it’s still like the 1950s here. I must confess that I have on occasion needed to explain to people just what was supposed to be shocking about the pilot episode of Mad Men — so much does it resemble contemporary Korea, with the smoking in offices, the unapologetic racism and sexism, the oppressively strict gender roles — but, in important ways, such comparisons are terribly blinding.

William Gibson told only half the story: like the future, the past is also here in the present, and just as unevenly distributed. While in Korea, I first came to really understand how its premodern past (being so recent) remains vividly present here. Not physically — almost every structure in Korea was built after 1953, including the reconstructions of “ancient” palaces — but rather, in cultural terms.

Sometimes, the past comes to life in its ancient form, like a zombie or a mummy; more often, it gets broken down and recycled piecemeal, just like car parts, computer hardware, and fashion concepts. But cultural systems that serve the most fundamental human needs neither get thrown out, nor mulched. Instead, they get pressed into use without even being torn down. Yesterday gets sewn into the lining of today, and from that hidden place it shapes the present. Its public absence is felt, anxiously, yet its hidden presence simultaneously comforts and troubles us. Regardless, it remains, or even endures, hidden from sight.

To drink alcohol in Korea — Korean alcohol, soju, in the proper Korean way — is to experience this notion firsthand. To drink soju is to enact traditionalist Confucian hierarchy in a dozen different ways: who pours for whom, and how the bottle and the soju jan (a tiny shot glass) are held, is dictated by the age relationship of the pourer and the recipient. How one correctly drinks is also dictated by age-hierarchy, and one must be constantly vigilant of whether another’s jan is empty, especially if one is the youngest member of the group. If food is to be grilled, it is conventionally the youngest member’s job (but also, just as crucially, woman’s work); when the bill comes, the eldest male is expected to pay.

But it isn’t just Confucian hierarchy that is enacted in these drinking sessions: more poignantly, the ritual enacts traditional village life, when people lived, worked, and drank with their fellow villagers as neighbors. In the attentiveness that comes with watching others’ glasses hides a shadowy echo of traditional neighborly attention. Found within this strict age-hierarchy is a sense of comfort one has that comes with knowing his or her place in the community. In a very real sense, such ritualized drinking parties are a sort of ghostly refuge — a bulwark against the inescapable alienation of an urban life, crammed not with neighbors but instead with strangers — in a culture where norms of courteousness and consideration generally extend no further than the small in-group circle of friends, family and co-workers, which in turn makes most anonymous, urban social experiences that much more stressful and alienating. It’s little wonder that such drinking sessions are an important part of the professional and social lives of most Koreans.

Once you grasp this concept, such ghostly echoes become visible throughout South Korean society: the shamanism and Confucianism onto which Christianity has been spray-painted; the serf-like working conditions of Korean salarymen (the most overworked and underpaid population in The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) under the management of aristocratic-corporate families (who mimic the yangban scholar-nobles of old); the notorious memorize-and-test education system that clearly echoes ancient Confucian educational practices and the standardized language examinations for the royal bureaucracy. (Every year, many thousands write such standardized exams in the slim hope of becoming a schoolteacher, a police officer, a petty government bureaucrat.) Even pop stars who offend the public experience periods of effective exile, as did courtiers who displeased the kings of old.

Meanwhile, Korea plummets into its own future, armed to the teeth with smart phones and tablet computers, guided down nameless streets by shiny, new, digital Sat Nav systems. However, much of the past walks in the skin of the Korean present. To many Westerners, this place still looks suspiciously like “the future.” Newcomers to Seoul still seem to see in the city’s skyline what I first saw a decade ago: gazing out down neon-infested streets, through the window of my airport shuttle bus, I felt like I’d landed in the middle of Blade Runner.

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Blade Runner-inspired 3D render by Robin Olausson

South Korea looks “futuristic” in other ways, too, if you squint a little. While technically a liberal democracy, the series of brutal dictatorships that terminated in 1987 have left Korea with a strong tendency toward political conservatism (so much so that to a Canadian like myself, I see not “left” and “right” but “right” and “farther-right”) and a militarized workplace system, and Korea has enjoyed only a fraction of the kind of social and political liberalization that swept many Western democracies over the last century. Yet, as that liberality in Western democracies continues to be disassembled in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Korea’s illiberal democracy — complete with active and overt political and social censorship online; incomplete but formidable controls of the press and media by government and corporations; and a tendency toward legislating control on the minutiae of life (recently banning online gaming after midnight for underaged children, for example, and outlawing anonymity on major internet portals) — increasingly resembles the kind of dystopian authoritarianism that looms on our collective, global horizon.

Despite the confounding mishmash of anachronism and pro-chronism apparent in South Korea — that jarring intermingling of the apparently-antiquated and the seemingly-futuristic — and the breakneck pace of ongoing change here, Koreans do not share the Western world’s conscious, attentive and imaginative obsession with tomorrow.

For most South Koreans, the future is not science-fictional, neither utopian nor dystopian, and the anxieties they project onto it tend to be personal, familial and quotidian (or even Austenian): the prospects of achieving a good marriage, getting a good job and rearing highly employable children. There is only a tiny handful of professional Korean science fiction authors and translators; very few publishers handle this kind of fiction, and the vast majority of Korean science fiction films that have been made are focused on memories, the past and Korean history. While science fiction has essentially triumphed in Hollywood entertainment, the only utopianism that interests most young Koreans is encoded as the (ostensible) sexual freedom and gender-equality of Sex and the City, or the free-and-easy search for love and personal fulfillment inHow I Met Your Mother.

It seems puzzling that Koreans wouldn’t crave the “literature of change” that science fiction purports to be. After all, every change ongoing in the industrialized world is ongoing in Korea too, often more rapidly and radically. The postwar ideology identifying Korea as a racially-pure, homogenous society is being shattered by increasing numbers of interracial marriages, mixed-race children, and a massive influx of immigrants, so that “multiculturalism” is a major buzzword today. The country’s population is graying at an extraordinary rate, and its economy is bound (precariously) to America’s. Even in the least-disastrous scenario, the question of what to do with a post-collapse North Korea (and its hostile, confused citizenry) looms on the horizon.

Sometimes, I’m frankly dumbfounded by my students’ relationship with the future: most generally seem to imagine it to be essentially like today is, but with neater gadgets. Often, I suggest they’d better think really carefully about that vision, but sometimes, I can’t help but wonder — against my better judgment — whether Korean society simply grasps by means of experience something about social change that we North Americans don’t: maybe when you grow up dancing the mudang’s dance, wearing the ghosts of an alien history so close to your skin, it’s harder to be fazed by the fact that you’ve slid a little farther up the slope of an exponential curve that you aren’t about to abandon anyway.

“The Mudang’s Dance” first appeared in Issue 1.2 of Arc Magazine

Further Reading:
A Dangerous Zoo: Journalist Nick Hagan visits the demilitarized border between North and South Korea and examines the volatile relations between the two nations and what a reunification would look like.

SOURCEArc Magazine
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